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A true myth

Gormenghast is a castle, a city, a world. Robert Macfarlane gets lost in it

Robert Macfarlane | November/December 2013

I found my way into Castle Gormenghast 20 years ago, and at times it feels as if I have never left. Nothing comes to an end in Mervyn Peake's fictional world—not even the reading of it. The great edifice in which his trilogy of novels is set seems limitless in its extent, and the memory-traces it leaves are indelible. Each of its dusty rooms opens onto yet another shadowed corridor or shuddering staircase. Time-eaten buttresses spiral into the sky. Seen from a high window, the castle's skyline presents a "panorama of roof-tops, towers and battlements". Its quadrangles are numberless, its bastions beyond count, and it is the demesne of an ancient dynasty of Earls, who prosecute its rituals and ensure their persistence ad infinitum.

Yes, Gormenghast is a vast "labyrinth of stone", in Peake's phrase—except that it has no centre, for there is always another chamber to reach or further annex to access. In this respect it is less a castle, more a city—and an infinite city at that. I grew up at the end of a country lane in the English Midlands, and it was in Peake's writing that I first sensed (fearfully, fascinatedly) what a city might feel like to inhabit.

Cities are, like Gormenghast, excessive and connective. They spawn, proliferate, self-generate: and they are sites of encounter and overlap. For every story you overhear in a city, every conversation you catch, myriad more are in the making at that moment. This is the affront that cities offer to reason, and the excitement they provoke in the mind: that they surpass all possible record. They are places of—to borrow again from Peake—intense "circumfusion".

Charles Dickens understood this, and wrote his sprawling novels in response to London's own abundances, during the decades when it was swelling into a megalopolis. Peake understood it too, through a very different context. The son of a missionary doctor, he grew up in Tianjin, a coastal city in north-east China, in the years after the 1911 revolution. His childhood was spent in a "great grey house" in the compound of the French concession, which he would later describe as "a world surrounded by a wall". Seventy miles to the west, in the Forbidden City of Beijing, the child-emperor Pu-Yi was confined to his own walled world, both omnipotent and helpless.

The style of Peake's castle-city might be characterised as Oriental Gothic, or perhaps feral Baroque. Everything aggregates and overspills. The masonry is ivy-shagged. Tallow drips down to form chance-sculptures beneath the candles. The plaster of a staircase is "cracked into a network of intricate fissures". The walls of the Great Kitchen stream with "calid moisture". The head chef, Swelter, is hugely obese, peering piggily through the engorged orbits of his eyes. Even language works by sticklebrick: Gormenghast’s inhabitants have compound names like Rottcodd, Crabcalf and Prunesquallor. Then there is Peake's own prose, in which detail is balanced upon detail until the whole—like the castle it creates—brinks on collapse.

Now and then, in the actual cities of the world, I get glimpses of Gormenghast. In Paris, with its immense underground network of catacombs and quarried tunnels. In the cellars, pinnacles and Escher-like staircases of Venice. In the abandoned centre of Detroit, where dust coats gilt-clad ballrooms that have gone undanced in since the 1950s. And in the few fragments of imperial Beijing that have survived first Mao and then the market.

At such moments—in such places—it feels as if Peake has not mimicked the real but anticipated or supplemented it. C.S. Lewis—whose Oxford college, Magdalen, has aspects of Gormenghast to its glorious architectural gallimaufry—put it well in a letter to Peake. "I would not for anything have missed Gormenghast. It has the hallmark of a true myth: ie, you have seen nothing like it before you read the book, but after that you see things like it everywhere." Just so. 

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