Crop of book cover for Meryvyn Peake's Gormenghast, showing a large intricate stone castle

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Castle and the defining role(s) of names

Names can evoke grand vistas in the imagination just on their own suggestive strength. James Butler examines how Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy utilises a single name to paint a clear picture of power and servitude between the castle, its lands and its people.

In the world of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, the most central character is perhaps not a person at all, but Gormenghast Castle. The first two books are set almost entirely within the confines of the vast, sprawling and ancient ancestral home of the Groans. The rich detail of Gormenghast’s crumbing castlescape has been pored over by critics, who have written how ‘The castle itself, far more than the characters in it or the plot on which the trilogy is hinged, remains a fine effigy … of the gothic’ and that ‘[it is] the place rather than the plot that remains in the mind’.[1][2]

But it is important not to overlook the subtle relationship between the castle and its surroundings. Gormenghast Castle exerts dominance over its surroundings and its people. One way this power is expressed is through place-names – for to name something is to assert power over it, to own it. The names that comprise it offer interesting insights and subtle clues that paint a clear picture of how the castle views and treats its lands. In particular, the naming patterns correspond with the main theme of the narratives: servitude to the building, rituals, ruling family – everything that is represented by a single name – Gormenghast Castle.

What’s in a name?

All places – literary and real – are built through association. Names are powerful tools for writers, that can evoke grand vistas in the imagination just on their own suggestive strength. The initial impression of a name is very important and comes from its sound, aesthetic sense and literal meaning. This is especially the case in fantastic creations, such as Peake’s castle Gormenghast. At the surface level, two key elements immediately suggest to the reader what they should expect of Gormenghast. The structure of the slowly-spoken name reverberates with heavy syllables, imparting that same quality to the castle. Secondly, the sound of the name purposefully conveys a sense of dread, of a dead or haunted place, through related words that share the stem (in that they are comparable in sound and meaning) of ‘ghast’ (such as ‘ghost’, ‘ghastly’, ‘aghast’, etc.).

A nickname of the castle is The Stones[3], a simple name that nevertheless suggests a place set in its form, a solid construction shaped by man intended to stand unchanging for a great time.

Titus’ increasing understanding of Gormenghast (indeed, his life as a whole) is described as learning an ‘alphabet of arch and aisle’ (Gormenghast, p. 373). It is the castle that dictates his relentless schedule, and provides the only world the populace can ever know. The composition of the castle becomes a mockery of the nature it has replaced: ‘Great halls are [Titus’] dim playgrounds, his fields are stone, his trees pillars’ (Gormenghast, p. 373). It is further described as ‘A promontory of dank stone’ (Gormenghast, p. 402), ‘a mist of masonry’, with courtyards appearing as a ‘cold stone desert’ (Titus Groan, pp. 96; 261). There is little of the natural environment left, for all that can be taken has been worked into the castle. It has even taken the very idea of these environmental forms, re-making them to fit itself. The settlement beyond the outer walls is only known as the Mud Dwellings, an unfiltered depiction of their lower status. Their construction material suggests that they are short-term, temporary houses, especially compared to the permanence of the castle.

Renaming spaces outside of the castle

In Peake’s Gormenghast books, there is a limited number of named features in the immediate world. To that end, even the absence of names can express a lot of information. The few instances of Titus escaping the authority of the castle show him to be happiest when lost in unidentifiable spaces. One such place is the Twisted Woods, suggestive of a gnarled, wild, and overgrown forest – with a subtle sinister note. It would not surprise the reader to learn that it does not offer any clear passages through. This terrain cuts the castle off from its neighbours on one side. These characteristics form a rich ‘semantic web’ of suggestion, implication and inference that inform a reader about what to expect of a place. These two words alone can direct senses and emotion with such efficiency, demonstrating the power of creative naming. It emerges that the formal name for the ‘Twisted Woods’ is ‘Gormenghast Forest’. Through this renaming the woods lose their individuality and connection to wilderness. Likewise, Gormen Mountain, the most prominent of a range that blocks another side of the realm, changes to Gormenghast Mountain. This is only a minor name change, but an example of how perception of a feature (if not physical form) can be easily modified. In this case it reflects a singular purpose: ownership by the castle.

Gormenghast Lake is also found in the immediate environment and is central to many of the castle traditions. Its role in the most important traditions make it likely to be one of the earliest features taken over in this manner. Everything in its reach has no choice but to bow to the castle. It is the authority that makes, that names, that defines. For within the text ‘[the castle] is the world; it has subsumed nature and stands as a hollow mockery of the powerless natural realm’[4], and so the landscape is redefined for one purpose. Every piece of terrain has a role to serve and is re-named to suit. What was once recorded as a descriptive place-name (Long Sandy Valley) becomes the Valley of Graves. The original form is stripped as it comes to serve the castle.

Two other cemeteries appear in the landscape: the Retainer’s Graveyard and Graveyard of the Elect Retainers. This distinct separation shows that levels of servitude are forever tiered and divided. The only remote lands named are the Isles of Blood and Spices. Three key words communicate a sense of distance and hard-won exotic bounty. No alternate name is ever revealed, for its position is derived only from what it means to the castle.

Gormenghast Castle and the Tower of Flints

The semi-ruined Tower of Flints serves as the central feature of Gormenghast Castle: ‘It was from about midway along this attenuated East Wing that the Tower of Flints arose in a scarred and lofty sovereignty over all the towers of Gormenghast’ (Titus Groan, p. 144). The name suggests several properties from the material that transfer to the building. Those familiar with the stone will picture the tower as ‘splintered’, ‘angular’, ‘cold’, ‘grey-black’. The shortening of the name to The Tower reflects its status as the grandest of the huge array of spires. Likewise, the grammatically definitive form of The Outer Wall iterates its role as the barrier between civilisation and wilderness. It divides the man-made and the natural, those within and those outside, the rulers and the ruled. For Keda (an outer dweller brought into the castle to serve as the infant Titus’ nurse) ‘the face of the outer wall had been like the symbol of endlessness, of changelessness, of austerity and of protection’ (Titus Groan, p. 172). Which is exactly what the rule-makers desire.

Throughout the confines of the castle, the Stone Lanes is the name given to a labyrinthine series of corridors and tunnels. Their description follows the associations of Gormenghast's name discussed earlier, as ‘there was no place on earth so terrible and so suited to a game of hide and seek as this gaunt warren’ (Gormenghast, p. 661). The word ‘lane’ has different associations from related terms, such as ‘avenue’, ‘walkway’, or ‘alley’. The most important is its sense of narrowness, roughness and winding warren-like routes of traveling between points. All this emphasises how much the castle is like a city rather than a discrete set of buildings. Although these terms might appear equal, each suggests slightly different qualities when considered.

Peake’s fondness for islands across his writings is often noted by critics. G P Winnington, for instance, writes ‘there is nothing fortuitous about the characteristic shape of [his] islands across both text and image; he always drew them with a central monolith of rock’.[5] The castle follows suit, set within ‘a sea of nettles’ (Gormenghast, p. 373) and comprised of ‘crags and stark walls of cliff’ (Titus Groan, p. 95).

The Tower of Flints serves as the centrepiece and both its prominence and name become even more appropriate when examined in this context. Even the roofline of the castle is given character through naming, and the names are all borrowed from the rocky terrain of the Channel Island Sark. Peake lived on Sark twice – initially to attend an artist colony from 1932, and then with his family in 1946 for four years (coinciding with the publication of both Titus Groan and Gormenghast). The remote island served as the inspiration for many of his works.

The Stone Dogshead, the Angel’s Buttress, the Coupee (sometimes called the High Knife-Edge), the North Headstones, the Silver Mines, the Twin Fingers, the Bluff, Gory and Little Sark all feature as distinct parts of the castle's outline, providing a wealth of detail and building on what Peake earlier describes as a ‘stationary gathering of stone personalities’ (Titus Groan, p. 96).

Gormenghast is built around boundaries, reflected even through its naming strategy. The entire landscape is contained or, more accurately, trapped by the crumbling castle walls – both literally and metaphorically. The rest of the surrounding unnamed wilderness emphasises the castle’s isolation. The surrounding wilderness appears as:

tracts of country that stretch on every hand, in the north to the wastelands in the south to the grey salt marshes, in the east to the quicksands and the tideless sea, and in the west to knuckles of endless rock (Titus Groan, p. 221).

Throughout the Gormenghast triology, Peake displays a consistent thematic (and descriptive) focus on both barriers and possession. The castle is purposefully contained, and the land is viewed only in terms of how it can serve. No other perspective exists for it is only the castle’s understanding, utility, or ownership that matters. Every name tells a story – especially in literature – and those of Gormenghast highlight the extent of its control. As we have seen, a lot of detail can be given in very few words, so pay close attention to hear what other names might be discretely saying.


Footnotes

[1] David Punter and Glennis Byron, The Gothic (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. 154–155.

[2] G P Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), p. 5.

[3] Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy, 20th edition (London: Vintage), p. 476.

[4] David Punter, The Literature of Terror: The Gothic Tradition, 2 vols (London and New York, NY: Longman, 1996), p. 122.

[5] Winnington, The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), p. 64.

  • James Butler