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Peake, Mervyn

Entry updated 23 January 2023. Tagged: Artist, Author.

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(1911-1968) UK poet, artist and author, born in China, where he lived until he was twelve in a missionary compound, embedded into a land as strange to Western eyes as the country surrounding Gormenghast. He was initially better regarded as an artist than as a writer and, although he had published several volumes of Poetry during and after World War Two, the poetic density of Titus Groan (1946) was unexpected. Gormenghast (1950) is closely linked to that first volume, but it is clear that Peake never intended to compose a trilogy per se; Titus Alone (cut 1959; reconstructed from manuscript by Langdon Jones 1970) – a text the author was unable to take beyond draft form due to the onset of the disease which killed him – ends at a point that Peake did not intend as a definitive terminus. This sense of the shape of the sequence is confirmed by the 1991 critical edition of the three novels, in which Titus Alone (as coll 1991) edited by G Peter Winnington includes the surviving pages of "Titus Awakes", the incomplete fourth volume of the sequence. But, although the existing trilogy, variously identified as the Gormenghast or Titus Groan sequence and on one occasion assembled as The Titus Books (omni 1983; vt The Gormenghast Trilogy 1991), was never in its author's mind a complete entity – an appendage, Boy in Darkness (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon; 1976 chap), is in fact quite detached from the whole – it remains a series of texts whose cumulative power is remarkable, and the definition of which in generic terms is loaded with difficulties. Although couched in a language which might point towards Fantasy, it contains no fantasy elements; though redolent of a Dying Earth venue in its sense of belatedness and in the person of Titus's father – a fidgety, crotchet-ridden, Entropy-exuding manic-depressive aristocrat [for Knight of the Doleful Countenance see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] whose like has haunted the Far Future worlds of writers from M John Harrison to Richard Grant – the first two volumes cannot be thought of as sf. The sequence must be thought of as sui generis, though it would signal a critical failure, on the parts of critics of the fantastic in literature as a whole (those interconnected realms that John Clute has suggested might be called Fantastika for short), to stop there.

Told in a rhetorically elaborate, densely pictorial language, the story of Titus's birth and childhood in Gormenghast Castle is fundamentally the story of a coming-of-age: it is a genuine Bildungsroman, the story of the growth of a soul. At the same time, great stretches of the sequence ignore the priggish, bland young Titus entirely to concentrate upon the vividly realized cast of grotesques which surrounds him. In Titus Groan itself, one of the most intensely painterly books ever crafted, the infant protagonist is surrounded by a dwelling so intricate and dense (Peake derived something of its scale from Sark, in the Channel Islands) that he never becomes more than an occasional embossed figurine in the Gormenghast geography. Gormenghast is essentially devoted to the Realpolitik rise and inevitable fall of the modern-minded Steerpike. Only Titus Alone concentrates on the hero, now self-exiled from his childhood and his great demesne, as he hurtles through a futuristic, jaggedly conceived Dystopian world; at the end, about to return home, he turns his back on all his memories, and the sequence stops short, dangling. Throughout, the wealth of detail of the work makes Gormenghast one of the most richly realized Alternate Worlds in all the literature of fantasy or sf.

Other work of interest include Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939 chap), for children, and Mr Pye (1953), both fantasy, the latter a striking (though mild) Satire set largely on Sark, about a man whose goodness is so profound that he sprouts angel's wings, and about his desperate attempts to get rid of them. Of sf interest is Letters from a Lost Uncle (graph 1948), also ostensibly for children, the letters themselves describing in spoof terms the Robinsonade of the shipwrecked Uncle, who sends them from the Arctic after a long Fantastic Voyage there. But the huge fragments of Titus Groan remain central. [JC]

Mervyn Laurence Peake

born Kuling, Kiang-Hsi, China: 9 July 1911

died Abingdon, Berkshire: 16/17 November 1968



Gormenghast/Titus Groan

Gormenghast/Titus Groan

  • Titus Groan (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946) [Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
  • Gormenghast (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1950) [Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
  • Boy in Darkness (Exeter, Devon: Wheaton, 1976) [story: chap: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
    • Boy in Darkness (London: Hodder Children's Books, 1996) [rev of the above: text corrected: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/P J Lynch]
  • Titus Alone (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1959) [Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
    • Titus Alone (New York: Weybridge and Talley, 1967) [rev of above: hb/]
    • Titus Alone (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968) [rev of above: copyright 1967 and 1968: may contain unique revisions: pb/Bob Pepper]
    • Titus Alone (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970) [rev of above: text reconstructed from original manuscript by Langdon Jones: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
      • The Titus Books (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1983) [omni of the above plus Titus Groan and Gormenghast: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: pb/Julek Heller]
        • The Gormenghast Trilogy (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1988) [omni: rev vt of the above: new introductions and other material: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
          • The Gormenghast Novels (Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press/Tusk, 1995) [omni: exp vt of the above: contains fragment, "Titus Awakes": Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
        • The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Vintage Books, 2011) [omni: vt of the above: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: hb/Mervyn Peake]
  • Titus Awakes (London: Vintage, 2011) with Maeve Peake [by Peake's widow, based on a fragment: Gormenghast/Titus Groan: pb/Mervyn Peake]

individual titles


works illustrated by Peake (selected)

about the author/illustrator


previous versions of this entry

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