Titus Alone and the Art of the Improbable


Titus Alone and the Art of the Improbable                        © Richard Swan 1999 and 2016


This is a slightly revised version of the article originally published by The Mervyn Peake Society in Titus Alone: A New Life, Peake Papers 1999. Because the volume was devoted solely to Titus Alone, the assumption was made that readers would already be acquainted with the whole trilogy.

All page references are to the 1970 Eyre & Spottiswoode edition of Titus Alone, because the original 1959 edition is regarded as textually unsatisfactory. Please contact me if you wish to know more about this.



Fiction is essentially the art of the improbable. There is a common saying that ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. This is because truth can invite the response: ‘That’s impossible’. The fact that something seems impossible to the ordinary mind does not prevent it being true. Fiction generally cannot afford to invite this response, for to do so destroys the credibility of the creation. The credibility of truth cannot be destroyed, whereas the credibility of fiction is always a fragile thing. For example, in Chapter 5 of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled, the narrator sees somebody walk up to a house and hold a conversation on the doorstep. The character then enters the house, the door is shut, and the conversation continues in an inner room – yet it is still being recounted by the narrator, sitting outside in a car. The absurdity of this threatens to destroy the fiction.

Rather than risk this, fiction usually seeks to invite the response: ‘That’s improbable’. For fiction to state the probable is to risk becoming dull and predictable; to state the impossible is to lose credibility; its task therefore is to tread the narrow path between, where the reader is constantly led on to new ground, but never stops to say: ‘That can’t happen’. There are of course genres to which this does not apply – for example, fairy stories and myth – but the argument retains its general validity.

In this sense, fiction helps to keep us sane. It convinces us that the world behaves in a credible fashion, and satisfies us that the world and our experiences of it are explicable. Reality often fails to do this. Fiction makes reality comprehensible; reality often does not. In turn, however, reality is required as a substratum on which to build credible fiction.

The clearest definition of this creative process is given in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1964 essay On Fairy-stories. He points out that, in order to accept items such as Ishiguro’s absurdity, we need Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. But what most novelists are really doing is asking for the willing assumption of belief in the ‘Secondary World’ that the writer creates:

Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. (On Fairy-stories, p.36)

And crucially:

The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken: the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. (On Fairy-stories, p.36)

This argument has particular relevance to Titus Alone. It has often been seen as imperfect, either through incompleteness or because it is not felt to follow on satisfactorily from Titus Groan and Gormenghast. The purpose of this article is to examine it as an example of the art of the improbable, to see how successfully Peake creates and maintains belief in his Secondary World.

In writing Titus Alone, Peake faced particular challenges, partly because of its nature as a fantastic and original creation, and partly because of its status as the third novel in a sequence. It is emphatically dependent on its two precursors both for its theme and for its meaning: the spirit of Gormenghast permeates the book as surely as it permeates Titus’s psyche. This factor creates both an advantage and a disadvantage for Peake. On the one hand, he can depend upon his readers’ acceptance of the world of Gormenghast and the character of Titus, which means that much of the fabric of the Secondary World is already in place. At the same time he moves the scene physically away from the isolated and enclosed environment of Gormenghast. Because Titus Alone introduces a large number of incongruous settings, artefacts and characters, the very carryover of a system from Titus Groan and Gormenghast militates against the ready acceptance of these new elements.

This article aims to explore the ways in which Peake responds to these challenges, and will be divided into three sections. The first will deal with the ‘normal’ task, faced by all authors, of managing the art of the improbable in creating a Secondary World. The second will examine the problem of the ‘new’ incongruous elements, and how successfully they are integrated into the fabric of the work. The third will address the question of how Peake uses the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of Gormenghast to create belief within the novel, and how Gormenghast itself is central to Titus Alone despite Titus’s physical divorce from it.

Part I  The Art of the Improbable

The key here is the dependence of the Secondary World for its credibility on taking features from the Primary or real world. Peake is a master of the art of using everyday settings and situations and giving them the exaggeration or twist that is the essence of the improbable. The reader is forced to accept the vision at the same time as being aware of its abnormal qualities.

Two examples will suffice to show the process at work. The first is something as simple as a dressing table. The second is the more complex example of a court room scene.

Cheeta’s granite dressing table is ‘peerlessly smooth’ (p.182), but also ‘thrillingly uneven to the palm of the hand’ (p.182), so that ‘the reflection of the various instruments were as sharp as the instruments themselves, yet wavered’ (p.182). Here the physicality of the description is dependent on the senses of touch and sight, so that the reader can imagine the solid reality of the object. Yet this initial realism is designed to serve further objectives.

Cheeta’s toiletries take up ‘the merest fraction of the surface. To right and left of them, the granite fanned out in adamantine yet sumptuous undulations’ (p.182-3). The grotesque opulence and wealth of Cheeta and her father are hereby emphasised, and the paradoxical description of the granite as ‘adamantine yet sumptuous’ (p.183) is a hint towards the nature of Cheeta herself.

This latter point is developed through the minute description of the toilet articles:

Rigid as herself in her agony, her implements were drawn up in battle array. A militant array of eccentrics. (p.183)

The harsh vocabulary of war – implements, battle, militant – is set against the heady sensuousness of the scents, ‘the elusive aromatic spikenard … olive and almond and sesame oil’ (p.183). There is nothing incredible in the whole piece, but the effect is to suggest the hidden tensions and confusions in Cheeta’s character, of which more will be said in Part II.

The court room scene is also intended to be immediately recognisable:

A dim light shone … someone could be heard sharpening a pencil … a chair creaked … Titus, standing upright at the bar … it was a bitter cold morning. (p.75)

All these items, again depending on sensory qualities, are so ordinary that the reader accepts the scene immediately. It is upon the basis of this ordinariness that Peake constructs his Secondary World, in this case populated by grotesque figures. Mr. Drugg, the clerk of the court, is Dickensian in both name and features:

… he turned his big greyish-coloured face to Titus and lifted a corner of his top lip away from his teeth like a dog. (p.76)

And then, in an image so characteristically and vividly Peakean, ‘his hands slid into the depths of his trouser pockets as though two foxes had all of a sudden gone to earth’ (p.76). The sentence slides from the ordinary to the fantastic in a single movement.

Having established the gloomy and dingy nature of the court and its inhabitants, Peake can later play with conventional expectation by having it transformed by harsh artificial light. The rain brings a ‘premature darkness which thickened the already murky court’ (p.80). In a masterpiece of transition, half-credible, half-absurd, a voice demands, ‘More candles! … More lanterns! Brands and torches, electricity, gas and glow-worms!’ (p.81). And into a recognisably Dickensian scene comes the appalling glare of modern lighting, ‘and the whole place was jerked into a spasm of naked brilliance’ (p.81). The result is that ‘all was made naked’ (p.81), ‘Everything was horribly close and vivid’ (p.83). By a process of accretion, Peake has managed to make electricity part of his Secondary World without challenging the reader’s credulity too far. He concentrates on the results of the lights being switched on rather than the nature of the lighting, and so the credibility is maintained.

Having securely created his Secondary World, Peake peoples it with characters who successfully replace the residents of Gormenghast. One of the undeniable triumphs of Titus Alone is the array of memorable characters – Muzzlehatch, Juno, Cheeta in particular – who stand comparison with Play, Swelter, Steerpike and Titus himself. The technique of their creation is of a piece with the rest of the work: Peake focuses on salient, exaggerated features which permit the reader a vivid image that is improbably and yet immediately visualisable.

The initial description of Muzzlehatch is of ‘a great, gaunt, rudder-nosed man, square-jawed, long-limbed, and muscular’ (pp.14-15). The key epithet ‘rudder-nosed’ is thereafter used as an identifying tag, but the texture of the description is gradually thickened and extended by a range of striking phrases and images:

… he stretched himself, flinging his arms so wide apart in doing so that he appeared for a moment like some oracle, directing the sun and moon to keep their distance. (p.15)

He is god-like, but almost ludicrous:

This gentleman was giving orders with a peculiar detachment, mindless that he was stark naked except for a fireman’s helmet. (p.23)

The two aspects come together in the description of him as ‘the intellectual ruffian who sat astride the stag like some ravaged god’ (p.26).

At the same time the nature of his character is developed through direct description and through his behaviour:

… he was eminently a man of small compassion, a hurtful man, brazen and loveless, who would have no one beside him in the front of the car, save occasionally am old mandrill. (p.15)

He feigns detachment from Titus – ‘to hell with you child’ (p.61) – and disbelief in Gormenghast – ‘that crepuscular myth’ (p.107) – but saves him on several occasions. He is devoted to his zoo and to living creatures – ‘let them try to touch them’ (p.109) – and becomes the great symbol of Peake’s hatred of blind science and its appalling destructive power. He is exotic, fantastic, almost superhuman and yet ultimately humane: a marvellous creation.

And he is only one of many. From the fully developed central characters – Juno and Cheeta – to the minor protagonists, Peake’s assured hand is wholly effective. A single example will suffice. In the Under-River Titus encounters Veil, a man with the cruelty of Steerpike and the physique of Flay. From his first introduction he is repulsive:

A tall and spindly figure, with a lipless mouth, and eyes like beads of glass. (p.125)

He is ‘like a mantis’ (p.125) and also ‘the man with the small head’ (p.126). From this he becomes ‘the mantis man’ (p.129) and the ‘spider-man’ (p.130), a horrible insect who rubs his hands together ‘with a sound like sandpaper’ (p.126), and whose tongue ‘was like the tongue of a boot, as long, as broad and as thin’ (p.128).

To this hideous physical aspect is added his appalling treatment of the girl called the Black Rose and his ‘intolerably cold and cruel’ (p.129) laughter, ‘a sound that left Titus under no illusion as to the man’s intrinsic evil’ (p.129). He has been a guard in a prison camp which seems to contain echoes of Belsen, and is perhaps an even more intense portrait of evil than Steerpike or Cheeta. He is ‘the breaker of lives’ (p.137), motivated only by ‘loyalty to his own evil’ (p.136). Peake concludes:

… he could never have withdrawn from the conflict, for to do so would have been to have denied Satan the suzerainty of pain.’ (p.136)

Even his death is ghastly. Muzzlehatch crushes him:

The victim’s face had been lifted so that the jaw, the clavicles, the shoulder blades and five ribs were the first to go down like dead sticks in a storm. (p.137)

 Yet even now Veil survives, and can only die by his own hand:

… with a final convulsion of his long bones, he fell upon his dislocated, meaningless face, twitched for the last time, and died. (p.139)

We feel that the character is intensely real, much more so than many people whom we actually meet because the observation of him is so precise, and with scenes and characters like these the success of Peake’s creation is assured.

Part II             The Shock of the New

So how does Peake set about the task of moving Titus away from Gormenghast into alien lands and amidst the alien people whom he describes so successfully? Part of the answer is that he leaves many aspects ignored and therefore unknown, particularly the geography of the world and the physical distances involved. In this way he never has to explain how Gormenghast can exist in the same world as futuristic science and aircraft. This is an evasion, but he relies on his ability to create belief in the new elements by themselves, in the expectation that the reader will not pursue rationalistic objections too far. Once Secondary Belief has been created, a good deal can be ignored or assumed. The skill is in persuading the reader of the credibility of the new elements.

The major technique here is the movement from the imaginable and probable (or recognisable) to the imaginable and improbable. Consider the opening of Chapter 3:

Within a span of Titus’s foot, a beetle, minute and heraldic, reflected the moonbeams from its glossy back. Its shadow, three times as long as itself, skirted a pebble and then climbed a grassblade. (p.11)

Here every detail is immediately recognisable – part of our ordinary experience. The precise visualisation creates for the reader the credibility of Titus’s situation. Peake can then move on to:

He lifted his head and his gaze wandered for the first time from all that was immediately at hand, wandered away to the north, across great phosphorescent slopes of oak and ilex until it came to rest upon a city. (p.11)

The reader’s eyes are drawn, like Titus’s, from the close focus (the beetle) to the middle distance (the trees) and then to the horizon (the city). The introduction of the latter – alien from the perspective of someone from Gormenghast – is made credible because it is contained within the same imaginative visualisation as the beetle and the trees.

A more complex example of the movement from the recognisable to the unlikely can be found with the introduction of Muzzlehatch’s car. It starts with figures arriving at the river bank, both men (‘some on foot hugging themselves in the cold’ (p.14)) and animals (‘the great beasts flaring their nostrils at the sharp air’ (p.14)). Then there are the beggars, more bizarrely ‘in wheel-barrows pushed by their sons or their sons’ sons’ (p.14). Finally arrives ‘a long shadowy car’ (p.14). Its blend of animal and mechanical qualities seems a natural extension of the preceding descriptions:

Its bonnet was the colour of blood. Its water was boiling. It snorted like a horse and shook itself as though it were alive. (p.14)

It should be noted that both the examples given so far – city and car – are themselves ordinary items, and this of course aids the process of acceptance by the reader. It is their presence in a Secondary World previously dominated by the sub-medieval world of Gormenghast which threatens to strain credulity.

The acceptance of more truly improbable features – the Helmeted Pair, the city itself, the glass globe – depends partly on the techniques already described, but particularly on the most striking of all Peake’s talents – visualisation. It is Peake’s visual sense – the artist at work – which constantly serves him throughout the trilogy.

The helmeted figures are the first truly aberrant feature in Titus Alone, but instantly become ‘real’ because of the description when they appear:

… their heads and bodies were striped with the shadows of the flags and streaked with slats of radiance. (p.12)

‘Slats’ has a wonderfully concrete sense, and the reader immediately imposes the visual conception of a venetian blind on the scene. Peake confirms this by continuing the idea:

One of the heads was entirely moonlit save for an inch-thick striation which ran down the forehead and over one eye, which was drowned in the dark of it, then over the cheekbone and down to the man’s long jaw. (p.12)

The exactness of ‘inch-thick’ and the precision of the line of darkness is all that is needed for the image to be indelibly created. The vividness is enhanced by the fact that the scene is purely visual; none of the other senses is invoked to dilute the effect of the word-painting.

Two further devices assist Peake here. Firstly, he does not at this stage mention that they are helmeted – that incongruity is left until later. Instead, when they have waded into the river he refers only to their ‘plumed heads’ (p.13) which he describes, in another striking image, as ‘detached and floating on the surface as though they could be slid to and fro as kings and knights are slid across a chessboard’ (p.13). Also, he uses the instantly familiar nightmare concept of being pursued inescapably by Kafkaesque authoritarian figures:

It was always the same – the sudden appearance, the leap of evasion, and the strange following silence as his would-be captors dwindled away into the distance, to vanish … but not for ever. (p.13)

Having introduced incongruous elements in this gradual way, Peake is now free to develop them as he wishes in the rest of the book. The Helmeted Pair become a repeated motif of pursuit, ever more sinister and less human:

They wore a kind of armour … When one of them shielded his huge hollow eyes from the moon, his companion followed suit … the tall pair turned upon their heels, and moved away with a strange and gliding action. (pp.178-9)

By the end they have even developed ‘supernatural strength’ (p.254) which is only defeated when their helmets are removed.

Similarly the city turns out to be more futuristic than might have been expected, with buildings which are ‘fantasies of glass and metal’ (p.32):

Seen from above, it could also be realised how isolated in the wide world was the arena with its bright circumference of crystal buildings: how bizarre and ingenious it was… (p.35)

In this case Peake can use Titus’s own sense of dislocation and alienation as a channel for the reader:

Titus … turned to the vast, purring, topaz-studded lift not knowing exactly what it was. (p.36)

By describing Titus’s response and gradual assimilation of what he encounters, Peake mirrors the reader’s own experience:

For the most part the glass was too thick for Titus to see more than a blur of coloured shapes and shadows but he came at last to an open skylight through which he could see without obstruction a scene of great diversity and splendour. (p.37)

As the reader empathises with Titus, his acceptance of these new elements progresses at the same pace. This empathy also means that Gormenghast itself can be used to form the perspective from which events are viewed, and this idea will be explored in Part III.

 Part III           The Legacy of Gormenghast

It would be difficult to imagine reading Titus Alone without having first read Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Presumably it has been done, but it must be a strange experience. Peake depends heavily on the reader’s knowledge of Gormenghast in order to give the third book its depth and resonance. Firstly, the whole story concerns Titus’s flight from Gormenghast and his eventual return to it. Secondly, the crux of the novel lies in Cheeta’s party and attempted destruction of Titus, and the impact of this event can only be understood by the reader who shares Titus’s background.

The relevance of this to the present essay is that Peake is able to assume the reader’s acceptance of the Secondary World of Gormenghast (otherwise the reader would never have got as far as the third book!), and can exploit this in chronicling Titus’s further experiences. In fact, nearly all the characters in Titus Alone are viewed according to their response to Gormenghast itself. This is a neat device, because the reader is led to condemn those who refuse to give credit to it – the ultimate test of a writer’s skill in managing the art of fiction.

The development of Titus can be simply summarised. At the beginning of the book he has ‘escaped from Ritual’ (p.12), and is ‘less than man’ (p.12). By the end ‘he had no longer any need for home, for he carried his Gormenghast within him’ (p.262-3), and ‘what a boy had set out to seek a man had found’ (p.263). The whole novel is about the growth of Titus, and in this sense he is very much a continuation of the character from Gormenghast. He is motivated by the same passionate independence – witness his rejection at various times of Muzzlehatch, Juno and Cheeta and indeed nearly every other character – yet only gradually learns to rely wholly on himself.

For much of the novel Titus’s sanity is dependent on his memory of Gormenghast, and for the first part he clings on to the talisman of his flint from the Tower of Flints. The centrality of this physical reminder of his origins is spelt out only after he uses it to smash the scientists’ globe:

And without my flint I am lost … even more lost than before. (p.105)

It has been so important to him that he even doubts his own reality, believing that he has ‘nothing to prove my actuality’ (p.105). This fear only makes sense to the reader if he, like Titus, ‘believes’ in Gormenghast.

It is the memory of Gormenghast that forms the key to Titus’s character and behaviour. It defines his response to the new world he encounters in Titus Alone, as well as being the touchstone by which the other characters are judged.

Even at a time when his attention should be on the present, as in the court scene, his thoughts – and the reader’s – are likely to be distracted and directed to the spectre of Gormenghast looming over all he does. Mr. Drugg’s rattling coins only serve to remind Titus of:

… something half forgotten, a dreadful, yet intimate music; of a cold kingdom; of bolts and flag-stoned corridors; of intricate gates of corroded iron; of flints and visors and the beaks of birds. (p.76)

Centrally, it is to Gormenghast that Titus’s mind returns in his delirium before he awakes in Cheeta’s house. Her viewpoint is used for an observation that could serve as a summary of the first two books, and a succinct description of a successful product of the art of the improbable:

… a zone, a layer of people and happenings, that twisted about, inverted themselves, moved in spirals, yet were nevertheless consistent within their own confines. (p.162)

It is ‘a barbarous region’ (p.162), yet it also offers ‘a calm built upon a rocklike certainty and belief in some immemorial tradition’ (p.162). It is this ‘calm’ that eventually enables Titus to finish the novel with the certainty that he carries Gormenghast within him, and therefore no longer needs its physical reality.

Yet in order to attain that certainty he must go through the hell which is Cheeta’s party. In this episode, which is the focus of the latter part of the book, the legacy of Gormenghast is confronted most completely and openly, both by Titus and the other characters, and through extension by the reader. It is a grand catastrophe and catharsis in almost Shakespearean mode, leaving Muzzlehatch and the Helmeted Pair dead, Cheeta and her father destroyed, and Titus purged of doubt and of loss of faith in Gormenghast.

Cheeta herself is cast as the antithesis of Gormenghast, just as Steerpike is. She is ‘a modern’ (p.160) and ‘the sophisticate’ (p.162). She is like her dressing-room, ‘austere and loveless’ (p.181). She is beautiful but sexless, intelligent but without passions. She is after all her father’s daughter, and he is described as ‘a kind of vacuum for all that there was genius in his skull’ (p.185). Perhaps most damning of all, given Peake’s abhorrence of the army, is the epithet ‘military’ (p.183). Ultimately she is ‘icy’ (p.229), ‘the exquisite midget, but something foul’ (p.229).

The appalling spectacle with which she confronts Titus offends the reader almost as much as it does Titus. Witness the description of the Sepulchrave figure:

As he moved … he trailed behind him a long line of feathers, while out of his tragic mouth the sound of hooting wandered. (p.237)

Here is mockery complete. Yet the technique of the mockery is most interesting. Peake takes his own fantastic creations from the earlier books and intensifies their grotesque qualities, making them bizarre beyond belief. But that is entirely the point. For the reader the improbable is being taken to its limit; we are asked to believe that these caricatures can destroy Titus’s sanity. And for Titus, they nearly do have this effect, as he is contained within the fantasy. The achievement is to make the reader share Titus’s response:

Were there a ‘Gormenghast’, then surely this mockery … must humble and torture him, reminding of his Abdication, and of all the ritual he so loved and loathed. If, on the other hand there were no such place, … then … the boy would surely break. (p.233)

In the end Titus is saved by the arrival of those who do believe in Gormenghast. Firstly Slingshott, Crabcalf and Crack-Bell (‘You are Titus, the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Groan, and Lord of Gormenghast. So help us God.’ (p.187)) and secondly Muzzlehatch (‘God bless you and your Gormenghast, my boy.’ (p.254)).

Cheeta is vanquished, and her parting words as she flees are seen to be hollow:

I hate your Gormenghast. I will always hate it. If it were true I would hate it even more. (p.252)

But Gormenghast is true. It is true for Titus, true for Muzzlehatch, true for Juno and Anchor, and in the vital Secondary World sense true for the reader.

Although Titus must go through a final return of doubt even after this experience – ‘O Gormenghast! How can I prove you?’ (p.259) – yet his growth is complete – ‘… now a youth no longer but the man’ (p.260). Thus when he finally does return to Gormenghast and hears the dawn salvo, it is the final ‘proof of his sanity and love’ (p.262). Having attained this proof he can turn his back on Gormenghast for ever, because:

… he carried his Gormenghast within him. All that he sought was jostling within himself. He had grown up. (p.263)

Both he and the reader are ready for the further explorations and adventures which were to have been the subject of the fourth book in the sequence.