Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Tolkien and Barfield, Fantasy and Imagination - unexplored links

The fact that Owen Barfield did not enjoy The Lord of the Rings is evidence of a lack of empathy with Tolkien's work; and indeed I have not found any serious engagement of Barfield with Tolkien in any of the writings or interviews.

Barfield was, of course, at least superficially familiar with Tolkien's ideas - but I get no sense of Barfield having grappled-with Tolkien's theoretical writing - certainly not in the way that he did with the work of CS Lewis. I am thinking particularly of the essay Lewis, Truth and Imagination (in the 1989 collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis). Specifically, Barfield here notes that Lewis - for all his manyfold use and advocacy of Imagination - never developed an explicit theory of Imagination.

Yet for Barfield a theory of Imagination, and in particular of how Imagination may lead to 'real' knowledge, is very much needed now; as it has been since the time of Coleridge's brief but highly suggestive work on the subject in the early 1800s.

However, in contrast to Lewis, a theory of Imagination was precisely what Tolkien actually did develop - in his definition and defence of Fantasy in the famous essay On Fairy Stories. Barfield certainly knew this essay at some level; since he was one of the other contributors to Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), where On Fairy Stories was originally published.

What Barfield (apparently) missed, was that Tolkien’s argument about Recovery contains, with different terminology, a theory of Imagination; and the seeds of a much more powerful explanation of Fairy Tale/ Fantasy providing actual knowledge, and being more real than (so-called) ‘real life’.

Serious readers already know that Fantasy or Fairy Tale (done well) feels much realler than 'real life'; but what is so-far lacking, is an explanation for why and how this deep conviction may be factually true.

Tolkien’s argument concerning the truth of Faerie focuses on the possibility of what he terms Recovery. The idea is that Fairy Stories (or Fantasy) include both magic, wonder, the fantastic - and also entail the creation of a different, complex but internally-consistent world. Tolkien therefore describes the Fantasy author as a subcreator - the maker of a wonder-full-and-coherent Secondary world within the Primary (and divinely-created) world.

The reader's imaginative inhabiting of this magical 'Secondary world' is what allows a refreshment of our appreciation; and this the Recovery (in Imagination) is what Barfield would have termed Participation.

Participation is the state of being in the world, an undivided reality, which we all knew as children; and which also characterised earlier, especially tribal, types of human society. In this form it was an un-self-conscious and immersive Original Participation. Participation was simply how-things-are and accepted as such - we participate quite spontaneously - and without and freedom of choice - simply because we experience ourselves as part of the greater totality.

But successful Fantasy is an example of what Barfield termed Final Participation; a free, chosen, self-conscious, self-aware and (yet!) real participation with the world that takes place in Thinking: specifically in Imagination.

In Final Participation we choose to have a relationship with the world, and all that makes-up the world: the divine, our own thoughts (as distinct from the 'self- behind them), other people, animals, plants landscape, made things...

The contrast is that with Original Participation we are simply IN the world and unaware of a distinction between us and it; while with Final Participation we have full analytic knowledge of all distinctions yet experience the reality of loving relationships that makes everything cohere - cohere lovingly precisely because things are distinct.

(Final Participation is made possible by Love; which is freely chosen; and this is why Final Participation is ultimately a Christian concept - made possible by the work of Jesus Christ.)

From Fantasy as Tolkien said - and by the power of Imagination, as Barfield might have added - we come to appreciate the realities of our (primary, 'real life') world, but refreshed because we have come across familiar basics such as men and women, bread, stone, trees... in the magical and coherent context of a Secondary world.

The key to the value of Fantasy – here and now – is its contrast with the modern world: Modern ‘reality’ is most deficient in the most important aspects of Life. We are alienated from the world - our Self is cut-off from experienced relationships with anything else: nihilistic solipsism is a constant threat.

And this is ever more so, because modern reality is, mostly and ever-increasingly, a mass media-generated ‘virtual’ kind of reality. Thus modern ‘Primary’ reality is deficient in terms of lacking destiny, meaning and purpose for Life; in its ignorance, denial, or blind terror of ageing and death; in terms of regarding the Human Condition as a mixture of mechanical determinism and random chaos; in its regarding of the major virtues of Love and Courage as mere products of social-conditioning and evolution; and its understanding that Tolkien’s joyful ‘eucatastrophe’ – the unexpected ‘turn’ of events in a Fairy Story that snatches the Happy Ending from apparently-inevitable defeat – as merely statistical coincidence…

Fantasy may indeed be our only sustained experience in which these real-realities are encountered.

But how is it that Fantasy may be able to supply what the Primary word so horribly lacks? Our imaginative participation in an internally consistent world of wonders, provides us with stimuli, with perceptions, that do not automatically get plugged-into the subversive and inverting theories of modernism.

The magic and wonders of Fantasy quite naturally and spontaneously attach themselves to our built-in, universal concepts – those mythic understandings and interpretations of the ‘collective unconscious’, or our shared divine-endowments. And it is these universal concepts which enable us to apprehend and share reality.

These interpretative idea I have drawn from the early philosophical work of Rudolf Steiner - especially A Philosophy of Freedom; which Barfield knew deeply and regarded as of primary importance. I can only presume that Barfield's lack of sympathy with Tolkien's world view was what (apparently) prevented him from perceiving that Tolkien's theory of imagination could easily and quite naturally be completed by Steiner's and Barfield's 's insights into the nature of 'Thinking about Thinking' (to use a phrase of Barfield's, descriptive of what he did).

If Barfield had 'joined forces' with Tolkien (in an intellectual sense) - I think they could have provided - 70 years ago - a clear and comprehensible theory of imagination, including an explanation of how Fairy Story may yield real knowledge.

And this is a theory which can be, and indeed has been, tested by many millions of readers of Tolkien, Lewis; and other great fantasy worlds such as are subcreated in The Wind in the Willows, Narnia Chronicles, Watership Down, and Harry Potter - to mention only a few of my personal favourites.

These I know, from experience, to be real-and-true; what was previously lacking was only an explanation for how this might plausibly 'work'. Barfield and Tolkien, taken together, seem to provide a satisfactory answer.

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