Let’s Read! Gormenghast: Titus Groan, Chapters 17-21

[Once again, I find myself having to revise my planned reading because I came to the end of a chapter that felt like such a natural finishing point for the section that I didn’t want to move on without writing about it. This section, instead of covering Chapters 17 through 23 as I originally intended to, will only cover material through Chapter 21.]

“It seemed to him that all his life he’d been climbing.”

I think I mentioned it already, but I’m giving up on this book ever developing any particular plot. After finally having some forward progress, at least temporally, Chapter 17, “Means of Escape,” resets the clock again, taking us fourteen days back to find out how Steerpike escaped from the room in which Mr. Flay had imprisoned him. Steerpike and his whereabouts are, along with Flay’s rivalry with Swelter, Mr. Flay’s primary anxieties, though both of these can be summed up together as an overall anxiety regarding anything Flay considers to be a rebellion against the established order of things in Gormenghast. Flay fears Swelter’s desire for personal revenge, but he seems to worry more over the missing Steerpike, who is, to Flay’s mind, a force of chaos, a dangerous entropy that must be found and controlled before something bad happens. At the same time, Flay’s fears about Steerpike are so amorphous as to be absurd; Flay isn’t an imaginative man, and he struggles to articulate (or perhaps Mervyn Peake struggled to articulate from Flay’s point of view) exactly what he finds so unsettling about the stray kitchen boy.

Most of this section, however, is about Steerpike himself, starting with some deft characterization immediately after Flay has left the prison room: “Most people would have tried the handle of the door. The instinct, however irrational, would have been too strong—the first impulse of one who wishes to escape. Steerpike looked at the knob of the door for a moment. He had heard the key turn. He did not disobey the simple logic of his mind. He turned from the only door in the room and, leaning out of the window, glanced at the drop below.” It’s the most complete idea of Steerpike so far, and it’s a smart illustration of the type of boy he is: logical, creative and quick-thinking, but also circumspect enough to be thinking about the costs of failure. What follows, over the next several chapters, is a symbolic, obviously foreshadowing journey in turns dreamlike and nightmarish as Steerpike ascends the rooftops of Gormenghast and must find a way back into the castle.

Chapter 18, “A Field of Flagstones,” begins with Steerpike consciously choosing to not think about the risks that gave him pause as he first looked out the window and contemplated the drop, and we quickly find that he’s a character skilled at purposeful, next steps thinking. We’re also reminded of Steerpike’s youth; Peake writes about Steerpike’s “young smile” in a way that can’t help but feel pointed in contrast to how Peake has described everything and everyone else we’ve met so far in terms to exaggerate great age, especially the way that characters, in particular, are described as having aged prematurely. It’s possible that Steerpike is still just young enough to have not been subject to the early aging that affects, but it seems more likely that this is an intentional choice to highlight Steerpike’s outsider status within the world of Gormenghast, which is a running theme in these chapters.

Once atop the roof of the castle, Steerpike finds that everything is bigger than he expected, and things quickly take a frightening turn for him as it gets dark and he must find his way around through intuition and touch. The skies clear shortly before dawn, offering some greater visibility, which lets him pick a window to start working towards. It’s a somewhat arbitrary goal, but as we’re reminded in Chapter 21, “he had been searching for one thing and one thing only—a means of entering the castle.” This singlemindedness in pursuit of a modest goal works for Steerpike in these chapters, but we’re reminded over and over again about the precariousness of his position, the danger posed by the risks he takes, and of his own ignorance—he’s only a kitchen boy, after all, and Gormenghast is extremely large and very mysterious. Chapter 20, “Near and Far,” may liken Steerpike to a predator (picking up the bird motif again) and meditate on the question of whether a predator thinks in terms of a big picture or only focuses on its prey, but Steerpike is just orienting himself so far as he wanders around taking in the sights and sounds of Gormenghast over a full day, which must teach him something about the place.

Taken together, Chapters 17 through 21 encapsulate an ambitious trajectory writ small as Steerpike scrambles across the rooftops, and they end with him finally penetrating the castle, almost by accident, when he falls into Fuchsia’s secret attic. It remains to be seen if the map of Steerpike’s non-metaphorical trajectory will match this one.

Miscellany:

  • I think the unnamed poet in Chapter 20 is Sepulchrave. Certainly, the melancholy poem he recites sounds like him.
  • Cora and Clarice creeping around is oddness of exactly the sort that I’ve now come to expect from this book. It’s also interesting to note that they’re wearing their purple dresses already, even though the events in these chapters are nearly two weeks before the christening. That said, this is the sort of thing that could mean nothing except that Peake intended for the reader to understand the two distantly seen ladies as the twins, without intending any other, deeper importance.
  • There’s a pool with a white horse and foal swimming in it, and I’m not sure if these are literally white horses—as no one in Gormenghast has been described as a rider, and all the characters so far are various types of shut-ins—or if they only look like horses from Steerpike’s high vantage point. If it is a white horse, is it a symbol (white horses figure largely in various mythologies and horses are common symbols) or is it just a horse?
  • I’m now over 150 pages into Titus Groan, and it’s still difficult-to-impossible to identify which characters are protagonists and which are antagonists. Peake seems to be taking the humanist route of examining his characters as people rather than roles, and the shifting perspectives prevent any character from emerging as definitively pro- or antagonistic. Some of this is because there’s still not much of an actual plot going on, but some of this feeling is because of the deliberately humanist care with which Peake writes about his characters. They may be absurd, bizarrely so at times, but they’re never less than fully formed.
  • Peake uses specific numerical descriptions often in this section, and I’ll definitely be watching to see if this precision of language and thought is characteristic of just Steerpike’s point of view of if it’s more broadly characteristic of the author. I seem to remember it being a thing in earlier chapters as well, but nowhere near as prominently notable as it was in these chapters.
  • I have read a little bit about Gormenghast and the idea of place as a character, and these chapters do as much to bring Gormenghast to life as any of the ones before. Mr. Flay may act in an antagonistic way towards Steerpike, but it’s Gormenghast that presents the real challenge to the ambitious outsider. There are a couple of instances of straight up anthropomorphic language being used to describe the castle—most memorably the description of Gormenghast’s towers and buildings as “a stationary gathering of stone personalities”—and I’m looking forward to paying close attention to this sort of thing going forward.

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