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Imprints Literary Supplement

The Best Books You've Never Read

The Gormenghast Trilogy

By Mahinder Kingra | Posted 10/13/1999

The Gormenghast Trilogy

Mervyn Peake

Reprinted by Overlook Press in 1995

Upon their respective publications in 1946 and 1950, Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast garnered fervent critical praise but few readers. A third, lesser novel, Titus Alone, appeared in 1959 with the same results. Like The Lord of the Rings, to which it is often misleadingly compared, the Gormenghast trilogy acquired a cult following during the 1960s. But unlike Tolkien's works, Peake's have yet to gain the wide readership they deserve, in part because they do not fit easily into any one genre. Too precise to work as allegory, too delightfully ponderous to succeed as escapist fiction, the Gormenghast trilogy might broadly be described as a Gothic romance written with a Dickensian attention to character and social environment.

The novels describe life in vast Gormenghast Castle, a hermetic world of ossifying tradition and Machiavellian politics. Set in an indeterminate time, the novels are populated with a bizarre yet fully realized cast of characters. The trilogy opens with the birth of Titus Groan, 77th Earl of Gormenghast; the first two volumes chronicle Titus' journey into adulthood and his growing uneasiness with the responsibilities of his birthright. In the trilogy's final (and unfinished) volume, a rebellious Titus leaves his home and his legacy behind to explore the dystopian, industrial world beyond Gormenghast. Though woefully neglected by the reading public, Peake's Gormenghast novels remain genuine masterpieces of postwar 20th-century British literature.

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