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Owen Glendower by John Cowper Powys

Owen Glendower

by John Cowper Powys

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John Cowper Powy’s last two major novels were works of historical fiction both set in Wales: Owen Glendower published in 1941 and Porius in 1951 (restored texts in 1994 and 2006.) They are both significant not only because they are great novels but because Powys was concerned with imagining what it might have been like to be party to the thoughts that go on inside the head of his principal character. It would seem he wished to give his readers a feeling of looking out at the world through the conscious (and unconscious) turmoil that shaped their actions or lack of actions. Although Owen Gendower is set in the early fifteenth century and Porius in 499 AD, Powys’s method of telling his story appears to be quite similar. Both Owen Glendower and Porius were leaders of their people and members of the ruling elite and with their privileged positions comes the responsibilities of would be kings. Powys tries to combine their attachment to legends of the past, folk heroes and mythic law with a minute observations of the natural world around them, which shapes how they look towards an uncertain future.

The major difference between the novels is that Owen Glendower is based on historical facts, that are largely accepted by historians and Powys is careful to give a list of characters mentioned in history along with a shorter list of those that are un-mentioned in history (those that Powys has made up). The need to keep the story line tuned to historical events does not seem to have curbed Powys’ imagination; rather they provide a framework from which he can launch his more crucial observations. Owen Glendower covers a fifteen year period, whereas Porius’ action is squeezed inside a much shorter time scale and is described by its author as an historical romance.

The Subject of the book is Owen Glendower’s uprising against Henry IV. This took place initially in 1400 when Glendower first raised his standard following a dispute with English overlords over land and property. Henry IV the previous year had defeated Richard II’s army in Wales and captured the king, there were consistent rumours that Richard had been murdered on Henry’s instructions and Henry was being hard pressed by Richard’s supporters in the North of England, he was therefore in no position to deal with the Welsh revolt. The Welsh under Owen Glendower won a famous victory against an English army at Bryn Glas near the town of Knighton in Powys. Two years later Glendower set up his headquarters in Harlech castle. Welshmen flocked to his standard and Glendower negotiated a treaty with the Percy family in the North of England in which Glendower would become king of an independent Wales. An alliance was negotiated with the French who arrived in force late-on in 1405 and the allies marched towards Worcester. This time Henry IV was stronger and was at Worcester in person, there was indecision amongst the allies who never attacked the town and their armies melted away. Harlech Castle was recaptured by the English in 1409 but Glendower was never taken (although his family were and died in prison).

Powy’s novel concentrates on the years when Glendower was in the asendency, and in doing so concentrates on key events in those years. It is like a series of set pieces and the first time we meet Glendower is at his stronghold at Glyndyfrdwy where he raises his standard. He is involved in a daring recapture of Welsh hostages from Dinas Bran castle but is soon mourning the death of his friend the bard Lolo Goch. We witness The Welsh army victorious at the battle of Bryn Glas and the horrific despatching of the wounded English on the battlefield and the desecration of their bodies. We are inside Glendower’s stronghold at Harlech castle where he pins everything on the French fleet arriving and then at his camp above Worcester and his disgust at the antics of the French army. From 1405 until the final appearance and probable death of Glendower in about 1416 Powy’s attention is elsewhere; there is a meeting with king Henry IV in dungeons in Worcester but Glendower is not involved; instead his Oxford clerk Rhisiart ab Owen who we meet at the start of the novel and who has has shared the spotlight comes back into the narrative.

Powys’s method of allowing his readers to see the events through the eyes of his characters, goes further than other authors, in that we are a witness to their conscious thoughts and from these we glimpse their unconscious thoughts as well. Rhisiart is the first character that Powys sets before us; he is a young scholar anxious to get in touch with his Welsh roots, he rides an old but faithful horse, he has an unwieldy crusader sword in his scabbard and has built up a magical picture in his mind of the castle of Dinas Bran where he hopes to meet his cousin Owen Glendower. He is full of thoughts and forebodings about his approaching destination but his attention has wandered back to the natural world.

“Rhisiart stared and stared at a flimsy current-moth that was now fluttering feebly through the twigs of a thick growing elder. He felt as though, with the panicky distaste of those slender antennae, he himself was cursing the raw pungency of that rough foliage”

Powys’s fifteenth century characters are in tune with their environment much more so than our modern minds, it reflects their thoughts. Rhisiart we are told is a young man with little experience of women and so his thoughts even at times of considerable stress and danger take on a sexual/sensual/faintly sadistic line, that can influence his actions. It is like an abstracted consciousness that Powys plays out before his readers. An example: Rhisiart and his companions come upon a girl who is pleading for the life of a monk in a hostile English environment. English archers have arrows trained on the girl and the monk, urgent action is required, but Rhisiarts conscious thoughts seemingly get in the way:

“Below the disturbing whiteness of that soft flesh throbbed a living soul that he longed to guard and protect; but something else in the youthful beauty, her torn doublet exposed had a fearful power in it that turned this pity into its extreme opposite and the object of it into a dedicated victim of arrows and spears…………… But how pearly-white, how smooth, how polished her shoulder was, and how daintily twisted was the red wisp that fell across it! To save his soul from instant damnation, he couldn’t stop himself from imagining one of those terrible modern arrows quivering in that tantalizing flesh.”

The first third of the novel is seen through the eyes of Rhisiart and because Powys is intent on revealing his thoughts as they tumble into his consciousness then events that happen quickly can take pages to relate. Also Rhisiart does not always see or understand what is happening around him and so the reader must pick through the prose to keep hold of the narrative flow. Things become a little clearer when the point of view changes to Glendower, however Glendower’s thoughts are influenced by Welsh legends, by his prophets and by his bards. He also has the power to step outside of his consciousness and when he does this Rhisiart notices that time stops for him as he goes into one of his trances: Powys describes it like this:

"He gave himself up THEN, trimmed and combed and anoited into the hands of destiny: and his cherished faith in his power of exteriorizing his soul had only increased the appalling passivity with which upon the image of fate, as upon a dark rolling tidal wave, he let himself drift.”

The narrative point of view switches from Rhisiart to Glendower, but can switch back again, however for much of the last third of the novel Rhisiart has been captured by the English and is effectively out of the narrative. Increasingly as the story unfolds Powys’s writing takes on the characteristics of an omnipresent authorial view, as the need arises to fill in the background and historical detail.

This is a long novel (over 900 pages) and one whose writing style makes the pace of the action slow down as in a sort of slow motion, a bit like Glendower exteriorising his soul, but Powys I think achieves something rather wonderful in that he places the reader back in the 15th century experiencing the thoughts, sights and sounds as his characters search for a way forward and not at all sure why they do the things that they do. The reader is party to their consciousness, feels the inner turmoil and can make his own judgement as to the sense of the actions taken. This is an historical novel, and Powys has invented a number of characters that give some structure to the events and help the narrative, but they also add to the mystery and in the female characters, particularly, they give us an exoticism that enriches the story. G. Wilson Knight claims on the front cover of my copy of the novel that John Cowper Powys is the finest novelist in English literature and if we are going in for comparisons then Powys makes Hilary Mantel appear very lightweight. Five stars. ( )
5 vote baswood | Apr 14, 2017 |
This is an enormous achievement, but also a very ambiguous one. Powys’ prose is magnificent and very ‘sensual’, though also a bit lumpy and overextended. It is all so lilting and fantastical at times that you’re left unsure (at least I have been) whether this is historical fiction or metaphysical love poetry.

As much as this book is about Owen Glyn Dwr’s campaign to free Wales from the English yoke (1400 – 1415, thereabouts), it is also a compelling scrutiny of the human psyche, of love, of violence, of fate, of religion and magic. Wales is shown to us as being both violently profane and mythically, mystically religious. Conflict is the heart of this book, though not necessarily of war; there is a dialectic (let’s call it that) between the observable and the hidden; love and hatred; Englishness and Welshness; organised religion and paganism; monarchy and peasantry; existential doubt and outward gregariousness; brutality and sensuality.

The main character both is and is not Glyn Dwr; it is Rhisiart ab Owen, the prince’s secretary and also, curiously, his bellwether, his difficult ‘other half’, his son. Glyn Dwr is manipulative and ‘different’, confident and violent. Rhisiart is naive and sensitive, indecisive and changeable. He is a young man, and everything else that youth represents and ‘is’.

You would expect war to be at the heart of this, a sort of proto Cornwall-style medieval fight-a-thon. Yes there is war, but it is confusing and confused. More often, war is something that happens on the horizon, arriving to us via dispatches and anecdotes.

After all, Glyn Dwr and Rhisiart are administrators of war, not front-line soldiers. Much more, the book is conversational and existential; we are witness to some very bizarre scenes where the narrator dips into a character’s eyes – often Glyn Dwr’s or Rhisiart’s – and surveys a scene as it unfolds, charting its energies, its uncertainties, guessing and second guessing at the participant’s thoughts. In other words, Powys surveys the energies and emotions that make up ‘historical events’, sort of demythologising them as well as mystifying them. Long banquet table scenes where there is a risk of everything bursting into violence; rituals swaying between mob-adoration and violent opposition; kinetic arguments between the Church and the native religion.

But Powys’ book is also a bit slow and sluggish. At times you’re overwhelmed by this flux of interiorisations and you just want, just for a while, for the pace to speed up. In a way, Powys is telling you that you can’t hurry real life, that you can’t just channel events toward some desired end (otherwise you would be God or the author, not the ‘reader’ or a historical participant in these scenes).

So yes, you may get frustrated at the drawn out passages, the over-description, but for whatever reason that hasn’t destroyed my enjoyment of what is a very perceptive, very lyrically written work that really goes to the heart of how people think and act. It is history with all its easy, linear narrative progression, its A to B, taken out and restuffed with, well, people and voices.
1 vote DuneSherban | Sep 10, 2012 |
A bit longish, and the court romance sections slow down the narrative, but great if you love Wales and can stomach Powys' flights of fancy. ( )
  librarianbryan | Apr 20, 2012 |
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Powys spends a lot of time establishing the multitude of characters and exotic physical and mystical Welsh landscape in this historical novel. Depending on your tastes, this can be delightful or could keep you from getting past the first third of the book.

Powys' descriptions are sumptuous, and the character development is necessary to keep up with the complex political/social setting. The Welsh names make it tough for a reader not familiar with this language, and Powys uses two or more names for many of the characters (somewhat common for the time), making it even tougher to keep up with the characters.

But, get beyond all that and you've got a well crafted conflation of 15th century English/Welsh politics, Christian and pre-Christian Welsh spiritualism, and the irresistable and mysterious historical character of Owen Glendower. Powys doesn't hesitate to tell a significant portion of this story of the last Welsh revolt from inside the head of Owen Glendower, and, to do so, he develops a Welsh prince who seems to know that he is standing at the end of the ancient, pagan Wales (which is still evident though wearing Chrisitan garb) and the modern Welsh state. Thus, Glendower knows that he is destined to do battle against the English, but also knows on some level that the ultimate fate of Wales is to become part of a greater Britain cast in the English mold. His willingness (even determination) to challenge the English even though he knows he is doomed to fail provides a setting for the consideration of real heroism and devotion to duty and nation.

Ancient legend, magic, family ties, love, lust, the noblest and lowest of human motivations, are all key to this complex and well told tale. At the core is a genuinely romantic story of the last Welsh Prince of Wales and the forces that led him to take on that mantle. ( )
1 vote Osbaldistone | Apr 27, 2007 |
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"Reading a novel by John Cowper Powys is like climbing a mountain: it requires stamina, but offers great rewards. He is one of those authors whose name has a safe place in literary history, but his reputation is kept alive largely by an eccentric band of admirers, some of whom could fairly be described as fanatical."
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Don Quixote might well have recognized in the gaunt piebald horse that carried young Rhisiart down that winding track towards the river Dee a true cousin of Rosinante's.
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Owen Glendower is John Cowper Powys' brilliant re-imagining of the life and exploits of Wales's national hero.

It is the year 1400, and Wales is on the brink of a bloody revolt. At a market fair on the banks of the River Dee a mad rebel priest and his beautiful companion are condemned to be burned at the stake. To their rescue rides the unlikely figure of Rhisiart, a young Oxford scholar, whose fate will be entangled with that of Owen Glendower, the last true Prince of Wales-a man called, at times against his will, to fulfill the prophesied role of national redeemer. Psychologically complex, sensuous in its language, vivid in its evocation of a period shrouded by myth, Owen Glendower tells a compelling story of war, love, and magic.
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