This book is a truly humbling one to review. It is also difficult to convey to the prospective reader exactly what it is that makes the work so monumental and important or why the editors of The Atlantic chose this book - written 50 years ago and only now published as Powys intended - as THE ONLY book of fiction worth the serious reader's time to emerge for the whole of last year. I shall endeavour, however, to do my best:
The two striking qualities that will immediately begin to strike the engaged reader about the characters and setting (Wales, 499 A.D.) of the novel are a SLOWNESS and what I can only call a MUFFLEDNESS about it all. These qualities arise, not only because it is set in a pre-agrarian tribal society, but because Powys is interested primarily in the various impressions flickering through the souls of the characters and how they, gradually, come to assume, not to lose, the name of action. The manner in which Porius ruminates upon his decision to find and, if needs be, fight the Cewri might just as well that of the reader as he/she plunges into these pages:
"This was decided. This was settled. And yet there hung about the whole project something dreamlike and unsubstantial, not so much unreal, as subreal, like a decision under water, or in the soft persistent falling of snow upon snow."
We have, in today's post-industrial, "tweeting" age lost the consciousness of the connexions with faint odours, shifts of light, lingering memories that affect our moods, our states of conscience. Powys' book slowly restores our awareness of these senses in us, as well as "the wisdom of every creature in reconciling itself as well as it could to that mysterious mingling of Nature's purposes with accident and chance, which is the only world we know."
The relations between the sexes and, indeed, the sexual impulse itself are - again, slowly - revealed to us as matters of a complex sensorium, as when Sibylla is leading Brochvael through the forest:
"Her complicated new feeling, so fiercely reverential, for the man she was guiding, were as intimately associated with leaves and mould and moss and mist as his were with his fireside at Ty Cerrig...Yes, she was listening, after her fashion; and hearing, amid oak stumps and pine-tree trunks and under that shapeless silveriness of the sky, more, it may well be, than he was saying."
More than anything, the book presses into the persevering reader an awe at the mysteriousness of our souls and of our world, no better represented than in Powys' description of a morning mist:
"By imperceptible degrees the first infinitely faint change in the warm dark bosom of the night reaches us like the tolling of a bell under water and with a tragic greyness, far more deathlike than anything to be found in the comfortable embrace and kindly oblivion of darkness; and there comes into existence, thrusting itself between the familiar alteration of light and day, a death-cold, corpselike, alien entity newly arrived upon the earth from heaven knows where."
Ultimately, the reader is drawn into a world of which his/her primordial senses are keenly aware, which deeply underlies all our lives, but which is lost to us in our day-to-day lives. The time spent (about 60 hours for me) reading this book restores to awareness the odours, sights, smells, chance occurrences which mould our inner lives and eventually determine our actions. Like Proust, and only a few other great authors and poets I can think of over a life devoted to reading, it is a book of wisdom literature. This review doesn't do it justice. No rating I could give it does it justice. -----Like all such works, you don't so much read it. It reads you.