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Christmas Lore & Legend: Yuletide Essays by Llewelyn Powys

with a foreword by Anthony Head

Sundial Press 2010 (rpt 2012), p/back, 96pp., £6.99

 ISBN 978 0955 152399

Llewelyn Powys

    Christmas Lore & Legend is a collection of fourteen previously uncollected `Yuletide Essays’ by Llewelyn Powys, although five of them have previously been published in books which include `A Baker’s Dozen (2)’; `Dorset Essays’(2); `The Twelve Months’ and Kenneth Hopkins’ `Llewelyn Powys – A Selection from His Writings’ The remaining nine essays were previously published in newspapers and magazines during the 1930s, with about half of them being written in Switzerland during the final three years of Llewelyn’s life, and they are collected here in book form for the first time.

This is the third book of `collected essays’ from the Sundial Press by this author, following `Durdle Door to Dartmoor’ and its companion volume, `Still Blue Beauty’, and the publishers are to be congratulated, for as all devotees of Llewelyn Powys know, apart from `Wessex Memories’ (2002) and Cecil Woolf’s `Powys Heritage Series’ of diary publications selected & edited by the excellent Peter Foss, in recent years any previously unpublished Llewelyn Powys material has been – and remains - as rare as frog's feathers!

Of course it is regrettable and little disappointing to those who collect his work that any new title with Llewelyn Powys named as author should contain any previously published material at all, yet considering that it’s seventy one years since his death, it’s almost inevitable that this should be the case as the volume of his work -- especially that which constitutes publishable material -- becomes exhausted. Perhaps then, we should be thankful for small mercies and welcome this latest publication into the canon of his books, remembering that it could also be an introduction to the author for someone who is only initially interested in the lore and legend of Christmas! For even if the author’s name meant nothing, the startlingly attractive cover alone would most certainly catch the interest and attention of such a person, for it bears all the festive hallmarks of the 1930’s period Christmas with the ubiquitous Robin and sprigs of holly against a merry red background, and looks for all the world like the fattest Christmas card you ever saw. Dare I hint that it would make an ideal Christmas gift?

The book benefits from an intuitively written and extremely perceptive foreword by Anthony Head, whose brilliant summation of this collection of essays can neither be gainsaid nor surpassed when he writes:

Rich in imagery and anecdote, woven through with local lore and personal reminiscence, these Yuletide essays bring vividly alive the customs and character, the sounds and tastes of earlier generations and are informed by the lively curiosity and deep nostalgia that typify Powys’ best work.

`Rich in imagery and anecdote’ is true of all his work, but oft repeated anecdote constitutes a blemish on an otherwise flawless page, and there are blemishes here which include the repetition of both anecdote and phrase in several of the essays. Of content and style they represent a mixed bag, with the author’s virtues and faults paraded together; well-balanced lyrical sentences marred by the use of an obscure word or phrase, one or two mixed metaphors, the striving for effect with an over-indulgence in exclamation marks…!

Equally, those who are familiar with Llewelyn’s best work will recognize instances where his normally unique style becomes affected – doubtless influenced by writing for a specific readership, but nevertheless disconcerting; and given his avowed and much vaunted pagan rationalism, some of these `affectations’ are incommiscible. And whilst some may feel that two or three of the essays lack the quality of construction and crystal clear coherence normally associated with Llewelyn, others may be bemused by comments which would seem to indicate the author’s tacit acceptance of some of the tenets of Christianity.

Criticism apart, some of Llewelyn’s finest work is also represented here, perhaps nowhere more so than in the very first essay, `The First Fall of Snow’ when, reminiscing about his time in Africa, he writes:

I have felt the earth, our ancient Mother Earth beneath my feet, tremble and quiver in an ecstasy of childbirth under the sweet persuasion of those torrential down-pourings; but never once did she attain to such mysterious power as when, at rest under a covering of snow, she lies with the appearance and potency of a sepultured goddess who is in truth dead and yet retains that upon her ivory forehead which is equivalent to immortality.

Devouring the book at a single sitting (as I did) tends to highlight the `blemishes’ and makes its faults more apparent, and in accord with the publisher I would agree that it’s `rather like a box of chocolates that shouldn’t be eaten at one go but dipped into and savoured one by one’. Although for the devotees of Llewelyn Powys `Christmas Lore & Legend’ will be a welcome addition to the literary canon of this most controversial of the published Powys Brothers.

Neil Lee Atkin

The Powys Society Newsletter, No 71, November 2010

Available from The Sundial Press


Yuletide Essays by Llewelyn Powys

(Fourteen essays: ten previously uncollected)

1    The First Fall of Snow                                              
2    The Spirit of the Season                                           
3    A Childhood Christmas                                             
4    The First Christmas Tree                                          
5    Merry Is the Word                                                   
6    Mistletoe and Fir                                                      
7    The Month of December
8    Charity and Christmas Ballads                                  
9    A Christmas Mystery                                    
10  Town and Country               
11  Our Merry Ancestors                                   

12   Evergreens and Corn Sheaves
13   Ships and Stockings                              
14   The Wassail Bowl and New Year Customs   


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