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Amber Paulen

John Cowper Powys' Glastonbury Romance.

John Cowper Powys

A Glastonbury Romance

My mental attempts to collate my reading of A Glastonbury Romance makes me feel as though my hands were fumbling, groping along in the dark of certain shadowy, black shapes and figures. It’s by accident that my palm touches the Saxon arch Johnny Geard built; by accident my fingers run along the cool stone of the old vicarage; by accident my feet plunge into the dewed grass of Tor hill; by chaos do the many names of the populace in this “girt” book run: Sam Dekker, Mat Dekker, Nell Zoyland, Philip Crow, Miss Elizabeth Crow, John Crow, Emma Drew. . . need I list more? A Glastonbury Romance is immense.

John Cowper Powys, in his introduction written twenty years after the “girt” book was written, writes that A Glastonbury Romance attempts to describe:

Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.

The “particular legend” is the Grail myth. The “particular spot” is Glastonbury, Somerset. Of both I have written in brief in my introduction. By deduction I am left with the “crowd of inhabitants” and what a crowd it is! Morine Krissdóttir claims there to be 47 principle characters. It is not this veritable crowd that overwhelms me but that all of them have been indulged with their own story, off the plot, but with the plot, ultimately completely separated yet completely effected by the undercurrents and vibratory nature of the myth of the Holy Grail. It is unbelievable, “impossible,” as Henry Miller wrote, that such a story could come out of any one head, any one life, one body, one soul. This is the almost inconceivable magnitude that is John Cowper Powys!

Unlike Wolf Solent who came before, unlike Porius who came later, and unlike Autobiography which came directly after, what was concentrated into a main one “Powys-character” has been spread through the entirety of A Glastonbury Romance thick and fine over many. Though none of the above listed Powys-characters are straight-shot autobiographical sketches, I did find myself missing the depths in one versus the collective depths of many. Not to mention, there were no epic walks. But in scope, all lack was certainly made up, so that what I missed wasn’t even a lack at all but something extraordinarily different.

The two Grail questers, John Geard and young Sam Dekker, were so unlike each other as was the distance of their individual quests. Johnny Geard, the incorrigible pagan, the miracle-wielding magician, the elected mayor. He got pleasure smelling at dung-hills, from making water in his wife’s garden, from snuffing up the sweet sweat of those he loved. He believed that there was a borderland of the miraculous around everything that existed and that “everything that lived was holy.”

Bloody Johnny’s body was heavy, like his thoughts, languid. He was driven on by his version of the Blood of Christ and through his mystical mingling with the Blood of Christ he became a healer and a great orator to whom travellers would pilgrimage to Glastonbury so that they could sit at his feet and listen. The Magician that was Bloody Johnny is who I can not overlook; he transformed Glastonbury as much as Glastonbury transformed him, transformed those who believed in his new “religion” as he transformed those who found him absurd or heathen.

When into the turgid waters of the flooding Atlantic did he drown it was above the very ground where once had stood the Lake Village’s temple to the goddess Cybele. The death of Johnny Geard was the most beautiful prose in the book, which brought me to the most beautiful ending of any book I’ve ever read. The incantations to the “Towers of Cybele” left me with an indescribable calm that must have been as peaceful as the drowning of Johnny Geard.

For the great goddess Cybele, whose forehead is crowned with the Turrets of the Impossible, moves through the generations from one twilight to another; and of her long journeying from cult to cult, from shrine to shrine, from revelation to revelation, there is no end. . . The days of the years of men’s lives are like leaves upon the wind and like ripples upon the water; but wherever the Tower-bearing Goddess moves, journeying from one madness of Faith to another, these pinnacles of desperation mount up again.

Sam Dekker, on the other hand, was not bestowed with such a great surety as Mr. Geard of Glastonbury, until the very end. If it was in the nature of his quest to ask out the great question: “Is it a tench?” that unlocked the vision of the Grail, it was in the nature of Sam Dekker to be always advancing through the insisted ideals felt by his whole self. It was not without agitation did I read of his relationship to Nell Zoyland, for whom his father whispered in his deepest self, “I’d like to!” What was once fervent with love, he gave her a child, became on the next day, by dint of some off-shot comment, chaste. His imposed saintliness, which aroused derision in the clay mines, kept his purpose steady and clear, gave him his question which unlocked his vision; but what about the miserable girl?

Then there was Owen Evans, the sadist of odd eroticisms. His crucifixion at Johnny Geard’s Passion pageant, more real than performed, was another greatly impassioned scene. The physical pain of the man, strung up by his wrists to his wooden cross, before he shouted that “Eloi! Eloi!” was more acute than he had ever dreamed of undergoing.

His body, as the pain increased—as his soul deliberately caused the pain to increase—began to overbrim the confines of its human shape.

His body projected itself under the pain projected outward, reached outward until his body became the whole round earth, swinging on its orbit through space. Through the pain, Owen Evans took onto himself Glastonbury’s darkest and most terrible secrets. What follows is a dialogue of suffering, hope and forgiveness, worthy of the great Dostoevsky himself. Owen Evans is not exactly cleansed of his sadistic sins, but he is calmed enough. . . for awhile.

If the men of A Glastonbury Romance shade in spanning sketches with every imaginable color—from the easiness of ex-mayor Wollop and Bert to the high-toting idealism of communist commune-creating Dave Spear—than the women fill in where the men absolutely can not. And for all of John Cowper Powys’s ankle gazing and sylph hunting, sometimes I found myself blown away by the great import of his keen observations, more so when woven into such a story.

The two sisters Geard, Crummie and Cordelia, were as physically unalike as two sisters could be. The first and youngest, fresh of soft, white flesh, took secret pleasure in the caressing of her own thighs. While Cordelia, eventual wife of Owen Evans, had legs like “broom handles” and went through the feminine pantomime of getting ready with hasty contempt. Oddly, it is Cordelia who experiences the most complex eroticism and it is Crummie who shrouds herself in the presence of her saintly love, Sam Dekker, like a nun.

Persephone Spear, of a willowy figure such that John Cowper Powys was so enamored with, whose waist one could not help but to put one’s arm around, bred fleeting resemblances to her namesake (and perhaps bore more similarities to Frances Gregg.) Maybe, when Philip Crow brought her down into the caverns of Wookey Hole, that was her descent into Hades, so that he could make love to her in the bottom of a rocking boat; but I was under the impression that she had been down there before. The striking acting of Persephone as Mary mourning under Owen Evans’ cross was like some classic representation of her own namesake, the Goddess of the Dead. Her relationships, with Philip Crow, with Angela Beere and Will Zoyland, left her more lonely and alone, still searching.

There is more, so much more: more gentry, the servants, the animals, children, the inanimate, Glastonbury herself, the ancient edifices, new structures, the earth, the plants, nature. Unfulfilled love, love between cousins, incestuous love, sex, murder, infidelities, unrequited love, babies born, communism and anarchism and industrialism. If there has been no other book to encompass as much of our human experience as absolutely possible, this book is it. John Cowper Powys is unequivocally unequalled in his long-winded sense of the incredible and the completely mundane. Perhaps it is this delicate mix that causes some to find him so unreadable.

John Cowper Powys is the only writer I have read that gives enough voice to all that rises from the deepest and the untold and the unseen, all that rises from “nightly pillows” whether they be dreams or drifting thoughts or acknowledgments of solid action. Maybe in giving voice to the great Goddess Cybele he was writing much more closely about the creative elements—so vital, so potent and eternal—within himself.

Through all the stammerings of strange tongues and murmurings of obscure invocations she still upholds her cause; the cause of the unseen against the seen, of the weak against the strong, of that which is not, and yet is, against that which is, and yet is not.


rarr; Find more good books by John Cowper Powys in the Good Books!


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