Posts Tagged ‘Gormenghast’

I have always been attracted to odd or funny or unusual words. I love that the English language has such a wealth of them.* As I child I would sometimes sit and read the dictionary – finding strange words and trying to work them into everyday speech (or the many unfinished stories I always had on the go).

gormenghast notes

My very old copy of Gormenghast, with notes. The same page also contains: raddled (either twisted or reddened) and pranked (adorned, shown off)

Words I remember learning in that way:

Grimalkin: an old witch.
Madder: a natural red dye.
Glabrous: smooth skinned.

I first read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy at 15, and for many years adored it (although I have to say I prefer my prose a lot less fancy these days). But it was full of many words I didn’t understand. I would mark them in the text. Then when I reached a suitable break I would get out the dictionary, look up all the recent words, and write the meanings in to the margins – in case i forgot again by the time I re-read the book (you will recall from previous posts that although I love books, I am not precious about them).

Words I remember learning from Gormenghast:

Gibbous: the moon when it is more than half, but less than full.
Fastidious: fussy.
Osseous: made of bone.

For a time I became particularly intrigued by unusual names, and kept a small notebook in which I jotted down odd names that I came across.

My favourite company names, learnt whilst working as a temp for a variety of local, mostly mining-related businesses:

Norbert Dentressangle; a haulier, but the name always reminds me of Murun Buchstansangur, which I used to enjoy as a child, and – having now looked it up after *cough* years – is even odder than I remember.
Angst Pfister; they’re real, honest. And safe for work!

I also made up reams of names. Sometimes I would think up a character to go with the name. Sometimes they made it as far as (an unfinished) story.

Tragically I can no longer find the notebook full of my best names. But these are a few from a comic-adventure boarding school story I still vaguely intend to finish one day:

Boscoe Roast; a schoolboy and a bully.
Colt Saltarello; a handsome, laconic Texan, and dancing intructor.
Frances Botticelli-Irvingspoon; from a wealthy but dissolute family, she knows all manner of interesting things that a young girl probably shouldn’t, and is excellent at poker.

And finally, three very common words which for some reason when I see written down I often mispronounce/misapprehend to myself:

misled: (myzelled) I went out for a misle; now I’m thoroughly misled.
mishap: (mish-ap) I have no idea what that could mean. Perhaps it’s similar to a mashup?
doing: I want to pronounce it to rhyme with boing.

Anyone got a favourite word they’d like to share?

* German also has a great number of peculiar words, I later learnt. My favourite is ausgeflippt: freaked out.

I have a guest post up today on the Speculative Salon about the often close relationship between music and magic.

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Music Pink and Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Music: Pink and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, picture courtesy of, http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/georgia-o%27-keeffe

Below is an additional thought on the wholeness, the completeness of music, which I didn’t manage to fit into the piece.

One of my favourite fantasy series growing up was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I love the strangeness, the grotesqueness of the characters and settings. I love that it was all very recognisable, but at the same time indefinably other.

Gormenghast is the name of a castle and its immediate environs; forest, mountain, river. As well as the noble family – the delightfully named Groans – it houses a school, a museum/art gallery, a library, a doctor, a poet, various funcionaries and an encampment of serfs. It is an utterly self-contained and fully realised little world – but there is one important omission.

In three books, spanning 17 years or so, I don’t recall a single mention of music. Ever*. Not even a trumpet fanfare during one of the interminable, pointless ceremonies Lord Groan is forced to enact daily.

I find that astonishing. And the world of Gormenghast is slightly reduced in my eyes due to its lack. I can believe in a castle where a hideous but charismatic kitchen boy scales his tower prison, and seduces the daughter of the house in her secret attic; that he sees a horse bathing in a rooftop pool on the way; that a silent waif floats through the forest, as light as air; that a strange Countess prefers to spend time with a white rook than her own newborn baby. But a world without music? I find that hard to conceive of.

World building is hard. There is so much to think of, so many details to consider, so many relationships and histories to get right. It’s hardly surprising that sometimes a piece of the world gets completely forgotten. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has read fantasy books and thought, “But what about the —- ?”

* Disclaimer: Although I have read the Gormenghast series three or four times, the last time was over 14 years ago. It is possible I have forgotten some musical interlude tucked away in there somewhere. I think the Doctor does sing a song about a frivolous cake one time while soaking in the bath, but that hardly makes up for an entire castle devoid of music and musical instruments!