Owen Glendower: The Seen and the Unseen

P.J. Kavanagh

From The Powys Society Newsletter, No 70.

This sprawling masterpiece begins at a walking-pace, a horse’s walking-pace, that of the hero Rhisiart’s beloved piebald Griffin. If Griffin spots a tasty bit of sorrel by the path-side, he stops to enjoy it. Indeed for the first few pages Griffin is as much a character as his master. When Griffin meets other horses he ‘flirts’ with them. The verb is JCPs, and there is much human flirting in this book, and more than flirting. Those were lusty times.

The attempt to get inside the head of a horse is a part of JCP’s urgent desire to suggest the inexpressible, animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, waves of it, affecting us. There is no dark and draughty castle chamber without a slit through which an important star is glimpsed, or a passing ominous bird, and the sea heard, or the wind. Owen Glendower, for instance, is so distracted by a bothersome gnat inside his helmet that he almost fails to prevent his French allies from raping and pillaging a Herefordshire village.

Glendower himself is seen as both theatrical and magical, self-doubting and confident, ruthless and compassionate, usually at more or less the same time. This ambiguity is oddly reminiscent of Marvell’s attitude to Cromwell in his Ode. Marvell’s obvious love of his monarch, both as King and as a person, is not in opposition to his admiration for the Protector, whom he sees as a force of nature, one possessed, as it were, by History itself. So it is with Glendower. Powys makes no comment of the fact that Glendower’s love of the Welsh people, his fated need to rescue them from English tyranny and to burn the English out of their haughty castles, will necessitate the burning of Welsh villages with Welsh people in them.

Before going on to praise, it is necessary to warn of a couple of irritations. First, this book’s length: my copy weighs in at a thousand pages. It is impossible not to long for a pair of scissors. Second, and more urgent, is Powys’s use of several names, and nicknames, in both Welsh and English, for his individual characters, so that frequently the reader is at a loss to know whom he is talking about, or who is talking.

Enough complaint — what of the set-pieces, in which Cowper Powys is so often at his best? They are many, dramatic, even operatic, but they work because they so often seem psychologically right – just what would have happened at that point. For example, Rhisiart, after some dubious sexual groupings on the castle’s dark stairs, finds himself in the room of his true love Tegolin (though, a man, he does not yet know that is what she is) and kneels at her feet, weeping, speechless. Tegolin does not speak either. A woman, she knows more than he does of the unseen link between them.  Powys does not tell us this; he has no need to, it just seems to the reader precisely right.  

Later, under arrest, manacled, expecting execution, Rhisiart gives poison to his cell-mate and friend, the Lollard, who is to be burned alive next day.This might seem too Grand Opera, to go too far, but does not, is almost intimate, the details both mental and practical (the manacles) so precise.  

The gnat in Glendower’s helmet expelled, he comes to himself and prevents the destruction of the Hereford village. Thereby he loses his French allies, deprived of their girls and their loot. The rebellion is therefore over. We next see him old, ill unto death, living with one retainer in a prehistoric Welsh tunnel in the Welsh hills. Kingly still, he rouses himself ceremoniously to burn, or cause to be burned, the King’s Pardon. Typically, it is uncertain that his last proud words might well have been spoken after his death-seizure. For did he not live for centuries in the Welsh consciousness, alive/ dead, waiting to come back and rescue them again?  

Everything is uncertain, depending on forces unseen. Powys ends this pageant with his full Credo. Rhisiart, now a successful lawyer, is half Norman but vows to be wholly Welsh because of “the Welsh knowledge that the things seen are unessential compared with the things that are unseen.”  Meanwhile Meredith, Glendower’s young son, his father’s funeral pyre burning in the hills, comes upon an antlered stag at dawn, hears an owl and ponders the effect they have on him. “What were they, what did they have in them, that they should bring such comfort?”  They were seen, but they carried with them the inexpressible unseen. And he realises why: ‘ “It’s their impersonality” he thought, “visions of thousands of generations ... they’re not mine!” ’ It is the unseen, says Meredith/ Powys, that releases us, briefly, mercifully, from our selves.