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John Cooper Powys

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The way of the magician


John Cowper PowysThe world beyond appearances pervades the novels of John Cowper Powys (1881-1963). The world is full of everyday magic, the spirit of place lives and influences our lives. Out of the misty waters of the River Brue in Glastonbury a sword gleams, conjuring up Excalibur and the Arthurian legends. A strange sound is emitted from beneath the ancient hill site of Maiden Castle. In the mountains of Wales Merlin and Taliesin still dwell.

John Cowper Powys is considered to be one of our greatest neglected writers, on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. He was revered by Henry Miller, John Steinbeck, J B Priestley, Iris Murdoch, and many others. The painter David Blackburn recently said how he had read Wolf Solent while a student at art college in the early Sixties and how it had been a revelation. The world suddenly had new dimensions; beyond the visible other realms were discernible.

Powys was much more than a romantic writer. His works were vast and complex. A multi-faceted view of the world which incorporated pre-Celtic religion, Taoism, Hinduism and his own brand of animism. He believed that everything has consciousness: stones, trees, rivers, mountains, clouds, the weather, human beings. Ancient megaliths were repositories of ancient knowledge and wisdom, race memories emitting their secrets to the initiated. And Powys considered himself to be an initiate. He ceremoniously tapped his head against the stones to gain access to information, the collective unconscious. All his life he had longed to be a magician. It is said that he did possess magical powers such as teleportation. On two occasions he seemed to have projected an image of himself witnessed by the American playwright Theodore Dreiser and Cowper Powys' grandson.

Powys embraced nature in all its rawness and mystery. Not a benevolent nature, but one that contained the dark both in reality and in oneself. In his vast and densely written novels his characters interact with their environment. Moods and emotions change in conjunction with the elements. Water and fire, storms, floods, outbursts of madness and mystical visions. In 1931 he wrote one of his most famous novels A Glastonbury Romance in which the main characters engage in a drama as complex as the Arthurian legends, to which there are many references. They battle not only with their own desires and delusions but with fundamental issues of the day (the novel is set in the 1930s) – the battle for the soul of a town between the forces of commerce and industrialisation and the forces of tradition and non-conformity. Powys wrote that his novel attempted to describe "the effects 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 every type of character." The same battle continues worldwide today.

If any writer evoked the genius loci, it is Powys. His novels are daunting in their length – A Glastonbury Romance is over one thousand pages. Not only did Powys write novels, but poems, books on philosophy, essays, short stories and he was a prolific diary writer. He was a literary giant. His life was equally gigantic. He went to America in 1905 to lecture. For many he was seen as charismatic, spellbinding, a sage, a great orator, but to others he could appear ruthless, even demonic at times.

Returning to Britain, he eventually settled in Wales with his partner Phyllis Plater. Magic and ritual played a major part in his life. He saw himself as being in the lineage of Welsh bards and seers, a descendant of a lost tribe, Iberian in origin, which is reminiscent of Arthur Machen's fallen race. He called his belief system 'a complex vision'. He did not believe that 'everything is one' – that everything ends up in some kind of primordial soup, but that everything retains its own individual essence and also interrelates with others. He believed in a multiverse rather than a universe and this aspect is central to his writings, particularly his novels where his characters inhabit the real world and are also on the verge of a mysterious 'other world'. He also admired painting, particularly the paintings of the eighteenth century French artist Claude whose landscape paintings have been influential, alongside Samuel Palmer and William Blake, with the Neo-Romantic painters.

Magical aspects run throughout Powys' work. When living in Wales, he was thrilled to have returned to this ancient kingdom. The landscape from his cottage in Corwen filled him with inspiration. The land exuded a magical atmosphere, a kingdom of nature spirits and the ancient king Eliseg who ruled the surrounding land. An ancient pillar which he believed marked the spot where the earth mother was worshipped, stood in the local graveyard. Some miles away from Corwen is Liangollen and in Obstinate Cymric he writes:

"The ruins of Dinas Bran tower up, jagged and desolate above this romantic town of Liangollen; and to the initiates in Welsh mythology it is Bran the Blessed, one of the most singular of the ancient gods who became either saints or devils in the Christian era, rather than of the flocks of black-winged birds – though Bran means a crow – that still hover round it, that this wild fortress must speak. Bards and Gods and Demons and Druids have all left indelible impressions on the landscape of my new home..."

Powys' dense and complex novels have been compared to Proust. They explore not only the outer world and mythological dimensions, but the inner world, the psychological and emotional states of the individual. In today's culture of sound bites and commercialism Powys' novels are well worth tracking down and reading.

He was a forerunner of much of the interest which has surfaced in the last three decades in paganism and Celtic beliefs. He was virulently anti-vivisection and held an animistic, Blakean view of the world as a living entity.

John Cowper died in 1963. His ashes were scattered on Chesil Beach in Dorset.