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Amber Paulen

A photograph of my hand holding John Cowper Powys' Porius.

John Cowper Powys

Porius, so far

22 May 2008


It is with great pleasure I begin writing of this mammoth book; it is with great pleasure that I think about writing about this book; which is of course because the greatest pleasure comes from reading this vast book. Porius, the book, is similar to the character Porius ab Einion ab Iddawc ab Edeyrn ap Cunedda, in that they are both Herculean, by effort and by size; and that they both flourish in the misty underlife much below the outer events rumbling across the surface.

The whole point of writing now, being only half-way through, is to volatilize a general sense of the novel so that when I am finished I can be left to expand wherever I choose, without being so pinned to details. But also, I am eager to relay this, the first tasting of a book so recently resurrected. I would like to suggest to anyone picking up this giant book, to check out some Welsh pronunciations. It has made my reading much easier, just thinking I may be pronouncing some of the outlandish looking names correctly.

Porius is the capolavoro of the mythopoeic genius, John Cowper Powys, a novel enjoying a late summer thanks to recent attention, recent re-edition and publication. For the life of Porius as a book has been everything but boring. It seems that when John Cowper Powys finally submitted his finished masterpiece of seven years work, one thousand pages written in longhand, though of course typed out by his intuitive typist, the editors told him, “Nope! Too big! Cut it down!” And at the age of seventy-seven he was left to cut and file what could not possibly be cut and filed away. What Overlook Press has released claims to come as close to John Cowper Powys’s intentions as possible. Bravo! A commendable effort of justice for an author who has slipped into a hazy obscurity.

John Cowper Powys, of whom I have discussed briefly in my notes on Wolf Solent, in Porius has blown most books I have ever read into thoughtless bits and pieces. I am very tempted to say that it may oust The Brothers Karamazov out of its peak position, but I’m not finished with it yet. If it were only the sheer girth of the historical setting that he has so skillfully created and woven together. . . but Porius is not. If it were only the magnitude of characters, the immense breadth of the fantastic, of the magical, the envisioned ancient Welsh countryside. . . but Porius is not. Porius is whatever each reader finds between its bulk of pages.

Myrddin Wyllt appears to have thought that Taliesin’s poetry was the enjoyment of a particular essence, an essence to be found not only in things and persons but in historical and mythological events, and that this essence could best be reached by so close an intimate an identification of the poet with the thing alluded to or with the event described, that it was as if, stripped to the skin but not disembodied, he plunged into the thing’s essential being and became a conscious part of it, carrying the impressionability of his human senses into something which to the uninitiated might be merely a drop of lifeless water, or a piece of inanimate wood, or some formal grouping of traditional symbols grown fabulous and dim in the remote past.

What Myrddin Wyllt (or commonly, Merlin) attributes to the bard Taliesin is what I suspect to be the mystery unlocked of the master. John Cowper’s Powys’s fictionalized one week, from October 18 to October 25 in the year four hundred and ninety-nine, is the longest week I’ve read. In the span of this one week I can feel the seven years he took to write this novel and the unknown number of years spent thinking about the novel and through the multitude of well crafted characters I get a better picture of John Cowper Powys’s one. But enough about him!

Porius, the novel so far, has been told through a rough two handfuls of different narrations. I’ve found this to be one of the strongest characteristics of the book for it is pulled off so smoothly: Porius hands off to Rhun who gives way so naturally to Brochvael to Morfydd to Euronwy, ad infinitum. The whole district of Edeyrnion under the prince Einion and all its variant races are translated through this variable trough of individual voices. Perhaps it is only through this slew of characters that one may truly grasp the immensity of the expanse of the story that is being told. The approach of the Saeson army merely lends to the serious climate of change; everywhere is the transmutable, everyone at some life-pinnacle or another. May there be no other week before or to follow!

The most endurable aspect, for me so far, are the attributes that have come out of the above mentioned essences and the so close and intimate an identification. What the historical lends, besides the fulcrum for change, is a misty landscape of ancient rites and races. The last of the pagan ways of the forest people, their druids and the three princesses or Aunties, of the matriarchal line, in some ways so staunch against the wave of Christianity, which Myrddin Wyllt predicts to last for two thousand years, of which we still haven’t seen an end of. The prophet, Myrddin Wyllt himself, is a harbinger of the future who is opposed and written about by the Henog who is caught up in his own recordings of the past. The mystics that infuse almost all of the characters for no one believes that the druid’s arrows are not steeped in poison; but yet, the druid has teamed up with the priest, how could that be?

Porius is a time of uncertainties. Uncertainties not because of this mystic atmosphere that our past is drenched in and that one day we will have no choice but to return to, but because of its end. It was a time when Nature bound religions were being converted to the ‘three-in-one’ which propounds love for suffering. It was a time when the British or Brythons were not only British, but not that they are any more British now. For Porius claims that the one viable race of the island were giants, the Cewri. And if giants were the first to inhabit England, well, it makes more sense to believe in river goddesses and mythical druids. Porius shares a slight bit of this Cewri blood and it is this blood that boils; he is also a Romanized Brython, he also has the blood of the forest people, he is soon to marry his cousin, who is half Gwyddyl-Fitchti. What certainties are layered within all that? What certainties are there ever? Death, I guess. And as the Saeson army approaches and as sides are drawn, our Herculean hero slips wisely aside from it all.

There is a common accusation among the others that Porius is a tad-bit of a dullard; for his real thick thoughts he keeps undercover. I would too if I dreamt of sleeping with giants! Porius has his ‘cavoseniargizing’ like Wolf Solent before had his ‘mythology,’ and I don’t think this rich underground life stops there, though it is only Porius who has put a name to it. It is almost this ‘cavoseniargizing’ which connects the complete myriad of characters—no matter race or religion—which runs like the river goddess through that ancient countryside, keeping them all fertile and alive during the questionable time of change. For no one seems to notice, besides the jumpy Arthur’s men, that the terrible army is approaching at all.

I have found Porius, so far, to be exactly what I dream books to be: big, herculean even, a story returned to well after it’s done. It gives me great pleasure not to be finished yet.



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