A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

1975 Picador PB, art by Mark Harrison

In some ways, John Cowper Powys’s massive 1933 novel A Glastonbury Romance bears comparison with David Lindsay’s massive 1932 novel Devil’s Tor. Both are set in rural South West England, where mystical visions seem to presage a worldwide spiritual or religious revival; both spend a lot of time examining, in intense detail, the inner lives of their characters; and both are, as already said, massive (A Glastonbury Romance being more than twice the length of David Lindsay’s 200,000-word “monster”). And this massiveness is part of their point — they want to come across as major statements, their physical heft a corollary to the weight of what they’re trying to say. But Lindsay’s and Powys’s intents are poles apart. Lindsay’s fundamental urge was world-rejection; his need was for a radical re-understanding of the universe’s troubling core mystery. Powys, on the other hand, was all about acceptance of life. To him:

“There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second.”

But Powys isn’t the sunny-minded optimist you’d imagine as Lindsay’s opposite. He doesn’t turn away from (Lindsay’s touchstone) pain. He believed in accepting all of life, from the sublime and mystical to the crude and rude, and not merely with a stoic shrug, but by seizing it with an almost pagan ferocity. As one of the central characters of A Glastonbury Romance, the unconventional preacher, faith-healer, and (for most of the novel) Mayor of Glastonbury, “Bloody Johnny” Geard, says of his (very personal and idiosyncratic) beliefs:

“It matters not at all from what cups, from what goblets, we drink, so long as without being cruel, we drink up Life. The sole meaning, purpose, intention, and secret of Christ, my dears, is not to understand Life, or mould it, or change it, or even to love it, but to drink of its undying essence!”

The novel starts with the reading of a will. Canon Crow has died, and his family, with members ranging from the trampish rogue John Crow to the opportunistic industrialist Philip Crow, gather to learn that none of them has inherited anything. The whole £40,000 has been left to “Bloody Johnny” Geard of Glastonbury. Geard, though, does not see this as a personal bequest. He believes it’s his mission to turn his home town of Glastonbury — resting place of the Holy Grail and the Blood of Christ — into a world-class site of spiritual pilgrimage, “a mystical rival to Rome and Jerusalem”, and sets about doing just that. His first act is to announce a Passion Play, with mixed-in Arthurian elements, and he hires John Crow to organise it and advertise it to the world.

But really, Powys is almost wilfully uninterested in plot. His intent, as stated in a 1953 preface to a later edition, was to examine:

“Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.”

Which reminds me of Alan Moore’s intent with From Hell, to take the Jack the Ripper murders and examine them as a “human event” that touches the lives of many different people in many different ways. Powys is doing the same with the myth of the Holy Grail. But even this is to imply A Glastonbury Romance has more focus than it has, and I’d say a better guide to the sort of thing this novel is doing is a quote from the critic George Santayana, who said of Dickens (in a 1921 essay called “Dickens”):

“…what he had was a vast sympathetic participation in the daily life of mankind.”

And that seems more like what Powys is doing. With the excuse of following the events (very loosely, and often only as background or rumours) surrounding the putting-on of Geard’s Passion Play (in the first half of the novel) and, in the second half, the conversion of Glastonbury to a Socialistic commune, and Geard’s use of the healing powers of its “Grail Fountain” to turn the town into a British Lourdes, Powys dips into the inner lives of his many and varied characters, some of whom have nothing to do with the Play or those later events, or who only touch them lightly. Even major-seeming plot events are brushed aside offhand. In one chapter, Geard takes Tittie Petherton, who has been suffering awful pains from cancer, to the Grail Fountain, to cure her and provide his Glastonbury with its first miracle. We leave them there, mid-cure, and hear nothing for several chapters, then all-too-briefly glimpse Tittie Petherton, apparently fully cured, enjoying scones at a tea. It’s never stated that she’s cured, though she’s obviously better, and we don’t get the sort of disbelieving or believing reactions you want to hear. It’s almost as if the actual relation of plot is an embarrassment to Powys, and best brushed under the carpet. (Though it has to be said that in four of the book’s longest chapters — that dealing with the Pageant itself, and the final three which round off the book — Powys resolves his major plot strands with the same sort of dramatic brio as Peake displays in his Gormenghast novels’ major set-pieces.)

Powys is interested, most of all, in inhabiting the lives of his multitude of characters, in sampling their peculiar ways of experiencing the world, of thinking about it, of feeling about it, of relating to it. And he isn’t only interested in human characters. His is “a universe so thrilling and so aching with teeming consciousness” that, in wandering from one character to another, he occasionally brings in a non-human consciousness, including at one point a tree, or the sun (which takes a particular dislike to the Vicar of Glastonbury, though this only results in his feeling the heat a little more than others if he goes outside without a hat), the dead Canon Crow freshly laid in his grave (who has an ethereal though down-to-earth conversation with his wife, who’s buried in another country), and the “First Cause” — the God of Powys’s universe, a being whose nature generates all the good and all the evil in our world. (For Powys, it’s only human beings who can actually “produce good out of evil” as “this they do of their absolute free-will”; the First Cause just pours both good and evil out, constantly.)

In this way, Powys seems to stand in an odd relation to the modernist writers of his time. On the one hand, he employs the stream-of-consciousness technique of dipping into his characters’ minds, to relate both their consequential and their inconsequential thoughts, just as Virginia Woolf does in Mrs Dalloway. (Also her technique of shifting from one character to another as they pass in the street, or glance one another across a field.) On the other hand, he has no interest in the concept of the unreliable narrator, or of giving up any of the authorial authority the likes of Dickens took for granted. Which isn’t to say he comes across as dictatorial. Rather, he’s convincing through the sheer novelty and strangeness of the inner worlds he presents us with. In a way, Powys, as narrator, is like one of the “invisible anthropologists” he sometimes mentions as witnessing the events of his novel — the disembodied inhuman entities he tells us are lingering around his many characters, watching what they do with mild, dispassionate interest. Powys actually gets a mention in Colin Wilson’s monumental study The Occult for his having “deliberately set out to cultivate ‘multi-mindedness’, to pass out of his own identity into that of people or even objects”, and not just in his novels, but in his daily life.

There’s a quote from Wilson on the back of my 1975 paperback edition of the novel, calling it “Possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and one of the great mystical masterpieces of all time”. Powys’s mysticism, though, isn’t anything like Lindsay’s. With Lindsay, visions give his characters a glimpse of another reality, and when they return to this world it’s with a feeling they’re sinking back into a second-rate or false reality. With Powys, visionary experiences are just one part of the vastness of the one, single reality — a rare part, yes, but still a part of this world, not a glimpse of another. And his characters’ visionary experiences don’t, in the end, turn out to be that important. Three of his main characters, the roguish John Crow, the would-be-saint Sam Dekker, and the would-be-sinner Owen Evans, have visions. Evans, who thinks playing the part of Christ on the Cross in the Pageant will cure him of his obsessive sadistic fantasies, does have a vision of Christ, but the effect of that vision wears off, and what actually saves him, in the end, is the love of his wife. Sam sees the Holy Grail, and feels the need to rush around telling everyone, but where he expects to have to overcome disbelief, he’s instead faced with indifference. John Crow has a vision of Excalibur, but this has even less effect; chapters later he’s disgusted with Geard’s peddling the reality of the Arthurian myths as “lies”. Geard, the most mystically-minded character in the book, is more childlike than saint-like, and in place of Lindsay’s need, in Devil’s Tor, for his characters to give themselves up to serve that book’s demanding, tragic Goddess, Geard sees Christ more as “a Power to be exploited”:

“He [Christ] was the Mayor’s great magician, his super-Merlin… Never once had it crossed the threshold of Mr Geard’s consciousness that it was his duty to live a life of self-sacrifice.”

(I like that fact that, ultimately, the source of Geard’s force of personality is “the man’s complete freedom from self-consciousness”.)

Powys’s mysticism is not about glimpses of other worlds, but more an awed appreciation of this one. Every moment, for him, however quotidian, is imbrued with a sort of mystical light, and he loves to let us into the mind of a minor character and reveal that, in some quiet way, they have the secret of life’s true meaning, and have had it, quite naturally, since they were born:

“When not in acute physical pain, or in the presence of acute physical pain, Nancy Stickles enjoyed every moment of life. She liked to touch life, hear life, smell life, taste life, see life…”

US 1st edition

It’s an odd thing, though, that for a book published in 1933, and ostensibly set in “the present” — and which features an aeroplane, and cars, and I think at one point someone suggests using a telephone, though nobody has a radio, but evidently it is the 1930s — it makes absolutely no mention of the First World War. None of the characters thinks of it, or recalls having served in it, or has lost anyone to it, or been wounded in it. If Powys is a modernistic writer in the techniques he employs, he seems utterly indifferent to the driving force behind such works as The Waste Land or Mrs Dalloway (with its shell-shocked Septimus Smith). Powys doesn’t even present his life-acceptance as an answer to the worldwide trauma of the Great War, and the widespread loss of belief of the 20th century; it’s as though it just doesn’t affect him, so he doesn’t mention it. (Which is doubly odd, because Powys obviously has a real hatred of cruelty. He apparently had a belief that, early in life, his thinking ill of others caused them actual ill, so he practised a sort of generalised benevolence, so as not to magically cause anyone harm.)

It could be that, as I said with Peake’s Gormenghast, the war makes itself felt in the way both that book and this one ends with a flood. In A Glastonbury Romance, the army even turns out to help, but there’s just not the same feeling, as with Peake, of this being a terrible disaster thrust upon all its characters in the same way the war was thrust upon the real world. With Powys, it feels more as though he just needed to find a way to end his massive book, so came up with a flood, as a sort of watery full-stop.

Reading A Glastonbury Romance is like taking a holiday, not just in another place, but in a timeless time. It’s a glimpse into Powys’s own worldview, one obviously nurtured in a rural upbringing, free of the modern world’s onslaught of communication and networking, a world in which one could really develop an eccentric inner life, an individualistic and even mystic way of experiencing one’s own existence and the quiet, slow-paced, characterful worlds of nature, and other people. That, more than anything, is what lingers, having read this book. It’s less about getting from page 1 to page 1,120, than it is about switching to a different mode of existence whilst being nestled between its capacious pages — a subtler, stranger, and perhaps now-lost mode of existence, but certainly one I’m glad to find preserved in Powys’s novel.

The Institute by Stephen King

UK Hardback

Kids with psychic abilities are kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where they’re put through a series of demeaning and abusive medical procedures in “Front Half” before being taken to “Back Half”, where their abilities are put to use. They’re told that, once they’ve served their term, they’ll have their memories of the Institute wiped and be set free, but none of the kids are buying that. There’s rumours of a back half to Back Half, where the burn-outs are kept. And after that, well, the Institute has its own cremation facilities.

My first reaction on reading about The Institute was, “Ah, Stephen King does Stranger Things,” because of the psychic-kids-in-an-institute idea, though of course Stranger Things is the Duffer Brothers doing Stephen King, so really it came down to Stephen King doing Stephen King. Kids with psychic powers have been there in his fiction from the start (Carrie), and Firestarter was a key influence on both the character of Stranger Things’ Eleven, and Hawkins Labs where she’s held, but I wonder if watching the show sparked King off with a need to revisit the idea. (According to an article in the New York Times, he began writing the novel in March 2017, so that would have been between Stranger Things’ seasons 1 and 2.)

German cover

But the Institute is no Hawkins Labs, and its kids are nothing like Eleven. Most of the children have no conscious control of their powers, and even those that do, know how weak they are — the best of them can, by really concentrating hard, just about hold back the midges that hang around the rundown Institute playground, or get a vague telepathic sense when someone’s lying. So it’s a mystery why anyone would go to such an effort to kidnap a bunch of children with “psychic abilities that wouldn’t even pass an America’s Got Talent audition”.

The Institute itself is hardly hi-tech. It’s tired and rundown, and mostly just going through the motions. It’s not interested in scientific discovery. (One doctor’s allowed to experiment on the less promising subjects, but it’s strictly a side project.) The main purpose is to get the kids through a well-worn process — give them the necessary jabs, put them through the standard tests — and most of the staff have long since ceased to regard their charges’ humanity as anything but a nuisance. Most are casually cruel; the few who aren’t are outright nasty.

There’s a weird air about the Institute of belonging to another age. The snacks in the vending machines (which kids can purchase with tokens they’re given for good behaviour) include sweets from decades past (candy cigarettes, for instance), though I wasn’t able to pick up on all of King’s hints about this as, to me, all American snacks sound made up. The TVs in Back Half, meanwhile, show “only prehistoric sitcoms like Bewitched and Happy Days”. I was wondering if this was going to be a plot point, or even a joke about Stranger Things’ retro appeal, but in the end I think it was just King connecting these kids’ experience to his own childhood.

US hardback

The main character we follow in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a twelve-year-old prodigy who has minor, unconscious telekinetic abilities. He’s super clever, but the Institute doesn’t care about that. To them, he’s just another kid to be put through the grinder — to be processed, but also humiliated, controlled and broken along the way. One thing that really came through in the first half of the novel is how powerless these children are in a world where the adults don’t give a damn about them. Luke’s first task is to fight as hard as he can not to be institutionalised — not to give in to that sense of powerlessness and simply accept the situation, but also not to pointlessly rebel for the sake of it, which just ends in pain.

I haven’t read much criticism of King’s work taken as a whole, so it was only when I was halfway into the book that I realised how often the theme of incarceration, and escape at great odds, occurs in his work (in, for instance, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, Misery, and Gerald’s Game, as well as being an early rite of passage for a number of characters in The Stand). All of these stories are about characters fighting unfair and often life-threatening imprisonment with a combination of cleverness and patient determination, and King seems to have a particular penchant for that sweet feeling of pure, abstract freedom which follows.

As the book goes on, there are growing hints that the Institute is doing what it does out of a genuine belief in a greater good, and not just the standard thought-stopper of “national security”. It made me feel the novel was heading towards an outright moral argument — could any ends ever justify such means? — but it never did, not in such abstract terms, anyway. Which is a pity, because I think it’s good to have even such basic moral arguments aired every so often. (Virtually every review and interview I’ve read about The Institute brings up the incarceration and separation of children from their families on the U.S.-Mexican border that started in 2018, so it’s not as if the novel needs to evoke the horrors of the past to find any relevance.)

The Institute is the best King novel I’ve read in a while. It may be in part thanks to its having only a very light touch of the supernatural — meaning King couldn’t indulge in the sort of over-the-top horrorshow pyrotechnics that have put me off reading him in the past (Duma Key, for instance) — but also thanks to some very tight plotting, with a large chunk of the novel switching between three very suspenseful situations all playing out at the same time. It made The Institute into a real page-turner.

The Chocky Trilogy

I always felt John Wyndham was something of a presiding spirit over the culture of the 1970s and early 80s, because the two genre tropes I most associate with him — “cosy” catastrophes, and mind powers (especially in kids) — achieved something of a peak at this time (thanks to SF-tinged shows like Survivors and Doomwatch for the catastrophes, and The Omega Factor and The Mind Beyond for the mind powers, as well as YA fiction such as H M Hoover’s Morrow series). Hard evidence didn’t arrive till the 80s, though, when proper Wyndham adaptations hit the screens. First there was the BBC’s Day of the Triffids in 1981, then Thames TV’s Chocky in 1984. The Wyndham estate were so pleased with the latter, they allowed its adapter, Anthony Read (who’d been script editor for Doctor Who in 1978, as well as writing for shows like The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel), to follow it up with a couple of sequels.

Chocky must surely have been commissioned on the back of the success of Spielberg’s ET, which came out in the UK in December 1982, but the show itself has a bleaker air, in part thanks to the rather melancholy, Eno-esque theme music (which no longer matched the show’s feel by its third series). Aside from a few 80s updates — a Rubik’s cube, Space Invaders on a home console, a Rodney Matthews poster on Matthew’s bedroom wall, and the way he does some Uri Geller-style spoon-bending early on — the adaptation’s pretty faithful to the book. Perhaps too faithful, as the book itself is quite episodic. The dramatic highpoint, Matthew’s kidnapping, takes place within about ten minutes of the final episode and gets a fairly limp resolution, and surely it, with its hints of ill-defined but oppressive government/corporate forces taking an interest, deserved to be brought more to the fore in a kids’ TV show. On the other hand, it’s nice that the low-key family-drama elements were given so much room to breathe.

Matthew (Andrew Ellams) chats with Chocky, from the first series

Chocky’s Children, from 1985, is perhaps a bit more satisfying purely as TV, even if, to be so, it has to drop the more atmospheric elements of the first series. Matthew, now Chocky-free but missing that sense of inner connection, goes to stay with his arty Aunt Cissie while his parents jet off on a business-and-pleasure trip to Hong Kong. (The little sister, meanwhile, gets left with the neighbours!) Following his post-Chocky interest in art, Matthew has been drawing various scenes from around the world — in surprising detail, considering he’s never been to them — one of which is a windmill. When he finds the actual mill in a field near his aunt’s house, he also meets Albertine, a young maths prodigy whose grumpy, over-protective father (who once had a stand-off with the police over his refusal to let his daughter be educated by anyone but him) is preparing her for an early entrance to Cambridge. The story comes to be about the relationship between these two sensitive, talented children, both of whom have been — knowingly or unknowingly — touched by Chocky’s influence. The oppressive government/corporate interest — now firmly corporate — is there from the start, and given the whole six-episode run to build more satisfyingly into a much more active kidnap-and-rescue than the first series.

Matthew and Albertine (Anabel Worrell), from Chocky’s Children

One thing that’s interesting about the way Anthony Read took his Chocky sequels, is how they seemed to naturally fall into line with other Wyndham novels. Matthew meeting up with, and finding he has a telepathic link to, another of Chocky’s protégés in Chocky’s Children brings in the secret, shared telepathic connection of The Chrysalids and the gestalt power of minds-combined from The Midwich Cuckoos. The next instalment, Chocky’s Challenge (broadcast in 1986), with its gathering of Chocky-influenced children from across the world, even starts to recall that other Wyndham sequel, Children of the Damned (the 1964 sequel to the Midwich film, Village of the Damned), but it’s the polar opposite of it in feel. With so many kids with even more explicit mind-powers (not just telepathy, but telekinesis and mind-projection to the stars), and a lot more appearances from Chocky (who even drops in to back up Albertine in her application for a research grant), the supernatural/spooky elements are no longer spooky or even unusual, and the more psychological elements — Matthew’s inner-world development from the first series, the relationship between him and Albertine in the second — are dropped entirely.

The kids from Chocky’s Challenge.

The story follows Albertine, now a (still very young) Cambridge graduate, wanting to bring Chocky’s gift of free-and-plentiful cosmic energy to the world. To do this, she applies for a research grant, wins the only one remaining, and assembles her team of Chocky-chosen kids from around the world (or the USA and Hong Kong, anyway). There’s no room, really, for character drama — except for a brief subplot with one boy’s search for his mother — and the feel is more along the lines of, say, The Tomorrow People, in that it’s an adventure story first and foremost. Only, where the threat in The Tomorrow People would be something strange or alien, here the main focus of the drama is… research funding. With the kids essentially super-powered, and guided by a highly intelligent mind from the stars, the only limiting factor is how they get the money to pay for the equipment and materials they need. (Nobody suggests asking Chocky for some cheap-and-easy invention they can flog for a quick cash boost.) For a while, the main villain is a rival astronomer who loses her grant to Albertine, and does her best to win it back. Meanwhile, the military only gain a hold on the kids because they can promise unlimited funds. Lessons the kids ought to be learning — such as Albertine’s very thoughtless ruining of Dr Liddle’s astronomical experiment, or the kids’ being too immature to handle the inevitable disappointments when their experiments don’t all go right on the first try — don’t get learned, and there’s a feeling that the kids are in the right simply because they’re telepathic kids, so they must be right. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. But even so, I think the third Chocky series took the show too far from its more emotional/spooky roots. John Wyndham’s novel is, really, about how something special and unique in a child can get crushed by the forces of commercialism and social propriety; the third Chocky TV series was basically about the kids crushing all those forces thanks to their super-powered (but still morally and emotionally immature) minds. Fun all the same, though.

Reaching out to the stars… From Chocky’s Challenge.

The Chocky trilogy began with the feeling that it had one foot firmly planted in 70s kids’ telefantasy. The Chocky sound effect recalled the weird electronic sounds of The Changes, and it had enough environmental concern (the need for a new source of energy to replace our reliance on fossil fuels) to feel it was still waving the flag brandished by The Changes, Raven and Sky. But by the end, it had lost those elements, and so, perhaps, had the culture as a whole. There were a couple of New Zealand kids’ shows mixing alien influences, telepathy, and environmental concerns at the same time — Under the Mountain (1981) and Children of the Dog Star (1984) — but to my mind, kids-with-psychic-powers stories seemed to give way, as the 80s went on, to adaptations of fantasy classics, often based in the past (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers, Moondial), often better made, but perhaps less connected to the pressing issues of the day. Or it may be that, having grown up myself by then, I simply saw fewer of them. (There’s a psychic-twins TV series, The Gemini Factor, from 1987, that I’ll have to check out, for instance.)

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but as the idea of kids-with-psychic-powers is so closely tied to the notion of a new stage in human evolution — Bowie’s “homo superior” — it came with a feeling that, even without super-powers, kids had the potential of bringing something new into a world very much in need of fresh ideas and un-cynical outlooks. Part of me wonders if something of that empowering influence might have been lost when kids’ TV fantasy switched to classic adaptations (with The Box of Delights the first to be deliberately developed as an internationally marketable commodity), and the revolutionary ideals of the late 60s, which were so evident in those 70s shows, gave way to the more money-minded 80s. But even if so, it wasn’t permanent. The current generation, raised on tales of teens standing up to dystopian governments, has certainly been making itself felt, and rightly so. Now, if only some of them had super-powers…