John Cowper Powys, PORIUS (1951)

(this is a revision of something I first posted on Facebook).

I just finished reading John Cowper Powys’ PORIUS (1951, though the full text wasn’t available until 2007). It is a long novel — 450,000 words or so — and an absorbingly relentless one. Powys (1872-1963) was a contemporary of the great modernist writers, and his work represents an alternative form of modernism, and for me a quite inspiring one. PORIUS takes place over a week in October 499 AD; the eponymous character is the heir to a small princedom somewhere in Wales. He encounters, in addition to various relatives, rivals, and friends and/or lovers, such mythical Welsh figures as King Arthur and especially Myrddin Wyllt (who we know as Merlin). The novel occupies a strange place where naturalism, myth, and pantheist nature worship seem identical. We get modernist stream of consciousness of the various characters, except that the consciousness in question is entirely embroiled with and taken up by the natural world. We go seamlessly between the description of a gleam of sunlight on a mushroom, or for that matter a pile of dung visited by numerous flies, and the alienated self-consciousness of one or another character. The background is that of a society in flux. There is a Saxon invasion, that is reported to us but that we do not see directly. There are also ongoing factional disputes between the various ethnicities inhabiting pre-Anglo-Saxon Wales. Most of the groups are Celtic, more or less. The indigenous “forest people” seem to be Celtic, but Powys also suggests that they were originally from Morocco and Iberia. The Brythons, the ruling class to which Porius belongs, are also Celts; but they have intermarried with Romans from the former occupation, and picked up a lot of Roman customs. There are also the Gwyddylaid (Scots), and the Ffichtiaid (Picts).

The fractures are religious as well as ethnic. Christianity is in process of conquering Britain and exterminating all its rivals, but it hasn’t entirely gotten there yet. The priests, official representatives of the Roman Church, are loathsome bigots. But they have a lot of competition, both from milder more-or-less Christians, and from pagans of various sorts. The two extreme ideologies on display are mirror images of one another: militant Christianity on the one hand, and the extreme nihilism and hatred of life of Medrawd (known to us better in Arthurian tales as Mordred) on the other. In between, we encounter Mithraism, pagan nature worship, and the kinder gentler form of Christianity associated with Pelagius (he denied original sin, and is thereby regarded by the Church of the time, and ever since, as a heretic). Porius himself is not firmly committed to any religious faction. Instead, he is largely embroiled in the questions of political power, disputed among the many groups and tendencies, and in his marriage to his first cousin Morfydd, a move designed to solidify the dynasty. Morfydd in turn is in love with another man, Rhun, who is another first cousin to both Porius and herself. Despite flashes of jealousy, the three cousins work things out well enough. The drama of the book is largely metaphysical, and the emotions of the characters get subsumed within that.

The overall plot of the book is also somewhat picaresque. Though Porius is the most central character, the book also shifts focus numerous times and goes into the mentalities of a lot of the other characters. Porius is also diverted into other actions and adventures. Most interestingly, he has sex with a giantess (the last of a nearly extinct race of giants who inhabited the land before even the indigenous forest people arrived), and at the very end he rescues Myrddin Wyllt from his imprisonment by his lover Nineue (which is the last we see of Merlin in Arthurian legend). Powys not only gives Merlin a subsequent afterlife, but he also expresses considerable appreciation and admiration for his sorceress/destroyer, rather than treating her as a straight-out villainess as the traditional accounts do.

In the massive course of the novel, all of these odd happenings and strange contestations get subsumed within what might be called Powys’ post-Romantic nature worship. But that term is not quite right, since nature is not a single entity for Powys, but a vital multiplicity. It is composed of, or decomposed into, multiple instances: one particular tree, one particular mushroom, the special glint of sunlight behind cloud as it affects a small clearing in the middle of the forest, and so on.

Powys is a singular writer, and a marvelous one. I read another novel of his every two or three years, or so. Fortunately he wrote a lot, so I am in no danger of running out. PORIUS is so overwhelming that I would not recommend it as the first text of Powys to read, if you have never encountered him before. Though frankly, I am not sure which text is the best beginning place.

In any case, I will conclude with a few samples of Powys’ prose. These are just passages that stopped me cold when I was reading the novel, and that are relatively graspable without knowing the context, or the details of the plot.

  • Powys writes of the Welsh bard Taliesin’s poetry “whose peculiarity was that it was not only absolutely ‘a-sexual,’ or devoid of sex, but devoid of all the emotions connected with religion and piety where sex enters.” This poetry displays an “absolute immunity to all the human emotions where sex plays a dominant part, as it does in love, in hate, in race, in religion, and in almost all forms of cruelty; and the curious thrill of pleasure, as of a new exciting sensation that his poetry produced, showed what a mass of subjects is left when sex is cut out.” Taliesin’s poetry expresses “a quivering, vibrating, yet infinitely quiescent moment of real Time, a moment of Time so satisfying that it surpassed all the pleasures of sex, while it reduced to something unnatural, distorted, and perverted, every scruple of chastity.”
  • “Could you see the shadow of a thing and its reflection at the same time?”
  • Powys describing the fall of leaves: “the huge dark dumb mysterious process, reeking with sepulchre-sweet rot and fetid with lust-satisfying decay, of the enormous vegetable dissolution, out of which, autumn by recurrent autumn, the organic life of the earth is renewed.”
  • “The girl bent down as she crossed this little stream and stared steadily into one of these constantly growing bubbles; and this arbitrarily chosen eye of the whole inorganic world stared back at her—the eye of matter itself responding in subconscious or perhaps superconscious indifference to the eye in a human skull!”
  • “And yet there hung about the whole project something dreamlike and unsubstantial, not so much unreal as subreal, like a decision under water, or in the soft persistent falling of snow upon snow!”
  • “Active brutality rather than erotic cruelty was the worst thing into which the surging urge of the invisible force which swept him forward drove Gunhorst.”
  • “… though it might be impossible for the human brain to imagine such things it was still within the bounds of possibility that the ultimate reality was neither One nor Many, nor even a mysterious mingling of them both, however much helped out, so a few riverbed gurglings seemed to interject, by the Holy Trinity, but was something completely and absolutely different.”