In the previous article in this series, I talked about how extreme violence and a pessimistic outlook often makes it hard to properly engage with a fantasy world, because it takes an overly negative view of humanity. However, a more muted and subtle kind of evil, manifested in the right way, can make even an amoral protagonist seem engaging. Mervyn Peake’s trilogy of novels Gormenghast, in its first two volumes, perfectly tracks the progress of a loathsome protagonist through a bizarre and grim world.
The first thing to note is that Gormenghast is serious in tone but ridiculous in subject; it relishes in grotesque exaggeration of historical excess and tradition. This parodic nature permeates the subject, the characters and the prose style so completely that the reader is completely consumed by it and thus completely accepting of it. The first way in which so many “dark” fictions fail is in trying to rationalise and make serious extremes of evil that could never be sustainable or logistically possible; Gormenghast makes the point, and repeats this many times, that its status quo is unsustainable; it is a novel about how the old order simply cannot survive yet refuses to accept this. Yet it is not a simple work about a new, unequivocally good force washing away the old order (until, quite symbolically, the climactic flood at the end of Gormenghast – although there is it nature which ultimately proves the real cleansing force and the rejection of the old comes from an unexpected source) – it is a work instead about how resistance to an abstract, ill-defined evil can come from a new kind of evil.
The core conflict of much of the first two volumes of Gormenghast is between Steerpike, a victim of the system, and the monolithic entity of the Groan estate; that Steerpike is not a downtrodden martyr but instead someone as ambitious and malign as any of the other grotesques who inhabit the setting makes rooting for any one side incredibly difficult. Arguably this conflict – despite making up a vast majority of the books – is entirely secondary and incidental. The development of young Titus, who by the third volume is undeniably the protagonist, is the real driving force; it is his arrival on the scene which provides the first hint that change is in the air, and his subtle, measured opposition to the world of tradition and routine is ultimately as destructive as Steerpike’s intention to kill his way to the top. So thus Gormenghast depicts two routes of resistance to an intractable order; violent protest and simple rejection. Neither, ultimately, is successful; thus is Gormenghast a “grim-dark” work. Steerpike dies; he lives by the sword and ultimately dies by it. Titus ends up, as the third volume’s title suggests “alone”; in rejecting Gormenghast itself he finds it has become such an integral part of his life he cannot well survive without it.
This then sets the novel’s setting itself in a strange position; the personification of a place is a typical feature of the Gothic (from which Gormenghast is heavily derived) and yet rather than Peake simply using the estate’s presence as a force for good or evil, it comes to permeate and embody the characters. Each represents some part of it, save for Titus – the interloper. If the setting (made intentionally vague and timeless in order that the revelation that the world has moved on in Titus Alone be more powerful) is reflected in those who inhabit it, and that combination of setting and character is so subtly malevolent, then the novels depict a challenge to an entire rotten society. This in turn redefines Steerpike’s protest; it is not a desire to end the status quo after all (despite it appearing so initially) – it is a desire to become part of it. That a sympathetic outsider character (Steerpike is introduced as the whipping-boy of the gross cook Swelter) is corrupted by the chance to enter into a stagnant nobility and embraces this corruption whole-heartedly while Titus, born into it involuntarily tries to escape it and bring it down, makes it quite clear by the end that any desire to see Steerpike “win” (since, as he is the main narrative focus character, one may well experience) is born more out of a desire to see Gormenghast changed than Steerpike himself succeed. While he is ambitious and murderous, and ultimately simply wants personal advancement, he is achieving it by bringing down the old order in order to install himself within it. As a result his actions are undeniably reforms, and since much of the first volume has impressed upon the reader how in need of any sort of change the estate is, they are welcome.
Much of the novel’s power, and its capacity to establish a status quo that is, to me, more unpleasant and if not actively evil but pessimistic and Gothically horrific than many pieces of “dark” fiction, comes from its opening; the horror of repetition and routine. The establishment of routines and orders, followed to the letter without understanding why, is a common trope of dystopias; a novel such as The Trial, or a film such as Brazil, play on bureaucracy as the real horror of modern society; when someone is simply a piece of data to be processed, they have lost their identity and their humanity. The intractable nature of power and the inability to rectify mistakes is thus more insidiously – and thus effectively – evil than any number of death squads or ranting dictators. With routine comes acceptance, and with acceptance comes the crushing of any kind of resistance.
Gormenghast takes this away from the office or bureaucrat and places it squarely back within its feudal roots; the isolated estate runs in meticulously-detailed cycles that cannot be deviated from, that nobody fully understands save insane lore-keepers and most chillingly of all there is no future for anyone. The novel begins with a look “below-stairs” – usually in period fiction this is a raucous and sincere place, set in stark contrast with the stuffy, formal “upstairs” (viz. Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs). However, in Gormenghast, servitude to the Groans is a multi-generational doom.
“The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the “Grey Scrubbers”. It had been their privilege on reaching adolescence to discover that, being the sons of their fathers, their careers had been arranged for them and that stretching ahead of them lay their identical lives consisting of an unimaginative if praiseworthy duty.”
This extract on its own presents a kind of Kafkaesque, Gothic horror; the doom of not having any free agency, of inheriting, much as Titus inherits the routines and stagnation of Gormenghast itself, a duty. Yet while Titus, empowered as he is, actively works to change this situation, the Grey Scrubbers inherit their duties and cannot reject them; such is servitude. Perhaps the idea of generational servitude with no chance of advancement or change is exaggerated in its depiction of a feudal estate; yet it is a subtle and ultimately believable exaggeration and thus all the more horrifying. The destruction of identity is, I would argue, one of the most acute fears of humanity; much is made of man’s creativity and individuality and so to have that taken away completely (as so much of Gormenghast is focused on) makes it a truly horrifying dystopia – even if it is one without the telescreen, or Big Brother.