Any right-thinking individual, then or now, would want to have Owen Barfield as a vital and central member of the Inklings. Yet placing Barfield within the Inklings is incredibly difficult, given that he attended fewer than ten percent of the total meetings, and could not name the beginning or the end of the group.
The late 1920s proved critical for the earliest formation of the Inklings, though no official Inklings group yet existed. In addition to meeting Tolkien, Lewis also met Hugo Dyson. Equally important, Lewis introduced Tolkien and Owen Barfield to one another. Barfield remembered the evening with amused and somewhat annoyed delight. “How many evenings out of the many hundreds, or rather thousands, that have sunk without trace, can I easily remember whenever I want to? Very few indeed, and here are two of them. The evening, somewhere back in the ‘twenties, when Lewis introduced me to Tolkien,” Barfield recorded.
We dined together at the Eastgate Hotel, nearly opposite Magdalen College, Oxford. In those days there was as yet no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Screwtape, no Inklings even. For some reason Tolkien was in a ridiculously combative mood and seemed to me to contradict nearly everything I said—or more often what he (wrongly) assumed I was just going to say—before I had even got as far as saying it. But although Lewis actually apologised for him when we were alone afterwards, there was no occasion for it. The whole conversation was so entirely good-humoured and enjoyable; and his random belligerence had only made me laugh. That together with Tolkien’s hurried, low-pitched and sometimes almost inaudible utterance, is what I best remember. I have never had a conversation quite like it before or since.
From this evening, others came, sometimes even meeting in C.S. Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen College. Barfield remembered at least one such gathering that included himself, Tolkien, Lewis, Colin Hardie, and Nevill Coghill. He might, however, have mistaken an Inklings meeting for a Kolbitar [the Icelandic Club in which Tolkien taught Icelandic to members of the Oxford English school] one.
However oddly Tolkien presented himself to Barfield at that first meeting, he admired the man greatly, and Barfield would soon reciprocate. Placing Owen Barfield—as every writer dealing with the Inklings has—within the Inklings, though, is incredibly difficult. One must properly take three things into account: his influence on its members; his actual attendance of Inklings meetings; and the desirability of having him as a member.
First, there is no question that Barfield’s work deeply influenced Lewis as well as Tolkien. Lewis famously labeled Barfield, in the dedication to his 1936 Allegory of Love, “Wisest and Best of My Unofficial Teachers.” Tolkien, too, found himself in debt to Barfield, intellectually, especially because of Barfield’s 1928 work, Poetic Diction, explored below. When asked about his own role in shaping Tolkien’s thought on myth, Barfield responded without hesitation in a 1984 interview. Poetic Diction, “I know—my book played a particular known influence on Tolkien at this stage.” How did Barfield know? “He said so himself,” Barfield answered. “Tolkien said so himself.” One would naturally ask whether the influence was reciprocated. Not necessarily, Barfield conceded. “I don’t—recollect any change coming over my view of life or anything else, particularly, as a result of my dealing with the Inklings,” he said. Personally, “I don’t think I—influenced them much. I think my book influenced—the influence, too, of them and not so much anything they got from me when we met. I didn’t meet very often, you see. I was living in London, I didn’t—I’d only met on occasion.”
Still, to what extent did he think he had influenced Tolkien. Barfield responded:
As to Tolkien, I don’t know—he had strong ideas, of course, about the—autonomy, so to speak, of literature as art and—all of the Inklings felt that literature shouldn’t be used as a means of propagating a message…. The thing that mattered was that it was a good work of art, and that had its own value, which in the long run was a Christian value. I think that that would perhaps be as fair a ways as I could imagine of stating both Tolkien’s and Lewis’s attitude.—But it’s my estimating. It wasn’t anything I got from them.
Second, one must consider just how often Barfield actually and personally attended an Inklings meeting. As noted elsewhere in this book, the Inklings ideally met for over a decade and a half every Thursday evening during the academic year—meaning that, at best, the more formal Inklings meetings held in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen, could have reached upwards of 500 meetings. When asked how many meetings Barfield attended, he could not name a beginning or ending to the Inklings as a group. “I didn’t go every time, I go quite rarely, in fact. And I didn’t know about the end. When did it end? Just before the war [World War II], I suppose.” Here, Barfield hesitated in the interview. “About the—it was the war, wasn’t it?” he asked rather abstractedly. “There might have been one meeting or two during the war—two, yes.”
All of this is understandable, of course, given that Barfield lived in London, not Oxford, and he joined his father’s law firm in 1929. Though he continued to write, often prolifically and always brilliantly, he had to earn his living as a solicitor, not as an amateur philosopher. At best, Barfield claimed, he attended fewer than ten percent of the total meetings, and even this seems an overly generous number, especially given that he could not name the beginning or the end of the group.
And, third, to be sure, any right-thinking individual, then or now, would want to have Owen Barfield as a vital and central member of the Inklings. The man was, simply put, genius and, equally important, generous and charitable. His insights into the Inklings, frankly, are beyond compare. In a 1969 lecture, Barfield claimed correctly that the Inklings had stood for and advanced four ideas: a longing for the Infinite and the western desires of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful; that every person is endowed with dignity, especially as he or she moves toward sanctification; “the idealization of love between the sexes”; and, finally, that the truest stories end in joy, not sorrow.
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1 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 216
2 Owen Barfield, “Foreword,” VII v. 1 (1980): 9
3 Owen Barfield, “The Inklings Remembered,” World and I (April 1990): 548
4 Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC. Date: July 19 and 20, 1984. Location: Kent, England. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett. See also, “Owen Barfield,” London Daily Telegraph (December 22, 1997).
5 Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC. Date: July 19 and 20, 1984. Location: Kent, England. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.
6 Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC. Date: July 19 and 20, 1984. Location: Kent, England. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.
7 Interview with Owen Barfield, WCWC. Date: July 19 and 20, 1984. Location: Kent, England. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett.
8 Dictionary of National Biography 3, pg. 803.
9 Owen Barfield, “The Inklings Remembered,” World and I (April 1990): 548.
10 Rand Kuhl, “Owen Barfield in Southern California,” Mythlore 1 (October 1969), 10.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of A. Owen Barfield (c. 1955) and is in public domain.