Fiction books Legacy

John Cowper Powys

Porius: a romance of the Dark Ages

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of John Cowper Powys. 

Sadly neglected, he is one of the giants of twentieth century British Literature. His novel Porius, set in late-antique Britain, provides an uncanny insight into ancient society, the enduring legacy of classicism and the truth behind the stories we tell ourselves.

The Towcester Limestone head combining ancient British and Roman styles. (Photo taken by Simon Bralee in British Museum 2018)

Life and works

Powys was born on 8 October 1872 the eldest son of the Reverend Charles Francis Powys and Mary Cowper Johnson. The family was noted for being large (Powys had 10 siblings), long lived (he was not unique in the family for reaching nearly 90 years) and talented. One sister and two brothers were noted writers. Theodore (T.F.) was perhaps a better-known author during his life, while Llewellyn wrote engaging essays. His sister Marian was a world expert on lace.

Powys was a highly literate author. His first books were poetry, published in the naughty nineties. His first novel was Wood and Stone published in 1915. He also lectured across the UK and America and wrote numerous books of literary criticism. 

As an author, Powys was inspired by many other authors including George Eliot, Dostoyevsky and Rabelais. A character in Weymouth Sands reads Homer obsessively as a salve for every frustration in his life.

He first came to wide public prominence for four books published between 1929 and 1936, collectively called The Wessex Novels after their geographic setting in England’s South West. The name also alludes to Thomas Hardy, a major influence on Powys. 

Porius is considered by many Powys aficionados as his masterpiece but for me, if I had to single out a single book, it would be Glastonbury Romance, the second of the Wessex series. 

Powys’ books contain many shared themes.

First he wrote long. Many books hover around the 1,000 page mark. The sentences are serpentine and sensuously written. The narratives are dense with detail and characters.

All his novels are semi-autobiographical. His Autobiography is also very readable, even if he rather strangely chose not to include any women in the narrative. In Porius, the hero’s name closely resembles Powys’ own. The main protagonists often share aspects of Porius’ own psychology. An intensely inward looking psyche.Powys was particularly interested in the fruits of deep inner meditation.

Wolf Solent begins with a character taking a train:

Wolf Solent was able to indulge in an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hour lengthened themselves into something beyond all human measurement.

It is still a unique first paragraph for any novel: a promise that while much is going to happen to characters, it will not be plot driven.

Powys was also interested in the power of the individual will and in magic. The books contain several outsider misfits who believe themselves to hold uncanny powers. Sylvannus Cobbold in Weymouth Sands, perhaps best fulfills this archetype, but there are several such mages in his novels.

In Porius, there are several mystical figures, although the greatest Myrrdin Wyllt (or Merlin) is presumed to hold god-like powers. 

Powys’ great friend Louis Wilkinson was also a close friend to Aleister Crowley. There is something more than a chance resemblance between such characters in Powys’ novels and Crowley’s own misunderstood persona.

The books are set in a provincial, genteel society. Margaret Drabble writes that “More bread and butter is consumed and more tea drunk in the novels of John Cowper Powys than in the whole of the rest of English literature”. This is not just true of his Wessex Novels. Even in Porius, set millennia before Chinese tea was first drunk in Britain, a character, Myrrdin Wyllt, sips a ‘fragrant drink’ of flower tea while nibbling bread.

One of the peculiarities for which his fellow-retainers used to mock him in the halls and kitchens of Deganwy was a trick he had of preserving in pots and jars the petals and leaves of various wild shrubs and flowers, plucked in their tender freshness but unrecognizable. Upon spoonfuls of this aromatic dust he would subsequently pour boiling water, and then he would sip for hours the fragrant drink thus distilled, nibbling as he did so certain special loaves of bread baked by himself from barley and rye.

Yet there is an unsettling undertone to his novels. Sex is a the great unspoken. 

In Wolf Solent, the protagonist identifies his half-sibling, the fruit of his father’s adultery, through her prominent proboscis. Everyone in the town had known about his affairs and it was a popular topic of gossip. 

In Porius, this unsettling presence is articulated by the threats of violence and death that literally surround the almost high medieval tents of the court of Camelot in the mist drenched forests of Wales. The courtiers are oblivious to the danger which surrounds them.

The main themes of Powys work as a whole is best summed up in a starling scene of conscupience between Porius and a giantess.

While she is described as making “the immemorial gesture of feminine complicity and consent”, he “succeeded, after a struggle … to take a ravisher’s possession of yielded virgin soil”. This is not love making, but a fight. The subtle references to rape underline this. Even for its time, this would have been a difficult passage to read. 

Yet the sex is not just physical:

It was she who had drained him of his strenght, but it was now she who was restoring it to him, restoring it out of those elemental depths of planetary substance, substance of air, substance of water, substance of fire, substance of earth, into which, beyond and beneath the living substance of flesh, extended the great paradisic division of male and female.

Sexual intercourse, however violent, leads to the inner realities.

Photo reference: Simon Bralee 2018 taken in British Museum

Publishing Porius

Porius is set over 8 days in North Wales in 499 CE. It focuses on the eponymous Welsh Prince as he defends an old Roman fortress. A court poet is recording the events happening around him so that readers millenia hence can learn the stories. This we are led to assume is the germ of Arthurian legend.

Powys combines the grain of historical fact, with myth and (for want of a better word) occult accretions to create a richly textured and multi-layered novel. To put it another way, there is a lot going on but not much action. Even while an attack of Saxons is fought off and Porius has sex, not much happens on the page.

Powys struggled to get it published.

This was an ongoing experience for him.

Malcom Elwin recounts a lunch spent with Jonathan Cape, who had just published Wolf Solent “a long book, expensive to produce, and we shall be lucky if it pays its expenses. Yet a novel of genius, isn’t it?”, Cape told him. A few years later when the Bodley Head had published A Glastonbury Romance, Elwin asked Cape why they hadn’t: “We just decided it was too long to be a commercial proposition. You writers never appreciate what it costs to produce a long book…”

The timing was not great for a long poetic novel. Paper rationing was still in place in 1951. The quota was allocated according to the amount of paper used in the last complete year before the war. (Elwin also notes Macmillan did well out of this scheme having published the best-selling and long White Supremacist novel Gone with the Wind in 1938).

As it was, Powys struggled to publish the novel by Simon and Schuster (who called it “over-written and indecipherable) and Bodley Head. A “cut” version was published by Macdonald in 1951. The original typescript went to Colgate university in New York. The full fat version was only published in 2007, by Duckworths.

Book cover (used under Fair Use)

Reading Porius

Porius is set in in Athurian Britian. A world also peopled with the strange figures and shadowly welsh-gods of the Mabinogion.

Yet is is not just an Arthurian retelling. It is something much more complex and compelling than this.

Wales is the site of ancient traditions, which need unpeeling, almost like rock strata or the layers of an onion. 

In this imagined Britain, several people co-mingle. The semi-mythic giants, the ‘forest people’, the Brythons (Britons), the Romans and Romanised Britons, and Saxon invaders. The novel understands these groups of people as ‘races’ rather than ‘cultures’, yet the differences come out less in innate characteristics as much as difficulties to understand each other.

Powys also attempts to link Celtic antiquity with the traditions of the ancient Mediterranean, the site of ‘classical culture’.

the traditions of a race that had in its day treated Egypt as a rival, Phoenicia as an interloper, and Hellas as a youthful prodigy.

Characters navigate between the layers, translating terms. One learned man translates the celtic term ‘tynged’ (doom, fate, a curse, a vow) for the Homeric ‘keer’ (death and sometimes ‘fate’) for example.

The novel also witnesses the creation of ‘peoples’. The Welsh nation is formed, according to the novel, by the combination of the forest people and the Brythons against both the Romans and Saxons, to self identify as ‘Cymry’ or ‘Comrades’, as the novel translates it. A term with clear allusions to Communism and class consciousness.

Religion is a fundamental part of human culture and religious difference is key to the novel. Various religious traditions are mentioned including Animism, Mithraism, Pelagian Christianity, Neo-Platonism and Woden-ism.

These gods are often combined. One character talks about fearing nothing but “the Holy Trinity, and the Illustrious Head of Bran the Blessed!”, while another character identifies a statue of Fortuna (perhaps Isis) with Mary Theotokos.

The religions are part of the different layers that form the world. 

The Earth lasts and man lasts, and the animals and birds and fishes last, but gods and governments perish!

The novel seems to hold that all religions, all cultures point towards the same innate truth. 

There is a serpentine symbolism that creeps through the novel. Several gods and natural features are linked with snakes from ‘Time’ to Cronus to Mithras. One character even remembers a religious icon from his childhood of Jesus Christ playing with a snake.

Morine Krissdottir writes that the Arthurian character Ninueue was identified by Robert Graves with the serpentine aspect of  “The White Goddess”, an all powerful female god which Graves believed was worshiped by several ancient cultures. Graves argued that many myths reveal this original religion. This theory does not have much scholarly support today, but it was very influential in its time. The idea of a transcendant truth that can be revealed through a careful reading of myth would have appealed strongly to the bookish Powys.

Another interesting aspect of the books’ use of ancient religion is the description of the Fisher King, a Druidical figure combining various traditions. It is described as ‘a sex-ritual whose origin reverted to North Africa’. The ritual involves a ‘phallic’ lance dipped into the waters of St Julian’s Fount, after which an ‘origastic’ cry is raised. The ritual seems to link to both the autumnal sowing (‘charged with the deep sex-urge that forced lif forward’) and marriage.

Powys use of the Fisher King is obviously drawn from the theories outlined by Jessie Weston in her book From Ritual to Romance

TS Eliot famously wrote in his notes to ‘The Waste Land’ that Weston’s book would ‘elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do”. Weston argued that the story of the Holy Grail myth was actually a survival of Mithraic rituals. Again, this theory is not widely supported today but it was influential partly because of Eliot’s sponsorship. 

The idea of a Fisher King, the dying god, who reheals the world through his death, was key to many contemporary authors. Perhaps the most profound was David Jones. In his two major poems, Jones sought to lift the veil of myth, religion and history to reveal the core truth which permeates and drives everything.

For Jones, this truth was the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Powys, this inner truth is more allusive.

In my reading of Porius, it is not in ‘external’ religions that Powys believes truth can be found, but through inner reflection the true self, the trascendent ego, is revealed.

A strikingly modern philosophy.

Photo reference: Simon Bralee 2018, taken in British Museum