Monday 26 June 2023

Romanticism Come of Age; a second edition of the biography of Owen Barfield by Simon Blaxland-de Lange

Simon Blaxland-de Lange. Owen Barfield: Romanticism come of age. Temple Lodge Publishing: Forest Row, UK, 2006/ Second Edition 2021. pp. xvii, 367. 

Blaxland-de Lange's is the only biography of Owen Barfield, and it is very good. 

Indeed, because its greatest strength is that BdL has such a deep understanding of Barfield's ideas, this biography is a way by which someone could approach reading Barfield from scratch. By reading the biography first, the potential explorer can discover which of Barfield's very various books he would be most likely to enjoy and appreciate - and therefore where he might best start reading. 

The biography's great strength, might also be regarded as a stumbling block; which is that BdL is - like Barfield - a serious, indeed professional, Anthroposophist - a follower of Rudolf Steiner. 

This has the great advantage of providing valid and thorough explanations of this aspect of Barfield, which aspect is usually so badly covered by most other writers about Barfield - few of whom have made the (considerable!) effort necessary to get to grips with Steiner's vast oeuvre

On the other hand; the book is written on the basis of Anthroposophical assumptions, and includes reference to Steiner concepts; that will strike the na├»ve reader as bizarre, as well as startling. Yet, there is also a good deal of Steiner, and indeed the core of his work; that is potentially of primary importance to everyone; so to attain understanding is well worth a bit of effort.   

The organization of the book is somewhat eccentric. It begins conventionally enough, with a "biographical sketch" which gives an overview of Barfield's life, and some of the major incidents - ending with some snapshots of his attitudes and concerns at the end of his ninety-nine year life. 

After this, the book is presented in a thematic way, with different chapters covering different aspects of Barfield's life and ideas - and these chapters are not in any overall chronological arrangement, but instead each chapter includes whatever is relevant to its particular concern. 

This means that - after the first overview - the book chapters can be read, without loss, in almost any order; and this has been my practice over the decade-plus since I bought the first edition. 

Second edition differences are minimal. Indeed, I could only myself detect the addition of an Appendix making available for the first time Psychography; which was an aborted draft attempt, from the late 1940s, at a spiritual autobiography by Barfield - which runs at 12 pages, and stops in Barfield's late teens. 

This is well worth reading, as a further insight into some fundamental aspects of Barfield - including his extreme shyness and reserve in talking on the topic of himself. 

For instance, he writes about the psychological effects of his problem with stammering; but never actually says what that problem was! If the reader did not already know about this problem from elsewhere, then the passage would be highly mystifying - and the problem sounds more sinister, and shameful, than it actually was.  

In sum: Romanticism Come of Age is probably the only indispensable book about Owen Barfield - anyone who is interested by Barfield will want a copy, and will consult it frequently. 

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Frodo's dream of the Elf Tower, in Crickhollow

Eventually [Frodo] fell into a vague dream, in which he seemed to be looking out of a high window over a dark sea of tangled trees. Down below among the roots there was the sound of creatures crawling and snuffling. He felt sure they would smell him out sooner or later. Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not the leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over to him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

Frodo's dream in the house at Crickhollow, the third night of the quest; from A Conspiracy Unmasked in The Fellowship of the Ring


For long I was puzzled by the above dream, because it does not correspond to anything that happens in The Lord of the Rings. 

A partial answer was provided by the analysis of Frodo's dreams in Verlyn Flieger's A Question of Time

From studying The Treason of Isengard volume in The History of Middle Earth; it turns-out that Frodo's Crickhollow dream is a revised version of a dream that, in an earlier draft, accurately and literally referred to Gandalf being besieged by the Black Riders in one of the three Elf Towers that lie to the west of The Shire; from the tops of which Shire hobbits believe that the sea can be seen. 

Later revisions leading to the published dream in The Fellowship of the Ring, had Gandalf held captive by Saruman on the tower of Orthanc (i.e. not an Elf Tower). And, during the night following the Crickhollow dream (the first sleep in the House of Tom Bombadil) Frodo accurately saw Gandalf's rescue from Orthanc by Gwaihir the eagle - a correct vision of an event remote in space, and also in time; since the rescue had happened some eight nights earlier than this dream. 

But why did Tolkien retain this dream for the published text, after plot revisions had made it obsolete and without reference to real events of the story? And why was Frodo's accurate clairvoyance delayed by more than a week? 

There are two possible kinds of question and answer to why: the first asks what was Tolkien's actual and conscious motivation and suggests a possible answer; while the second is to ask what makes inferential sense in terms of the logic of the story - even though Tolkien might not have been aware of it at the time of writing. 

Flieger's explanation refers to the first of these questions - it is a speculation as to why Tolkein might consciously have preserved the Elf Tower dream. She says the published dream functions mainly as an effective "mood piece", characteristic of Frodo, and one that establishes him as A Dreamer - often previsionary, or able to see other times and places - within the rest of the story. 

But I believe that more can be said. Frodo only becomes A Dreamer after Gildor named him Elf Friend

This naming can be seen to have had a lasting and transformative effect on Frodo - giving him elvish qualities and attributes that were immediately apparent; first to Goldberry, then to others able to discern such things in the later story.   

However, it can further be suggested that the elvish ("magical") transformation was something that built-up over a period of time

Thus the first night after being named Elf Friend, Frodo dreamed the Elf Tower dream - which was a real things, but an event that never happened. 

The second night's dream (in the house of Tom Bombadil) was an impressively accurate dream, but several days late. 

The third night's dream - which happened during the second night at Tom Bombadil's - was again accurate, but even more impressive; because it was a prevision of Frodo's arrival in the undying lands some time after the narrative of The Lord of the Rings has ended - presumably at Elvenhome (the Lonely Isle of Eressea).  

Therefore, my suggestion as to Tolkien's unconscious (not deliberately-intended), but perhaps implicit, reason for including the inaccurate Elf Tower dream; could be understood as depicting stages en route to Frodo becoming a full Elf Friend, and a fully-fledged Dreamer. 

Thursday 1 June 2023

The trade-off between life and works: Legolas, Gimli and the stones of Minas Tirith

'We will come', said Imrahil; and they parted with courteous words. 

'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising'. 

'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.' 

'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.' 

'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf. 

'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien

I have always found the above to be a particularly deep and resonant passage; and so do many others. 

At one level, the difference between short-lived, distractible but procreative Men; and the Elves and Dwarves who are (especially Elves) potentially relatively longaevus - seems to be profound. Elves and Dwarves are both capable of greater works of arts and crafts, better able to work on long 'projects' without losing interest...

Yet this is only a relative difference, and sooner or later, all the achievements - all the 'stone work' - of Middle Earth, will decay, and be destroyed. 

The rate of change can be diminished by better work, by steadier and more focused effort - but, it seems, only by a 'slowing' of existence. 

Dwarves and Elves have a longer time horizon, but this goes-with a lower rate of procreation, a lesser focus on reproduction - which stands-for and is symptomatic-of a tendency towards desiring to slow life, trying to hold-things static, attempting to prevent decay by 'crystallizing' achievement... 

But, this has a price; being bound-up with a tendency against life.  

Men, by comparison, are more alive, do more stuff (good and bad, careful and slapdash); just keep on trying different things; bounce-back after defeats and start again - have kids, rebuild the ruins, make another new civilization... 

But Men never seem to get very far with anything they attempt; and they each soon die, and their best civilizations are brief. 

So; in this mortal world, in all we know of this material universe, entropy will always win in the end - whether sooner or later; it will prevail. 

If we imaginatively identify with the perspective of God the Creator, take his Point of View (POV); then this continual dismantling of creation by entropy is unsatisfactory

Of course, we (as God) can keep-on creating forever and without limit; yet this is always going to be a matter of patching-together repairs and not a restoration to a pre-entropic state. We can continually compensate for the damage of entropy - a bridge collapses, so we build a new one; a Man dies and another is born - yet whatever we do, entropy accumulates

More familiarly for Christians, a closely analogous situation occurs with Sin (which may be understood as an aspect of entropy). God can compensate for the effect of Sin, can repair the consequences, can provide the world with help from Angels and Saints... but nonetheless Sin accumulates. 

The way out from this unsatisfactory situation was for God to create another world from this one; by using this one. 

In other words: God's creative plan was two-stage (which is why Jesus was necessary - for the second stage). 

While the first creation is mandatory; the second creation is discretionary: optional, opt-in, for those who choose it. 

The second creation is a 'world' without entropy, a world in which the tendency for destruction and sin has been left-behind. 

I am talking about Heaven, of course. 

And Heaven did not arise until after Jesus Christ.

The reason that Jesus Christ is an essential aspect of salvation; is that He was what made it possible for Heaven to exist, for Heaven to be populated... 

To put it bluntly; God the primary creator needed Jesus Christ in order to make possible the second - and final - creation that is Heaven. 

Jesus Christ came from within the prime creation, lived within the world of entropy - and died; but did so in perfect alignment with the values, aims, love, of God the prime creator. 

In other (more familiar) words; Jesus was a mortal Man who was fully divine. Mortal in body and by living in the primary creation, divine in terms of wholly Good and on the side of God; knowing and being in complete-harmony-with God's creative plans.

Thus Jesus was unique: nobody-else could have done the job (not even God the prime creator) because Jesus knew - experientially, from living fully in both worlds - 'how' to guide Men from this primary and entropic-mortal creation to the secondary and eternal-immortal creation that is Heaven.