‘Owen Barfield – born in 1898, died in 1997 at the age of 99 – was a man of remarkable depth and clarity of mind. Some twenty years ago I came across his “History in English Words” and “Poetic Diction” because of my own linguistic studies. They appealed to me because they contained a refreshing view on language as a mirror of the change of consciousness which is continually taking place within humanity.
How wonderful was the moment when I heard that a whole symposium would be dedicated to “Owen Barfield and the Redemption of the Western Mind”, to take place from 27h to 29th March 2009 at the Goetheanum in Switzerland. And how refreshing it was to read that the whole conference would be held in English! “Refreshing” is really the word which applied to the whole conference. A man whom I only knew as a linguist, revealed himself as an enthusiastic dancer, a great lover of music, a writer of fiction, a lawyer, a dedicated anthroposophist, a father of two adopted children... One of his grandchildren, Owen A. Barfield, was in fact present to show us photographs of his grandfather. That was the charming thing about this conference: people who had known and loved Owen Barfield were present to share their experiences with the participants (there were about forty participants I guess). This was undoubtedly the reason why I felt his presence so very, very near.
Present was the lively Brien Masters who, if I am correct, still lives at Forest Row where Barfield spent the last years of his life. During the intermissions he played the music Barfield loved.
There was Jane Hipolito from California who in her touching contribution on Sunday morning talked about “The Mystery of Love” in Owen Barfield’s life as it expressed itself through music, dance, language and relationships. She talked about his friendship with C.S. Lewis which led Barfield to attend the meetings of that famous group of fiction writers “The Inklings” to which also J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams belonged. Though Lewis and Tolkien have become superstars in the field of fiction, it was Barfield who had written the first fictional work: “The Silver Trumpet”. The story goes that Tolkien’s children liked this book so much that they asked their father to write something similar and thus “The Hobbit” was born! Jane also dwelt at length upon Barfield’s other fictional works: “The English People” (which concludes with the fairy tale of “The Rose on the Ash-Heap”), “Night Operation” (about a future society living in the sewers!) and “Eager Spring” (about an activist going her spiritual journey, a modern “eco-novella” written when he was 90!).
Present was of course the main organizer of the conference, Simon Blaxland-de Lange, writer of “Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age – a Biography”. Simon is a real “Englishman”, modest and very kind, like Barfield himself would have been. In fact, as Christopher Budd noticed in his contribution, Simon did look like Barfield! Well, Simon does possess that same clarity of thinking which is the fruit of a well-developed consciousness soul, and this was exactly the theme of Simon’s talk which was the kick-off of the conference on Friday: “Owen Barfield – English interpreter of the consciousness soul age”. The consciousness soul is not experienced by what you are, but by what you are not. As Barfield phrased it: “I don’t know what I am, only what I am not.”
There was present the German Waldorf pedagogue Johannes Kiersch, who in his contribution “Owen Barfield as a Leading Star for Waldorf Curriculum Research” pleaded that the Waldorf movement in Germany put the works of Barfield on the school curriculum. “Barfield’s ‘Rediscovery of Meaning’ should become a textbook for teachers.” Kiersch sketched a rather gloomy picture of the Waldorf movement in Germany: Waldorf education is becoming less and less Waldorf education, and it needs people like Barfield, with his emphasis on the necessity of the development of the imagination and of the change of consciousness (the main theme in Barfield’s life) to help to reverse the downward trend.
It was also a surprise to me to find out that Owen Barfield was very interested and involved in Rudolf Steiner’s ideas concerning the threefold society. In his humorous contribution “Barfield’s Concept of Equity and Steiner’s Second Earth” Christopher Budd dwelt upon this aspect of Barfield’s life. “The human being should replace the economic mantra of Adam Smith.” As a lawyer Barfield had to deal with “equity” and it is not surprising that the only article by him on the subject of the threefold social organism is entitled “Understanding Equity”. Instead of the “this is mine” mentality concerning property we should decide: who should get that property?
For me the highlight of this conference was the beautiful rendering of Barfield’s fairy tale “The Rose on the Ash-Heap” by Simon’s wife and storyteller Paulamaria Blaxland-de Lange and their charming daughter Liehsja Andrea who played the harp. The music was especially composed for this occasion. Paulamaria brought the story’s manifold images to life and the music imbibed the images with dark and light colours, something Barfield himself undoubtedly enjoyed. The theme of this fairy tale is the transformation of love and I experienced therein some echoes from Tantra.
C. S. Lewis did recognize Owen Barfield’s greatness when he said: “Barfield towers above us all...the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers.” America did recognize his greatness when various universities invited him to lecture there. He was 66 years old when he received his first invitation and the “American period” lasted for some twenty years!
His own country did not recognize him. Europe did not recognize him. Only now is his work slowly spreading through Europe. And that is why it was such a happy occasion that in the heart of Europe this conference could take place. For in his life Barfield spent much time and effort to reconcile the West with the Middle of Europe. In those days of extreme tension between Germany and Great Britain he learnt German just in order to be able to read Steiner’s works in the original! So let’s say yes to the title of the conference: “Owen Barfield and the Redemption of the Western Mind”!Frits Burger, The Hague, The Netherlands
Frits Burger is a member of the Dutch section group
Owen Barfield: History in English Words, London 1926. Barfield was 26 years old when he wrote this book!
Owen Barfield: Poetic Diction: a study in meaning, London 1973 (first published in 1928).
Owen Barfield: The Silver Trumpet, The Bookmakers’ Guild, USA 1986 (first published in 1925).
Night Operation and Eager Spring are published by Barfield Press UK in 2008, an initiative by his grandson Owen A. Barfield. See www.owenbarfield.org. English People has not yet been published.
Simon Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age – a Biography, Temple Lodge, Forest Row, 2006.’