I came across and first read Tolkein's "The Lord Of The Rings" when I was about 14 or 15. I read those weighty books dozens of times, became familiar with every character and every twist of the convoluted plot to the point of obsessiveness. The recent and very well-made movie trilogy merely reawoke my enthusiasm for the story, characters and the epic struggle between good and evil.
Contrast this massive overfamiliarity then with a another trilogy of fantasy novels of approximately the same mid-20th century vintage that remained unknown and unread to and by me until now. Decades after Tolkien moved into my imagination, I found, initially through a series of radio plays, and now through the novels, the world of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast only this year.
Whereas "The Lord Of The Rings" is an expansive epic taking in whole worlds, peoples and overarching manifestations of good and evil, the Gormanghast novels are relentlessly compressed, revolving around the activities of a few individuals, some acting a tragedy, others a comedy. The world of Gormanghast and the lands beyond it are just as fabulously extended as any creation of Tolkein. Peake differs in offering a far more nuanced consideration of character, even as he presents individuals as memorable as those of Middle Earth. There is magic and wonder in Gormenghast, but just what it means and just how much is the product of the inner world of the subconscious verses an outer world of fantastic properties remains ambiguous, even as the text itself strives to create a division between the two. While mimicing Tolkein's interest in good and evil and presenting villians and heroes to match, all of the characters possess a three dimensional complexity, sometime explicity laid out, sometimes inferred, that pushes these entrancing creations beyond the world of simple fairy tale (if there really is truly simple fairly tale).
The story diffuses into a barely linked series of vignettes by the time of "Titus Alone" (concurrent with Peake's own decline into neurological disorder), but the sense of wonder is not similarly dispersed. If anything, the skeletal construction stimulates greater efforts of imagination, the only disappointment being the evaporation of Peake's entrancing word play and descriptive seduction. The radio plays, already playing with the distilled story, embrace this with great success and weave a very beautiful dramatic whole that takes in material from Peake's wife Maeve Gilmore's "Titus Awakes" to conclude the story most movingly.
One of the introductory essays in the volume "The Gormenghast Novels" (Overlook Press) by G. Peter Winnington makes mention of the Tolkein comparison, pointing out a common critical consencus that admirers of one may not appreciate the other and it's easy to see why that view might prevail. They are very different books, but there is no doubt to my, now aged, mind that Peake's language and imagination exceed Tolkein's. There is a humanity and roundedness to Peake's characters, even the oddest ones, that is missing from even the most deeply developed protaganists engaging the power of the Ring – in fact, the Ring itself is in many ways the most fully formed entity, clear in purpose but subtle in effect on those who fall under its sway. The equivalent force in the Gormenghast novels in Gormenghast itself, but not just the vast crumbling castle but also the ritual and history that has been placed upon it by generations of people, lords and commoners, who have been wedded to those stones. Titus, the hero, as the heir to this tradition fights to free himself and in doing so discovers how deeply the tradition has formed him and continues to influence his fate.
I found myself indentifying deeply with Titus Groan in his struggles with both the familiar and the alien and this alone is enough for me to judge these books as some of the best I have read, but this is by no means the only component that bewitches me.
I feel very grateful to have finally discovered Titus.