There, That’s Done, Almost. Also John Cowper Powys

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII (Wikimedia Commons).

Where did the week go?

It seems like setting up the AAR sessions — two solo for Contemporary Pagan Studies, two co-sponsored, and one “quad” (four sponsors) — that plus a little snow, some fire department maintenance work, and some chainsaw issues that don’t belong here totally exhausted all my psychic energy. Just need to line up one more panel respondent.

When it is completed, I will publish the line-up of papers.

For refuge, I have fled to Glastonbury, not the real town but a close relative, John Cowper Powys’ massive novel A Glastonbury Romance.

As the explorer/writer Lawrence Millman said in a 2000 Atlantic piece, “One doesn’t read Powys so much as enlist in him.” (Of course, if you read all of A Song of Fire and Ice, you have “enlisted” in George R. R. Martin. Most people watch the TV series.)

This is all the fault of Carole Cusack, who in a recent blog interview on Albion Calling pronounced that “the entire oeuvre of John Cowper Powys should be of crucial interest to contemporary Pagans, but I suspect that he is almost unread these days, to everyone’s detriment, not just the Pagans.”

I took that as a challenge, and the helpful inter-library loan librarian quickly produced not just A Glastonbury Romance (1933) but Powys’ Autobiography (1934), which I read first. I could write more about the Autobiography. It’s frank enough, but repetitious — a good editor could have cut it by 40 percent without cutting meat. To quote Millman,

It is a record not of Powys’s achievements but of his various inadequacies. In it he described his manias and phobias, his “idiotic” mouth and “Neanderthal pate,” and particularly his sexual failures. He discussed “the sickening moments of dead sea desolation that came to me from my ulcerated stomach” and his chronic constipation. He called himself a “scarecrow Don Quixote with the faint heart of Sancho.” And yet the mood of the Autobiography is not gloomy or self-pitying. After all, this book was written by a man who treasured being “ill-constituted.”

I was surprised, therefore, how good A Glastonbury Romance is, if you are willing to give it time. Robert Altman would have struggled to direct a hypothetical movie version, there are so many interlaced stories going on.

Some of them are pure soap opera: Will Sam admit that he is the father of Nell’s baby? Will John and Mary be happily married even though they are first cousins? Will Mad Bet’s magical working against Mary destroy her marriage? Will the Communists destroy Philip’s factory? What is the nature of the esoteric books that Sam is getting from Owen the Welsh antiquary? And what is the Holy Grail?

Add the (feeble) influence of the dead, the palpable influence of The Past, the wind that blow through people’s dreams, and the all-out astral-plane battles between different factions trying to determine the future of Glastonbury. It’s really quite complex.

You might say that I have enlisted and will see it through to the end.

4 Comments

  1. Medeina Ragana says:

    OMGoddess! I read that about 5 or more years ago. I had been reading Gary Lachman’s “A Dark Muse – A History of the Occult” (which is the history of the occult in literature and art) and somewhere in there was a reference to Powys, so I borrowed “A Glastonberry Romance” as well as Powys’ Biography. Both of them struck me as being strange and weird. If he was mimicking Hardy, then that explains why I had such a hard time following him. I had a hard time following Hardy as well.

    I strongly recommend “A Dark Muse” to anyone who’s interested in the occult. And pay especial attention to the names of the writers and artists Lachman references. Some of those works of those writers are hard to find but worth reading to understand how the occult really is hidden in literature. I’m still trying to find an English version of Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s “Isis”. I have a French version on Kindle but I don’t understand French at all. Now if it was in Russian…

  2. I have heard of A Dark Muse and really should read it one of these days.

  3. Medeina Ragana says:

    If you’re interested in the visual arts, there are two books The Hidden Life of Art by Clare Gibson, and Secret Symbolism in Occult Art by Fred Gettings that are excellent as well.

  4. Peter M. says:

    I read his book Wolf Solent a few years ago. It was not specifically pagan, but had a pantheistic, earth-religion vibe to it. It was like a Thomas Hardy novel but probably a lot funnier. I need to read A Glastonbury Romance this summer!