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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 Sep 14 '20 at 6:09
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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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    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 Oct 29 '15 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 Oct 29 '15 at 15:49
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    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 Apr 30 '20 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 May 1 '20 at 3:36
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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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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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    ”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 Apr 28 '20 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.

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