The BBC’s King Arthur’s Britain: The Truth Unearthed (16 September 2018) offered “all the latest evidence to reveal what Dark Age Britain was really like”. The popular idea of the ‘Dark Ages’ – from the fifth to the sixth century AD – is of a backward island left to collapse into savage disorder after the Romans left and took their civilisation, their book learning and their expertise in roads, wine and aqueducts with them. The lack of written records has left an unsettling historical void.
The BBC programme added a few more pieces of evidence to support the argument that there is more to the Dark Ages than this, that it wasn’t all horror and emptiness. Historians since the 18th century have rejected this over-simplification of the period. John Cowper Powys made his own (spectacular) contribution to the debate in the form of the novel Porius.
When I first read Powys’s introductory chapter of Historical Background to the year 499 AD, I winced at this:
It seems, therefore, highly probable that this historic blank, as far as written documents go, was filled by Arthur’s powerful and prosperous rule, this lack of documentary history being itself evidence that for one generation at least matters in this island were well under control.
What would a historian think of this half-baked and improbable stuff about a fictional King? Embarrassing. But over time I’ve come to appreciate that Powys is much less interested in the historical narrative than in saying something about the nature of official history. The full title is significant: Porius: A Romance of the Dark Ages. It’s an explicit positioning of the story and the argument to come. In its rich and heady evocation of a specific and central moment of Dark Ages life, its networks of politics, threads of both old and new beliefs, the interwoven responses to the natural world, Porius is a statement of belief in the value of human culture.
The bad old Dark Ages idea has been propagated by a number of different institutions and movements over history (and via history), all with a vested interest in the story of progress and the importance of civilisation and official knowledge: through Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the history of one truth.
By contrast, Porius is a gloriously grim and twisted vision of multiplicity, of how the cultures of individual people and communities manage to grow and survive. He’s illustrating how where there’s consciousness there’s culture, and not just where there’s power.