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Inner Truth

A review of John Cowper Powys’ novel

Owen Glendower

I don’t know of any novel to compare it with, unless you feel able to imagine that Sir Walter Scott, whom Powys admired, had like Coleridge experimented with drugs and rewritten his Quentin Durward under the influence of peyote or LSD, and out of love, not for money. Scott’s novel, set like Owen Glendower in the fifteenth century, also narrates the journey of a young man seeking adventure in unruly times, who gets closely entangled in the affairs of princes, and is responsible for the safety of beautiful young ladies. But where Quentin is a conventional hero untroubled by an inner life, who acts bravely and gets the girl in the end, his counterpart Rhisiart in Owen Glendower is complex and multifaceted, allured in different ways by an array of women and even the page-boy Elphin; yet sustained by devotion to his adopted feudal lord Owen, and his constant affection for his horse Griffin. When he gets the girl, it’s not to end the story and live happily ever after, but to be pressed into compromises and grow middle-aged; and Tegolin, his first love, is no princess but the illegitimate daughter of a Cistercian monk and Lowri, a mistress of sado-masochistic arts, whose sinister charms nearly snare Rhisiart. Mistress Sibli the purple-bearded dwarf helps him avoid this deadly trap, and he’s so relieved that he hugs and kisses her, lighting a secret flame in her heart. Against the background of such sub-plots, there’s the historical tale of Glendower’s role as Prince of Wales in leading an insurrection against the English. It’s doomed to eventual failure, but the Welsh prince’s defiant and poignant death is a more subtle, peculiarly Welsh kind of victory.

As a historical novel it stands alone, and I’ll do my best to convey some of its uniqueness. Within a factual framework, Powys plunges—taking us with him—into a multi-layered adventure, always in search of truth: about life in early fifteenth-century Wales; about Glendower’s fabled charisma and wizardry; about the relations between the Welsh and the English; about the essence of Welshness. But within and beyond these quests, he continues the life-long quest of his own personal truth. Its duty to history does not deflect the novel from plumbing the complicated soul and philosophical universe of John Cowper Powys, who clearly shares Kierkegaard’s passionate belief that “Truth is subjectivity”.

Those familiar with Shakespeare will recognise the time as that of Henry IV Part I, which follows The Tragedy of King Richard II. Already deposed and murdered when the book opens, Richard is remembered with affection by many of the Welsh, especially the friar Mad Huw, to whom he is a future political saviour rather than a dead king. Like Merlin or Arthur, he’ll come again when needed by his people. Glendower himself embodies elements of both Arthur and Merlin. As in Shakespeare’s account, the upstart Bolingbroke (Henry IV) has seized the kingdom from Richard, his unpopularity fuelling the Welsh uprising, which Glendower is to lead.

The story opens with two stalwart characters nearing the end of a long journey to join Glendower in his fastness at Glyndyfrdwy. They are the young scholar Rhisiart and his trusty mount Griffin. From the beginning of the novel, Powys describes sensations and immediate surroundings in the most loving detail, whilst giving a depth of historical background and conveying every nuance of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings all entwined together, as in this extract from Chapter 1, when Griffin leads his rider into the woods in search of rest and sustenance, whilst Rhisiart reflects:

Rhisiart stared and stared at a flimsy currant-moth that was now fluttering feebly through the twigs of a thick-growing elder. . . . It was King Richard’s wistful face, as he had seen it once at Hereford, that hovered about those sharp-smelling boughs, and when he thought of his murder he confused those delicate features with those of a man he had seen put to death in his childhood, an unforgettable, abominable sight, taking the heart out of all the June woods of England!

The immediacy of his observation, together with an acute sense of chronology, transports us into that far-off century as if it were today. The manners and morals, the superstitions and dangers, the clothing and sleeping arrangements, minutiae of daily life for the various classes of person, all are conveyed without losing track of the great narrative. We feel what it’s like to hold a sword, to fight a battle. We are with Owen in his private chamber:

. . . Owen Glendower threw off the heavy wolf’s skin beneath which he had slept, and looked about him in that familiar room at Glyndyfrdwy, the room that his jesting family had long nicknamed “the magician’s chamber.”

The coals on the hearth were still red, and in the grey light that seemed pressing like a sorrowful face against the narrow window he could see lying open upon his desk the old parchment-covered folio—the most precious of all his books—which . . . contained poems and prophecies reputed to have been uttered by Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and others—one or two claiming to be from the actual mouth of Merlin himself!

Powys is faithful, as I understand it, to the stories of Glendower from contemporary sources, even though some of these have been dismissed by modern historians, such as the mutilation of the English dead at the battle of Bryn Glas by Welsh women. But he explains them in a way that’s true to his own sense of realism and psychological truth. Contrary to Shakespeare’s portrayal—

. . . at my birth
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
. . .
These signs have marked me extraordinary
And all the courses of my life do show
I am not in the roll of common men.

—his Glendower does not boast, and does not believe in his own powers of sorcery, though he is glad enough to allow others to believe in them, for it increases their awe and serves his ends. Not till the last chapter Difancoll, which portrays his final days, do we get evidence of supernatural powers. He can send out a wraith of himself to places where it can see and be seen! But his unsentimental friend Broch o’Meifod is still not convinced.

All the same, sorcery, not as crude defiance of physical laws, but as manipulation of perceptions, is at the heart of the novel. In this more believable form, magic brings us closer to understanding something that the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter would have us escape from: reality itself. The author’s own experience of manipulating a lecture audience with the power of his deeply-felt knowledge, enthusiasm and rhetoric has been in previous novels projected into the mystic characters Sylvanus Cobbold and John Geard. Owen is more real—believable and fully rounded—than either of these. But Powys’ unique ability to cast a spell on his readers, to delve into the strangest, strongest and most personal material and yet make us share the same feelings, must have been developed during his itinerant years in the States, in direct contact with diverse lecture audiences—a formative approach few novelists can have had at their disposal.

In his vision of reality, the subjective rules over all life, even history being subject to its thrall. So at the signing of the Tripartite Agreement which divides up England—a fully documented historical fact—the fleeting impressions of an individual’s inner life upstage the main event and append their own symbolism. For at this point, Rhisiart’s hair stands on end:

And what was out there in the moonlight? He was sure he heard a long-drawn cry from the sea. Was Owen really a magician? But there it was—clear before him—and no one saw it but himself. Between Owen and Sir Edmund it was—its point upon the outspread map—the sword of Hotspur!

He knew it at once. It was the “kind sword” he had seen in the man’s hand at Dinas Bran.

The recall of past events, or even past sensations and impressions, play a powerful role in the structure of the novel. Thus, this vision of a ghostly sword touching the map takes Rhisiart back to a previous feeling he’d had at a banquet, as a guest of the English, at which the young Prince Hal had been amusing himself by tossing Rhisiart’s dagger in the air and catching it, until inevitably he cut himself. Suddenly, a large lay-brother had thrown off his cowl and false beard, revealing himself to be none other than Glendower himself, fully armed and, to Rhisiart at least, emanating a supernatural light. Harry Hotspur had drawn his sword:

Quicker than a flash of lightning could have burst did that bare blade appear in Harry Percy’s hand; but not less quick—for the brain, even of an Oxford student, can move faster than lightning—the queerest sideways impression rushed through Rhisiart’s consciousness.

“What a friendly weapon,” he thought, “that sword of Hotspur’s is!”

There’s no way a brief review can convey the scope of all the incidents—moving, bizarre, comic and gruesome by turns—which the author has woven into such a vast and rich tapestry. Outlandish as they are, they combine into a coherent whole, and constitute—strange as this may sound in reference to a novel—a profound meditation on life. For example, in the Goosander chapter, Owen has his headquarters at Harlech Castle which overlooks the beach. At one critical point in his fortunes, he has his crowned head stuck through the narrow window aperture where he and a seabird, both intoxicated by the moon, eye each other like co-conspirators in the saga of life on earth.

But that head with its strong white neck and its forked beard and its golden circlet evoked strange, weird, obscure feelings in him [the goosander] . . . an indescribable feeling quivered through the roots of his feathers . . . And the goosander’s ecstasy only increased, as long as he kept his head tilted a little to one side, when the sea-foam swirling about the rocks grew still whiter in the moonlight . . .

Though subjectivity may be truth and this extraordinary tale becomes real in the telling, it’s all an illusion maintained only by the art of the story-teller. In eight hundred pages, the illusion wobbled for me only twice. The first occasion was where Rhisiart sucks blood from Owen’s arrow-wound, fearing his lord will die of adder-poison, then swallows it. This signals a major change in the narration, for from this point, Rhisiart is no longer the sole observer through whose eyes the story is narrated: now we are able to enter Glendower’s inner world, as if we had ourselves swallowed his blood and taken a piece of his soul. It’s a risky device by the author, but I read on and accepted it.

The second was where Rhisiart is at his lowest point; he has been dismissed from his post as Glendower’s secretary, his Catharine is married to Mortimer, his Luned is pregnant with Elphin’s child and—ultimate humiliation—his Tegolin, though young enough to be Owen’s daughter, has nevertheless attracted the attentions of that ageing warrior, who proposes to dress her in armour and go into battle with her as a kind of angelic mascot. (As the Maid of Edeyrnion, she thus foreshadows Joan, the Maid of Orleans, by about twenty years: surely Powys teasing the French?) At this point, I put the book down and felt some bitterness against the author for the woes inflicted on my hero. My suspension of disbelief, essential to enjoying a novel, was damaged. Dispirited, I made myself read on—to discover that in a dramatic change of mind, Glendower yields his place to Rhisiart as leader of the army; and in one of Powys’ great crowd scenes, to the rousing sound of the Battle-Song of Uther Pendragon, a procession by the combatants to the chapel culminates in the impromptu wedding of Rhisiart and Tegolin. Only one thing remains for the completion of Rhisiart’s happiness: the chance to express his devotion to Glendower his Prince. The chance is given forthwith: for emerging from the chapel, the hyper-alert Rhisiart spots the brutish David Gam about to assassinate Owen, disarms him and delivers him captive to his Prince.

It didn’t seem to me, as I read this, that Powys was stretching credulity in creating such a melodramatic reversal of fortune. Glendower’s change of mind was presented as according with his mercurial and intuitive nature, the essence of his sorcery. It became clear that my emotions had been manipulated all along by the author! And it made me marvel all the more at the vast yet intricate illusion, so full of resonances, which this great novelist has produced.

There’s so much more; but you can read what others have written about Owen, and discover the book for yourself. Owen Glendower has taken up residence in my memory, as if I had lived through those times myself; but unlike your own past which is gone for ever, this is a book which you can take up and read again and again.

Ian Mulder 2002

Reprinted from La Lettre Powysienne with kind permission of Jacqueline Peltier. For a version in French, click below:


Owen Glendower was first published in 1940 by Simon & Schuster, New York.

Long out of print, it was republished in 2002 by Walcot Books, Charlbury Oxfordshire OX7 3HJ, England

You can also order from www.amazon.co.uk, but it doesn't seem to be available at present from www.amazon.com

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