Tag Archives: Gormenghast

Gormenghast and Lyonesse #amwriting

Alas—the annual tradition of the “summer cold” has laid me low, so I am napping a lot and not doing much writing today. Because I’m not thinking too clearly, I thought I should reprise my article on two famous and highly literary fantasy series, Gormenghast (Book 1 – Titus Groan, 1946) by Mervyn Peake, and The Lyonesse Trilogy (Book 1 – Lyonesse, Suldrun’s Garden, 1983) by Jack Vance.

It has been said of the Gormenghast series that it is the first true fantasy of manners. I suspect Jack Vance was a fan of Mervyn Peake’s brilliant work.

A “comedy of manners” satirizes the manners and affectations of certain social classes and is a literary trope that is often represented by highly stereotypical stock characters.

A “fantasy of manners” is fantasy literature that owes as much to the comedy of manners as it does to the traditional heroic fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy.

Both Gormenghast and Lyonesse more than meet that challenge. Now, my post from 05 June 2017, Literature and Language: Gormenghast and Lyonesse. Enjoy!


Two series of fantasy novels that had a profound effect on me as a reader are the Gormenghast series of novels, written by Mervyn Peake, and The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance. Both series are literary, yet still fantastic,

They are both considered a fantasy of manners, yet they are wildly different from each other. Both combine the comedy of manners with the hero’s journey of traditional high fantasy. Gormenghast is dark and gothic, while Lyonesse is set in an alternate Arthurian world.

The Washington Post Book World had this to say about the Gormenghast series:  “This extravagant epic about a labyrinthine castle populated with conniving Dickensian grotesques is the true fantasy classic of our time.”

The Gormenghast series opens with the book, Titus Groan. Although the book takes its name from Titus, and he is technically the main character, the book only covers the first two years of his life. At the age of one, he becomes the Earl of Groan. Titus-the-baby appears irregularly throughout the narrative, but he is central to the plot, inciting change in the routine of the immense castle.

The vast, labyrinthine Hayholt, featured in Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, seemed reminiscent of castle Gormenghast to a certain extent when I first read that series. I don’t know if Williams is a Gormenghast fan. I do know he is not afraid to write great literary fantasy.

Vance’s vision of Lyonesse has influenced fantasy literature in the subtlest of ways, creating a canon for those who write alternate Arthurian history that is nearly set in stone.

Wikipedia says, Vance builds the history of his world using layers of facts, names and religions taken from various European cultures — Greeks, Romans, Celts, pre-Carolingian French and Spanish “kingdoms” etc., and adding in places and peoples imagined by those same cultures — Atlantis, Ys, Avalon, Formor and so on. This fantastical/factual mix is used to ground his tale in “history.” It also seems to give some of the same depth that a longer series of books might develop where place, relationships, and plot are built up over time (as in Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” or Trollope’s “Barsetshire”). It seems to provide the believability that develops where a story is set in a well-known, well-defined historical setting as if the reader holds merely a hitherto untold story.

These complicated, convoluted books are not for everyone. They are beautifully written, but the less perceptive, more impatient type of reader will find Gormenghast confusing and plot-less. Despite being a dark, Gothic fantasy, the prose is literary.

For some casual readers, both Gormenghast and Lyonesse will be considered too heavy on the descriptions.

But for those readers like me, readers who adore beautiful prose, deep, involving books, and darkly baroque settings peopled with unforgettable characters, these two watershed works strike a chord deep within the soul.

These books must be savored, experienced in the fullest sense of the word. The focus is on the breathtaking visual descriptions, and while I am thrilled by it, the verbal beauty of Mervyn Peake and Jack Vance’s prose is what will leave many impatient modern readers cold.

When you are reading these novels, the journey itself is more important than the destination. While Gormenghast is often compared to Tolkien’s work, there is little similarity between the two, other than they are both extremely well written fantasy, written by authors with a good command of the English language and all its nuances.

Literature drives changes in language and is in turn driven by changes in language.

For me, Gormenghast is a surreal, visual painting, created of beautifully crafted words.

The prose of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is equally beautiful, describing a time and place that never was but could have been.


Sources and Attributions:

Literature and Language: Gormenghast and Lyonesse, © 2017 by Connie J. Jasperson, was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on 05 June 2017

Wikipedia contributors, “Lyonesse Trilogy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lyonesse_Trilogy&oldid=782651719 (accessed June 4, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Titus Groan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessedJune 4, 2017).

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake, cover art also by Mervyn Peake, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1946 https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessed June 4, 2017).

 

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#amwriting: Literature and Language: Gormenghast and Lyonesse

Two series of fantasy novels that had a profound effect on me as a reader are the Gormenghast series of novels, written by Mervyn Peake, and The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance. Both series are literary, yet still fantastic,

They are both considered a fantasy of manners, yet they are wildly different from each other. Both combine the comedy of manners with the hero’s journey of traditional high fantasy. Gormenghast is dark and gothic, while Lyonesse is set in an alternate Arthurian world.

The Washington Post Book World had this to say about the Gormenghast series:  “This extravagant epic about a labyrinthine castle populated with conniving Dickensian grotesques is the true fantasy classic of our time.”

The immense, labyrinthine Hayholt, featured in Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, seemed reminiscent of castle Gormenghast to a certain extent when I first read that series. I don’t know if Williams is a Gormenghast fan–I’ve never asked him, although I should. I do know he is not afraid to write great literary fantasy.

Vance’s vision of Lyonesse has influenced fantasy literature in the most subtle of ways, creating a canon for those who write alternate Arthurian history that is nearly set in stone.

Wikipedia says, Vance builds the history of his world using layers of facts, names and religions taken from various European cultures — Greeks, Romans, Celts, pre-Carolingian French and Spanish “kingdoms” etc., and adding in places and peoples imagined by those same cultures — Atlantis, Ys, Avalon, Formor and so on. This fantastical/factual mix is used to ground his tale in “history.” It also seems to give some of the same depth that a longer series of books might develop where place, relationships, and plot are built up over time (as in Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex” or Trollope’s “Barsetshire”). It seems to provide the believability that develops where a story is set in a well-known, well-defined historical setting as if the reader holds merely a hitherto untold story.

These complicated, convoluted books are not for everyone. They are beautifully written, but the less perceptive, more impatient type of reader will find Gormenghast confusing and plot-less. Despite being a dark, Gothic fantasy, the prose is literary.

For some casual readers, both Gormenghast and Lyonesse will be considered too heavy on the descriptions.

But for those readers like me, readers who adore beautiful prose, deep, involving books, and darkly baroque settings peopled with unforgettable characters, these two watershed works strike a chord deep within the soul.

These books must be savored, experienced in the fullest sense of the word. The focus is on the breathtaking visual descriptions, and while I am thrilled by it, the verbal beauty of Mervyn Peake and Jack Vance’s prose is what will leave many impatient modern readers cold.

When you are reading these novels, the journey itself is more important than the destination. While Gormenghast is often compared to Tolkien’s work, there is little similarity between the two, other than they are both extremely well written fantasy, written by authors with a good command of the English language and all its nuances.

Literature drives changes in language and is in turn driven by changes in language. For me, Gormenghast is a surreal, visual painting, created of beautifully crafted words.  The prose of Jack Vance’s Lyonesse is equally beautiful, describing a time and place that never was but could have been.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Lyonesse Trilogy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lyonesse_Trilogy&oldid=782651719 (accessed June 4, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Titus Groan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessedJune 4, 2017).

Cover illustration of the 1983 trade paperback edition of Lyonesse by Jack Vance. Low-res scan for fair use purpose. Illustration by James C. Christensen. via Wikimedia Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vance-Lyonesse.jpg

Titus Groan, by Mervyn Peake, cover art also by Mervyn Peake, published by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1946 https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Titus_Groan&oldid=769262142 (accessed June 4, 2017).

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The Gormenghast Novels

Gormenghast trilogyOne of the strangest, most compelling series of books I ever read was the literary, yet still fantastic, Gormenghast series of novels, written by the late Mervyn Peake during the years following WWII.

It has been said of this series that it is the the first true fantasy of manners.

Satirizing the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters, a “Fantasy of manners” is fantasy literature that owes as much or more to the comedy of manners as it does to the traditional heroic fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien and other authors of high fantasy.

The Washington Post Book World had this to say about the series:  “This extravagant epic about a labyrinthine castle populated with conniving Dickensian grotesques is the true fantasy classic of our time.” 

The immense,  labyrinthine Hayholt, featured in Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn,  seemed reminiscent of castle Gormenghast to a certain extent, when I first read that series. I don’t know if Williams is a Gormenghast fan–I’ve never asked him, although I should. I do know he is not afraid to write great literary fantasy.

The Gormenghast series opens with the book, Titus Groan. Although the book takes its name from Titus, and he  is technically the main character, the book only covers the first two years of his life. Titus-the-baby appears infrequently throughout, but is still an integral part of the plot, inciting change in the routine of the immense castle. At the age of one, he becomes the Earl of Groan. The great library has been deliberately burned, sending the old earl, his father, spiraling into madness. He vanishes, having been eaten by Death Owls (!) while attempting to hide the body of his murdered chef, Swelter, who was murdered by another of his servants.

225px-Titus Groan novel

Mark Robertson’s cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Wikipedia gives this as the plot introduction for the series: “The book is set in the huge castle of Gormenghast, a vast landscape of crumbling towers and ivy-filled quadrangles that has for centuries been the hereditary residence of the Groan family and with them a legion of servants.

“The Groan family is headed by Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading in his library. His wife is the Countess Gertrude. A large-framed woman with dark red hair, she pays no attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection.”

GORMENGHAST-72dpiThese complicated, convoluted books of nonsense are not for everyone. They are beautifully written, but the less perceptive, more impatient type of reader will find this series confusing and plot-less. Despite being a dark, Gothic fantasy, the prose is literary. For some casual readers, this work will be considered too heavy on the descriptions  It may also contain too many “ten-dollar” English words–words of more than one syllable.

But for those readers like me, readers who adore beautiful prose, deep, involving  books, and darkly baroque settings peopled with unforgettable characters, the Gormenghast Novels strike a chord deep within the soul. These books must be savored, experienced in the fullest sense of the word. The focus is on the breathtaking visual descriptions, and while I am thrilled by it, the verbal beauty of Gormenghast is what will leave many impatient modern readers cold.

For me, Gormenghast is a surreal, visual painting, created of beautifully crafted words., and frankly, I say to hell with anyone who mocks my enjoyment of it.

Mark Robertson's cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Mark Robertson’s cover illustration for the Mandarin paperback edition

Just like J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, when you are reading this series of novels, the journey itself is more important than the destination. And speaking of J.R.R.–I just want to say that while this series is often compared to Tolkien’s work, there is very little similarity between the two, other than they are both extremely well written fantasy, written by authors with a good command of the English language and all its nuances.

Mervyn Peake was famous as a writer, portrait artist, and illustrator, and was considered brilliant in both fields. In 1959, after the publication of the third of his Gormenghast novels, the dreadful disease of dementia finally claimed him, eventually robbing him of his ability to draw.

Tragically Peake was unable to live normally for the last years of his life, and died in a nursing home 1968 at the age of 57, having left his literary masterpiece uncompleted in the way he had envisioned it.

 

 

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