A Conversation for The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 1


Like all good trilogies, the Gormenghast books were going to be more than three in number. After Peake's death during the writing of Titus Alone (the final version of which was completed by his widow), the beginnings of a fourth novel, and notes thereon, were found amongst his papers. This fourth book was to be called Titus Awakes, and the 1992 Overlook edition of Titus Alone has as an appendix the extant opening of the book. There's a Peake biography that has the notes as well, which are little more than lists of places that Titus might go to ('mountains... valleys... lakes... cities...') and people that he might meet.

This is the opening of Titus Awakes:


Meanwhile the castle rolled. Great walls collapsed, one into another, sometimes with a roar of dust, sometimes with no sound. The colours of the tracts were horrible. The vilest green. The most hideous purple. Here the foul shimmering of fungi - there a tract of books alive with mice. In every direction vistas opened, so that Gertrude standing at the little window of a high room, would seem to command a world before her eyes, though her eyes were out of focus. It had become a habit of hers to stand at this particular window, from which a world lay bare, a chowder of cats at her feet and her dark red hair full of nests.

Who else is there alive in this echoing world? And yet for all the collapse and decay, the castle seemed to have no ending. There were still the endless shapes and shadows, echoing the rides of stone.

While the Countess Gertrude moved about her home, it might be thought that she was in some kind of trance, so silent she was. The only sound coming from her hair in whose deep coils the small birds twittered. As for the cats, the swarmed about her like froth.

One day the massive Countess standing before the little window of her bedroom lifted her matriarchal head and brought her eyes into focus. The birds fell silent and the cats froze into an arabesque. And as she approached from the west, so Prunesquallor, his head in the air, approached from the east, and as he minces, he sang in a falsetto unutterably bizarre.

"Is that you, Prunesquallor?" said the Countess, her voice travelling gruffly over the flagstones.

"Why, yes," trilled the Doctor, breaking off in his own particular improvisation. "It most assuredly is."

"Is that you, Prunesquallor?" said the Countess.

"Who else?"

"Who else," said her voice travelling across the flagstones.

"Who else?" cried the Doctor. "It assuredly is. At least I hope so." And Prunesquallor patted himself here and there, and pinched himself to make sure of his own existence.


With every pace he drew away from Gormenghast Mountain, and from everything that belonged to his home. That night, while Titus lay asleep in the tall barn, a nightmare held him. Sometimes as he turned in his sleep he muttered, sometimes he spoke out loud and with extraordinary strange emphasis. His dreams thronged him. They would not let him go.

It was early. The sun had not yet risen. Outside the barn the hills and the forests were hoary with cold dew, and blotched with pools of ice.

What is he doing here, the young man, 77th Earl and Lord of Gormenghast. This surely is a far cry from his home and his friends. Friends? What was left of them? As for his home, that world of fractured towers. What truth is there in its existence? What proof had he of its reality?

Sleep brought it fourth in all its guises, and as he turned again, he hoisted himself on his elbow and whispered "Muzzlehatch, my friend, are you then gone forever?"

The owl made no movement at the sound of his voice. Its yellow eyes stared unblinking at the sleeping intruder.

Titus fell back against the straw and immediately three creatures sidled into his brain. The first so nimble on his feet was Swelter, that mountain of flesh, his belly trembling at every movement with an exquisite vibration. Sweat poured down his face and bulbous throat in runnels. Drowned in his moisture, his eyes swam here no larger than pips. In his hand he carried as though a toy, a double- headed cleaver. At his shoulder stood something which was harder to define. It was taller than Swelter, and gave forth a sense of timber and of jagged power. But it was not this that caught the senses, but the sound of knee-joints cracking.

For a moment they beamed at one another, this dire couple in a mixture of sweat and leather-- and their mutual hatred settled in again, like a foul plant or fungi. And yet they held hands, and as they moved across the arena of Titus' brain they sang to one another.

Swelter in a fluted voice, and Flay reminiscent of a rusty key turning in a lock. They sang of joy, with murder in their eyes. They sang of love, with bile upon their tongues. Those tongues. Of Swelter's it is enough to say that it protruded like a carrot. Of Flay's that it was a thing of corroded metal.

What of the third character? The lurker in the shade of Swelter's belly? Its tongue was green and fiery. A shape not easily found. It was for the main part hidden by a brush of mottled hair. This third apparition, a newcomer to Titus' brain, remained in the shadow, a diminutive character who reached no higher than Swelter's knee-joint. While the other two danced, their hands joined, the tiny creature was content to watch them in their foul perambulations, until loosening their grip upon one another Swelter and Flay rose to full height upon their toes and struck one another simultaneously, and Titus in his dream twisted away from them.

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 2


Ah, such moribund magnificence!

Do you know much about Mervyn's life? Too bad that genius is so often the product of despair.

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 3


Not a huge amount. I read the biography when I was about 16 - I had been in a youth theatre production of an adaptation of books 1 and 2. As far as I can remember, he lived a relatively happy existence, a lot of it on Sark, where he was an artistic eccentric in large pirate earrings and bandanas. Although I *think* he'd been to Europe at the end of the war, possibly as an official artist, and seen the devastation of Allied bombing and Nazi atrocities, from which some of the horror of Gormenghast probably stems.

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 4


As I recall, his role as official war artist was to draw the dead and dying residents of the Belsen concentration camp as soon as it was liberated. He saw a lot of distressing things there, and the images remained with him.

He also had a debilitating long-term mystery illness, which historians believe was MS or Parkinson's disease. Imagine how that must have been for him: no cause, no cure, and nobody to understand what he was going through. smiley - cry

The Gormenghast trilogy is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I've ever come across: I'm a huge fan smiley - smiley. I'm one of those people who like to analyse pieces of writing in enormous detail, and to me Gormenghast is the work of a master craftsman. At risk of sounding like and old fart, I adore its chiroscuro grotesquery. It's in a league of its own. I'm pleased to find you have such impeccable taste smiley - biggrin.

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 5


smiley - dohI found this conversation on your page, Mr Flay: didn't realise it was attached to a guide entry! Now that I've read the actual entry, I see you already know the stuff I was wittering on about. smiley - blush

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 6


Thanks very much. As I say, it's all a bit hazy; I read the biog some time ago, but I have roughly the same opinion of the books as you do. I re-read them again a couple of years ago, and was delighted to find that I enjoyed them as much, if not more, than I had when I was a teenager. I think they're far superior to any other fantasy I've read, and have a textual richness that's more like mediaeval alliterative verse than anything modern. For my money they knock Lord Of The Rings into a cocked hat. MrFlay has been my nickname of choice for as long as I've been online.

Book 4: Titus Awakes

Post 7


Yes, LOTR is good on ideas, but for style, it lacks the sheer poetry of Gormenghast. Some find Peake's language overblown and turgid with description, but I don't recall a single word that didn't belong. I doubt it would have been as effective, had he used a lighter style to describe such an edifice.

Book 4 (and 5 and 6)

Post 8


I don't know who's already aware of this but there is a fully finished and (still in print) published book within Titus's childhood at Gormenghast - Boy in darkness, written by the very same hands. It is (as always) centred aroud Titus' escape from duty, but then falling into a very oppressive fix as he loses himself in a maze of mines, corridors and tunnels. I myself have not read this book, but intend to in te very near future.
I also believe that Mervyn Peake intended to write "Gormenghast Revisited" I've not a clue about this but maybe its something i could look into.

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Book 4: Titus Awakes

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