Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Empire of Gormenghast

 I am re-reading the Gormenghast trilogy, which is pleasing to me. Don't know how long ago I read it but I must have been through a lot of changes since then because the writing is amazing in a way I have no memory of.

That for later; for now the thoughts which idle through my mind before sleep are about the world around Gormenghast.

A tiresome enough conceit you might think and an irrelevant one as the book is such a coherent whole and with such a dreamlike sense of its own reality that subjecting it to something as mediocre as worldbuilding is a bum concept.

Nevertheless, this is part of what we do here and I may come up with something interesting so here we go.

(I am only part-way through 'Titus Groan' and don't remember much about 'Titus Alone' where he actually goes outside Gormeghast - so all this is even more of an extrapolation).

Ian Miller


the creation of Gormenghast requires a great supply of time, the building being composed as much of Time as of Stone,  of continuity, as others have pointed out – it’s in part a transference of a European aesthetic to a pre-maoist Chinese scale of cultural time.

Instead of rome falling, chaos, and 500 years of building castles and then letting them moulder, imagine something like the same culture, but with 5,000 years of building castles and letting them moulder, moulder until the culture lives in and off its own ruin.


Ok after brief check, the oldest Earldom in the U.K. the Earl of Arundel, has about 35 earls in total, the original founding is 1176 - just under 900 years ago. That makes roughly 24+ years per-earl. Titus Groan is born to be the 77th earl of Groan, suggesting, if things were equivalent - 1,848 years. Put the technology level of the castle at pre-electricity, say 1800?, so the equivalent date of the first Earl of Groan would be about BC 48, around the period of Ceasars civil war.

So a kind of castle/English country house/villa/fort, developing with a continuous culture from the birth of the Roman Empire to the War with Napoleon - with no cultural revolutions, invasions or replacements, and with a sustained base of economic power to keep it stable and even growing.

Yes that about makes 'sense' of Gormenghast, if we were trying to make sense of it. I don't think we need 5,000 years when almost 2,000 will do just as well. A noble family and house that had lasted intact, with preservation of records and language since the time of Caesar, we can maybe imagine some great roman-style castle on the borders of Rome-proper, with a defensible position and significant land holdings, a place where, even as napoleons armies marched, the family still spoke Latin in the classic style and still had records on crumbling wax tablets. It's on the border of possibility and imagination

Ian Miller


There doesn't seem to be any political or economic activity relating Gormenghast castle to the outside world, there is not even a hit of any visible economic activity, though the castle must possess and disperse enormous, even gargantuan funds in order to use the resources it does.

There is not even a road to it mentioned in the first half of the first book.

The candles alone, think of it.

And no-one of noble caste in Gormenghast seems to be ever prevented from attaining any small physical thing they desire by lack of funds. By psychology, ritual and machinations yes, but not by poverty.

There must be, somewhere, a great, a huge and perhaps near-constant delivery into Gormenghast of all manner of foodstuffs, lighting, kindling, books, clothes and many other things, and a reverse flow of Gong, scraps, who-knows-what.

I choose to imagine that this occurs via underground river. Likely some ancient Earl of Groan built some form of underground docks, perhaps discovering an underground watercourse, or more likely diverting and remaking a pre-existing one. They did this because the humble and tumble of commerce, the endless deliveries the whinnying of horses (the DUNG) and brawling and carrying on of Cartiers, offended them, so they gave and order, and with the seemingly infinite power and resources of Groan, a cave or river was found, mined, expanded and linked to a dock deep beneath the castle, or perhaps under a far-distant wing. Now silent barges arrive at this lamplit underground dock, unload what they have, load up with waste and whatever else, and proceed on. Having entered at the 'upper port' far beyond the sight of Gormenghast itself, then now travel on to the 'lower port' perhaps a place near the sea, a village by a cave where an entire industry has grown up around the material waste and castoffs of Gormenghast, so long have their fields been fertilised by the castles Gong that the farmers have become accustomed to fragments of the castles half-digested history turning up beneath the plough; a bone, a fragment of parchment, a broken sword, once every century a gem or comb.

Anyway, a key theme of Gormeghast is that everyone knows their role and understands almost nothing beyond it - their world is as small as their social world, or as small as their work, and both are a ritual to be maintained.

So there are actually two sets of bargemen.

One set lives in the upper port, they receive goods and ship them down through the underground canal to the Gormenghast docks, (though they themselves don't sell, buy or own any goods, or even know what they are, they simply take the barrels and crates from the black timbered warehouse and load them into the barges). Having made the trip to Gormenghast, they greet the dock-keeper (an ancestral role) and leave the barges, walking the long underground (and dangerous, several days dark travel) path home beside the canal (every so often one falls in and drowns and there is a position in Gormenghast for a body-catcher who is meant to pull them out).

The men from the 'lower docks' the 'sea docks' travel up the canal in small coracles (moving against the flow) and find the docks empty, except for the barges full of waste, which they then transport home.

A third class of person has the duty of carrying the barges overland from the lower docks, around (behind) Gormenghast mountain. Back up to the upper docks, but this is a cursed occupation and neither the lowerdockmen, nor the upper docksmen, who know of each other only by inference and scratched illegal messages, are willing to communicate with the masked barge porters.

If one were to travel over the mountain from Gormenghast, one would find a sharp-pebbled track upon which single black barges moved, carried on the backs of desperate silent men who's only task and knowledge is to carry the boats. The black craft float across the landscape like leaden dreams. They only go one way. The supply seems infinite. No-one doing it knows why it is done. Men have gone mad, not from the terrible weight of the work, but from the seeming infinity of boats.

Ian Miller


What are the 'rules' of Gormenghast and how would they be expanded to a world?

One serves power.
One may not look at power.
One must never go towards power.

Know your role - maintain it, and only that. Be content with your own small life, lived within the rituals, for there is nothing else and no way out.

No-one in Gormeghast seems to know anything, or at least, to mention anything about any kind of outside world - unless it applies to the history of Groan.

You could extend this to cover a nation, an empire, a world. Huge systems could be made up of colonies of people who only know what they do, and not why, who live by ritual and repetition without ever understanding or even thinking much about the context of anything outside that ritual.

A continent - an Empire made up to serve that nation, its entire economy and culture bent towards the sacred centre. A world shaped by that empire to serve it in turn.

Ian Miller


A nation which rules, dotted with ruins, to which no-one ever goes, except for one ship, this loaded with wealth and fine goods.

perhaps instead of one ship one fleet goes to this nation. In the same way that Gormeghast is supplied by its underground canal this nation is supplied with rare outside goods by a treasure fleet - like the Spanish silver ships from the new world.

All of the wealth of this global empire is gathered together, and the gathering is managed by ancient mercantile interests - themselves bound in ritual. But these banks and tax farmers themselves don't keep the treasure, or even carve much off the top, instead their perceived power comes from the management of the treasure, as far as the rest of the empire, the rest of the world, is concerned, they are a kind of global government or bureaucracy - a mighty administratum to whom obedience must be paid, but as far as they are concerned, their only purpose and duty is to manage the tithe.

In distant lands and far-flung cultures, great slow, grinding conflicts might take place as a consequence of small matters in the taking of the Tithe, but all the Tithemasters know is that they must fulfil the ancient writ and send all that is claimed and all that is stated in the great treasure fleet to the ancient nation - centre and silent master of the world-empire.

None of them can ever go to the sacred nation, nor would they wish to, it is far above their narrow station. It is enough that the slow, wallowing ships of the treasure fleet be sent on the high tide of the summer seas, and when they arrive, the goods are counted, assayed and declared, (which takes perhaps half a year, leaving little time for the now high-riding ships to make it back to the city of the Tithe), and depending on the nature of the declaration, from 'Sufficient' to the wonderous 'Very Acceptable' to the nightmarish 'less than desired', great families and lineages of Tithemasters can rise and fall, purges and pogroms and revolutions, bankruptcies and ascendancies, all depending on the flags flying from the ships of the black treasure fleet as they make their way back to the city of the tithe.

On the shores of the sacred nation, in the city of the Black Ships the great guilds of assayers likewise live ritual-bound lives, they do not really understand where the ships are coming from, or the fundamental nature of the assay they are meant to make, but they have written documents, with extensive addendums and commentaries, making a kind of common law of how to assign value to various things, dating back 2000 years to the time of the first Groans, and in this city of the black ships, there are also terrible torments should a fleet prove 'less than desired' and great relief and celebration if it should be 'Acceptable' or even (only fifteen times in seventy generations) 'very acceptable'.

And in this nation, of which the City of the Black Ships is its greatest, and perhaps only, port, what becomes of the treasure?

The wealth of the Treasure has, of course, already been spent. All the Noble houses are in terrible debt, to each other, to the guilds of the city of the black ships, to various banks and agencies created to manage these debts.

Most of the treasure 'belongs' to particular lines of descent. So the Earl of Groan, for instance, as well as being the owner of the Groan Lands, is the in-absentia owner of the Groan Lands-Beyond, which in total make up a small but meaningful fraction of the worlds inhabited surface, although spread so widely and so partially (a building here, a field there) that even accounting for all of it is a lifetimes work), (the accountants of Groan being another often-inherited role).

Being based on ancient compacts and forgotten writ, this tax is paid often in kind, so for instance, a half-tonne of beeswax candles made by bees which have fed upon the mountain blooms of far Purloon. Acquiring such volumes of wax being enough to bring war and chaos to the towns of Purloon as they fight over the accumulation of wax and the management of bees in order to fulfil the tithe.

But this make up only a tenth of one percent of the Tithe owed to the House of Groan, and certainly almost no-one 'in' the House of Groan has even heard of Purloon or even smelled one of its candles or been lit by its light. 

The House of Groan is in significant debt, and that debt is being serviced by a trade in futures, based on the expected recovery of the Tithe each year from the Black Ships, and that Futures Market itself depends on the result of the Assayers etc.

So where do the candles go? It is not clear.

It is possible they are being stored in order to raise or lower their rating on the futures market, it is possible they have been destroyed, or melted in order to raise the perceived value of more arriving.

Ultimately, they may have been partially melted, mixed with paraffin or other substances, (because there is little demand in the world beyond for the smell of the mountain flowers of Purloon), and transformed into cheaper odourless white candles that burn with a guttering yellow flame, and then shipped out as ballast in the bellies of the black ships, in the hope that the sale of such might go some way to offsetting the terrible risks of the futures market, (which will not be so bad for we hope for a great bounty of candles from Purloon next year).

This example of the candles of course, being only a fragment, a grain of sand in the economy of the world of Gormenghast.

Alan Lee


Is Gormenghast castle itself the centre of all things, or merely one of a range of near-forgotten castles which ring the still-more occluded centre?

It is only one of a range. Forgotten even by the forgotten. The centre of the world - the castle of castles of which Gormenghast is but a sentinel, is unknown to the Groans. They know only that their duty is to guard it, which they have done for 75 generations.


  1. Oh that last paragraph really got me, shivers. The ultimate extension of the feudal vassal-lord contract.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the parallels but the whole ‘massive accounting nightmare tribute’ makes me think of the 40k Administratum and the bureaucracy of Holy Terra.

    Titus Alone really shook me when I first read it, I found it a very powerful read. The strangely modern technology, the two policemen: it’s a bloody good book.

    1. 40k seems to seep into everything I do

    2. Surely it's the other way around: Gormenghast is one of the precursors of 40K. (It's a foundational work of British fantasy, after all - there's no way the original GW crew weren't familiar with it.) Both are interested in what happens when you take a hierarchical class system and just let it sprawl *forever*, physically and chronologically.

    3. Both can be true. Gormenghast could have influenced 40k which then definitely influenced me when I was writing about it.

  2. Still haven't read Gormenghast. (so many books, etc.) Tangentially, are you familiar with the webcomic The Mansion of E? Some related concepts you might enjoy if you've time for an enormous archive binge.

    1. I have not heard of it but will try to take a look

  3. That last pic is Alan Lee from his book "Castles"

    1. Re. Covers and illustrations, my own copies have these covers, by Mark Robinson. (https://www.arenaillustration.com/news/2011/08/my-dream-job/)

      A little difficult to tell, I know, under all the titles and price tags, but I've a fondness for the sense of scale and time conveyed by them - look at the wear of many thousands of feet on that staircase, or the mist-wreathed protruding bastion.

  4. Just wanted to say that I loved this and I haven't even read Gormenghast. I gather from the post that the whole resource supply chain thing isn't in the books at all, so massive credit to you because that stuff has this melancholy vibe that I love in a setting. That sense of age, tradition, and alienating enormity of scale is really cool. Not a perfect fit, but probably the closest TTRPG thing I've read is "The Vast in the Dark" (https://feral-indie-studios.itch.io/vast-in-the-dark).

    Bumping Gormenghast up from somewhere in the godforsaken middle of of my reading list to the "I actually might get to this" section at the top.

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  6. Love this. “Deep Time on a human scale” is a concept I love and have tried to use in Dreamland. The books are all so good, even the big insane presumptuous twist of Book 3, and I’m left wondering how Peake would have possibly ‘continued’ it in a 4th book, who knows what his sadly advancing dementia had planned for his One World and his One Favorite (after Steerpike?) Character….

  7. There is an explicit reference to the burning of artwork in one of the early scenarios of Dark Heresy, i'll have to look it up again.

  8. piranesi art would work and other collosal building fantasies - i have a infinitely ruined giant city/land in my game players keep visiting to learn secrets of the cosmos but mostly full of stupid clod survivalist giants in ruins

  9. This is a lovely extrapolation and rationalization of Gromenghast (though still a fantastical one of course). The Groan books are certainly one of the things that's influenced my own setting design - though I suppose I imagine the world of Castle Gromenghast (or the Palatine Mound of the Imperial Captial) shrinking and closing in like any collapsing empire, the hoarded plunder of ages flowing out to vibrant and resurgent cultures in the hinterlands, and necessities priced high trickling in. Threadbare thrones, and noble tables sparsely fed with decorative carp and tiny oranges that were the terrace hobbies of the ancestors. Yet for the elite the obvious winding down of worldly power, the broken staircases and peeling mirrors are far less important then intricacies of court and power - who will lead this regiment or succeed to that dukedom: both lost a generation before to desertion.

    Anyway there's a lot of fun to be had skipping through the elegiac stained glory. Thanks for posting this.

  10. Oddly the game that most reminded me of Gormenghast is Electric Bastionland, a city so full of inhabitants that you are never truly alone; the near opposite of the castle of ruins that is Gormenghast.
    Maybe it is that both are fever dream fantasies of early Twentieth Century Britain, one from the time, the other over a century later ...