|Gormenghast series location|
|Created by||Mervyn Peake|
|Genre||Gothic fantasy, fantasy of manners|
|Notable locations||Library, Hall of Bright Carvings, etc.|
|Notable characters||Sepulchrave, Titus Groan, Lady Fuchsia Groan, Steerpike|
Gormenghast is a fictional castle of titanic proportions that features prominently in a series of fantasy works penned by Mervyn Peake. It is the setting for the first two books in the Gormenghast series, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. It incorporates many of the elements of both medieval castles and Regency period stately homes, though in practice it operates like a small city-state. It has its own government, a Byzantine system of laws and rituals, a rigid class system, and is seemingly self-sufficient. The castle is home to the ancient House of Groan who have, as the Earls of Groan, ruled for centuries without anything changing.
Ritual plays a large part in the daily life of all characters in the castle, most of all the Earl of Gormenghast, whose days are largely spent adhering to the obscure and esoteric tenets of Gormenghast tradition. Titus' dread and rebellion against the iron letter of Gormenghast Law becomes one of the main themes in the series leading to his preoccupation with freedom.
The castle has become synonymous with large, sprawling buildings and has been used as a reference point in other works of fiction.
The castle is a huge ivy-covered mass, giving the impression more of a semi-deserted city than a single structure. Its immense, rambling outline has been familiar to the inhabitants since time immemorial, who know "every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers." Apart from the inhabited sections, vast areas of the castle are abandoned and in a dilapidated state, with much of it covered in impenetrable vegetation: "Acres of ivy spread themselves like water over the roofs. Not a head appeared at any of those topmost teeth-like windows that ran along the castle's brow" The further reaches of the castle are dotted with many towers, and the highest of them, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by great numbers of owls and dominates the landscape of the castle. The Tower is a forbidding, brooding presence: "patched unevenly with black ivy, (it) arose like a mutilated finger from the fists of knuckled masonry". The character Steerpike, climbing across the roofs of the castle, sees the castle as an unending and monumentally complex roofscape. In fact, he travels across its expanse for over a day and still does not cover all of it.
It is impossible to give an accurate estimate of the size of the castle and its grounds, but it appears to be at least several square miles in area. For instance, the Bright Carvers must travel three miles (5 km) through the castle grounds from their homes along the north Outer Wall to the Carver's Courtyard in the south west corner of the Outer Walls. It is also stated at one point that the Tower of Flints in the eastern wing of the castle is over a mile away from the rooms of the twin aunts of Titus, Cora and Clarice, in the southern wing. In the second book, Gormenghast, a flood drowns the lowest levels of the castle and turns the upper regions into stone islands, yet still there is accommodation for the regular inhabitants and an influx of refugees, with very substantial areas still empty.
It is impractical to guess at any kind of precise layout, but a general outline can be given with some confidence. Most of the castle seems to be bordered by a vast outer wall separated by only a small laneway from the shanty-town of the Bright Carvers, while other regions may be unwalled (e.g., the eastern side of the castle). In some places also the walls appear to be close to the buildings of the castle, (e.g., the Carvers' Courtyard), while in other parts they enclose large grounds and formal gardens. Within the grounds, the castle also has a moat around some sections of the castle itself. Broadly speaking, the castle building is divided into four wings named after the cardinal points. Among the countless buildings and rooms in the castle are libraries, a huge kitchen (eighteen men are required just to scrub the walls), an art gallery (specifically carvings), a dining hall, and a school.
In general the west and south of the castle appear to be in better repair and more inhabited than the east and north regions, which appear to contain most of the abandoned and derelict areas.
Outer walls and grounds
The castle is surrounded by a huge Outer Wall, which appears to be irregular in shape, but whether it is roughly rectangular or roughly circular is not made clear. It is described as curving, which would suggest a circular shape; but on the other hand the Outer Wall is clearly divided into north, south and west sections (east is not mentioned), suggesting a more rectangular outline. The outer walls are frequently described as immense, sheer and clifflike. Contrary to the general impression that the castle is only a grey, dusty monolith of stone, a careful reading of the text reveals that the Outer Walls actually enclose quite extensive grounds.
North outer wall
The North Outer Wall is described as curving and is separated by only a small lane from the mud hut dwellings of the Bright Carvers which hug its base. The huge outer wall dominates the life of the settlement, overshadowing everything. The feelings of one of the Bright Carvers, Titus' wet nurse Keda, are typical:
Ever since she could remember anything the face of the outer wall had been like the symbol of endlessness, of changelessness, of austerity and of protection. She had known it in so many moods. Baked to dusty whiteness, and alive with basking lizards, she could remember how it flaked in the sun. She had seen it flowering with the tiny pink and blue creeper flowers that spread like fields of coloured smoke in April across acres of its temperate surface. She had seen every protruding ledge of stone, its every jutting irregularity furred with frost, or hanging with icicles. She had seen the snow sitting plumply on those juttings, so that in the darkness when the wall had vanished into the night these patches of snow had seemed to her like huge stars suspended.
Further north of the Outer Wall again are woods and Gormenghast lake. An archway in the outer wall leads into the castle grounds onto an avenue of acacia trees, which head down to what may be the main entrance to the castle. Nannie Slagg has to pass down this avenue of acacia trees to reach the outer wall of the castle when she goes in search of a wet nurse for Titus. Presumably there are lawns or landscaping on either side of the avenue.
East outer wall
An eastern Outer Wall is not mentioned in the text, but presumably exists. However, this may not be so, as a large pine wood surrounds the East Wing of the castle. Bordering the pine wood are fields and overgrown gardens which lie between the East and South wings.
South outer wall
The South Outer Wall contains the great ledge which holds the Bright Carvings which are judged on the Day of the Bright Carvers on 1 June. The ledge is apparently at the South Wall's far Western corner as it adjoins the Carver's Battlement on the West Outer Wall. The South Wall also encloses grounds which contain the South Spinneys. Titus is allowed to ride his horse for an hour once a week through the grounds along by the South Outer Wall.
West outer wall
The West Outer Wall contains the Carver's Battlement, which the Bright Carvers whose carvings have been accepted for keeping are allowed to promenade along on the night of the full moon every alternate month. It appears to be at the far southern end of the Western Wall adjoining the ledge of the Bright Carvings. The Western Outer Wall has an archway almost overgrown with ivy which the servant Flay squeezes through on his way back to the castle in secret. The West Outer Wall also encloses grounds which hold the cedar trees, lawns and Gormenghast terrace, along which the Countess Gertrude promenades every morning with her cats. It also appears to enclose the orchard of Pentecost the gardener, and a nearby hill, lake and stream. A pine wood surrounds the west wing of the castle, but it is not entirely clear if this is within the outer walls or not. To the west of the western outer walls lie marshland, rocky escarpments, Gormenghast river and Gormenghast Mountain.
The castle itself is described as vast and rambling, with many different regions, but in general it is roughly divided into four wings – north, south, east and west. A carp-filled moat surrounds at least some of the castle; directly under the wall of the castle in some places (for example, Steerpike is able to jump from the window of Barquentine, the master of ritual, directly into the moat below) and perhaps enclosing some of the grounds in others (but this has to be inferred as it is not made clear). It is impossible to give an exact layout of the castle, but from various mentions in the text it can be stated in general terms some of what each wing of the castle contains.
The top floor of the North Wing contains the Hall of the Bright Carvings, where the curator Rottcodd spends his days sleeping. It has a single window facing north, out of which Rottcodd observes the entire population of the castle returning from Gormenghast Lake after the 'Earling' of Titus as the 77th Earl of Groan. Keda, Titus' wet nurse, also has her quarters in the north wing.
When Steerpike becomes a renegade from the life of the castle, he is finally cornered in an apparently abandoned, northern section of the castle (whether or not it is part of the north wing is unclear). The roofs, buttresses and outcrops of this vast area all appear to have their own names, and the Countess Gertrude lists some of them: namely, the Blackstone Quarter, Stone Dogshead, Angel's Buttress, the Coupée (described as 'the high knife edge'); the North Headstones 'beyond Gory and the Silver Mines'; and the Twin Fingers, 'where Little Sark begins and the Bluff narrows'. the Coupée, Silvermines, Gory and Little Sark are all place names from the Channel Island of Sark, where Peake was living at the time when he wrote Gormenghast.
The East Wing contains the library of Sepulchrave, the Tower of Flints, and various buildings, including an observatory, aviary, museum and pavilions for entertainment. Apart from the library however, all the other buildings have long since been abandoned and fallen into decay.
The South Wing contains the rooms of the twin sisters of Sepulchrave, the Ladies Cora and Clarice Groan. Their quarters include the Room of Roots and a massive dead tree which protrudes horizontally from the wall of the castle and is large enough for them to walk out on and have tea. Later on, Steerpike moves his quarters there to be closer to the twins. After the death of Nannie Slagg, Titus' sister Fuchsia also moves her quarters there, overlooking the South Spinneys. The south wing also appears to contain the rooms of Lord Groan which overlook the Carver's Courtyard. Although it is stated to be Lord Groan's Western Balcony which overlooks the courtyard, it would have to be in the extreme south of the castle close to the southern outer wall in order to overlook it. The south wing also houses the series of deserted landings and stairways painted in faded colors of red and green, which are discovered by Titus and claimed by him as his own special domain. These landings are home to peculiarly small dove-grey mice, which are found nowhere else. The south wing also seems to contain the castle stables, from where Titus takes his weekly ride along the south Outer Wall.
The West wing contains the rooms of Titus' sister Fuchsia and her nurse Nannie Slagg. It also contains the servants' quarters, which presumably includes the servants' quadrangle and its thorn tree. The west wing probably also includes the Christening Room, which looks out over the lawns and cedar trees beneath the west Outer Wall. It may also include the rooms of the Master of Ritual Barquentine, whose rooms looks out to Gormenghast Mountain to the west. The Western region of Gormenghast castle is described as having a flat summit, which becomes a favourite place to promenade along during the time when the castle is flooded.
Various other areas and rooms are mentioned as part of the castle, without it being clear where exactly they are in the castle's layout. These include the great Dining Hall, the kitchens, the central library which houses the books of Gormenghast ritual (not to be confused with Sepulchrave's library in the east wing), the armory, and the schoolrooms and professors' quarters. Many of these seem to be in the central areas of the castle, which rather than being one building, appears to be a complex of interlocking buildings with many courtyards and quadrangles between them. For example, the house of Dr Prunesquallor and his sister is described as "a three storey building made of red sandstone attached to the main building of the castle by a flying buttress." The house has its own front and back gardens and looks out onto a quadrangle. Beneath the castle lies the vast region of endless maze-like corridors of stone and brick called the Silent Halls, Hollow Halls, Lifeless Halls or the Stone Lanes. Only the servant Flay has any idea of their extent.
Real life equivalents
Gormenghast castle is an amalgam of different real life castles and buildings. There are numerous parallels with Knole, for instance, the stately home fifteen miles from Eltham where Peake went to school. Occupied by the same family for five hundred years, Knole's sprawling layout and varied architecture, added to and modified by successive generations, bear comparison with Gormenghast. (Some of the descriptions of Knole by Vita Sackville-West are also remarkably similar to passages by Peake.)
Its massive walls evoke the great Norman castles and keeps of medieval Europe, such as the walled city of Carcassonne (pictured), Rochester Castle in England or Caernarfon Castle in Wales; while the ancient walled Chinese cities of Beijing and Tientsin where Mervyn Peake spent his childhood are a major influence. Another Chinese source may be Qufu in Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius. His descendants lived there for two thousand years, practising obscure rituals worthy of Gormenghast in a sprawling mansion with hundreds of rooms (partially destroyed by a fire in 1877). The eldest son in each generation inherited the title of Yansheng Duke. The last to live in the Mansion was the posthumous son of the 76th Duke (and therefore the 77th holder of the title, just like Titus Groan). Born in 1920, the 77th Yansheng duke was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China.
The inner buildings of Gormenghast owe much to the Gothic and Regency period mansions and to the various styles of English country house. The quadrangles and professors' quarters also owe something to the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge and to Eltham College where Peake was educated as a boy when he returned to England. Finally, the isolated Channel island of Sark, which retained a feudal system of government until 2008, may have influenced Peake, who lived there in the early 1930s and again in the late 1940s. The references to Gormenghast castle as a rocky island of many promontories and sheer cliffs echo the geography of Sark. "The island became... very much part of his mythological landscape," said the Peake confidante Gordon Smith.
- Peake, Mervyn. Titus Groan, Chapter 'In Preparation for Violence'
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 15.
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'The Hall of the Bright Carvings'
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 63.
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'Half Light'
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter "Keda and Rantel"
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'Mr Rottcodd again'
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'Mrs Slagg by Moonlight'
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'Preparations for Arson'
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 49
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'Prunesquallor's Kneecap'
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'First Blood'
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'The Grotto'
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 76
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter "The Library"
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 9
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 22
- Peake, Gormenghast, Chapter 79
- Peake, Titus Groan, Chapter 'At the Prunesquallors'
- See Knole and the Sackvilles, 1922; republished by the National Trust in 1991. Quoted in G. Peter Winnington, 'Peake, Knole, and Orlando,' Peake Studies Vol.7, issue 1 (October 2000), pp.24–29.)
- G. Peter Winnington, efMervyn Peake's Vast Alchemies (Peter Owen, 2009), pp.35–36, and Peter Neville-Hadley, 'Finding Gormenghast and the Groans in China', Peake Studies vol.12, issue 3 (October 2011), pp.28–38.
- "SARK AND MERVYN PEAKE". Inside Out.
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