Owen Barfield by Walter Hooper

After reading "Light on C.S.Lewis" (1965) Professor J.R.R.Tolkien told me he thought Owen Barfield’s Introduction threw more light on the subject than any other contribution. I’ve never heard any disagreement. That marvellous caster of light on Lewis died peacefully in Forest Row, East Sussex, on Sunday 14 December 1997 aged 99.

Arthur Owen Barfield was born in London (two weeks before Lewis) on 9 November 1898. He attended Highgate School, after which he took part in the First World War. He served as a Wireless Officer in the Signal Service of the Royal Engineers (now the Royal Corps of Signals), and was always grateful that he was able to learn Morse Code. He won a scholarship to Wadham College, and during his first term there in 1919 he met C.S. Lewis. Gradually Lewis’s admiration moved from Barfield’s poetry to the man in the round. ‘Barfield towers above us all,’ he wrote in his diary on 9 July 1922.

Both men loved ‘rational opposition’ and in 1923 they went at it hammer and tongs. The occasion was Barfield’s becoming an adherent of Anthroposophy, the religious system evolved by Rudolf Steiner. They argued about it for years, and it is to both men’s credit that they ended better friends than before. Lewis described Barfield in "Surprised by Joy" as the friend ‘who disagrees with you about everything. He is not so much the alter ego as the anti-self. Of course he shares your interests; otherwise he would not become your friend at all. But he has approached them all at a different angle.’ Lewis wrote to a friend in 1925,‘I go to Barfield for sheer wisdom and a sort of richness of spirit.'

Owen Barfield, a devout Christian, is not yet as famous as Lewis, but he was a respected author before Lewis’s name was known. One of his truly seminal books, admired by Lewis and Tolkien, is "Poetic Diction" (1928). Barfield hoped for an academic life, but honour drove him to London in 1929 to assist his father in the family law practice. He had married Maud Douie in 1923, and with three children to support, there was little time for writing. However, before his retirement as a solicitor in 1959 he produced "Saving the Appearances" (1957), which is about the disparity between normal human consciousness and the mind of the scientist in comprehending the familiar phenomena of the universe. None of his many books are easy to read. This is because of the profundity of what he writes about. But it is only by reading his brilliant writing that one can understand what Lewis meant by the ‘sheer wisdom’ he gained from him.

At the time of Lewis’s death, Barfield was 'discovered' by folk in the United States and for years he was a visiting lecturer to American universities. He had been appointed Literary Executor of Lewis’s Estate, and he spent thousands of hours in this capacity making his friend’s books better known. Anyone else would have resented this, but Barfield really did ‘tower’ above us - in brilliance, of course, but more than anything in humility and sweetness.

When the High Gates opened for him on that Sunday afternoon in December 1997 we may be sure it was because things of far greater importance than books had tipped the scales greatly in his favour.

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