Tolkien Gestures Book 4: Titus Groan

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre, after a couple of decades of being snippy down the pub about this sort of magical fairyworld nonsense. This week, we sidestep into “proper” literature to visit life in the grand and crumbling Castle Gormengast.

This is one of the oddball choices for the list this year, i think. In some ways I’m not sure it’s really fantasy at all, by the standards of things coming down the pipe, but there seems to be a clear dividing line, before and after The Lord of the Rings when the genre suddenly becomes strongly defined, and as a literary example of the “before”, then Titus Groan was always going to be an interesting inclusion. For a start, this is Literature, not something I traditionally associate with the genre. Its a dense, heavy book, set in a dense heavy world of ritual and inertia. Its anti-escapism, in a way.

For those not familiar, the book opens with the birth of the eponymous Titus, scion of the line of Groan and heir to the vast, crumbling majesty that is Gormengast Castle. The story follows the lives of the castles inhabitants (and some of those in the mud dwellings outside it) over the first year or so of his life, as terrible events initiated by the strange youth Steerpike unfold around him.

Life in Gormengast endures much as it has for generations, with the day to days lives of it’s occupants dominated by the places they and their forebears have held as long as anyone can remember. From Lord Sepulgrave downwards, they are dominated by ritual, by patterns, by doing things because they have always been done. Everyone has a place, and is in their place; and no-one things to change it, for it is as it has always been. Each character is equal only in how much they are trapped, but none have the strength to escape the trap, just find their own small ways of dreaming past it.

This is, of course, all about Class, that peculiar British obsession that we can’t seem to shake even now and certainly couldn’t in the 40s. White, in The Sword in the Stone, pokes affectionate fun at it throughout, but here it is cloying, each character in their own way a cipher, but all rammed together, rubbing up against each other forming most of the drives for the story, and is in many ways quite a strong critique of the whole system. After all, the whole system is shockingly wasteful. Aside from Steerpike, the most competent character around is the Doctor, Prunesqualler, our middle-class everyman, who can keep his head in a crisis, knows how to use his brain, and yet is happy in thrall to a nobility that will never value him. Fuchsia may be a spoiled brat but she’s also been abandoned by her parents for simply being a girl, left to her attic of dreams to never grow up. The Twins are perhaps a warning of the sort of person she would grow up to be. Only the servants, it seems, are content in their place, playing their own bitter battle for supremacy in the recesses of the castle.

Of course Titus’ birth represents change; and his arrival is met in that light largely with fear and apprehension. He is pretty much parcelled off to be raised by an old, infirm nanny and a wetnurse brought in from the dwellings outside the walls, whilst by and large life goes on around him regardless, presumably in the expectation that he will eventually come of age and just slot into the relentless ritual of the castle, as all his ancestors have done. Of course, change is coming in the shape of Steerpike, the main driver for the story. In a world where everyone knows their place, Steerpike does not. In the context of class, Steerpike is the rising Working Class; the man of humble origin who does not, will not, know his place, and do whatever he must to ascend. I think in many stories he’d be a more sympathetic character, but here he is a villainous schemer (it may be me but still not totally unsympathetic), with his threat to the old order feeling both necessary and somehow wrong at the same time.

It may also me “just me” but for all the Earl goes mad and then dead, at least, i thought, he is finally free. Which is more than can be said for most of the cast.

Really though, Titus Groan isn’t about the story but the place and people; the atmosphere of the place that oozes through the very use of language in the text. Its a very clever thing to be able to do – the very structure of the sentences, the choice of words, conveying an atmosphere far better than just trying to describe it. It helps again that Gormengast castle is a wonderful creation; ancient, grand and rotting, generation upon generation of expansion, withdrawal and reclaim meaning that much of it is lost to it’s own inhabitants. Steerpike’s ascent to the roofs, and the vistas therein are a wonderfully evocative moment of beauty that stand out in the book, for instance, and that only works because the text, as much as the characters, briefly break free from the heavy stone corridors. The book just resonated at every level for me, its so wonderfully about “stuff” without screaming at how clever its being and whilst its not the easiest or fastest read in the world, it is worth it.

Next Up: I couldn’t get away with calling this “Tolkien Gestures” without reading Lord of the Rings, now could I? So we start with The Fellowship of the Ring.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com

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