Old wor(l)ds revisited

Excellent news: My paper proposal for the Images of Identity conference in Zurich has been accepted!

So what I’ll be working on in the weeks to come is a revisitation of one of my favourite literary places: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. His Titus books (or Gormenghast novels, whichever you prefer) were the topic of my master thesis, and I hope to combine my old conclusions with new discoveries.

If you haven’t read Mervyn Peake, do so. He is demanding, but definitely worth it. Castle Gormenghast is still one of the most tangible places in literature I can remember, an experience both exhilarating and terrifying. For starters, imagine the biggest Gothic castle you can think of. City-sized, possibly even bigger. A labyrinth filled with other labyrinths. A whole dynasty of major and minor aristocracy including countless servants inhabit the castle, but large parts of it have been abandoned or simply forgotten or fallen into decay. For thousands of years, the Groan family has been ruler of the castle, but they effectively have become prisoners to an ancient and incomprehensible system of laws and sub-laws. But with the birth of Titus, the 77th Lord Groan, everything is about to change…

What I aim for in my paper is an analysis of the Titus books from a post-World-War-II perspective. The books were published roughly around the time of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and there is a strong sense of the fantastic or even fantasy in Peake’s magnum opus. Yet his characters and locations are far too British (Regency and Victorian) compared to classic fantasy, and castle Gormenghast is the ultimate Gothic space. Add all of this together, and you have an old and crumbling empire that sees the dictatorial threat of a usurper and the coming of age of a young and rebellious heir to the castle. I don’t want to read the books too allegorically and say that they represent the state of Britain after the Second World War (an idea as wrong as equalling Sauron/Saruman with Hitler), but Peake’s absurd and eerie situations are definitely reminiscent of the horrors of war and the stale continuity of post-War agendas.

In any case, Mervyn Peake is an author you shouldn’t miss. His books are quite easy to get and classics by now. Just make sure you don’t get lost in a derelict hallway of Gormenghast without provisions…

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