This week I wanted to discuss something on the more serious side of writing and representing the real world through story. So without further ado, allow me to take to the stage of the blogging world.
The name quietly stirs in your mind as you read the tale of its 77th Earl, Titus Groan. Complicated words, but colorful imagery. Small events and tragedies, we take for granted in our epic fantasy tales but under the careful magnifying glass of Mervyn Peake’s imagination, you feel its weight on your tired eyes.
The Gormenghast trilogy is quite different from your standard fantasy epic, even if you put in A Song of Ice and Fire in the mix. When you read it, you can see why publishers at the same had a hard time categorizing it. This was one of the reasons that prevented these novels from being published and recognized in writing circles.
If I described the Gormenghast trilogy, on face value it wouldn’t stir much interest let alone be considered a treasure in the literary world. Yet, while I read Gormenghast, I was wondering why the story stirred something inside of me. The writing and description was extraordinary but something about the story made me realize its true value.
I couldn’t put my finger on what is was though.
The story is about the life Titus Groan from birth to….well until the author died and never really completed the series. However, it shows how his life is ruled by rituals and traditions that have lost their meaning. Somehow, everyone in the castle goes along with this, as if its some sort of law.
Gormenghast was and is the law. Defying it, challenging it and any form of rebellion was unheard of that it even drove Titus’s father mad.
There is no escape, only submission.
After reading a bit about the author’s life, I learnt that in his early years he lived in China. The way Gormenghast, the castle, and all its inhabitants live separately from the rest of society sort of reminded me of the Forbidden City.
Then it hit me.
No questions, go along with everyone, obey traditions that have lost any meaning and relevance in today and forget any individual happiness?
Maybe I’m over thinking this, but it felt like the story was representing a sort of Gothic form of collective societies. I’m not saying all collective societies are bad or every single characteristic they possess makes them bad. But anything in excess is usually bad, even individualism (I’m looking at you Ayn Rand).
Back to my point, the Gormenghast novels seemed to resonate with some of my childhood (and even adulthood) experiences regarding collectivism. I grew up in a culture that emphasized on following traditions to the point that they had, figuratively, broken life down into an ordered grocery list. If you fall out of line or do something not accepted or done before, you risk being ostracized.
From a psychological point of view and personal experience, this conflict between choosing for yourself and following what the group does come at a price regardless of the choice you make. Now, if you reject certain traditions not only are you ostracized but you also, within your community, loose that sense of assurance you’re accepted. Maybe to some people that doesn’t sound so bad, but it can have devastating effects on a person’s emotional health.
And forget about ‘middle ground’ in these situations. It’s a dead concept.
Gormenghast offers readers a story about a family, specifically a boy, whose whole life has been planned before he takes his first breath. The senseless rituals he has to commit to have lost all meaning but no one dares question carrying them out or their relevance.
This reminded me of several arguments when I questioned certain traditions and mentalities about the collectivist society I was born into. Any direct question was pretty much met with the same answer (maybe an adverb or adjective if I was lucky):
This was especially true if I brought up about the role of women in today’s society. Out of my own stupidity and the sweet taste of rebellion (plus the added bonus of pissing off relatives), I wanted to insist certain values were….quite Victorian in nature.
Though doing this would’ve been more productive use of my time:
Nevertheless, books like the Gormenghast novels capture difficult concepts to weave into a story, let alone be the central theme. Also, certain values that are morally grey are harder to come across effectively. But its these stories that bring a wealth of culture and the ability to look at ourselves and the world around us more closely.
It is these stories that we keep in our hearts and minds much longer than your standard white knight saves the world from dark wizard.