John Cowper Powys and Magic — W.J. Keith

From la lettre powysienne, 26 (Autumn 2013) pp.2–7

(Part I)[1]

WHEN I WROTE Ultimate Things: Christianity, Myth and the Powyses, I decided somewhat regretfully to omit any consideration of magic. JCP was, after all, the sole member of the family for whom magic was a predominant concern; its inclusion would have complicated a subject that was over-complicated already. However, JCP’s magic demands recognition not only in its own right but because there has been no adequate discussion of it in earlier critical commentary. Even Morine Krissdóttir’s The Magical Quest of John Cowper Powys provides little detailed consideration of the topic, since she chooses to concentrate on an arguable assumption about his alchemical expertise.

Moreover, the word magic is often employed vaguely and inaccurately as an umbrella-term taking in everything from amateur conjuring to erudite discussions of Hermeticism and Kabbalism, though most serious scholars agree that its practice involves both control of the natural world and awareness of our own inner capacities. Francis King summed up the matter well in Ritual Magic in England when he defined magic as “a belief in a system of correspondences between the universe as a whole (the macrocosm) and the individual human being (the microcosm)”.[2] In addition, many commentators acknowledge the immense importance of childhood experience, notably the anthropologist Joseph Campbell, who emphasized the “spontaneous device in childhood ... by which the world can be transformed from banality to magic in a trice”.[3]

JCP, though far less succinctly, of course, makes both these points in the opening chapter of Autobiography. He records two experiences going back to the first five years of his life at Shirley in Derbyshire. One is the instinctive awareness when he was still a very small child that “the rocky valley of the Dove was nothing short of a Tremendum Mysterium”.[4] The second is the well-known incident when, out on a walk with Littleton and their nursemaid, he “announced triumphantly” that he was “the Lord of Hosts”.[5] He goes on to explain that it was “a desire for some obscure magical power” [6] that inspired him, a remark that connects with his assertion that the aim of the magician is “to exercise a certain supernatural control” [7] over his own destiny and that of others. He regards these two experiences as forming the fundamental basis for his later attitudes to life, lamenting that, “so tamely and without frantic and habitual struggles to retain it, [we] allow the ecstasy of the unbounded to slip away out of our lives” [8] . Like Wordsworth in the ‘Immortality Ode’ when he regrets that “Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy” [9], JCP is convinced that this awareness occurred while he was still a youth. As “a boy with a catapult, butterfly-net and fishing-rod”, presumably at Montacute, he came to realize that he had already lost “the full magic power” of that early time. Moreover, it was in that earliest childhood that he recognized how “the most thrilling moments of happiness with a child are secret and magical and come from a level of reality which is completely different from the level of reality of grown-up people”.[10]

These recollections may, of course, be part of the Powysian myth-making that constructs what is subsequently put forward as an accurate historical sequence of events. But a related yet more pressing question is: to what extent did JCP actually believe in such a sequence himself? He is certainly confident that young children are capable of distinguishing between their own wishes and what adults call ‘reality’: “what is a magician if not one who converts God’s ‘reality’ into his own ‘reality’?” [11] He raises the issue even as he seems to be confused by it. A little later in the book he writes that, although he had been ‘pretending’ when he declared himself “the Lord of Hosts”, “I am convinced that I knew, without question or doubt, that my world—the world in which I was a magician—was a great deal more than mere pretending”.[12]

JCP’s realization that he possessed special magical abilities developed gradually. In one experience in the amphitheatre of Verona he reports: “I felt, as I have only done once or twice since, that I really was endowed with some sort of supernatural power”. [13]  In addition, he admits to being tempted towards black as well as ‘white’ magic. Even as a child he had “wanted to call up demons” [14], and in later life came to believe that he possessed the ‘evil eye’. He told Dorothy Richardson: “I’ve seen so many many many cases of proof that I’ve got some devilish power of injuring—even killing—persons upon whom I solemnly do breathe a certain kind of curse.” [15]  Indeed, it ultimately became a habit with him to pray to his gods “anxiously and hurriedly for each new enemy” [16] in hope of preventing such curses from taking effect. He also admitted that he and his longterm friend Theodore Dreiser were both Magicians who understood black magic but preferred “to practise white magic”. [17]  We should not, then, be surprised when he refers to “the power within us to create and to destroy” [18] [my emphases].

In addition, JCP was clearly interested in the relations between magic and both religion and science, relations that have changed drastically in the course of history, often in contradictory fashion; this is because magic, science and religion are all heavily loaded terms that can mean different things in different times and circumstances. Some have argued that the distinctions between magic and religion were virtually non-existent in the ancient world. Magic and religion, for instance, share acceptance of the miraculous. It is true that Roman Catholicism from its beginnings denied any contacts with magic, and even regarded magic as heretical, the work of the Devil; yet, as JCP argued on various occasions the transformation during the Mass of consecrated bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is essentially a magical event.

However, one important difference between religion and magic is discussed by Ronald Hutton in Pagan Religions: “Religion consists of an offering of prayers, gifts, and honour to divine beings who operate quite independently of the human race and are infinitely more powerful than it.” Whether the prayers are answered depends on the will of the god or gods addressed. But magic “consists of a control worked by humans over nature by use of spiritual forces” so that, if the spell or ritual is performed correctly, success would be assured. [19] That JCP recognized this distinction is evident from a memorable scene in A Glastonbury Romance, in the chapter entitled ‘The Miracle’, where Mr. Geard takes Tittie Petherton to his Saxon arch. There he strips naked, and wades waist-deep into the chalybeate waters of Chalice Well. As Tittie watches, the narrator tells us, he was not praying. That was the difference between this occasion and the other occasions when his therapeutic powers had been used. He was not praying. He was commanding.[20]

When he brings Tittie back to John Crow, Crummie, and Solly Lew who had been standing guard, she is sleeping peacefully. So far as we are told, her cure was permanent.

Similarly, magic was once regarded as an element in early science. Indeed, astrology was a recognized forerunner of astronomy; thus the “wise men out of the east” in St. Matthew’s Gospel who followed the Star of Bethlehem are recognizably early astronomers as well as ‘magi’ or magicians. Connections between science and magic have persisted down the centuries. For instance, ‘cunning men’—and women (i.e., white magicians)—were advocating foxglove for heart problems long before researchers announced the properties of digitalis, the Latin name for foxglove, as a scientific remedy. Modern science has revealed similar justifications for other folk-medicine beliefs. Even at the present day, though science has overwhelming official approval, the beliefs of the populace, evident in the presence of horoscopes in magazines, charms (such as representations of St. Christopher displayed in cars), and signs or advertisements for teacup—or Tarot—readings, all prove that magic enjoys widespread interest and acceptance. JCP’s insistence that we need “a bold return to the magical view of life” [21] reflects an awareness of these popular and persistent beliefs.

Finally, stress needs to be laid on JCP’s continuing conviction that “the living well-spring of mysterious magic” exists “within us.” [22] Such assertions are to be found throughout Autobiography and elsewhere. Thus we find him commenting on “one of the profoundest of philosophical mysteries†...†the power of the individual mind to create its own world”. [23] Perhaps the most extreme of these statements reads as follows: “We are ourselves the gods who create the value of our life”.[24] A pluralist to the last, JCP normally refers to “the gods”, yet his concern for the power residing within the human being may well owe something, perhaps much, to the emphasis on “the Christ’ in us” which so impressed JCP in the arguments of St. Paul.[25] However, JCP was also aware of Carl Jung’s belief that “the Mythic Unconscious” implies the idea that “divinity is not external to humanity but lies within”.[26] Similarly, his interest in astral projection depends upon the precept “Believe thyself to be in a place, and thou art there.” [27] Moreover, we may be equally conscious of the number of times the words power and control have occurred in this article. From the start we saw how he desired “some obscure magical power” [28] and as we shall soon see how Wood and Stone is built upon the basic clash between Power and Sacrifice. The complications and perhaps inconsistencies are many, but of one thing we can be certain: magic was central to JCP throughout both his life and his writing.

[1] Part II will follow in la lettre powysienne 27.

[2] King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England: 1887 to the Present Day. London: Spearman, 1970, p.54.

[3] Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology (Vol.1 of The Masks of God). 1959. New York: Arcana, 1991, p.22.

[4] Autobiography. 1934. London: Macdonald, 1967, p.1.

[5] Ibid., p.12.

[6] Ibid., p.29.

[7] Ibid., p.7.

[8] Ibid., p.2.

[9] Wordsworth, William. The Poems of Wordsworth. London: OUP, 1926, p.588 [Ode (‘There was a time’) line 67].

[10] Ibid., p.28.

[11] Ibid., p.25

[12] Ibid., p.62.

[13] Ibid., p.408.

[14] Ibid., p.75.

[15] The Letters of John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson, Ed. Janet Fouli. London: Cecil Woolf, 2008, p.70, and cf. Autobiography, p.352.

[16] Autobiography, p.408–9.

[17] Ibid., p.553.

[18] Ibid., p.626.

[19] Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, p.289-90.

[20] A Glastonbury Romance. 1932. London: The Bodley Head, 1933, p.737. Also London: Macdonald, 1955, p.707.

[21] Autobiography, p.626.

[22] Ibid., p.361.

[23] Ibid., p.62.

[24] Ibid., p.47.

[25] See The Pleasures of Literature. 1938. London: Village Press, 1975, p.209.

[26] See Drury, Nevill. The History of Magic in the Modern Age: A Quest for Personal Transformation. London: Constable, 2000, p.212

[27] See Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.128.

[28] Autobiography, p.29.