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Amber Paulen

John Cowper Powys' Glastonbury Romance.

John Cowper Powys

A Glastonbury Romance, an introduction

Not without caution do I place my first step into John Cowper Powys’s town of Glastonbury. The book, A Glastonbury Romance, runs deep as it does wide and though I have never seen the river Brue, the book is perhaps as muddy as the river’s shore. For to step into this Romance is to step with all or nothing at all.

I have read that it has been difficult for many to get past the first long-winded chapter, maybe even the first long-winded page; and that many give up their going at the very beginning. Then there are those who become subject to Powys’s hefty novel. Those who, when their eyes fall onto his words, the words they do not digest because they are words that penetrate, a story that penetrates, through every myth that every novel has ever created. These are words that sprout and replicate to a Rabelaisian size and stature, words that take down the whole literary stronghold with their intent and meaning. Needless to say, in the later category I heedlessly fall, and, my introduction is biased. I am surprised at how quickly I am flipping flipping flipping through the 1000+ pages. My mind is verdant with various sproutings.

Something passed at that moment, a wave, a motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual, between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage of the twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of all life.

As for the sun that noon in East Anglia:

Roaring, cresting, heaving, gathering, mounting, advancing, receding, the enormous fire-thoughts of this huge luminary surged resistlessly to and fro, evoking a turbulent aura of psychic activity, corresponding to the physical energy of its colossal chemical body, but affecting the microscopic biped’s nerves less than the wind that blew against his face.

What begins by a relatively focused chapter of the Crow family in attendance at the reading of Canon Crow’s will, by which the magnetic Johnny Geard becomes newly rich, soon sprawls. The sprawl of this thick novel goes beyond what any novel has gone and beyond what any novel will sprawl forth towards again. Henry Miller wrote in a letter to Lawrence Durell: The other day I began reading A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys. My head began bursting as I read. No, I said to myself, it is impossible that any man can put all this—so much—on paper. It is super-human. . . Old John had caught the world by the throat. And lovingly and surely he squeezed every bit of beauty, of meaning, of purposeless purpose out of it.

Perhaps, in a way, A Glastonbury Romance is similar to that bulk of a book John Cowper Powys wrote later, Porius. They both share in the overwhelming joy of too many characters and as-interesting sub-plots—then the similarities between this Wessex Romance and that Dark Ages Romance end. But there is, as always and shall forever be, the blood of John Cowper Powys running through both works, and where there was John Cowper Powys there sits a book of superb range.

It is not my point in this introduction to delve into the actual gears turning in this book, but to give its general overview, the dominant taste of the book. And though I am only some hundred pages away from finishing, I figured, better too late than not at all for when I come to write the piece to follow I would like my gears to be in the full and clear.

Glastonbury herself is one of the major staring roles in this romance, a reacting-acting entity more than a setting. The myth that Glasonbury is steeped in, according to the animate-inanimate of John Cowper Powys, effects even the land, effects the air and the trees, especially the inhabitants, their deep-thoughts, their late-night dreams. Though the Holy Grail may or may not have existed, may or may not have been birthed from myth older than the Celts, in A Glastonbury Romance the Holy Grail is as real as Bloody Johnny’s miracle-making Chalice Well. The Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Avalon, the Abbey Ruins, the last Abbot dragged, hung and quartered, the Lake Village, the sarcophagus of Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail itself and all its various incarnations in symbols, combine to cast a deep-glowing mystery over the whole book.

What has the power to permeate more than a well told myth? What else stands the test of time? How else are the eternal symbols of life passed from the dead to the living?

A Glastonbury Romance follows two questing heros in search of two different Grails, the Holy Christian one and the Pagan Celtic one. Though my Grail knowledge before this book was nil, one does not need to know exactly what John Cowper Powys is talking about to know what he is talking about. The subtle intricacies of this novel are too much to make any serious reader’s head spin and it is this spinning which gives me such delight. The seeming nonsense of the plot is grounded in myth as old as the rocks of Stonehenge. If one is open to the vein of ancient symbolism, the aura of this book, much like the aura of the sun on the opening pages, will penetrate thru to the ancient stories and symbols within one, which usually lie dormant.

My mind has something in it, some background, some basis of secret truth, that is completely outside the material world, outside the whole staggering vision of Matter! Without this existence of this something else I could not envisage this immense universe at all. Without this deeper thing there would be no universe!

This “something else,” this “deeper thing,” is like the waters of Bloody Johnny’s Chalice well. I know I wouldn’t mind going there and dipping myself inside while I “focus on that slit in Time through which the Timeless had broken the laws of Nature.” But what need have I for such travel? A Glastonbury Romance accomplishes the same thing.

→ Looking for more John Cowper Powys? Look no further!


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