Saturday 24 June 2017

Half-way-through review of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time fantasy series

I am currently reading an extremely-long (14 volumes, each about 1000 pages) fantasy novel serial called the Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (the pen name of James Oliver Rigney Jr. - 1948-2007) the totality of which was published between 1990 and 2013, having been posthumously completed by Brandon Sanderson.

I say 'reading' but in fact I am listening on audiobook - the readers are the husband and wife team of Michael Kramer and Kate Reading - who are first-rate exemplars of this difficult craft.

I came to Wheel of Time via the wonderful novels of Brandon Sanderson, who completed the series; and a further link is that Sanderson's audiobooks are also done by Kramer and Reading.

Apparently Jordan's The Wheel of Time is very well known in the USA, where it was a 'best seller' - that is not the case in the UK; where these books are not stocked by shops or libraries.

It is a large commitment to begin such a long haul, and I rather doubt whether I would have done it if I had had to read rather than listen; but I am delighted by the experience so far. First thing every morning, and doing doing chores, and at other times - I listen to the books and am transported into a vast world populated by numerous characters.

What I like best about the Wheel of Time is that the invisible authorial presence, behind and permeating the text, is one of a wise and good man. That makes a big difference for me; because I find most authors to be ultimately untrustworthy - most good writers are, indeed, bad Men. 'Robert Jordan' was clearly a fine person.

The structure of the narrative is more like a serial than a single multi-volume novel or sequence of linked novels; when there is such extreme length, the overall story is backgrounded, and functions mostly as a thread to join-up the various scenes, and from which to develop character. The books are capable of depicting beauty and horror, moving me to tears, making me laugh, and sustaining my attention and interest. As a prose stylist Jordan is therefore good-enough - but not great or special.

(Something similar applies to JK Rowling, and to several other major fiction writers such as Charles Dickens. Not all great novelists are great writers - and most great writers are not great novelists.) 

Why is the book so very long? The main reason is that there is a large cast of characters - six main characters, but dozens of others from whose perspective we get to see things. The reason why the books are long is the detail - the scenes are described in more minute detail than I have come across elsewhere (except, significantly, in Brandon Sanderson - who I guess may have learned this from Jordan). Reading the scene therefore takes longer than the scene would take in real time - which is a 'Wagnerian' way of doing things.

(Wagner's operas, or at least the late ones, can be enjoyed only once it is understood that events on stage are happening in 'super-slow-mo'; the orchestra, not the voice, describing the smallest nuances of what the characters are thinking and feeling.)

The main strength of Wheel of Time is that it does extremely-well what Fantasy is supposed to do: it makes an inhabitable world in which the eternal and essential human things are dominant - a world of truth.

The importance of Fantasy is that the everyday modern world is one of lies and triviality; so people like myself almost need the Fantasy genre in order to 'exercise' the proper priorities and evaluations.

If you like the sound of what I have indicated, then I would recommend Jordan's Wheel of Time. Don't think of it as being 'like' some other author. WoT does what it does supremely well - and it is a delight to be able to enjoy it day after day, week after week, month after month... and still not have reached the halfway mark!

Friday 16 June 2017

Owen Barfield's Metaphysics

Owen Barfield, much like Rudolf Steiner before him, regarded himself as doing a mixture of 'scientific/ empirical' and epistemological research - but to understand him I believe we need also to know (or infer) the fundamental, metaphysical assumptions which underpin and make sense of the rest.

By scientific/ empirical I mean especially Barfield's work on 'philology - the history of word meanings and their transformations; and what that history implies about the societies using the languages. And by epistemological I mean the philosophy of how we know, the basis or justification for understanding.

But underneath both of these are the metaphysical assumptions about the way that reality is 'set-up' - its structure, meaning, purpose etc; including what is our own personal stake in reality: e.g. Why we should care about this stuff! Why it is important to us individually and in what way?


So Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness - how it began with disembodied, spirits in Original Participation - a diffuse, interpenetrating consciousness in which we were mostly unaware of our-selves as distinct and free.

Then the middling state (which we are still inside) during which our selves became separate, agent, and free - but at the cost of losing the awareness of other selves and everything else - until we are selves cut-off fro reality, without participation...

And the future state of Final (final because fully-divine) Participation in which we are both aware of ourselves as autonomous, agent and free - and also participating in the creation and knowledge of all other reality, including other selves and beings.

But what is missing from the above is an explanation of Why all this happens; what is it all For? Who (or what) was it that set up this vast evolutionary scheme - and what is it all intended to achieve?

If we are indeed aiming at Original Participation - then what then? What is Original Participation needed for, in terms of the basic general set-up of reality?


I think the answers to all of these are implicit, and in some brief passages explicit, in Barfield's work - but these aspects are easy to miss in the books and essays; they are not given great prominence - nor are they set out plainly as the basis of further argument. Exactly this is what I hope to do.

In this task I have been greatly helped by the work of William Arkle, a little-known spiritual philosopher of the generation after Barfield, whose work I know about due to having lived in the same Somerset village as a child.

Arkle's great importance was in recognising the need to be absolutely clear about these ultimate, underpinning Why?, Who? and What for? kinds of question for the modern Man. Such things used to be able to be taken from granted - as I suspect they were, pretty much, by Owen Barfield; but no longer.

Arkle saw that this deep level of explanation is in fact the single most important thing to get clear and explicit - such that we can grasp and understand it intuitively and personally; and indeed so that we can decide whether or not this is something we which to live-by, cooperate-in and work-for.

If we are not clear about this, then we will always feel a deep sense of confusion about our destiny and how it fits with the ultimate scheme of things.

Naturally there will always be a sense of mystery about the human condition and Man's place in it; but lack of any reasonable clarity - even thought necessarily simplified - seems to be proving lethal to many people (who have apparently just-about 'given-up' on anything more than merely getting-through to death as comfortably, or at least painlessly, as possible).

Therefore, I think there is a story to be told about the underpinning assumptions of Owen Barfield's main work.


I will try to explain this in more detail elsewhere; but in a nutshell I believe Barfield assumed that God, creator of reality, had the goal of raising Men up to the same kind of fully-divine consciousness that He possesses.

The reason that God would have such a goal is something I have not found in Barfield; but Arkle's insight is that it was a deep longing of God for friends; that his human children should (eventually) grow up and mature to become the fullest and highest possible friends on the same level (rather as a Father's ultimate and ideal goal might be for his children to become adults who, voluntarily and with the highest possible assent, become his loving friends and co-helpers in the unending work of creative endeavour).

Creation was made with this as its major purpose; and the way that it was to be achieved was by a very extended scheme of evolutionary unfolding, akin to the growth and development of living things; but with the added complexity that each Man must consent to every step on the way.

In a nutshell, the world is a place for experiencing and learning - and including experiencing and learning to love (this view is more explicit in Steiner, but I think Barfield would have endorsed it). 

This process has several related but not identical aspects - the evolution of the earth and surrounding regions, evolution of human society, and evolution of each individual human self; all of which are extended across a very long timescale (probably many thousands of years).

Because this is a plan, some aspects of the future can be prophetically known - but because of the increasing autonomy and agency of individual human selves, the results are not precisely predictable, and there is potential for greater or lesser delays and departures from the plan.

Because God is creator, and we are his children; we have the possibility of a direct, inner, intuitive understanding of what-is-going-on: Which is how Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield were able to know about it. 

Something of this kind (in approximate outline) is, I think, helpful - and for some people, such as myself, essential - in getting the full picture of Barfield's work.