Titus Alone: For completists and fans

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMervyn Peake Gormenghast 3. Titus AloneTitus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake’s magnum opus began in Titus Groan, and continued in Gormenghast, two brilliant (though door-stopping) books that explored the lives of those that exist in a self-contained, self-sufficient edifice known as Gormenghast: a labyrinthine world of towers, mansions, slums, and the corridors that connect them all. It is ruled by ancient and meaningless ritual, something that the titular character of Titus, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, has rejected. In the final passages of Gormenghast,” Titus chooses to abandon his home and seek out the world that lies beyond his its borders.

Gormenghast was an exciting, rewarding finish to the colossal two-part novel, and its sequel, Titus Alone, opens with our protagonist alone for first time in his life, wandering in the world that he never knew existed. Having left his entire world behind, and carrying only a flint as a reminder of his home, Titus is on a quest for … what? He himself isn’t sure, but it becomes clear enough to the reader that he’s looking for self-knowledge and a sense of who he is outside his past, his home and his title as Earl of Gormenghast. The ritual and history that has informed his entire existence is now gone, and Titus struggles to understand himself and his place without it. The fact that no one in his travels has ever heard of Gormenghast and suspect Titus of insanity and vagrancy, only adds to his identity crisis.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFor Titus, the mere fact that a world exists outside of Gormenghast is astounding. Gormenghast was a world of its own that seemed to exist in some unspecified time period (it really could have been at any point from the Middle Ages to the Victorian Era), but outside the walls there are factories, cars, airplanes, helicopters and even what seem to be technologically advanced spy-crafts. The move from Gothic fantasy to science-fiction may be jarring for some readers, but one can’t help but be fascinated at Titus’s shock and exploration of this new city of glass and concrete.

The story is, quite frankly, bizarre and erratic. Titus is washed up on a riverbank and taken in by the indescribable Muzzlehatch, the owner of an exotic menagerie of animals, and who seems to take an odd interest in Titus’s wellbeing. Titus goes on to experience his sexual awakening with a beautiful, middle-aged woman, as well as its antithesis (lust and indifference) with a young woman his own age, who engineers an elaborate scheme against him once she realizes his lack of sincere feeling toward her. These are the most easily-described aspects of the story; it also includes two helmeted men that are tracking down Titus, a range of characters who live in the darkened world of Under-River, and an ominous factory that seemed to run on human lives. These portions of the story feel erratic and nonsensical, though this is only to be expected considering Peake’s declining health at the time.

Mervyn Peake was writing Titus Alone in the midst of the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease (as well as a history of depression and nervous break-downs), and though it was published before his death, there were examples of careless editing and several inconsistencies that suggest it wasn’t completed to his satisfaction. In 1970 Langdon Jones reconstructed several chapters of the novel, working from three separate versions of the manuscript as well as new material in Peake’s notebooks in order to reach the edition that most readers will be familiar with. Yet even with this meticulous care, one cannot shake the sense of incoherency in Titus Alone. There is a lack of structure and continuity here: introduced characters that drop in and out of the story, plot devices that go nowhere, and several moments of sheer weirdness. Peake worked through his illness, and the language is as beautiful and rich as always, but it does seem as though this is a draft that still needs extensive polishing.

It poses a problem when it comes to a recommendation. On the one hand, readers of the first two books will be somewhat uncomfortable at the change in tone and setting; on the other, this book will mean virtually nothing to newcomers. The first two novels form a complete story, with an open but satisfactory ending. For those pressed for time, or not particularly involved in this saga, Titus Alone is not strictly necessary, and Titus Groan and Gormenghast make up the best that Peake has to offer (in fact, the BBC’s miniseries of the show adapts these two initial novels, but doesn’t even touch Titus Alone).

Titus Alone is not the third and final book in a “trilogy” — it is the latest instalment in a series that sadly was cut short due to the author’s death. Titus’s story was originally designed as a series that would have followed Titus’s life from infant to grown man (it shouldn’t be too difficult to track down the opening segment of Peake’s proposed forth novel: “Titus Awakes” on the internet) and it’s heartbreaking that we’ll never get Peake’s complete vision. As it stands Titus Alone will appeal mostly to completists or fans; those who come into this novel knowing that it is, in a sense “incomplete.”


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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