Let me tell you a story about why I don’t like fantasy literature as a genre. Certainly there are good books in this genre, and many of my good friends are and have been dedicated fans of fantasy. But I just can’t get into it.
The reason why is Gormenghast. Not because I hate it. I love it. But as far as fantasy literature is concerned, I love it for all the wrong reasons.
|Well, it did get a little weird between them eventually.
My friend L recently downloaded the BBC miniseries Gormenghast. Their sumptuous adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s famous fantasy novels was one of the best series the BBC produced in the 1990s.
In the history of film and television, it was most remarkable for establishing the career of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers with a bang. His performance as Steerpike, the driving force of the series’ narrative, was a masterwork of epic Machiavellian charisma. It was so remarkable that I thought Steerpike was the hero of Gormenghast.
And I was genuinely disappointed that Steerpike wasn’t the hero. But it was confirmed when I looked at the book and saw a documentary about the miniseries’ production. Peake constantly described Steerpike as villainous, twisted, and evil. The real hero of Gormenghast was Titus Groan, the squeaky-clean, handsome Prince of Gormenghast.
I’ll tell you the basic story of Gormenghast and what I love about it.
The story begins when Titus is born. Gormenghast is an autarkic monarchy, ruled by a dynasty many thousands of years old. Their every move is obsessively ritualized, the result of thousands of years of accumulated royal scribes recording every action of a Groan king.
Even casual gestures like a family breakfast can only be done through a public ritual. To serve the kings of Gormenghast is the religion and sole industry of everyone in the whole kingdom. Titus is dissatisfied with his pampered, micro-managed life, but he’s only ever annoyed by the system. He never thinks about seriously ending it.
|What kingdom wouldn't be better off without its kings?
Speaking of overthrowing the entire order of this fossilized total monarchy, I love Steerpike. He starts the story as among hundreds of Dickensian ragamuffins in the royal kitchen. Gormenghast is so deeply ruled by tradition that the staff of different royal services have grown into rigidly segregated hierarchical castes.
The kitchens are among the lowest, sweltering in the constantly hellish temperatures of ovens for an entire kingdom. Steerpike is continually being punished and disciplined because he wants a better life for himself.
But he combines sophisticated manipulation, creepily sneaking around secret passageways of this city-sized castle, and Machiavellian political cunning among royal house rivals, to win a spot among the top manservants of Gormenghast’s civil service. He also becomes personal valet (and only true friend) of the spoiled, childish, beautiful, and profoundly lonely princess.
Lady Fuschia is Titus’ older sister, but the patriarchal succession rules leave her a useless royal with no purpose or responsibility in society other than being pampered. Fuschia has no purpose in life.
He also leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, destroying the royal house of Gormenghast to take it over.
But isn’t the destruction of such a hideously depraved society good? The entire social structure of Gormenghast is about rigidly following strict caste lines about who you can mix with and what you can do. Every role in society is inherited without exception.
It’s a society without creativity or ambition of any kind. All individuality and innovation is shed before the fact of fate. Only the endless, empty repetition of ritual and caste, generation after generation for millennia.
|A truly happy ending would have been if Fuschia and
Steerpike had burned down the whole palace together.
Who wouldn’t want to burn that down? It’s the definition of social progress to burn that system down.
Yet Steerpike, whose purpose in life is destroying the order of fate, simply because he wanted a better life than sweating to death in the kitchens, is the villain. And he’s the villain because he kills and manipulates damn near the entire royal house. But the fun of the series is in watching his path of destruction.
Steerpike is the Joker, but one cut loose in a monarchy, destroying the royal family whose ritualized institutions keep the population stuck in their castes. There’s nothing worth saving in this system, except Fuschia, Steerpike’s one friend who has no place in the royal system.
Instead, the hero of the entire Gormenghast book cycle is Titus? The prince whose very existence carries the throne forward into another hellish generation of nothingness. Yes, in later books, Titus abandons his throne, but the throne is still there, trapping the ordinary people in its grip.
I learned from the documentary, and reading up about fantasy literature in general, that this was standard. The noble, dashing princes were the heroes. And they gained their heroism defending their kingdoms from manipulative villains who wanted to destroy the throne.
Gormenghast, even presenting us with a throne that deserved to be destroyed, sides with the prince. When I learned that this was the standard perspective of fantasy literature, it was pretty much done for me. I couldn't get engaged by a genre whose conventions included the goodness of even the most terrible throne.