It did not take Lil-Umbra long with her fifteen-year-old legs and her slender figure to scamper down the quarter-of-a-mile avenue of over-arching elms that led due eastward from the Fortress of Roque, where she lived, to the ancient circle of Druidic stones that had come to be known as “Castrum Sanctum”.
So begins, John Cowper Powys’s novel, The Brazen Head, published in 1956 when he was 83 years old. The events in The Brazen Head take place in the year 1272; the title refers to a talking ‘brazen head’ that was invented by Friar Roger Bacon and which could supposedly answer any question put to it. The opening lines introduce us to Lil-Umbra, the daughter of Sir Mort, the Baron of Roque Castle, as she meets Peleg, a Tartar giant who is indebted to Sir Mort with saving his life during a crusade. Powys’s novels typically have a multitude of characters and The Brazen Head is no different; briefly the novel covers the inhabitants of three castles and a priory along with various visitors. Firstly there is the Manor of Roque, owned by Sir Mort, his wife, Lady Val and their children, Lil-Umbra, Tilton and John; John is about twenty-years old and studies under Roger Bacon. Secondly, there is the Castle of Lost Towers, occupied by Sir Maldung, his wife, Lady Lilt, and their beautiful daughter Lilith; both Sir Maldung and Lady Lilt appear mad and Lilith wicked. Thirdly there is Cone Castle, occupied by Baron Boncor, his wife, Lady Ulanda and their son Sir William; Raymond de Laon, who is a relative of the Baron’s is currently visiting. Fourthly, there is the Bumset Priory, run by Prior Bog, and is the current home/prison of Friar Roger Bacon.
Just in case the reader is thinking that this will be a rather tiresome historical novel we are quickly introduced to a horse, called Cheiron, that has an incipient human head forming in its neck, an old man who has discovered the consciousness of inanimate objects, and later on in the novel we are introduced to Peter Peregrinus of Picardy who carries a lodestone around with him and wants to use it to take over the world but also just seems to enjoy giving people, including Bacon, ‘magnetic shocks’ just for the hell of it—he also fantasises about getting his revenge on the human race. Lilith of Lost Towers is an odd one too, and feared by Lil-Umbra, who seems to sense Lilith’s malevolence. Lilith, though possibly evil, is extremely beautiful and inspires lust in just about every man she meets; she acts lasciviously towards Bonaventura, for example, a friar who is searching the land for heretics, and has his eyes on Bacon. Lil-Umbra fears that Lilith will try to seduce Raymond de Laon, whom Lil-Umbra is in love with. Lilith and Peregrinus seemed to be made for each other and they become a sort of Brady-Hindley couple. If Lilith is a bit cracked, then it’s no surprise because her parents are just as mad; her father, Sir Maldung, is very odd, and tries to kill both Sir Mort and Baron Boncor by arrow. Here is a description of Sir Maldung, as he interrupts a meeting between Baron Boncor and Bonaventura in the woods; this precedes Sir Maldung’s attack on Baron Boncor.
He was interrupted by the appearance of the most amazing human figure that any of them, man or beast, had ever seen in his life before. This personage came dancing into their midst, and not one of them could take his eyes off him for a second when once he appeared. He inhaled and sucked in and tried to drain up the essence of every living soul upon that spot, whether such a soul belonged to a man or an animal or a bird or a reptile or a toad or a worm or an insect. None of the three human beings present at that cross-tack in the forest had a flicker of doubt as to who this intruder was, who thus came dancing into the midst of them.
It was Baron Maldung himself, the Lord of Lost Towers!
And what of Bacon’s brazen head? Well, it undergoes an….invocation…I guess, as that’s the title of the chapter; this invocation involves inviting Ghosta, a Jewish servant girl who has just arrived in the priory, and who has had a presentiment to visit the friar, to straddle the brazen head with her naked genitals touching the neck, whilst they all repeat the following: Birginis, Sirginis, Flirginis, Virginis. Apparently this is of use to Bacon. This scene is portrayed on the cover of my edition by a sculpture by Patricia V. Dawson, a series of seven sculptures based on events in the novel. Bonaventura, meanwhile, considers Bacon an heretic; he intends to put a stop to his experiments and seize and destroy the brazen head; and maybe even Bacon as well.
This is certainly a wild novel, full of grotesque characters and it is amazing that a man in his eighties would write such a thing. Some of Powys’s other later novels sound even stranger than this one. Maybe it isn’t quite as consitantly crazy as I’ve made it out to be but it’s not far off and the ending is suitably chaotic and cataclysmic—you will have to read it though to find out what happens. In amongst all the weird characters and the strange goings-on there are some beautiful passages; Powys’s skills as a writer certainly didn’t deteriorate as he aged. Here’s a short passage near the end of the book as an example of the calmer prose in the book.
It may well be that what gives to the wind along that Wessex coast its indescribable mixture of vague sorrow and wild obscure joy comes from its passing, on its unpredictable path, the floating hair of so many love-lorn maidens and the wild-tossed beards of so many desolate old men.
n.b John Cowper Powys was born on 8th October 1872, 148 years ago today.