Gormenghast and How I Turned Away From Fantasy, A History Boy, 04/11/2015

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.


  1. As someone who reads a lot of fantasy, I can see your point in terms of much fantasy, but it doesn't really apply to most fantasy worth reading, of which there is still a fair amount. It's really no different to anything else: name me a genre in which the majority isn't drivel.

    1. I think what caused me to reject the genre so brutally was that I actually felt betrayed by the ending of the story. Its declared hero was this bland-as-rain-soaked-wonderbread prince who was a precursor to Hayden Christensen. The charismatic, ambitious class warrior who was tearing down an ossified and oppressive monarchy piece by piece with the callousness of his manic punk energy was the villain.

      It's not about most of the genre being drivel (as is most of literature). It's about this trope that recurs in even some of the best fantasy where you can only be an epic hero if you're already a prince or a noble. There's this recurring worship of thrones and nobility as a caste that's always rubbed me the wrong way.

      My favourite adventure stories are about travelling con men and grifters. Regular joes are just more interesting to me than people who are "born to greatness." It's not just about the great stories like Doctor Who, but the more ordinary stuff. When I was 13, I used to love watching Remington Steele reruns on cable because I loved those stories of charismatic con men infiltrating the upper class and running rings around everyone.

      When I think about it, that says a lot about many of my ambitions in life.

  2. Yeah, I still disagree. The Prince/Process/Queen/King born to greatness idea has been long superseded in any fantasy worth reading. In that respect Gormenghast is totally dated. Really, the kind of sorry you're describing seems to me to be quite unlike any fantasy I read.

    1. Excellent, then. My only recent exposure to fantasy (and its fans) are Gamergaters and Rabid Puppies. I'm glad there's more to the scene that those shit-shovellers.

    2. Haven't read either of those. My ability to read subtle linguistic cues tells me neither come recommended.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. i don't remember Titus being described as handsome - in fact what endears him to Fuchsia is that he is 'ugly'/'defective' (he does however has some dalliances in the third book that suggests you might be right on that count). meanwhile, though Titus & Steerpike both object to the status quo & so in some strange way their causes align, Steerpike isn't the Jokerish agent of chaos you say he is. he doesn't want to burn the system down, he wants to wrest control of it doing so through violence & manipulation in order to establish *himself* as the new not-really-different status quo, maintaining a new order in w/c HE is the ruler of Gormenghast; he even aims for the keeper of ritual position (i forget the actual title) rather than the crown, knowing where the real power truly lies - & so it's not about a 'better life', it's about power. Titus, on the other hand, abdicates because...well, he doesn't really know or articulate other than that being the ruler of the stones isn't what he wants.

    w/c is all to say: i don't think either of them look very good from the typical, generic 'hero' standpoint. they are complex characters for whom 'good' & or 'evil' in the standard generic sense are meaningless against what they individually *want* from their lives.

  4. In the first episode of the show, just before meeting Steerpike, Fuchsia tells Mrs. Slagg: "when I am queen, I will burn down the castle".

    Just now, I've come to realize what a freaking sense it had. Though I'm a bit sceptic about their happy ending. Steerpike is one of my favorite characters ever, but I just couldn't find out if he was truly longing for equality or that was only a part of his camouflage. And did he really love Fuchsia? I see there were some scenes between them which showed us that he kinda cared for her - e.g. Fuchsia's downfall, their encounter in the graveyard or when Steerpike decided to take his mask off -, yet I think she had always been (at least partly) a little piece in his game of manipulations.
    (It never stopped me from rooting for them as a couple though. Sadly, Mr. Peake is a great cynic and so am I.)

  5. The Groans were earls, not kings.