Past Conferences: 2009

Ravishing Limbo

The Conference was held at The Hand Hotel, Llangollen, Friday 21 August to Sunday 23 August 2009.

Conference Prospectus

Hand Hotel - view from room
Hand Hotel - view from room

In The Meaning of Culture, John Cowper Powys writes, “We all move to and fro in a fluctuating mist of pseudo-verbal, pseudo-sensory images. These images are nothing less than the protoplasmic world-stuff of every kind of literature. Men of genius give shape to these floating nebulae, to these hovering simulacra, until some palpable organic form swings free in space. What has once been snatched out of the ‘casing air’ now moves through that air on its own orbit. Limbo is thus ravished; new ‘worlds’ are created; and upon the ambiguous coasts between mind and matter the wave-curve of beauty is petrified in mid-descent.” This ravishing of limbo resembles but goes beyond what T.S. Eliot called “a raid on the inarticulate.” John Cowper Powys’s novels give shape and expression to fugitive sub-thoughts on the threshold of consciousness, but also create vast panoramas of the natural and social worlds, even cosmologies. The talks at this year’s conference at Llangollen, which concentrates particularly on John Cowper Powys, indicate the scope of his novels’ imaginative range. Our speakers are particularly international. Harald Fawkner comes from Sweden, and will offer insights into what he tantalizingly calls his entirely new interpretation of John Cowper Powys. Janet Fouli, whose edition of the letters between John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson was published by Cecil Woolf last year, is travelling to Llangollen from Tunisia. Angelika Reichmann comes from Hungary, and will talk on John Cowper Powys and Dostoievsky. Remembering also Powys’s remark that “with the exception of Dorothy Richardson, I feel that I owe a greater debt to Constance Garnett than to any other woman writer of our time,” we are seizing the opportunity to hear the voices of Dostoeivsky’s “cruelly voluble” Russians in John Cowper’s stage adaptation Garnett’s translation of the The Idiot. Theodora Scutt, T. F. Powys’s adoptive daughter, will talk about her life in conversation with the T. F. Powys scholar Ian Robinson. We will be organizing walks to John Cowper Powys’s home in Corwen and round sites associated with Porius and Owen Glendower.

Post-Conference Report

Conference Walks to Valle Crucis and Mynydd y Gaer

A view from Mynydd y Gaer
A view from Mynydd y Gaer


“Twas in this Chapter-House I wrote the first sentences of my own Owen Glendower and left it uncorrected because the spirits of those Cistercian monks were inspiring it...”

On Saturday afternoon a group of Conference-goers followed the towpath, a short distance, beside the still waters of the Llangollen canal as far as Pontefrelin and then by field paths with fine views of Bryn Hyfryd and glimpses of the buttresses and arches of the Abbey seen through the trees, to reach the well preserved remains of JCP‘s “scholastic sanctuary in the mountains.”

Links with JCP are very strong here. He visited the Abbey in 1935 with Phyllis and wrote in his diary that he wished to be buried here, beside Glendower’s bard, Iolo Goch. He came here again in 1945 on a holiday with his son, Littleton, who had just been ordained in the Roman Catholic faith. JCP loved the cool interior of the chapter house, and must have found the tranquil riverside location, and the historical connections of the place, as well as its associations with the mother church of St Mael and St Sulien in Corwen very appealing. It was thus here on 24 April 1937 that he began to write Owen Glendower.

The Vale of Llangollen, and the area around Valle Crucis, with its local traditions, myths and stories about King Arthur, and a Grail castle on top of Dinas Bran reminded JCP of Avalon and the Glastonbury legends, just as the monk’s fishpond in the Abbey grounds, the beautiful west front, circular window and rib vaulting of the Chapter House also reminded him of Glastonbury Abbey and the remains of a once prosperous Cistercian abbey in Montacute.

On the way to Valle Crucis green fields and flower filled meadows could be seen reaching down to the edges of the canal leaving space for sheep and cattle to roam freely along its muddy banks. On the other side, the towpath follows the route of the steam railway and the river Dee, connecting, at a point beyond the motor museum, with the Horseshoe Falls and the Chainbridge Hotel, where the river plunges dramatically and noisily over fallen trees and massive boulders. Gaily painted leisure barges, some drawn by horses, now occupy part of the route to Valle Crucis which was once crowded with vessels carrying raw materials to the industrial centres of England.

The views of Dinas Bran, with its foundations “sunk in the mysterious underworld of beyond reality” seen from the two path, or, more prominently, from Coed Hyrddin, the hill on the other side of the road opposite the entrance to the Abbey, leave the visitor with no doubt why JCP thought that this was a very special place. In an essay in Obstinate Cymric, ‘Wales and America’, JCP recalled that: “...never...not even in Glastonbury – have I felt the spirit of what Spengler would call the Spring time of our Faustian culture as powerfully as in this holy ground.”

Mynydd y Gaer walkers

A small fleet of cars transported other conference-goers further afield to Corwen where our ‘ael’ and goal was the summit of Caer Drewyn -- the impressive Iron Age fortress called by Powys Mynyd Y Gaer – a name which you can also see on a local sign post pointing the way to the hill.

Our route to Corwen took us through a landscape made familiar by repeated readings of Owen Glendower and Porius. Leaving Llangollen we went past the tiny community of Berwyn where the gaunt peaks of the Llantysillio mountain range could be seen in the distance, till we reached the picturesque villages of Glyndyfrdwy and Carrog, passing the heather and bracken filled hilltops of Coed Pen Y Garth, Craig Y Rhos and Coed Bwlch Coch. Entering Corwen, which JCP in Porius frequently refers to under its other names of “The White Choir” or “The White Circle” we easily found good parking in the middle of town in the rather grandly named Corwen Interchange (a car park with facilities and a bus stop!). We crossed the Dee by a modern bridge. At this point the river is broad and deep. Willows bend low over the surface of the Dee creating shady spots, like the “pools of Cybele”, where lamprey, Atlantic salmon, brown trout and grayling can sometimes be seen. On the clay banks we looked for green woodpeckers and kingfishers that are frequent visitors here. Perhaps further down stream where the river is shallower there might be found a possible location for JCP’s “Ford of Mithras” which Porius uses to get to St Julian’s fountain on the other side.

Ahead the great round mass of Caer Drewyn confronted us. Early fruiting blackberries in the hedgerows suggested Autumn was on its way. The ever-changing late summer light and muted chiaroscuro effect of the variegated colours of yellow, green and purple that covered the surface of the hill refreshed our eyes. The colour schemes of JCP’s Welsh novels devised by Wilson Knight came to mind -- red and gold for Owen Glendower, and silver, grey and dark brown earth colours for Porius.

Beside Corwen Leisure Centre we followed the course of a disused railway path where oak and elms grow thickly and the sound of blackcaps and warblers fill the air with their song, then skirted the edge of Caer Drewyn untill we began to climb steadily up the north side of the hill to a spot near the summit surrounded by the stone walls of the Gaer. Standing on a carpet of bracken, fern and gorse, we surveyed the spreading valley below trying to identify some of the locations in JCP’s novel Porius, in the panoramic view spread out before us. The Dee itself could easily be identified twisting round the town. We spotted Cae Coed, which JCP explained means “the clearing in the forest” and the meadow he refers to in his abandoned novel Edeyrnion, known locally as “Dol-pur-gresyn” or “the field of unbearable pity” situated beside the original Pont Corwen, constructed in the eighteenth century, and perhaps another possible location for the “Ford of Mithras”. Could the gap between the trees in the “greenish black” ancient forest opposite us be the Path of the Dead leading to Y Grug, or “The Mound” - the burial place of Iscovan in Porius? Turning north we could see the “Swamp of the Gwyddyl Ffichti”, the village of Gwyddylwern, and looking down again at Corwen, on the other side of the river, its buildings seemed more like JCP’s “Brythonic dwellings” than modern houses, we could pick out Coed Pen Y Pigyn, the hill behind Corwen church, and a favourite destination for JCP on his daily “round” and walk amidst the thick oak woodland above the town.

We debated the location of Snowdon but dark purple edged clouds had suddenly descended and the tops of the mountains were no longer visible, so we could only discern its general direction.

As we spoke our voices were lost in the vast open space of the Gaer. Approaching the very top of the hill the cry of a buzzard startled me. A raven flapped its wings nearby. I thought of the croaking raven of Llangar, of Sycarth, Mithrafael and the descent of the Kings of Powys Fadog. I thought of Powys himself, for whom Caer Drewyn never lost its fascination, the omphalos of his imagination. I thought of Powys newly arrived in Corwen, “ a wayfarer from Dorset”, ascending the “purgatorial mount”, situated high above the Dee Valley, and making his way to the ruins of an abandoned shooting lodge, called Liberty Hall, built in the early twentieth century by a local landowner, Lord Northborough. Here JCP erected stone “stele” – memorials for family and friends - “a regular burying ground of my Dead Heroes and Glory Ground of my Living Ones!” he told Katie. From here JCP looked back across the river at the Gaer. In his mind he had already filled “the absolute blank” of Dark Age history with his own self-created stories and invented characters. The Gaer, empty now, felt however preternaturally alive. The buzzard and the raven had fallen silent. The sound of the wind in the thorn trees and bracken was all that accompanied our descent to the car park. Somehow I felt that the past and the present were not so far apart. The image of the Mithraic Sun God, the lion headed figure encircled by a serpent, the deos leontocephalus, the god of time and eternity worshipped in the Hellenic mystery religions, whose statue Porius glimpses in the Cave of Mithras, but which left his “religious sensibility” quite cold, rose up, fleetingly, in my mind, then disappeared, and I thought I understood what Powys had meant: “As the old gods were departing then so the old gods are departing now.”

Chris Thomas


Friday 21st

1600 Arrivals
1730 Informal reception; welcome by Chairman
1830 Dinner
2000 Tim Blanchard: ‘“I must have some tea”: Drink, drugs and defiance in the novels of John Cowper Powys’

Saturday 22nd

0800 Breakfast
0930 Harald Fawkner: ‘Wolf Solent and The Idolatry of Experience’
1100 Angelika Reichmann: ‘Dostoievsky and John Cowper Powys - Influence without Anxiety?’
1245 Lunch
Afternoon: guided walks round Mynydd y Gaer or Valle Crucis.
1800 Theodora Gay Scutt in conversation with Ian Robinson
1900 Dinner
2000 Reading of scenes from John Cowper Powys’s stage adaptation of Dostoievsky’s The Idiot

Sunday 23rd

0800 Breakfast
0930 Janet Fouli: ‘The Eternal Feminine: John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson’
1100 AGM followed by a Powys Quiz and the auction of a watercolour painting by Will Powys
1300 Lunch
1500 End of conference and departure in afternoon


Discussing the stage adaptation of Dostoievsky’s “The Idiot”
Discussing the stage adaptation of Dostoievsky’s “The Idiot”
Conference delegates at dinner
Conference delegates at dinner

About the Speakers

Tim Blanchard, a former journalist, is now a consultant for a specialist education communications company, working with universities, business schools and research bodies. He came upon A Glastonbury Romance in a bookshop in 2000, and, like many admirers of John Cowper Powys, found a writer whose ideas were a strange and intoxicating echo of his own most secret thoughts. Tim has an MA in Cultural History from the University of York.

Harald Fawkner has been Professor of English Literature in Stockholm University since the mid 1990s, and is the founder of the department’s Phenomenological Research Unit. He has published books on John Fowles and Shakespeare, as well as The Ecstatic World of John Cowper Powys (1986). A frequent contributor to the society’s conferences, The Powys Review, and The Powys Journal, he spoke most recently at Llangollen in 2007, where his talk on “The Indifference of Nature – Realness in A Glastonbury Romance” showed the increasingly theological direction of his thought. He is currently completing a new book on John Cowper Powys. Harald Fawkner is also a keen gardener and member of The Peony Society.

Janet Fouli, after studying French at Exeter University, went to Tunisia and spent most of her career lecturing in the English Department at the University of Tunis, where she also taught poetry to students of English and US literature. Needing to qualify herself in English, she studied for a Diplôme de Recherches Approfondies and wrote a thesis entitled ‘Structure and Identity: the Creative Imagination in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage’. This was published in Tunis in 1995. Janet has written two student handbooks and over a dozen articles on literary topics, mostly published in Tunisian reviews, but also in the Powys Newsletter and Powys Journal. She retired in 2005, and is now engaged in translating a book for a Tunisian historian, from French into English. Her edition of both sides of the correspondence between John Cowper Powys and Dorothy Richardson was published by Cecil Woolf in 2008.

Theodora Gay Scutt is the adopted daughter of T.F. and Violet Powys. She has described her childhood in Cuckoo in the Powys Nest (Brynmill Press, 2000). Theodora writes: “I was a very sickly child, so I wasn’t sent to school (wasn’t I lucky?) Being at home all this time, when I wasn’t ill I learned to hand-milk, and to harness, drive and ride the neighbouring farm horses. I became, and am, deeply interested in farming. Daddy told me all he could about it. Naturally I’m also interested in literature; not much modern literature, though. My livelihood has mainly been working with dairy cattle, which pleased Daddy greatly – he didn’t like it so well when I worked with horses. I think he was a little nervous of them. But there’s always been a horse beside me; and, after Daddy died, a dog or two. I don’t know why he wouldn’t let me have one. That is me. My adoptive mother said I was a “tomboy” and didn’t like me at all, but then I didn’t like her either!”