Obituary: Owen Barfield
Friday 19 December 1997
Owen Barfield was described by C.S. Lewis as "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers". He met Lewis, his exact contemporary, when he went up to Oxford in 1919. "Barfield towers above us all!" wrote Lewis in his diary. They were both 20, and out of their friendship one of the most remarkable literary and theological movements of the 20th century - "the Inklings" - was born. By the mid-1920s they had been joined by J.R.R. Tolkien. In time Hugo Dyson, W.H. Lewis, Charles Williams and others followed.
Barfield was born in London in 1898. His father was a solicitor, his mother an ardent suffragette. He was educated at Highgate School and, after serving in the Royal Corps of Signals during the First World War, came up to Wadham College on a classical scholarship. He met C.S. Lewis during his first term.
On graduating in English, Barfield remained in Oxford to write the thesis for his BLitt which became Poetic Diction: a study in meaning (1928), a book that had a profound effect on Lewis and Tolkien. The year after it was published, however, he returned to London to assist his father in the family law firm, Barfield and Barfield. Most of his books were not written until he retired from the law in 1959. Thereafter he was a visiting scholar in many American universities, and in the United States his books have a large following.
Someone watching from the sidelines might have imagined that Barfield and Lewis were enemies. This was because, while both argued for truth, they saw things from different angles. Writing about Barfield in his 1956 book Surprised by Joy, Lewis spoke of him as a 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 . . . But he has approached them all at a different angle. He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one . . . How can he be so nearly right and yet, invariably, just not right? He is as fascinating (and infuriating) as a woman. When you set out to correct his heresies, you find he forsooth has decided to correct yours! And then you go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night . . . more often like mutually respectful enemies than friends . . . Out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge . . . I think he changed me more than I him.
Barfield was amazed that Lewis would think so, for to him keeping up with Lewis was "like trying to run along beside a motorcar in top gear".
Lewis was an atheist until his conversion in 1931, and Barfield played a large part in bringing him to the Christian faith. His particular contribution was to demolish Lewis's "chronological snobbery", which Lewis defined as "the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited".
One of the issues Barfield was (to Lewis) so infuriating about was Anthroposophy. In 1913 Rudolf Steiner became the leader of a German section of the Theosophical Society, and over the years sought to elaborate a scientific method of studying the world of spirit. Barfield heard Steiner lecture in London in 1923 and from that time on was an enthusiastic follower. Lewis was horrified, and out of this emerged what they called their "Great War" over Anthroposophy and related issues. But the friendship remained and grew inward to the bone. Barfield's views, like Steiner's, were rooted in Christian and Trinitarian thought, but they also embraced mysticism.
In 1923 Barfield married Matilda ("Maud") Dewey, a professional dancer and producer who had worked with Gordon Craig. They had three children, to one of whom, Lucy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) is dedicated.
It was during the early days of his marriage, when he was living in Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, that some of Barfield's most seminal works were published. Besides Poetic Diction, there were The Silver Trumpet (1925) and History in English Words (1926), which is not merely about the changes in the meanings of words but what he called an "evolution of consciousness".
During his 30 years as a solicitor he helped Lewis set up the charming jeu d'esprit entitled This Ever Diverse Pair (1950), in which Barfield wrote about the tension between the demands of the legal profession and the need to live in the larger world of thought and letters.
A revolution in his life came about when Barfield was 60. Following his retirement, he found time for much he had wanted to say. In his own favourite of his books, Saving the Appearances (1957), he examines the disparity between normal human consciousness and the mind of the scientist in comprehending the familiar phenomena of the universe. His other works include Worlds Apart (1960), Unancestral Voice (1965), Speaker's Meaning (1967), What Coleridge Thought (1971) and The Rediscovery of Meaning (1977).
Following his wife's death, Barfield moved from their home in Dartford, Kent, in 1986 to Forest Row in Sussex. There he continued to welcome visitors, his mind as clear as always.
Owen Barfield was a small, lithe man, fond of cats and an enthusiastic walker. (He and C.S. Lewis called themselves the "Cretaceous Perambulators".) While others were making plans for his centenary he slipped away quietly, dying peacefully at home on 14 December.
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