Titus Groan is the first book in Mervyn Peakes classic Gormenghast trilogy. Although written in the mid twentieth century, it does have more in common with older writers and has a particularly Dickensian feel about it. It is a book of the old school, a slow burning, brooding storyline with rich characterisation and a well thought out background to the whole affair. When you enter the world of Peake, like Tolkien who was writing at the same time, you enter a fully formed world that has its own logic and mechanics, a place that feels like it has existed for ever, the world doesnt just exist for the purpose of the story, the story is just one small part of a much bigger picture.
The story is set in the castle of Gormenghast, a massive gothic set of buildings half ruined, half deserted, a world of dark corridors and forgotten rooms sprawling in majestic decay as far as the eye can see. The castle is the home of just one family, that of the Earl Groan and its army of servants and dependants. The place is steeped in ritual and tradition, and every waking hour is filled with pre-determined ceremony that the family must abide by, laided down in an ancient set of writings. Meals are at set times and of set menus, certain days require the correct clothes, age old speeches are recited at the correct hour and nothing seems to have altered from the routine for millenia. But all is about to change. On to the scene comes Steerpike, an ambitious young man who charms and manipulates his way into positions of trust, until he is the power behind the throne. Sowing chaos behind him as he rises to prominence the order of the castle is thown aside and his scemes result in mayhem and murder.
What makes the book so absorbing is the depth and detail to the characters, and even the names have a strange parallel to the characters nature, a device that comes straight from the pen of Dickens. The anti-hero Steerpike is at first charming and polite but in his quest to become equal to these ruling elite developes and evil and murderous streak. Lord Groan is a bookish and depressed character, his wife a pushy and cold women and their daughter Fuschia a daydreaming romantic, easily manipulated by the villian of the book. All of the family are very detached, there is no love and this is especially poiniant with the birth of Titus, the future heir to the castle. Even the supporting characters have their own subplots. The cook, Swelter and the butler Mr Flay, are constantly locked in their own war for dominance, and private battles for power litter every corner of the book.
Behind all of these small wars is the castle itself, old as time and a character in its own right. The descriptions of its beautiful decay bring it to life, and as a backdrop it is as rich in colour and life as any sprawling fantasy world, and more believable due to its solid and believable nature.
Like any good book there are mant parallels to be drawn. Steerpikes rise from kitchen boy to Machievelli like character, can be likened to the rise of dictators in the modern world. With crumbling and static natureof the old established order, ambitious and ruthless leaders can take over and get away with murder, literally. The real power struggle is between the inequalities of monarchy and the total control of dictatorship.
So with many levels to be read at, Titus Groan is a captivating read. It is a slow moving story, often self-indulgent, but it is rich dark parallel to the power struggles of the modern world. Hidden messages aside, at its fundemental level it is great escapist fantasy, but one based in personal politics and reality rather than the usual magic and heroism that is becoming the standard in this genre.
There was a BBC production of the first two books, now available on video, which whilst good, slightly failed to capture the gothic feel of the story, so read it in its original form and then see the video and repeat as often as is healthy for you.