Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gormenghast and the Royal Wedding

I have been astonished at the fawning attention paid by the media and public to the to the royal wedding of William and Kate. Apparently our love of pomp and pageantry runs closer to the surface than I thought. Or is it our constant hope for romance, or our love of tradition?

My most recent reading has only underlined my bemusement. At the strong urging of Lexicon's new editor, I've just finished reading Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. Written starting just after World War II, the trilogy is something of a cult classic. I couldn't find it at Barnes & Noble or on Kindle, but a bookseller in a small shop in Richmond, just outside Kew Gardens, took it off the shelf for me without hesitation.

Gormenghast is a huge, dark, brooding castle in a grim domain where Titus Groan is born to become the 77th earl. The book itself, poetic and powerful in its descriptions (which is why Ian wanted me to read it), is ponderous, focused more on world-building than on pacing. Its overriding theme seems to be the suffocating weight of tradition. Nearly every moment of every day in the life of an earl is dictated by centuries-old traditions. Nobody remembers the reason for the traditions, and nobody can discern their meaning; nevertheless, the dictatorial librarian Sourdust, and later his even more stringent son Barquentine, demand that daily ceremonies be carried out to the smallest detail. By the end of the first book Titus is only two years old, but he has already set the world (or the earldom, which is the same thing) in disarray by tossing two ceremonial objects off a raft into the lake.

One finishes the book thinking, "Poor Titus! This little bit of unconscious rebelliousness in his spirit is doomed to be crushed out of him in the years to come." And given the Royal Wedding (Let's capitalize it to give it the weight it deserves) everywhere in the news, I couldn't help but think, "Isn't that what happened to Princess Di?"

Kate Middleton, a commoner, wore the traditional ring and the traditional tiara, rode in a traditional carriage and said the traditional words in Westminster Abbey, surrounded by people with archaic titles wearing archaic costumes. How courageous she is, to step into a life of constant scrutiny and expectation, when the last woman to stand in her shoes flamed out in a life of bulimia, betrayal, divorce, and finally the screech of tearing metal and shattering glass.

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