The Unsung Inklings: Owen Barfield

Reading Time: 6 mins

Thanks to Barfield’s opposition, several important things happened to C.S. Lewis.

Imagine yourself at a party playing a game of Pictionary or Charades and written on the slip of paper you pull from the hat is the word, friendship. What would you draw? How would you illustrate friendship? 

If you asked C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow friends, whose informal group and gatherings became known as the Inklings, you could imagine several things that would illustrate their friendship: a pipe, a pint, a pen, and the cross, for this is what characterized their gatherings. Good drink. Plenty of pipe and cigarette smoke. The sharing of various writings and works in progress. And, above all, their common belief in the Christian faith. The Inklings were, in Lewis’s words, a group of literary friends who smoked, talked, argued, and drank together. 

The Inklings typically met Tuesday mornings at The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, England, for food, drink, and conversation - more of a social and informal gathering, yet an integral thread of the fabric that held the group together. Writing to Charles Williams, who eventually became an important member of the Inklings, Lewis described the Inklings this way. ”We have a sort of informal club called the Inklings: the qualifications (as they have informally evolved) are a tendency to write, and Christianity).” [1]

The Inklings began meeting in the early 1930s, continued in earnest into the late 1940s, and although their meetings were less frequent and rigorous in literary criticism, they met socially until Lewis’s death in 1963. 

Like a suspension bridge held up by two towers, the Inklings, in many ways, began with, were supported by, and sojourned together through their literary and personal lives by the friendship of Lewis and Tolkien. While the group orbited around the gravitational pull of Lewis and Tolkien, there were many other men who made up the Inklings galaxy.

Who were these unsung Inklings? Each week, we’ll take a look at one of the group, beginning today with the long-standing friend of C.S. Lewis, the man many scholars consider an influential and core member of the group, Owen Barfield.

Born in 1898, the son of a London solicitor and a suffragette, Barfield grew up in a home surrounded by music and books. Early on, he developed a deep love of words and music. Indeed, for Barfield, words were musical, and music was a form of language, and he longed to delve into their history and meaning. “Words have a soul,” Barfield once said. [2] Barfield’s love of rhythm and melody grew as he discovered an interest in gymnastics and later on, English folk dance. His later writings would be shaped by the rhythm, rhyme, and richness of words.

Life was not without its challenges, however. Barfield developed an early problem with stuttering, a tragedy for one who was so captured by words. Barfield sought refuge in poetry and music, which, in a Tolkien-esq eucatastrophe, also brought him relief. Reciting poetry and singing greatly alleviated his stutter. 

From 1917-1919, Barfield served in the army, where his love of words proved useful in the signal service where he used Morse code and pigeons to help communicate while serving in Belgium. At war’s end, Barfield returned to Oxford, studied at Wadham College, earning a B.Lit. which eventually became published as his later fundamental work, Poetic Diction. The same year, Barfield met C.S. Lewis and the two became close friends. Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to Barfield’s daughter, Lucy, who was also his goddaughter. 

Around 1930, Barfield moved to London where he was a solicitor until his retirement in the 1960s. Though his attendance at Inklings meetings were not as regular as some, his study and ideas of language and metaphor were invaluable to the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien in particular. Barfield eventually was baptized in the Anglican Church in 1949, though he never abandoned his early adherence to the spiritual science of Anthroposophy. Barfield believed the incarnation of Christ was important and essential; for him it was the center of human consciousness. And yet, he also held to anthroposophical views, such as reincarnation. Following his retirement as a solicitor in 1959, Barfield enjoyed a renewed life of writing and lecturing, spending a great deal of time in the United States. One of the oldest, and longest living Inklings, Barfield died on December 14, 1997.

If Lewis and Barfield were to draw an illustration of their friendship it would likely have been a scene out of a World War 1 aerial dogfight or a good old pair of shears. In their correspondence and conversation over drinks and walking through the English countryside they embodied the words of Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

In his book, Poetic Diction, dedicated to C.S. Lewis, Barfield wrote that, “Opposition is true friendship.”

What exactly was the source of their opposition? Several things. When Lewis and Barfield first met they were undergraduates at Oxford in 1919 and they quickly bonded over their mutual love of literature, philosophy, and shared experience of having served in the Great War. Lewis, as a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Somerset Light Infantry, found himself in the trenches of France at the front line until trench fever and combat wounds sent him into convalescence for the duration. Barfield, as a Wireless Officer in the Signal Service of the Royal Engineers. There were, however, significant differences between Lewis in the realm of spiritual, theological, and philosophical matters. When they first met Lewis was still an atheist, while Barfield who had grown up in a mostly agnostic household, was not yet a Christian but held a broader view of the supernatural and spiritual realm than Lewis did at the time. In the early 1920s, Barfield came under the influence of Rudolf Steiner and his teachings of Anthroposophy. Lewis was never convinced of being compatible with the Christian faith (which he returned to in 1931). 

Another point of opposition between these two friends was Barfield’s work on the history and meaning of words, published later in 1928 as Poetic Diction. This included his belief that words have a history, and that language and poetry in particular communicate meaning and truth. While Lewis enjoyed stories and myth, Lewis saw words more as lies breathed through silver.

Barfield and Lewis also disagreed about the nature and function of the imagination. For Barfield, imagination was a vehicle for truth; for Lewis at the time, it was more of a highly desirable pleasure; it pointed to truth but could not disclose it. 

Their disagreements on ideas and words could also be summarized as a difference in worldview. Barfield held to the spiritual and supernatural, acknowledging that there were things in life that were larger or greater than our observable experiences, whereas Lewis was still a materialist, holding to was strictly observed by the senses.

Barfield was for Lewis the kind of friend who, Lewis said, “disagreed with you about everything…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, night after night, or walking through fine country that neither gives a glance to, each learning the weight of the other’s punches, and often more like mutually respectful enemies than friends. Actually…you modify one another’s thought; out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge.” [3]

Indeed, thanks to Barfield’s opposition, several important things happened to C.S. Lewis. Barfield had taught Lewis that intellect and imagination were not contradictory, but complimentary. He destroyed Lewis’s chronological snobbery, as he called it; the belief that newer is always better and older is inferior; when in fact the opposite may be true, and that history needed to be judged on the merits of its own truthfulness. 

Barfield taught Lewis the importance of balancing both reason and the imagination, both the rational and creative sides of the mind, something which was deeply influential in Lewis’s later apologetic, imaginative, popular, and scholarly writings. 

Barfield also caused Lewis to further doubt, or test, his materialism, showing Lewis that materialism gave no sufficient answer for moral judgments, feelings of joy, or the experience of beauty and creativity. The third, and perhaps one of the most important outcomes, was that Barfield taught Lewis the importance of balancing both reason and the imagination, both the rational and creative sides of the mind, something which was deeply influential in Lewis’s later apologetic, imaginative, popular, and scholarly writings. 

Owen Barfield was certainly an important and influential friend in C.S. Lewis’s life. Is Barfield still an important and valuable influence for Christians today? While faithful Christians can, and should, disagree with his anthroposophical views, there are several things of value that we can learn from Owen Barfield.

First, there is his influence upon C.S. Lewis in their “Great War” of words and ideas, which served to break down several of Lewis’s long-held misconceptions. At the time, both men were not confessing Christians, and yet, God used this exchange of words to bring Lewis to believe and trust in the living and active word of God. God will use even unbelieving kings, like Cyrus in the Old Testament, to carry out his good and gracious will, just as he did for Lewis through his friend, Owen Barfield.

Second, we learn from Barfield the importance of words and their meaning. Words, language, and metaphor have great power for both the intellect and the imagination. Words are filled with truth and beauty. The same is true, though infinitely greater, when we come to God’s Word. There, in God’s Word we see language, metaphor, and words that speak and deliver the good news of life and salvation in Jesus, the Word made flesh. God himself is the supreme philologist, who uses words to reveal his great love for us.

Third, like Lewis, Barfield teaches us to value the importance of God’s gift of the imagination. The imagination was a vehicle for understanding and receiving truth. The key to keeping the imagination from drifting into unbiblical ideas - like Barfield’s anthroposophy and esoteric ideas – is to hold our imagination captive to God’s Word. Where that happens, as it did for Lewis, imagination can be a great benefit in understanding and communicating the gospel.

[1]  Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, p. 183.
[2]  Quoted in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, 2015, p. 107
[3]  C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Co. 1955, p. 199-200.