The most interesting use of Brythonic legendary history for modern fictional purposes is, I think, contained in the later novels of John Cowper Powys. This is done on a grand scale in Porius where the conversations of Taliesin and Myrddin Wyllt are incorporated into a narrative which portrays post-Roman Britain as something of a melting pot of different races and cultures including aboriginal giants. He had drawn upon similar material in his novel Owen Glendower which is a rather more accessibleand and tightly organised work plotted around the historical events of Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising in the 14th century, but no less fictionalised in terms of the personalities of the characters and far from being an ‘historical novel’ in the way the term is often understood. In that novel the aboriginal Brythons are represented by Broch o Meifod in his court at Mathrafal, itself magnifenctly presented as a last bastion of a disappearing world. Broch makes an alliance with Glyndŵr, an alliance between the remnant of the Brythons and the representative of the inheritors of that earlier melting pot who had added to it by inter-marrying with the Norman aristocracy.
In the introduction to Porius, John Cowper Powys had drawn parallels between the 6th and the 20th centuries. He comments that “As the old gods were departing then, so the old gods are departing now”. If, by the time of Owain Glyndŵr, we might think those gods would therefore be in full retreat, they nevertheless haunt the pages of that book too. Owain himself achieves legendary status before disappearing from his Principality of Wales to become a Prince of the Otherworld.
For Powys such material is always evoked as much to portray a personal quest as to illustrate historical, legendary or mythological events. But in the best passages of his works these things come together. At the end of the novel, Owain is cremated by Broch o Meifod and his son Meredith is taking his father’s remains for burial. Here are some edited extracts from the last pages:
“Absolutely motionless – with its head lifted as it sniffed the dawn air – there stood before him on an isolated rock a magnificently-horned stag. …..”
“And now, as the sight of those majestic horns against the dawn brought back memory upon memory, he felt that each one of these images was much more than an owl’s cry, a buzzard’s vigil, a salmon’s leap, a mountain summit above the mist. What were they, what did they have in them, that they could bring such comfort? ……”
“But there came over him now a vision of Arthur’s ship Prydwen sailing between Hell and Heaven, and yet motionless in the depths of a single soul, its great dragon wings reflected in fathomless water….”
“‘What’s that sad-faced man smiling for?’ Cried the oldest winged creature in Edeyrnion the croaking raven of Llangar, to his aged mate, as they swooped down over Meredith’s quickened steps.
‘Nis gwn! I don’t know! Nis gwn!’
croaked the other, and as the pair rose on their heavy-flapping wings and sailed away eastwards, mounting up in huge spiral circles higher and higher as they followed the river’s flow, it seemed to the man watching them as if there were something in that vast broken landscape that echoed that hollow answer in his ears as long as he could remember.”
“But the great birds soared on, heedless of the echoes; soared on till to Meredith’s vision they were dots and specks in the remote distance. He knew not where they were flying. But in his thoughts they were flying over the rocky crest of the Berwyns; they were flying over the fallen roof-tree of Sycharth; they were flying towards the mounded turf and the scattered stones that were all that was left of Mathrafal.”
And so it seems that the old world passes away. But of course, as pervasive as the myth of departing is, it never does. Those old gods, as W P Ker once remarked, even in defeat, “think that defeat no refutation”.