Are all the events in the great world… so different from what the historians say?
Although it’s a contradiction in terms, it seems accurate to say that John Cowper Powys is a novelist who has more than a single magnum opus, maybe even several. For me The Glastonbury Romance is his great work among the Wessex novels but it is difficult to think of Wolf Solent, Maiden Castle or Weymouth Sands as in any way lesser works. The vast and panoramic Owen Glendower looks and reads like his magnum opus among the novels steeped in Welsh history, yet Powys himself is believed to have considered the fifth-century tale Porius to have been his finest and many critics agree.
Written and published at the beginning of the Second World War, Owen Glendower deals with the events surrounding the Welsh revolt led by its eponymous prince during the early Fifteenth Century. Steeled by victory at the Battle of Bryn Glas (1402), Glyn Dŵr (the Welsh spelling is used within the novel) ruled large areas of north and west Wales from Harlech Castle, at the height of his powers going so far as to advance across the borderlands towards London with a combined Welsh / French army.
Owen Glendower, like all successful historical fiction, is far more than a dramatized account of the chronicle of war. Powys uses imaginative licence to forge a version of historical truth in the sense of constructing an authentic and fully realised world. Around two-thirds of the characters have documented historical provenance. A further third, including the spellbinding Tegolin, maid of Edeyrnion with her flaming red hair, the giant Broch-O’-Meifod and revolutionary Philip Sparrow, are creatures of Powys’s own imagination. The novelist is thereby at liberty to explore through fiction multi-realities and perspectives on events as they unfold. He is able to fill in the forgotten details of social history that are not recounted in surviving manuscripts. Consequently events are refracted through the experiences of a dazzling number of participants and witnesses, as Powys invokes the presence of an entire chain of being, from the men and women of the courts at Harlech and Bran Dinas, to the bards and castle servants, the peasantry and as far as dogs, horses, waterfowl and sea-anemones (even the needs of rocks are considered).
Equally multi-faceted are the characters themselves; none more so than the deeply conflicted Glyn Dŵr. His force of personality and charisma ensures the devotion of his followers. He is an archetypal man of the people, feeling their concerns as his own concerns. Yet coupled with his paternalistic traits and his initial willingness to sacrifice himself for the cause, he expects that others too will become martyrs for his cause and furthermore will sacrifice his closest kin to this end. Glyn Dŵr is at once driven yet indecisive; at turns sentimental and tender-hearted, yet able to mete out vicious cruelties. Above all — the quality that sets him apart from crude demagoguery — he is endowed with shamanistic energies. The Prince is an intuitive manipulator of rites and esoteric rituals, a choreographer of spectacle, familiar with bards and steeped in the legends of his ancestors and as at home in the mountains, forests and lakelands as within the castle walls.
The motivations of the central character, Glyn Dŵr’s cousin Rhisiart Ab Owen, are equally complex and contradictory. Moved by personal ambition and romantic quest, Rhisiart’s mixed fortunes are the threads that cross-stitch the various love stories and adventures into a masterly gothick tapestry. As a youth well versed in Latin, English, Welsh and French, he travels to Wales from Oxford. Rhisiart benefits from this privileged educational background which he quickly learns to deploy as a screen for his underlying naivety and inexperience. Conflicted like his cousin and master Glyn Dŵr, the learned scholar wrestles with sadistic fantasies and fetishism (common themes in Powys’s writing!). These often subconscious inner conflicts are riven further by the brutal conflicts and realities of medieval warfare around him, testing grounds that at turns reveal both his vulnerability and give rise to moments of swashbuckling heroism.
Owen Glendower is a study in the nature of personal and political power. This all-pervading theme is evident in relation to the range of redoubtable women, for example the character of Morg Ferch Lug, who is once described as having a look ‘scintillating with domination’ (346). The novel is set at a time when Wales had been subject to the imposition of the kind of apartheid that is synonymous with colonialism everywhere. Punitive and vindictive laws flagrantly discriminated against Welsh people who enjoyed additional taxes levied for the purpose of their own oppression. To this extent Powys sides with Glyn Dŵr, (and thereby leading the readers’ sympathies to his cause), in what would today be termed a national liberation struggle.
As we would expect from a writer with anarchist leanings such as Powys, however, admiration for the Welsh national hero in no ways makes him an apologist for princely power or nationalism. He both understands and deconstructs the myth of heroism. It becomes increasingly apparent that strategy and policy only partially determine Glyn Dŵr’s motivations for particular courses of action. They are persistently muddled with shifting sexual and mystical desires that, despite his introspection, he only partially understands. Furthermore, it is ironic that Glyn Dŵr as liberator more than once admits, at least to himself, that he doesn’t really know what he would do if his revolt was successful and he finally drove the English out (337). This uncertainty of purpose points to a paradoxical vacuum at the core of absolute power. Morg Ferch Lug’s cursing attacks on Glyn Dŵr’s lordly and masculinist power, speak of another version of folk wisdom and magic that destabilises his equanimity:
As long as you destroy you will succeed. But try to build up again what you’ve torn, what you’ve burnt, what you’ve ravaged – and then will be the end! (355)
The Prince has a dimly conceived notion of himself as a Welsh Alfred the Great, forging his principality into a seat of learning and religion, yet is undecided even as to which of the contending Christian factions he supports (369). He aspires to become an enlightened ruler of an independent Wales, a project in which he would rely upon Rhisiart to found infrastructure such as a legal system and university. This helps to forge a bond with Rhisiart who likewise nurtures a ‘life-illusion’ (404) that he could become his cousin’s chief secretary in such a principality. There are strong parallels in Rhisiart’s ambition with the role of Thomas Cromwell, rising to become the right-hand man of Henry VIII in Hilary Mantel’s brilliant recent historical novel Wolf Hall.
Glyn Dŵr embodies the tension between the emancipatory and potentially oppressive aspects of the national struggle. His powerful life-force evoking ‘mystical loyalty’ and inspiring liberation can readily become megalomania; an uneasy duality perhaps symbolised by his forked beard. Owen Glendower therefore also functions as a critique of political power. In this respect our provisional sympathies shift when undefended English towns are devastated by the ‘war-fevered’ army of Welsh and French soldiers. Religious schisms and class conflict cut across and complicate the nationalist revolt, giving rise to competing visions for change. Countering Glyn Dŵr from within his own ranks is the character of Philip Sparrow, who wishes to transform the war into a peasants’ revolt, ‘a war of the common people against feudal tyrants’ (566). His forthright challenge to Glyn Dŵr again causes the prince to question the impetus for his military engagement:
Who weave the cloth for your garments, my Lord? Who build your castles, and are slaughtered by the hundreds in your private wars? Who are hanged by your Manor Courts if they kill one of your deer? (349)
Glyn Dŵr respects the notion of entitlement to power on the basis of the blood lineage (on which his leadership partly rests) and on occasion does not scruple to channel primitive feelings for martial purposes. Writing at a time when racial theories were causing the deaths of millions across Europe, Powys uses Sparrow’s defiant voice to interject in the name of the ‘gwerin’ (744) or the common people the world over (the elder Rhisiart is also to expound upon universal legal justice for common humanity).
If you have an appetite for 800-page historical novels, I would recommend Owen Glendower as an unparalleled voyage into one of the most dynamic and bloody epochs in Welsh history. An Englishman by birth, John Cowper Powys brings to life the richness of his beloved Welsh culture, lending the full weight of his formidable knowledge and insight into that land’s natural history, legends and geography along the way. At the same time the novelist is sensitive to the contrarieties and contradictions of even defensive nationalism and refuses the false apotheosis of any ‘great man’ approach to history. This is a study of heroism that at once celebrates a Welsh national hero, yet also deconstructs and finally rejects the whole edifice of heroism.