2020 - Issue Four

Tolkien's Debt to Fellow Inkling Owen Barfield

Siobhán Maloney Download Article

In a letter to a publisher, J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote, “I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode.”[1] This is a surprising and paradoxical claim to us not only because we live in an age in which “truth” and “art” are usually understood as antithetical and foreign concepts, but also because it comes from an author whose genre is fantasy: a literary approach that is defined precisely by its innovation, or separation from the real world as we know it. And yet Tolkien was a writer because he took seriously the relationship between language and truth, beauty, and goodness, believing that language has a privileged place in man’s relationship with the world and with its Creator (144, 194).    

Tolkien was first and foremost a philologist for whom the very sound of words has an aesthetic delight similar to the pleasure others may derive from a fine wine or a good meal.[2] Language, for him, has first and foremost to do with displaying the full reality and glory of things and, therefore, with man’s relation to the world. Language discloses reality through our awareness and reception of it, before it is a mere instrument for communication. And this reverence for the place of the word in human life discloses a profound understanding of the human person and all of creation.      

Tolkien, though first a Professor of English language and Anglo-Saxon literature, nevertheless approached his own creative writing with the seriousness of a sacred task entrusted to him (145, 231, 413). As early as his preparatory school years, Tolkien formed a community with three fellow students who shared a mission to preserve beauty through writing. They sought to restore “the love of real and true beauty in everybody’s breast” (66) and in this way fight the disintegration and ugliness increasingly permeating their age. They collectively determined to “testify to God and Truth,” inspired by the conviction that they “had been granted some spark of fire… that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world.”[3] For all of the weight of a vocation that he brought to his writing, it is striking to see the profound humility and reverence he exhibits toward his art, and the reason why he resorted to literature as a means of serving the truth. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” largely an apology for the genre of fantasy and fairy stories and, therefore, of his own particular focus as a writer, Tolkien insists that fantasy is first and foremost concerned with a true portrayal of the real:

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give…. And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.[4]

It is only from this starting point that Tolkien can go on to affirm man’s particular task, through his language, of making visible, of radiating or drawing out through his own creative additions, the invisible splendor of things. Thus, he affirms that man’s art “may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation," but only when starting from a profound reverence for the original reality that is given.

Some of Tolkien’s most profound reflections on the nature and task of his art as a writer, as one who deals in words, can be found in his letters to his son during the war. In one such letter, Tolkien draws a distinction between the technē of literature and the technology of modern scientific inventions. Specifically, he compares the invention of an airplane to the writing of stories portraying men in flight and maintains: “There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, [technology] attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour” (87‒88). It would be easy to dismiss such a bold assertion as many critics of Tolkien do, by claiming that he is rejecting the scientific, the empirical, and the technological tout court, as if any intervention upon the natural world were already a violence.[6] 

It seems crucial to notice here that what Tolkien says is precisely not that men, by nature, cannot fly, and therefore should not try to. Rather, he calls the airplane the “tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare because the “actualization of desire” that it attempts cannot, finally, be “done to any real satisfaction.” Man’s profound desire to fly is finally so much greater than anything the airplane can fulfill, that the airplane itself is, in the end, only a “tragedy and despair” in comparison with man’s imaginative capacity to create in words a much more satisfying account of the experience of flight itself. On the other hand, the arrogant assumption that our desire to fly is in the end something we are capable of “fulfilling” on our own also falsifies the project from the beginning.

The airplane can only finally fulfill the merely pragmatic role of getting us more quickly from one place to another; in the process it leaves our desire for a profound experience of flight just as unsatisfied as before. Unsatisfied and also, perhaps more dangerously, invisible: we no longer stop to realize just how much our perennial dream of flying is actually left unfulfilled, because we are told, with the invention of the airplane, that the only legitimate element of our desire has been realized. Anything else is dismissed. Thus, not only does this mentality affirm, “what can be done must be done,” but “what cannot be done cannot, finally, be wanted.”

This example illustrates why creativity, “technē” in the original sense, with words is given pride of place by Tolkien, and why he understood his vocation to be primarily a linguistic one: words, for him, are the most fitting place in which all of man’s deepest needs and desires as well as the integrity of creation can be affirmed and reverenced most explicitly. For Tolkien, language allows man to fulfill his creative vocation in relation to the world. Thus, creative writing “represents love: that is, a love and respect for all things, ‘inanimate’ and ‘animate,’ an unpossessive love of them as ‘other’... Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful even glorious.”[7]

Tolkien’s approach to language is heavily shaped and influenced by the thought of his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. For Barfield, language is at the heart of the relationship between man and the world because it enables us to grasp and communicate the deepest truth of things in their wholeness, and not simply their immediate appearance, or our use of them. In such a conviction, Barfield stands in a tradition of other noteworthy philosophers and theologians intent upon restoring the deeply classical and Christian conviction of the natural unity between man and the world and the role language plays in the illumination of this.[8]

In an introduction to his collection of essays entitled The Recovery of Meaning, Owen Barfield characterized the single preoccupation “that is always being reaffirmed” beneath all of his work as “the importance of penetrating to the antecedent unity underlying apparent or actual fragmentation.”[9] Recognizing that modernity is particularly fragmented, Barfield was acutely sensitive to the common assumption that there is a radical separation between mind and reality, an assumption that renders modern philosophy “altogether inadequate to answer the moral and the social, let alone the religious, needs of the actual life of humanity.”[10] Why? Because at the heart of modern philosophy is the contention that the world cannot really be known. True, man has sense experience from which he forms concepts, and he can see and touch things and manipulate them, but he doesn’t know them in their essence; he never truly knows the world beyond his head. Against such a bleak and alienated picture, Barfield offers an integrated vision of man and the world. Highlighting the place and significance of language, he presents an alternate account of the relation between concepts and things, mind and world, by focusing on what he terms the “evolution of consciousness,” disclosed in our use of language itself, which is able to account for the communion between man as a knower and the world which he knows.[11]

For Barfield, then, we can actually come to know the world, but to be in a true relationship with it, with reality, requires more than an aspiration to control it: “...if we want to know the meaning of nature, we must learn to read as well as to observe and describe.”[12] Unless we do, Barfield insists, we are left with a situation in which man is “...measuring with greater and greater precision and manipulating more and more cleverly an earth to which he grows spiritually more and more a stranger.”[13] If nature is simply viewed as a thing to be changed and perfected, we assume from the outset that it has nothing to tell us, that its very structure and limitations do not communicate a meaning to us. For Barfield, as well as for Tolkien, man’s relationship with the world is, in contrast, one of reception and wonder, of received communion. From the beginning, man’s engagement with the world is an active reception, a drawing out of the truths of things already there, truths that he finds himself in relation to. And it is precisely the very phenomenon of language that for Barfield captures this active, dynamic communion:

all that which we experience otherwise than through the senses, or which (to put it succinctly) comes from within and not from without—is not to be thought of as a series of units encapsulated in a series of human organisms, but rather as the inside of the world as a whole. An inside which, like the inside of anything else, is inseparable from the outside, though the distinction between the two remains obvious enough.[14]

Barfield insists that before the moderns, the communion understood between man and the world also ensured a communion between word and thing, between language and reality: “...the philosophers, from Plotinus to Aquinas, were wont to treat at the same time of words and things under the inclusive topic of ‘names.’”[15] Even if never spoken, “For Aquinas, as for Augustine, there are, anterior to the uttered word, the intellect-word, the heart-word and the memory-word.”[16] All of these reflect a profound unity and even dependence, not only of the mind on things, but of things on the mind: “The human word proceeds from the memory, as the Divine Word proceeds from the Father. Proceeds from it, yet remains one with it. For the world is the thought of God realized through His Word… [Therefore,] the phenomenon itself only achieves its full reality (actus) in being named or thought by man.” [17] In such a perspective, the world itself becomes “a kind of theophany, in which [man] participate[s] at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”[18]

In this sense, words are not arbitrary names given to things, but expressions of the nature of things themselves as entered into and known by man: they are dynamic realities, the meeting point between man and the world, that mark the relation between the two:

both phenomenon and name were felt as representations. On the one hand “the word conceived in the mind is representative of the whole of that which is realized in thought”.... But on the other hand the phenomenon itself only achieves full reality (actus) in the moment of being “named” by man; that is, when that in nature which it represents is united with that in man which the name represents. [19]

In a beautiful illustration of the fact that there is more going on in a linguistic description than a mere scientific explanation of things, Barfield describes the act of “hearing” thus:

The two most important things to remember about perception are these: first, that we must not confuse the percept with its cause. I do not hear undulating molecules of air; the name of what I hear is sound. I do not touch a moving system of waves or of atoms and electrons with relatively vast empty spaces between them; the name of what I touch is matter. Second, I do not perceive any thing with my sense-organs alone, but with a great part of my whole human being…. When I “hear a thrush singing,” I am hearing, not with my ears alone, but with all sorts of other things like mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling and (to the extent at least that the act of attention involves it) will.[20]

Thus there is a mental process that “really is the percipient’s own contribution to the representation….”[21] This is what leads Barfield to insist that “[a]n ‘idea’ is at the same time both mind and nature; it is neither subjective nor objective; or it is both at the same time.”[22] And it is our language, if we pay attention to it, which has the capacity to insistently remain true to this reality.

As they do for Tolkien, words for Barfield provide a context for man’s engagement with the world that enables a true and adequate reverence for the integrity and the otherness of things, without negating man’s true and good relationship with them. He praises the scientific work of Goethe in this regard, for it took seriously this relationship between man and the world, and the capacity of language to adequately portray the truth of things. “His method,” Barfield tells us, “differs from the ordinary method of induction in that the observer, when he reaches a certain point… stops there and endeavors rather to sink himself in contemplation in that phenomenon than to form further thoughts about it.”[23] This betrays a radically different method from the empirical one: “It implies a certain—if one may use the word—chastity of thought, a willingness not to go beyond a certain point. The blue of the sky, said Goethe, is the theory.”[24] Barfield maintains that things are intelligible in relation to a paradigm we find given, not originating from us, and yet one which at the same time demands our participation. Things exist and are knowable before we encounter them, but yet only reach their full actualization when they are known.[25]

In summary, Barfield’s contribution to an understanding of the relation of man and the world is to draw attention to how the nature of words themselves reveal the deep communion between person and world, in a way that reflects man’s active engagement in the drawing of things to their fulfillment. Barfield’s engagement at the more technical, philosophical level with the role of language in effecting this correspondence between mind and world in a reverential way served as the basis for Tolkien’s own literary art. The insights of each call us to recognize and appreciate more deeply the task of language in maintaining a true relationship with the world, a task that the philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich saw at the heart of our human vocation: “It is only in the word that [man] has the world, that he is in the world and the world is with man and ‘through’ him… Man comes out of himself once again into the world ‘through’ the word. The word is man’s path.”[26]

Siobhán Maloney is currently completing her dissertation in the STD program at the John Paul II Institute, where she previously worked as an assistant for the Office of Cultural and Pastoral Formation.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 147. Subsequent references to this work will be noted by page number embedded within the text.

[2] Tolkien, Letters, 25.

[3] Tolkien, Letters, 10. See also Lisa Coutras, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 10-11.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, in Poems and Stories (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 68

[5] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 79.

[6] See Ralph Wood, “J. R. R. Tolkien: Postmodern Visionary of Hope,” in The Gift of Story, eds. Emily Griesinger and Mark Eaton (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006), 333‒34.

[7] See his essay included with “Smith of Wootton Major,” 1967.

[8] See Ferdinand Ulrich, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Martin Heidegger, among others.

[9] Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1977), 3.

[10] See Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: a Study in Meaning (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 54‒55.

[11] See Barfield’s Saving the Appearances.

[12] Michael Di Fuccia. Owen Barfield: Philosophy, Poetry, and Theology (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 18.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Barfield, “Two Kinds of Forgetting,” 1‒11.

[15] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 84.

[16] Ibid., 85

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 92.

[19] Ibid., 85

[20] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Di Fuccia, Owen Barfield, 83.

[23] Barfield, Romanticism, 34.

[24] Ibid., 34. It seems Barfield intentionally uses this image of “chastity” in contrast to Bacon’s frank admission of the need to “rape” nature in order to acquire her secrets.

[25] Barfield, Romanticism, 150‒52.

[26] Ulrich, Homo Abyssus, 407.


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