Gormenghast Trilogy (First Edition) by Mervyn Peake
The Gormenghast Trilogy is a set of three novels by Mervyn Peake (1911-1968). The first volume, Titus Groan, was published in 1946, the second, Gormenghast, in 1950, and the third, Titus Alone, in 1959, all by Eyre and Spottiswoode.
Peake began writing the first novel in the 1940s during the Second World War, in army barracks. The castle of Gormenghast is said to have been partly inspired by the vast Arundel Castle in West Sussex, that Peake and his wife had a view of from their cottage. Peake’s upbringing in China, particularly the Forbidden City in Peking, is also likely to have been very influential. The eccentric and grotesque characters that populate the novels were born out of discussions between Peake and his wife, during long walks taken around the Sussex countryside.
The novels include various verses written by Peake, as well as his illustrations of the characters.
Peake intended to write an epic series of novels featuring Titus Groan and the setting of Gormenghast castle throughout his life. Sadly the onset of Parkinson’s disease and Peake’s death aged 57 prevented this. The first three novels are cult classics, and very influential.
Plot, Characters, Themes
The first book begins with the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast Castle and the Earldom of Groan. Life in the castle is ordered by strict ritual and ceremony, the precise tasks for Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan, his wife, their daughter Fuchsia, baby Titus, and the range of other strange characters to perform every day set out in huge and ancient tomes. This book focuses largely on Steerpike, a youth discontented with working for the vile and vast chef Swelter in the kitchens, who escapes from this life and slowly works his way up Gormenghast society, gaining power over those most powerful. It ends with the death of the Earl, and the crowning of the infant Titus.
The second novel follows Titus as he grows up. It shows the schoolrooms and his eccentric teachers, his friends, his sister, his dread of the life of pre-ordained ritual that he is bound to adhere to. He runs away to the forest and meets The Thing, a wild girl and outcast that he feels a strange kinship with. He realises that there is life beyond the castle. Steerpike meanwhile has continued to gain power and status in the castle, murdering the master of ritual so that he may take control. He makes Titus’ sister fall in love with him for his own evil ends, and she commits suicide. Titus and Steerpike fight to the death after the entire castle is flooded by an endless rainstorm, and Steerpike is defeated.
The last novel follows Titus, who has not taken up his responsibilities in Gormenghast but has fled to discover the wider world. He finds a futuristic world, full of advanced technology, and meats various strange people.
The series, while often described as fantasy, contains no magic or non-human intelligent races. It is however, set in a different world, and could be placed in the grotesque genre, possessing gothic and surrealist elements.
Peake was known as a wonderful illustrator, but it was the cult classic series Gormenghast that made his name.
See main article: Mervyn Peake rare books and memorabilia
Notable auction sales and collecting tips
First editions of these three works (1946, 1950, 1959, Eyre and Spottiswoode), due to their cult status, are quite niche collectibles. They are worth a great deal more if they retain their original bindings and original dust-jackets, and therefore it is not recommended to rebind them.
Complete first edition sets of the trilogy in original dust-jackets were sold by Bloomsbury Auctions for £650 in October 2010 and £700 in April 2012, and by Heritage Auctions for $5,377.50 in April 2007.
Single first edition volumes with dust-jackets sell for up to £400.