Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Powys, John Cowper

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(1872-1963) UK writer, teacher and lecturer, who spent many years in the USA before settling in Wales in the late 1930s. He was the eldest of three literary brothers: Theodore (> T F Powys) and Llewelyn. JCP's work is the most philosophical and mystical. His earliest publications were poems, starting with Odes and Other Poems (coll 1896), plus the strongly religious Visions and Revisions (coll 1915) and the introspective essays Suspended Judgements (coll 1916). During this period JCP, who had been imbued by his father with an intensely theological outlook, was creating his own understanding of the world which began to materialize in a series of novels which used isolation and dislocation as Motifs in polarizing perspectives and creating a sense of otherness, not strong enough to be regarded as Wrongness but sufficient to be detectable. This became evident in Wood and Stone (1915 US) in which existence in a UK West Country village is energized between the tension of Christianity of the resurrection (represented by the Holy Rood) and the Christianity of esoteric tradition (represented by the Holy Grail). The duality constrained Powys's writing for a decade until he was able to express his vision of Good and Evil in Ducdame (1925 US) and Wolf Solent (1929 US), both nonfantastic metaphysical novels which seek to explain the human condition in terms of a Multiverse of conflict. Wolf Solent marked a transition in JCP's writing. Not only was it his first successful book, critically and financially, but it was the first in which he allowed the subject matter to explore itself rather than force it into shapes that even JCP could not fully understand. As a result JCP was able to channel his beliefs into more extensive mindscapes and this led to his first major fantasy, A Glastonbury Romance (1932 US). As in Wood and Stone, he returns to the religious conflict of Christianity and paganism and the influence through time of the Holy Grail. This timeshift imagery continues in Maiden Castle (1936 US). JCP then felt able to tackle two major historical novels set in ancient Wales – Owen Glendower (1940 US), which is largely nonfantastic (bar the acceptance of the supernatural as part of life), and Porius (1951), set at the time of king Arthur and exploring the character of Merlin.

During this transition JCP wrote a very different novel, Morwyn, or The Vengeance of God (1937), untypical in setting but typical in philosophy and expression. JCP utilizes the vision of Dante's Hell to explore inhumanity. Hell is full of sadists, and JCP explores the difference between humanity's past cruelty in the demand for power and his current obsession with science, exemplified by vivisection. Ultimately JCP finds against scientific research. His hell features many notable historical figures: Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), the Marquis de Sade, Merlin (again) and Taliesin (> Mabinogion). The narrator's journey through hell is also a Rite of Passage. He emerges wounded, like the Fisher King, carrying the ills of the world.

JCP's final works are mostly no less remarkable in their strong philosophical vision. The best are Atlantis (1954), which tells of the last voyage of Odysseus as he sails west and discovers Atlantis and America, and has a companion piece in Homer and the Aether (1959), a free rendition of The Iliad (> Homer); and The Brazen Head (1956), about the search by Roger Bacon (circa 1214-1292) for the ultimate truth (> Alchemy). [MA]

other works: The Owl, the Duck, and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! (1930 chap US) and The Inmates (1952) both novels of incarceration and madness; Rabelais (1948), nonfiction; Up and Out (coll 1952), which contains two novellas "Up and Out" and "The Mountains of the Moon"; Lucifer: A Poem (1956); All or Nothing (1960); Real Wraiths (1974 chap), Two and Two (1974 chap), Three Fantasies (coll 1985) ed Glen Cavaliero.

further reading: Autobiography (1934); The Saturnian Quest: A Chart of the Prose Works of John Cowper Powys (1964) by G Wilson Knight; John Cowper Powys: Old-Earth Man (1966) by H P Collins; The Powys Brothers (1967) by Kenneth Hopkins; Essays on John Cowper Powys (anth 1972) ed Belinda Humfrey; John Cowper Powys (1973) by Jeremy Hooker; John Cowper Powys: Novelist (1973) by Glen Cavaliero; The Demon Within: A Study of John Cowper Powys's Novels (1973) by John A Brebner; John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest (1980) by Morine Krissdottir; John Cowper Powys in Search of a Landscape (1982) by C A Coates; The Brothers Powys (1983) by Richard Perceval Graves; The Ecstatic World of John Cowper Powys (1986) by Harald W Fawkner.

John Cowper Powys


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.