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.


Keri Ford said...

Before reading this I hadn't thought about Barfield's relationship to Tolkien's work. I think Barfield was primarily friends with Lewis of course Tolkien was part of the circle and I have seen that Tolkien was influenced by Barfield's work but not the other way around. I hadn't realised that Barfield didn't enjoy the Lord of the Rings, a shame. And of course although we regard Barfield as an Inkling he wasn't going to most of the Inkling meetings as he didn't live in Oxford for most of the time the Inklings meetings were happening. I imagine he wouldn't have been able to help thinking about Tolkien's work more deeply had he done so.

I was then interested to read in an essay "The Harp and the Camera" from his collection the Rediscovery of Meaning the following passage that sites Tolkien's On Fairy Stories and interestingly for me also Novalis and George MacDonald;

""If the eye were not of the same nature as the light, it could never behold the light." If then the story of the harp and the camera is to continue instead of ending with a whimper, it will have to be by way of a true marriage between the one and the other. Is it fanciful, I wonder, to think of a sort of mini-harp stretched across the window of the eye — an Apollo's harp if you will — as perhaps not a bad image for the joy of looking with imagination? That "joy," as will be well-known here, was precisely the thing which C. S. Lewis spent most of his life discovering more about, discovering in particular that it is by no means the same thing as pleasure or happiness or contentment. In a literary climate which has already become all camera and no harp, all signature and no archetype, we ought not to forget that little group, if group is the right word, which has sometimes been referred to as "Oxford Christians," and sometimes as "Romantic theologians," and with which this college has, thanks to the devotion and energy of Dr. Kilby, established a very special connection. For they may perhaps have contributed their mite to the continuation of the story. The German poet and thinker Novalis, you know, specifically compared with an aeolian harp the Marchen or adult fairy tale, that modern variant of the myth, in which signature may mingle fruitfully with archetype, but without swamping it altogether. The passage where he does so was selected by George MacDonald as the motto to his own Marchen, Phantastes, which played (as he has told us) such a crucial part in the literary and spiritual development of C. S. Lewis. Besides giving us Marchen of their own, both Lewis and Tolkien, and their comrade in arms Charles Williams, thought deeply and wrote well on the place of myth and Marchen in our modern consciousness. One way or another, they were all three concerned with the problem of imagination; and there is perhaps no piece of writing that deals more gently and genially with the place of imagination in the literature of the future than Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories" in the volume Essays Presented to Charles Williams. At least that is so, if I am right in suggesting (as I have been trying to suggest by my own rather devious route) that the ultimate question, to which imagination holds the key, is the question of how we can learn to sign our own names to what we create, whether as myth or in other ways, but so nevertheless that what we sign as our own will also be the name of Another the name I would venture to say, without venturing to pronounce it, of the Author and the Lord of the archetypes themselves."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri. Indeed. As you know, Owen Barfield also contributed an essay to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, and no doubt read the rest of the volume including Tolkien's essay. I imagine that the Epilogue of On Fairy Stories would have made a strong impression in elation to Barfield's interests.