Peake had intended to write a series of books which would have followed Titus Groan through the course of the remainder of his life, as well as detail his relationship with the castle. At least two other books, tentatively titled Titus Awakes and Gormenghast Revisited, were planned, but complications with Peake's health and his ensuing death prevented him from writing down more than a few rough chapters and ideas for these further volumes. Only three pages of Titus Awakes were coherently written, and these appear in the Overlook Press omnibus edition of the main novels (ISBN 0-87951-628-3).
The series is usually described as a fantasy work. However, there is no magic and no intelligent races other than humans, as is usual in high fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings. Another valid classification would be to place Gormenghast in the genre of the fantastic, with marked gothic and surrealist influences. It may also be considered a fantasy of manners.
Gormenghast is less focused on a central protagonist than most novels. Though Titus and Steerpike are often considered the main characters, they share the narrative with many of the other denizens of the castle. In a way, the main character could be seen as the setting itself, with the castle and social structure of Gormenghast taking a central role in unifying the story.
Gormenghast is a remote and reclusive kingdom dominated by the huge Castle Gormenghast at its centre, and ruled by the noble family of Groan since time immemorial. It is never made clear whether it is set on Earth or some other world. The kingdom derives its name from Gormenghast Mountain, and is isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on each side of it. To the North are marshy wastelands, to the South are salt grey marshes (and presumably then the ocean), to the East are quicksands and the tideless sea, and to the West are knuckles of endless rock. To the West also lies the clawlike Gormenghast Mountain, with the Twisted Woods and Gormenghast river at its foot. East of them are escarpments described as 'an irregular tableland of greeny-black rock, broken and scarred and empty', then desolate swamp before the vicinity of the castle is reached. Gormenghast Mountain is said to be so large that from the castle it looks at most a few miles distant, whereas in fact it is a day's ride away on horseback. However, this is contradicted by events within the story, when various characters are able to travel on foot to the castle and back within a single day. Given that it is surrounded on three sides by watery regions, it is not implausible that the entire kingdom can be flooded as described in the second book Gormenghast.
At the centre of the kingdom is the vast, largely deserted Castle, whose remaining inhabitants centre their lives on the ritual surrounding the ruling family of Groan. The castle is described as being like an immense island of stone, its every outline familiar to the inhabitants, who know : 'every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers' . Dominating the ivy covered, crumbling castle is the highest tower, the Tower of Flints, which is inhabitated by great numbers of owls. The castle is so huge that most of the inhabitants do not venture outside except for certain ceremonies. Outside the castle to the north is a hodge-podge of mud dwellings inhabited by the 'Bright Carvers', whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. They are in awe of the 'Castles', as they call Gormenghast's inhabitants.
Some contact with the outside world is implied; Dr Prunesquallor at one point sketches an ostrich skeleton, while Steerpike procures a monkey from somewhere. Otherwise, the impression given is that Gormenghast is stagnant, insular and introspective. A recurring theme is the time-consuming and pointless rituals that the inhabitants submit to regularly, the origin and purpose of which is long-forgotten. Gormenghast makes a stark contrast with the industrious and technologically advanced city which is the setting of Titus Alone.
Peake populated his imaginary castle with a large cast of characters. These include:
Lord Sepulchrave: 76th Earl and Titus's father. He is a melancholy man who feels shackled by his duties as Earl, although he never questions them. His only escape is reading. However, when the castle's Library is burnt down, he is driven insane and comes to believe that he is one of the death-owls that live in the abandoned Tower of Flints.
The Countess Gertrude: 76th Countess and Titus's mother. An obese woman with dark red hair, she pays little attention to her family or the rest of Gormenghast. Instead, she spends her time locked away in her bedroom, in the company of a legion of cats and birds, the only things toward which she shows affection. However, once given the chance to use her intelligence she turns out to be one of the cleverest people in the castle, when (along with Flay and the doctor) she recognizes and investigates the worrying changes transpiring in Gormenghast. According to Sepulchrave's sisters, the Ladies Cora and Clarice, Gertrude is of common blood and not of the noble bloodline of the Groans
Fuchsia: Titus's sister. At times impatient, immature, and self-absorbed, she can also be extremely warm and caring. At first, she resents Titus, but soon develops a deep bond with him. Of all Titus's family, she is the one he loves most. Fuchsia also develops a very close, but brief bond with her father, Lord Sepulchrave during his final mental breakdown after the Library Fire. Broken by disappointment and disillusionment, she is killed as she accidentally slips from the windowsill where she is only contemplating suicide - and striking her head on the stonework, drowns unconscious, in the floodwaters surrounding the Castle. She thus tragically never realises her true potential.
Cora and Clarice Groan: Titus's aunts (sisters of Sepulchrave), a pair of identical twins. Both suffered from spasms in their youth, so the left hand sides of their bodies are paralyzed. They have virtually the same personalities and neither of them is very intelligent -- they are perhaps even mentally impaired -- although Cora is slightly cleverer than Clarice. Both crave political power and dislike Gertrude, whom they believe robbed them of their rightful place in the hierarchy of Gormenghast. Their mindless ambition and thirst for revenge lead them to become Steerpike's pawns.
Steerpike: A youthful outsider, beginning as a kitchen boy, who worms his way into the hierarchy of Gormenghast for his own personal gain. Ruthlessly murderous, with a Machiavellian, highly intelligent and methodical mind, and a talent for manipulation, he can appear charming and sometimes even noble. But due to his fundamentally evil nature, he has natural personal enmity with Titus. He is finally hunted down and killed by Titus, who holds him responsible for the death of his sister, Fuchsia.
Mr. Flay: Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant, who believes in strictly holding to the rules of Gormenghast. Nevertheless, he is not completely hard-hearted and cares a great deal for Titus and Fuchsia. He is eventually exiled from Gormenghast for throwing one of the Countess's cats at Steerpike. However, he secretly keeps an eye on the doings in the castle, and plays a crucial role in Steerpike's eventual unmasking as a traitor.
Dr. Alfred Prunesquallor: The castle's resident physician. He is an eccentric individual with a high-pitched laugh and a grandiose wit which he uses on the castle's less intelligent inhabitants. Despite his acid tongue, he is an extremely kind and caring man who also is greatly fond of Fuchsia and Titus. (In a few places in the text, Dr. Prunesquallor is given the first name of Bernard, but this was an error by Peake.) Although he appears at first to be foppish and weak, the doctor later shows himself to be both intelligent and courageous, and he plays an important role in defeating Steerpike.
Irma Prunesquallor: Doctor Prunesquallor's sister. Though she is anything but pretty, she is considerably vain. She desperately desires to be admired and loved by men. She becomes romantically involved with Bellgrove.
Abiatha Swelter: The fat, sadistic head chef of Gormenghast. His profound hatred for Flay leads him to attempt his murder; however, he is killed by his intended victim.
Nannie Slagg: An ancient dwarf who serves as the nurse for infant Titus and Fuchsia before him. She is somewhat unintelligent and has an inferiority complex. Neverthless she is kind and loving, and is the only figure who shows any real affection to the children when they are young.
Sourdust: The Master of Ritual when the series begins. He is the one who coordinates the various arcane rituals that make up daily life in Gormenghast. After his death in the Library Fire, his position is taken up by his son Barquentine.
Barquentine: Follows his father into the role of Master of Ritual. He is lame in one leg, hideous, and unbelievably dirty. He is a consummate misanthrope who abuses and insults everybody he meets, and who cares only for the rigid application of the laws and traditions of Gormenghast. He makes the grievous error of allowing Steerpike to become his assistant.
Bellgrove: School Professor. One of Titus's teachers, who eventually ascends to Headmaster of Gormenghast. In many respects, he is the standard absent-minded professor who falls asleep during his own class and plays with marbles. However, deep inside him there is a certain element of dignity and nobility. At heart he is kindly, and if weak, at least has the humility to be aware of his faults. He begins a rather unusual romance with Irma Prunesquallor. He becomes something of a father figure to Titus.
Keda: A woman from the Bright Carvers' village just outside the walls of Gormenghast. She is chosen to be Titus's wet nurse, but eventually leaves this position. She has two lovers who fight a duel and both die for her, but not before one of them impregnates her. Eventually she kills herself by leaping off a crag, after giving birth to a daughter - The Thing. (In the film adaptation, she dies in childbirth.)
The Thing: The daughter of Keda, foster sister of Titus. Due to her illegitimacy she is an outcast who becomes a feral child living in the wilderness surrounding Gormenghast. She is fierce and untameable, living only for herself, and takes her revenge on the Bright Carvers by mutilating their carvings. Believing that she is in every way the opposite of Gormenghast, Titus becomes infatuated with her. She is killed by a bolt of lightning.
Rottcodd: The curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings and the first character introduced in the series. Rottcodd lives the life of a recluse in the castle, rarely speaking to anyone and, when not dusting the statues at exactly seven o'clock, is usually sleeping in his hammock by the window side.
Pentecost: Pentecost was one of the Carvers once, but worked himself up to become the head gardener of the palace. He is always busy tending the palace orchards and filling vases with fresh water and bright flowers.
The Poet: Known only by his professional name, the Poet holds a relatively important function of ritual in the castle. He is described as having a wedge-shaped head and a voice "as strange and deep as a lugubrious ocean". After Steerpike's death, he is hastily appointed as the new Master of Ritual.
Rantel and Braigon: Keda's lovers, whose rivalry eventually leads to their death in a nighttime duel.
Bright Carvers: Mud Dwellers, who are famed for their skill in woodcarving.
Mud Dwellers: Hereditary population of the extensive Mud Village situated up against and outside the walls of Gormenghast Castle.
Springers, Spurter and Wrattle: Kitchen boys. Three of Swelter's helper's in the preparation of the Ceremonial Breakfast for Titus.
Wrenpatch and Flycrake: Kitchen boys. Swelter relishes the prospect of punishing them for arguing with each other, violating Swelter's strict orders for silence.
Grey Scrubbers: Cleaners of the Great Kitchen.
Old Man: Hermit, only known as "Old Man". He cares for Keda as she recovers from the rigours of her travels in the wilds.
Smelly Old Woman: The Ladies Clarice and Cora's only servant. Used by Steerpike as an example of just how low the status of the Ladies Clarice and Cora has fallen as he draws them into his power.
Pellet: Servant in the Prunesquallor's household. He is replaced by Steerpike at the instigation of Irma Prunesquallor.
Shrattle: Armourer. Holds the only key to Groan armoury.
Opus Fluke, Flannelcat, Shred, Shrivell, Mulefire and Perch-Prism: School professors.
The Leader: School professor. Only known as "The Leader", this ancient bearded character proposes a philosophy where everything in this world is an illusion - even including sensations such as pain. He is forcibly brought into reality and subsequently dies, when his long white beard is set alight by a young man during an argument.
Spiregrain, Splint and Throd: School professors. Disciples of The Leader, until The Leader's death.
Cutflower: School professor. A dandy and a fop.
Deadyawn: Headmaster of the Gormenghast School. Spends most of his time asleep in a tall high chair on wheels, pushed around by his assistant, Mr Fly. His is killed whilst organising the search for Titus when the Fly slips and accidentally tips him out of his high chair onto the floor. Bellgrove immediately assumes command of the School.
(The) Fly: Deadyawn's assistant. His main function appears to push Deadyawn around in his high chair and keep his hot water bottle topped up. He commits suicide by leaping out of the window after accidentally killing his master.
Craggmire: The Acrobat. The Acrobat takes no part in the plot. His only mention is when he is spied upon by Steerpike (for no apparent reason) through the elaborate system of mirrors and spy holes which Steerpike has installed in a disused chimney.
The contrast between Titus and Steerpike is at the heart of Gormenghast. Both are rebels, who hate the oppression and rigidity of the castle. Titus' rebellion is largely positive however, driven only by the urge to be free. Steerpike's rebellion is negative, as he desires to exercise control and power over others, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Gormenghast with a tyranny of his own. Titus by contrast does not seek power over anyone else, only to control his own destiny. Titus's rage to be free, apparent throughout the first two novels, begins in earnest at the end of Titus Groan. He unwittingly blasphemes at his own baptism and again at his coronation, throwing the symbols of his office into the lake as his foster sister, the changeling who seems more an elemental spirit than a human child, calls to him over the water. As he grows to manhood, his emergence into liberation is darkly shadowed by the progress of Steerpike, who has declared "Freedom is everything" whilst pulling the legs off a beetle. Steerpike's rise to power is psychopathic, fuelled by some fundamental urge to destroy the castle. He is not a true anarchist; he seeks only to destroy what he hates, utilizing all his formidable powers to force his way into the castle's establishment, becoming eventually Master of Ritual; the symbol of the fascism that Titus's most detests. With the death of his foster-sister by lightning, Titus loses his boyhood; with the death of Fuchsia by drowning, his heart is hardened, and he has the strength to kill Steerpike. In killing Steerpike, Titus is symbolically also killing his own shadowside. If he were to stay in the castle, his anger and resentment would turn inwards, leading him to abuse his power over others as Steerpike sought to do. With the eventual execution of Steerpike, the last bond of connection with his immemorial home is severed and "...turning his back...Titus rode out of his world."
The immense awareness of Tradition in the novel, manifest in the Ritual that dominates and suffocates all life within its walls is personified by Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Groan and Titus's father, whose days are almost wholly consumed adhering to the obscure and esoteric tenets of Gormenghast tradition. The line of Groan has therefore supposedly been in existence for over a thousand years, perhaps as much as three. Sepulchrave is petrified by melancholia and is a paradigm example of the fantasy archetype known as the Knight of the Doleful Visage or Fisher King. The family is reduced to a few members whose mental and physical abnormalities are profound. Titus himself is frequently described as 'hideous'. Cora and Clarice are epileptic, delusional, feeble-minded mono-maniacs. Gertrude in some sense appears to typify a baleful Earth Mother; ponderous and heavy, loving and cruel by turns, impassive of her own child, tender to her bird and cats, she is "the Countess Gertrude of huge clay". Titus' dread and rebellion against the iron letter of Gormenghast Law (enforced and embodied in his lifetime by the stony and loathsome dwarf Barquentine) becomes one of the main factors leading to his preoccupation with freedom.
Though the castle is oppressive and tyrannical, Peake's language continually flames and shimmers with the love of youth, beauty and impermanence. "Deep within the fist of stone, a doll's hand wriggles, warm and rebellious. And, with his tiny entrance, enters change." At all times, the possibility of escape and beauty stands alongside the reality of imprisonment and death. Keda's suicide, the deaths of Rantel and Braigon, Fuchsia's dreams and reveries, Titus's small transgressions are all rendered in pellucid language that counterpoints and undermines the deadly weight of the castle.
The castle is the setting for the first two books in the series, Titus Groan and Gormenghast. It incorporates many of the elements of both mediæval castles and Regency period stately homes, though in practice it operates like a small city-state. It has its own government, a Byzantine system of laws and rituals, a class system, and is seemingly self-sufficient. Vast areas of the castle are abandoned. It is possible that the blackened and jagged skyline of Gormenghast was suggested by the bombed ruins of London or Dresden following World War II; Peake was an official war artist and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi death camps, an experience that touched him deeply and haunted him throughout his life. It has also been posited that Gormenghast had its ancient roots in the Forbidden City of Peking. Peake was born in China and lived there until he was eleven, a fact which might also have some bearing on the fantastical artworks of the Bright Carvers who dwell without the castle walls. The isolated Channel Island of Sark , with its then surviving feudal system of government may also be an influence, as Peake lived there for a time.
It is impossible to ignore the significance of madness as well as its relationship with genius and (thwarted) artistic expression as a theme in the Gormenghast novels. Though Peake was an artist and poet who knew many years of perfect health and happy productivity, his paralysis caused by the Parkinson's Disease that afflicted him during the last years of his life, is an undeniable influence on the novels. Several of the characters in the novel are passionate, sensitive and clever, but all have been subjugated by their environment. Fuchsia possesses a great and passionate love which, finding no outlet, wastes itself in frustration and is cruelly abused by Steerpike. Sepulchrave's great sensitivity to beauty and poetry and his prodigious mental powers are frozen in misery. Doctor Prunesquallor is likewise a man of elegance, wit and brains, deformed into an eccentric by his environment. The Poet, a cryptic figure in the novel, represents some hidden spirit of introverted aestheticism in the castle; he remains in the shadows. Conversely, the established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque.
In 1984, BBC Radio 4 broadcast two 90-minute plays based on Titus Groan and Gormenghast, adapted by Brian Sibley and starring Sting as Steerpike and Freddie Jones as the Artist (narrator). A slightly abridged compilation of the two, running to 160 minutes, and entitled Titus Groan of Gormenghast, was broadcast on Christmas Day, 1992. BBC 7 repeated the original versions on 21 and 28 September, 2003.
A young acting troupe (Canberra Youth Theatre?) performed a walking production of Gormenghast at Gorman House in Canberra in 1993. The audience were guided through both courtyards, and stages were improvised atop stairways and roofs, as well as the interior. It starred Ceinwen Berry as Fuchsia.
In 2000, the BBC and the PBS station WGBH of Boston produced a miniseries, titled Gormenghast, based on the first two books of the series. The cast included Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Steerpike and Christopher Lee as Mr. Flay.
The 30-minute TV short film A Boy In Darkness (also made in 2000 and adapted from Peake's novella Boy in Darkness) was the first production from the BBC Drama Lab. It was set in a 'virtual' computer-generated world created by young computer game designers, and starred Jack Ryder (from EastEnders) as Titus, with Terry Jones (Monty Python's Flying Circus) narrating.
A minimalist stage version of Gormenghast performed by the David Glass Ensemble was adapted by John Constable and directed by David Glass. The production features atmospheric music and lighting and relies heavily on mime, all to convey the immense vastness of the Gormenghast castle on the small stage. It has toured theatres in the UK during 2006 and 2007.
Irmin Schmidt, founder of seminal German 'Krautrock' group Can has written an opera called Gormenghast, based on the novels, and a number of songs including 'Stranger Than Fiction' and 'Titus' by New Zealand rock group Split Enz and 'The Drowning Man' by The Cure were inspired by Peake's work. The British progressive rock group Strawbs feature a Ford/Hudson composition called 'Lady Fuschia' (sic) on their 1973 album Bursting at the Seams, about one of the main protagonists of this trilogy. The bands Fuchsia (late 1960s folk rock) and Titus Groan (late 1960s rock) are named after the novels.