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Steerpike is the main antagonist of the gothic fantasy book trilogy of Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. The archenemy of Titus Groan, he was originally a poor yet diabolically cunning kitchen boy working under the drunken abusive chef Swelter. One day he decides to become the ruler of Gormenghast through any heinous means he can think of, thus triggering the events of the first two books.

He was portrayed by Stefan Vinzberg in the opera adaptation, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the BBC miniseries.

Biography

Steerpike first appears as a youth of seventeen years of enigmatic origins, working in Gormenghast's Great Kitchen under the alcoholic chef Abiatha Swelter, whom he hates. On the day that Titus, 77th Earl of Gormenghast, is born, Steerpike escapes from the kitchen after Swelter collapses from drinking too much. He is discovered by the chief retainer of the castle, Flay, and locked in a small room. Steerpike escapes through the window and climbs over the vast roofscape of Gormenghast, spending the night in a great stone square, before arriving by accident in the attic of Fuchsia, daughter to the Earl of Gormenghast and Titus' older sister.

Steerpike uses his charisma and master orator skills to impress the castle's eccentric physician Dr. Prunesquallor, and acts for a time as his apprentice. From there Steerpike uses the doctor's connections to gain access to the upper hierarchy of Gormenghast. Shortly afterwards he starts to work for the mentally disturbed sisters of the Earl, the twins Cora and Clarice, manipulating them with appeals to their vanity and desire for power (they believed that the Countess had usurped their rightful position beside their brother). He persuades them to set fire to Sepulchrave's Library and uses the circumstances to play the hero in rescuing the people trapped inside (including all the surviving members of the House of Groan). Sourdust, the Master of Ritual, is secretly murdered and Steerpike hopes to take his place, but like so many offices in the castle the position is hereditary and is succeeded by Sourdust's son Barquentine, a crippled and fiercely traditional man. Titus and Flay are the only ones not convinced by Steerpike's hero facade.

The library was Earl Sepulchrave's only joy in life, as it was the only distraction from the stagnant lifestyle of Gormenghast, and its loss breaks his spirit, leading to madness and eventual suicide by letting himself be devoured by a flock of owls. During this period, Steerpike causes the removal of the Earl's manservant, Mr. Flay, who had always been suspicious of him. Steerpike enrages the manservant, who throws one of the Countess's precious white cats at the youth; Flay is subsequently banished by the Countess. His resultant grudge against Steerpike and Titus' suspicion of his true motives becomes a key factor in Steerpike's eventual downfall.

Deciding to get rid of the twins, Steerpike convinces them to move into a distant and abandoned region of the castle by confabulating an epidemic of "Weasel Plague", which they must be quarantined from. He then explains their disappearance to the inhabitants of the castle with a suicide note (including a confession to arson) and wax models of the Twins, helped by the fact that the half-paralyzed twins were hardly more animated than wax-works in real life.

Steerpike then gets into Barquentine's work, acting as apprentice and doing his best to make himself a precious assistant. When he considers the time ripe, he attempts to kill Barquentine by fire, but botches the attempt, underestimating the seemingly frail and disabled old man. Although aflame and dying, Barquentine clings to Steerpike in an attempt to take his murderer with him. Steerpike jumps from the nearest window into the moat below and drowns Barquentine. Steerpike nearly loses his own life in the process, but uses this to his advantage, claiming that the jump into the moat was a desperate attempt to save his master from the fire. The incident, however, leaves Steerpike permanently scarred; his face now red and blotched. The fire and injury also appears to cause changes in his personality, namely a distinct fear of fire and a more unhinged and wrathful personality. The plan succeeds, however, and the death of Barquentine leads to him being appointed Master of Ritual.

At approximately this time the Twins die of starvation in their remote room; locked away they were completely dependent on Steerpike for supplies, but he ceased to visit them when they attempted to kill him and escape. Steerpike of course realizes that they must have died, but it is only after several years as Master of Ritual that he finds time to bother to confirm their deaths, during which time, among other things, he attempts to seduce Fuchsia. Unfortunately for him he is followed to their room by Flay, Doctor Prunesquallor, and Titus and is discovered gloating at the corpses of the Twins. His behavior at this point shows evident signs of madness, in stark contrast to the cold and calculating mastermind he once was.

With his crimes exposed, Steerpike kills Flay and flees, swearing revenge against Titus and his family, and for a short while terrorizes the castle, using his intimate knowledge of its layout and extensive passageways to evade capture. Matters are brought to a head when a huge rainstorm floods the castle, submerging the lower levels and forcing Steerpike to move higher and higher. Although he evades the Countess's forces, Titus, who blamed Steerpike for his father's and sister's death, eventually finds and kills him. Steerpike uses his last breath with a snarl of hatred at Titus.

Trivia

  • Steerpike in the BBC miniseries is depicted as slightly more sympathetic than the book version, as he shows genuine affection for Fuchsia unlike the book version who saw her as another expendable tool.
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