Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield 1935Arthur Owen Barfield (1898–1997) was a writer and philosopher, best known these days not so much for his own writing but for his membership of the Inklings, which included both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Barfield was born in Muswell Hill, Middlesex, the youngest child of a solicitor and a fervent suffragette. His mother educated him until he went to Highgate School at the age of eight (at which point he discovered the existence of Christianity). He won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, to study Greats (Classics), but left before matriculation in order to join the Royal Engineers as a wireless officer.

He arrived at Wadham in 1919, for Michaelmas Term, transferring from Greats to English Language and Literature; in his first term he met C.S. Lewis (University College), whom he later described as “part of the furniture of my existence” (ODNB). Barfield got a first, and wrote a B.Litt thesis that was eventually published as Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928).

In his first term he also joined the  English Folk Dance Society, and became an enthusiastic Morris dancer. This led him to spend part of a summer vacation (late in life he could not remember if it was the first or the second) in Cornwall. A group of young women who taught folk-dancing around the Cornish villages were in need of some male protectors; they had been harassed by rowdy sailors. So he went there to help out with the dances, and did the same the following summer. In 1923 he married Maud Douie, one of the dancing teachers. They later adopted three children: Alexander, Geoffrey, and Lucy. C.S. Lewis was Lucy’s godfather, and he later dedicated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) to her, as well as remembering her in the name of the most interesting of the Pevensie children.

In 1923 he wrote his only fantasy story, a fairy-tale called The Silver Trumpet: it is now available to download, from the Barfield web-site. Lewis’ diary entry for 20 October 1923 records how he had been overjoyed to read the fairy tale in manuscript form saying “nothing in its kind can be imagined better.” Tolkien also found that The Silver Trumpet Owen Barfield The Silver Trumpethad “scored a direct hit” with his children, as reported by Lewis in a letter to Barfield dated 28 June 1936. It was published by Faber and Gwyer in 1925, with two further editions, in 1968 and 1986.

In 1923 Barfield also became a follower of Rudolf Steiner, the anthroposophist, causing endless discussion with Lewis, in a series of letters they called “the great war”. Barfield never renounced Anthroposophy (and his funeral service in 1997 was held at the Forest Row Anthroposophical British Church; but (no doubt to Lewis’s relief) was baptised in 1949.

In 1929 Barfield joined his father’s firm of solicitors: Barfield and Barfield, and practiced as a solicitor for thirty years (Lewis was one of his clients). He kept up his relations with his friends in Oxford.

During this time [the thirties and early forties] I used to go up to Oxford about once a term I think to spend a weekend with Lewis. Very often on the Friday night there would be a meeting of the Inklings (Lange 34)… I don’t think any of them had any real interest in society as a whole. Lewis never read a [news]paper or anything of that sort, and I don’t think that Tolkien did. Charles Williams—I am not sure; he was more wide awake to the world around him than the other two” (Lange 35).

From the time that Barfield began writing books, in the 1920s, Lewis would act as his main sounding board. As Barfield  wrote around 1950:

My public, though select and small,
Is crammed with taste and knowledge.
It’s somewhat stout and fairly tall
And lives at Magdalen College.

Barfield continued to publish books after he had become a solicitor, and he wrote numerous books after his retirement in 1959, as well as taking on various academic jobs: between 1964 and 1980 he was a visiting professor at Drew University (three times), Brandeis University, Hamilton College, the State University of Missouri, SUNY at Stony Brook, the University of British Columbia, and California State University at Fullerton.

His wife died in 1980, and from 1986 until his death he lived in a retirement home in Sussex. His last book was published in 1995, and the title suggests how far he had kept up with the changing world: The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.

My information is largely from Walter Hooper’s entry on Barfield in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, supplemented by the website of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate and by Simon Blaxland-de Lange’s Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography (Forest Row, Sussex: Temple Lodge, 2006). The little verse about Lewis is from p. v of G.B. Tennyson, ed., Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis, by Owen Barfield (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).