John Cowper Powys

I have been wanting to read one of Powys’ novels for a long time, having picked up a copy of the posthumous anthology Three Fantasies. Also, one of the few entertaining jokes in Amis’ The Information has the novelist meditating with horror on what posterity may hold for his works and recoiling with dread from the possibility that he might “become a Powys.”

Porius, his last novel, was first published in 1951 in a version which had been drastically cut at the insistence of his publisher, and was only published in full in 2007. At first, I was daunted by the book’s scale – 750 closely printed pages – but not far into the book I found the size comforting, because I didn’t want it to stop. (I did start wanting it to stop a few hundred pages from the ending.)

The title character is the heir-apparent of a small princedom in North Wales in 499: the action of the novel covers a week, during which Arthur attempts to rally the Romanised Britons to defend against an invading force of Saxons. It is Arthurian historical fiction; despite a few magical moments, it is not really fantasy, and no genre fantasist that I’ve read is as concerned with the inner lives of his characters.

It helps if you know something about Roman Britain, and about the Arthurian mythos, and have the patience to credit the inhabitants of both with Proustian levels of psychological detail. The care with which Powys depicts fifth-century Wales is reminiscent of how certain of the Pre-Raphaelites tried to combine scholarship about the actual conditions in the Holy Lands with religious conviction. There are many frustrating aspects: the action of the book often gets quite muddled, and it doesn’t help that most of the characters have names mostly consisting of y’s, w’s and g’s.

I found it worthwhile just for Myrddin Wyllt, who is a brilliant characterisation of Merlin: as good as T H White’s.

I haven’t read A Game of Thrones but from what I have heard, I suspect Porius is its anti-book in terms of the ratio of action to contemplation. So HBO won’t be serialising it any time soon, even though it has a boob or two.

In other news: I am going to continue with the Rough Maths posts: time has been short lately.


2 responses to “Porius

  1. I like this review, although the book sounds daunting.

  2. found my way here via a twitter search.Just finished this book and on to “three fantasies”. I too did not want it to end and then – 200 pages from the end- was waiting for the end to come.It seemed to just stop. No criticism. I find his work amazing, especially AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Thanks, dg

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