Friday, October 9, 2015

Titus Alone: What Could Have Been

In my previous post today, I outlined some initial thoughts on Mervyn Peake's 1959 novel Titus Alone. In the interest of readability, I have split this post in two: one for the background, the other for the alternate history. (No, not that kind of alternate history.) This post will probably be an easier read if you haven't read The Gormenghast Trilogy in that I'm not including any spoilers. It may, however, be tougher to follow in that you probably won't know who the characters are.

While reading Titus Groan (1946), the first installment of The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946, 1950, 1959), I had an idea in my head about how the second and third books would play out. Gormenghast Castle is decrepit to legendary status, with only its stored mythos and pointless ritual keeping it from collapsing entirely. There is no sign it has any standing military, although it is so hemmed in geographically no one would realistically want to invade. The entire story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast (1950) takes place in or around the castle. (Surprisingly, that isn't a spoiler. The world is just that insular.) Titus is a baby for the entire first book, with most of the action centered on other characters like Sepulchrave, Flay and Steerpike.

What I imagined, which isn't (quite) what happened:

  1. Titus Groan - Titus as a baby (this happens)
  2. Gormenghast - Titus is a young adult; the height of Titus's rule (this happens somewhat)
  3. Titus Alone - Titus is an old man presiding over a dying castle with no heir to succeed him (this does not happen in the least)

Peake did not intend The Gormenghast Trilogy to be a trilogy. He intended the books to follow Titus throughout his life, with at least two more planned but ultimately unwritten. What if it had been a true trilogy, though? Before brushing up on criticism of Peake's works, I thought that was the plan.

Here's a brief synopsis of what I thought Titus Alone was going to be:


Titus Groan, the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, has reigned for six decades. Having successfully rebelled against the rituals of his forefathers, he engages in only enough of them to satisfy his subjects, but is otherwise free to occupy his time as he pleases.

What he sees before him, though, is a Gormenghast ever more vacant. He has not married or produced an heir, and the rest of the Groan line is deceased. The castle is surrounded from all sides by impassable terrain, locking Titus in his tomb. It is here he concludes the Groan dynasty as its tiny world wonders what will be done when there is no longer an Earl.


For those who have read Titus Alone, it is anything but that. That raises the question of how the books would have differed in their perspective and scope had Peake done what I just did above.

The main difference is in what TVTropes calls "The Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism". For all the bleakness Gormenghast Castle exhibits, Titus leaves it. It may be the most important thing Titus ever does. The Gormenghast Titus leaves is one that replaces its Master of Ritual like a broken microwave, contains virtually no redeemable characters, has nothing left for Titus to enjoy, and, to top it all off, is recovering from a Genesis-level flood. For the unabashedly hopeful, adventurous Titus to live the rest of his life there would be The Fall of the House of Usher with a gloom factor multiplied by about a thousand. The Gormenghast Trilogy is oddly hopeful in that characters like Steerpike and Titus can amount to something more than their stations would suggest. Titus Alone the way I envisioned it would have crushed those hopes.

The other difference is for all that happens in Titus Alone, things happen. Masterful as Peake is, and emphatic about setting and character over plot as he is, it is difficult to imagine a 200-page* or 365-page** book about an aging Titus watching a dwindling population die around him work as a compelling fantasy novel. Would such a book have been readable? We'll never know, in large part because Peake never considered writing it.

This highlights the importance of every time an author has a major decision to make within a book or series. I recently had to make a decision about whether or not a protagonist dies in the first chapter of a fantasy series I'm planning. For example, what if Badrang had lived? Fiction can go any number of ways, and Titus Alone may be Exhibit A for that.

*The length of Titus Alone. For all the book's faults, its 122 chapters in 200 pages enticed me greatly. I generally prefer more, shorter chapters.
**The length of Titus Groan, which is a little less than that of Gormenghast.

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