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Mervyn Peake's novels Titus Groan and Gormenghast are set in the enormous1 castle of Gormenghast. The story seems to be set in the real world (although I've been advised that it does count as fantasy), but is there any indication by the author, either in the books or otherwise, of what part of the world it's meant to be in?

I know Peake spent a lot of his childhood in China and that some say a Chinese influence shows in his books and in the location of Gormenghast, but what's the evidence for this? Is it definitely in China, or could it be in Europe or America - or even an imaginary world and not on Earth at all?


1 And I mean ENORMOUS! At one stage a small portion of the castle, many stories high and a mile in length, is set aside temporarily for a certain purpose.

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  • What I find most interesting regarding the setting of the castle and its environs is that some of its inhabitants have obviously received a tertiary education. Dr Prunesquallor as an example, must have gone to medical school. But where?
    – user132520
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 6:09

4 Answers 4

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Where is Gormenghast?

In Peake's imagination.

In an article titled 'Burning the Globe' (Peake Studies, vol.8, #2 (April 2003), pages 12–23), I show how it is possible to situate Gormenghast on the map, but this does not mean that Peake intended his castle to reflect anything but what he imagined.

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  • 21
    You appear to be a scholar in this subject, and a biographer of Peake. We would be grateful for the kind of insight you can bring to the table, but we need the answer to actually resolve the question without saying "go read this other thing". Post a summary of the article, with a link to the publication, and it will be a great answer.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 14:25
  • I've tried to find the article using a variety of resources: Google, Google Scholar, university access to periodicals. Unfortunately, only the last 2 volumes of Peake Studies are available to me, and likely most people, so it doesn't seem like the community will be able to edit in the desired information.
    – user31178
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 15:49
  • 7
    I've downvoted. Since the article is paywalled and OP has made no attempt to edit in the relevant quotes, this is basically spam - "Go read this thing I made, you'll need to pay for it".
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 10:00
  • @Valorum - actually it isn't any more, the journal is available on JSTOR you just need to create an account to be able to read the issues. I'm going to write an answer with the relevant info included, seeing as the eminent Peake scholar Winnington seems to have not returned to expand his answer.
    – bob1
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 3:36
  • @bob1 - If I need to create an account to get at it, then OP needs to tell us what's in the article.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 8:07
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To expand on Peter Winnington's answer and fill in the details from the article and journal, which is now freely available on JSTOR (you do need to create an account though). Winnington is the author and publisher of the journal.

Winnington in his article makes a very valid point that the location exists only in Peake's mind - there are many logical inconsistencies in the story, such as Gormenghast being isolated almost entirely from the world, but still having things like massive libraries (e.g. Lord Groan's), firearms, a globe ("Cane Slypate thursday"), Dr Prunesquallor's sister Irma reads lady's journals for the latest fashions etc., and not least Bellgrove barking

"Name an Isthmus"

when awakened from his dozing in front of his class; an isthmus being something that Gormenghast doesn't have. In addition the school boasts a chemistry teacher - such an esoteric field being difficult to imagine being created in isolation from the rest of the world.

Having seen these exceptions Winnington mentions Countess Groan stating

"There is nowhere else"

As well, a general sense of isolation and insularity is prevalent in the books. The isolation of Gormenghast is a major feature of the story with no mention of any other location outside of the castles and vast forests that surround it.

Winnington then goes on to speculate that whether intentional or not, the country where Peake grew up, China, was, until around the time of Peake's birth, isolated much as Gormenghast is, and contains climes similar to those of Gormenghast. To quote a significant paragraph of the article:

Whether by accident or design, it happens that Gormenghast is geographically situated in a manner that recalls China: “the wastelands” to the north correspond to the Gobi desert and Mongolia, there is a shallow sea to the east and more sea to the south, while to the west the “knuckles of endless rock” correspond to the Himalayas and the Sinkiang. Tientsin, where Peake spent most of the first ten years of his life is close enough to the Gobi desert to suffer from sandstorms; significantly, the Gulf of Chihli, which lies but forty miles to the east of Tientsin, is to all intents and purposes “tideless”, being an enclosed coastal sea, little more than a large bay of the Yellow Sea. Its coast is flat and swampy with “grey salt marshes” created by the alluvial deposits of the major rivers flowing into it. So if I were pushed to place Gormenghast on the map of the world, I should point to Tientsin, or of course to Peking, which lies less than 80 miles to the north-west of Tientsin.

Thus China may be a (perhaps subconscious) influence on the story and is one likely location for Gormenghast.

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  • This should be the accepted answer
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 8:08
  • @Valorum IIRC, the reason for my acceptance back then was to avoid an answer by a well-known scholar on the subject being downvoted and deleted by this site's users. I do agree that this answer is more useful as it stands, though.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 9:37
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    @Randal'Thor - I stand by my original objection. His answer is basically spam. I could put all my answers behind paywalls and charge people admission.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 6, 2023 at 9:41
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In the first book a cactus tree is mentioned.
In the second book; a rattlesnake.
Both Cactus trees and rattlesnakes are native to North America only.
Pick the bits out of that.

Quotes:

  • Titus Groan "Mrs Slagg by moonlight"

    Fifteen years is a difficult depth of time for an old woman’s memory to plumb – more difficult than the waters of her childhood, but when Mrs Slagg saw the cactus tree she remembered clearly and in detail how she had stopped and stared at the great scarred monster on the day of Fuchsia’s birth.

    Here it was again, its flaking bole dividing into four uprights like the arms of a huge grey candlestick studded with thorns, each one as large and brutal as the horn of a

  • Gormenghast chapter 16

    Lizards ran across the hot upper surfaces, and with Titus’ first step towards the forest wall a snake slid down a rock face like a stream of water and whipped across his path with a rattling of its loosely-jointed tail.

    What was this shock of love? A rattle-snake; a dell of silky grass; some great rocks with lizards and ferns, and the green forest wall. Why should these add up to so thrilling, so breathtaking a total?...

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  • 4
    ”Pick the bits out of that.” - answers should be explicit in answering the question and should pick the bits out themselves. On top of that it would be better if you could edit in the relevant quotes. And lastly, if you could find anything more explicit in the matter relating to this that would be even better!
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 23:24
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In Titus Alone Titus leaves Gormenghast and travels in what seems to be a setting similar to the modern world.

The title of Earl indicates a British setting and all the personal and place names indicate a European cultural setting. If Gomerghast is located in China it would be in a millennia-old European enclave that would be another aspect that makes it a fantasy novel.

Added Aug.5-6, 2023.

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911. HIs family returned to England in 1914, and then went back to China from 1916 to 1922. So Peake had childhood memories of life in both China and England.

Another boy who lived in China about that time was Puyi (1906-1967), a member of the Aisin-Gioro clan, the Qing Dynasty. He was selected to be Emperor at the age of 2 in 1908, meaning adults ruled while he tok part in ceremonies. As emperor he lived in the walled Purple Forbidden City in Beijing and in the nearby Summer Palace in the country.

The Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China established in 1912. But Puyi and the court continued to live in the Forbidden City and to perform imperial rituals, now rather meaningless. In 1917 a warlord loyal to the Qing captured Beijing and Puyi was proclaimed emperor again from July 1 to July 12. And in 1924 Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City.

And Peake was probably somewhat aware of the life of the older boy Puyi in the Forbidden City, who was the nominal ruler but with adults in charge, and with everyone spending their time on various ceremonies.

The Forbidden City is listed as number 5 in the list of largest palaces in the world. The walls enclose an area of 720,000 square meters or 180 acres. The buildings within the walls have a total floor space of 150,000 square meters or 1,614,587 square feet.

Unfortunately, none of the five larger palaces on the list was likely to have had a child monarch dwelling there when they were at their largest.

The Apostolic Palace in the Vatican has never had a child ruler. The Istana Nurul Iman in Brunei was completed as recently as 1984.

Louis XIII, Louis IV, and Louis XV may have lived in the now destroyed Tuileries Palace, which was eventually connected to the Louvre, as child rulers. But the Louvre didn't reach its maximum size until later in the reign of Napoleon III.

And the largest palace listed, the Hoffburg in Vienna had no child monarchs. Emperor Leopold I was still 16 when he inherited Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, and Franz Joseph was 18 when he came to the throne.

However, some now destroyed palaces were quite large. Some of the Caliphal palaces at Samarra north of Baghdad were rather similar in size to the Forbidden City.

In 200 BC, the Weiyang Palace was built at the request of the Emperor Gaozu of Han, under the supervision of his prime minister, Xiao He. The palace survived until the Tang dynasty, when it was burnt down by marauding invaders en route to the Tang capital, Chang'an. It was the largest palace complex ever built on Earth,[22] covering 4.8 square kilometres (1.9 sq mi), which is 6.7 times the size of the current Forbidden City, or 11 times the size of the Vatican City.

The Daming Palace was the imperial palace complex of the Tang dynasty in Chang'an. It served as the imperial residence of the Tang emperors for more than 220 years. In 634, the Emperor Taizong of Tang launched the construction of the Daming Palace at Longshou Plateau. He ordered the construction of the summer palace for his retired father, the Emperor Gaozu of Tang, as an act of filial piety. However, the Emperor Gaozu grew ill and never witnessed the palace's completion before his death in 635, and construction halted thereafter. Wu Zetian commissioned the court architect Yan Liben to design the palace in 660, and construction commenced once again in 662. In 663, the construction of the palace was completed under the reign of the Emperor Gaozong of Tang. The Emperor Gaozong had launched the extension of the palace with the construction of the Hanyuan Hall in 662, which was finished in 663. On 5 June 663, the Tang imperial family began to relocate from the Taiji Palace into the yet to be completed Daming Palace, which became the new seat of the imperial court and political center of the empire. The area of the palace complex was 3.11 km2.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_palaces#Largest_former_palace_complexes

So there should have been a number of child monarchs who reigned in the Weiyang and Daming palaces.

In the medieval Japanese capital Kyoto, the greater palace or Daidairi occupied more than a square kilometer. The imperial residence called the Dairi or inner palace was a much smaller walled enclosure within the Daidairi.

The Daidairi was a walled rectangular area extending approximately 1.4 kilometres (0.87 mi) from north to south between the first and second major east–west avenues Ichijō ōji (一条大路) and Nijō ōji (二条大路) and 1.2 kilometres (0.75 mi) from west to east between the Nishi Ōmiya ōji (西大宮大路) and Ōmiya ōji (大宮大路) north-south avenues.[29][30] The three main structures within the Greater Palace were the Official Compound (朝堂院, Chōdō-in), the Reception Compound (豊楽院, Buraku-in) and the Inner Palace (内裏, Dairi).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heian_Palace

In medieval Japan it was very common for a young child to be selected as emperor, to reign for a few years performing imperial ceremonies, and to abdicate to become a retired emperor and one of the leading members of the court. So if Mervyn Peake knew anything about medieval Japanese history he would have known that many child monarchs lived in the vast imperial palace complex.

From 1642 until 1705 and from 1750 to the 1950s, the Dalai Lamas or their regents headed the Tibetan government (or Ganden Phodrang) in Lhasa, which governed all or most of the Tibetan Plateau with varying degrees of autonomy.[9]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dalai_Lama

And the Dalai lamas were usually selected as children believed to be reincarnations of earlier Dali Lamas. The seat of the Dali Lama's administration was the Potala Palace at Lhasa.

the Great Palace at Constantinople was the center of imperial administration from 330 to 1204, and the main imperial residence until about 1000.

The total surface area of the Great Palace exceeded 200,000 square feet (19,000 m2).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Palace_of_Constantinople#Description

Naturally a number of Child emperors reigned in the Great Palace. One of the youngest was Constantine VII, call Porphyrgenitus because he was born in the Purple, the Purple Chamber of the palace. He was born 17/18 May 905. When he was 2 years old the Emperors Leo VI and Alexander had Constantine made junior co emperor on 15 May 908. Leo VI died 11 May 912 and Alexander died 6 June 913, leaving Constantine VI the senior emperor with a regency council. Constantine VI I didn't get to rule until 945 to 959.

Constantine VI was a prolific writer, and one of his most important works was a book about the imperial ceremonies in the palace. So if any child emperor in the Great Palace was any inspiration for Titus Groan, Earl of the vast castle of Gormenghast, Constantine VII would be the one.

The Great Palace at Constantinople was very small compared to the Forbidden city, but was built of stone, bricks, concrete, and mortar instead of wood, and so would more nearly fit the European style descriptions of Gormenghast.

A few residence in the United Kingdom have been suggested as possible inspirations for Gormenghast.

There is Blenheim Palace, residence of the Duke of Marlboro, with its vast size and strange baroque shapes.

Another candidate is Knole, a rather more normal looking but quite vast mansion.

Knole (/noʊl/) is a country house and former archbishop's palace owned by the National Trust. It is situated within Knole Park, a 1,000-acre (400-hectare) park located immediately to the south-east of Sevenoaks in west Kent. The house ranks in the top five of England's largest houses, under any measure used, occupying a total of four acres.1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knole#

I believe that Gormenghast is described in one passage as being cross shaped, with a central tower. And so I wonder if it was inspired by William Beckford's legendary Fonthill Abbey.

Anyway, the above suggestions are merely suggestions about what places might have inspired Gormenghast.

Gormenghast is not in any real region, but in the imagination of Mervyn Peake. As some have said before, Gormenghast should be in the Peak(e) District, but it is unknown which country or continent includes the Peak(e) district.

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