A Guest Post by G. Connor Salter
G. Connor Salter has a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has presented on the Inklings to Inkling Folk Fellowship, and contributed his thoughts to Mythlore, A Pilgrim in Narnia, Fellowship & Fairydust, and the Tolkien Experience Project. He works as an editor in Colorado.
Halfway into our 80-minute conversation, Owen Barfield’s grandson tells me I’m the first American to interview him for a published profile.
“The first one was from a Canadian with Radix Magazine,” he says, “So you’re the first American interview.”
I feel very small and remind myself not to screw this up.
The interview, conducted over FaceTime on September 13, happened in a surprising way. I had written an introductory article on Owen Barfield, probably the least-known of the four major Inklings. When I contacted the Owen Barfield Literary Estate about using some pictures, Barfield’s grandson, Owen A. Barfield, not only let me use the photos. He also offered to do an interview. Emails were sent. Schedules were compared. Plans were tweaked when tech malfunctioned. Then we talked.
For those unfamiliar with Barfield’s biography, he met C.S. Lewis when they were both students at Oxford. Barfield’s first book, Poetic Diction, presented theories on language that impacted both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (and informed their famous Addison’s Walk conversation). While Barfield spent most of his career years as a lawyer, he wrote many books, from a groundbreaking Coleridge study to the comic novel This Ever Diverse Pair. After retiring from law, Barfield became a prestigious visiting scholar at Brandeis University and other American colleges. When he passed away in 1997, a month after his 99th birthday, he was the last living major Inkling.
During his prolific writing career, Barfield did something equally impressive: he and his wife Maud raised three children—Alexander, Lucy, and Geoffrey. Owen, the son of Alexander, got to know his grandfather well.
“I was the only grandchild, I was 28 years old when he passed away,” Owen explains. “I liked going to visit him—we had quite a special relationship in terms of old person-young person, so much so that from the age of 14, I’d go by myself to visit him.”
Owen tells me a lot about his grandfather. The bimonthly visits by train and bicycle where Owen spent a Sunday with his grandfather, often playing chess and sharing walks. Owen’s journey to becoming a literary trustee for his grandfather’s estate in 2007. Things Owen learned about his grandfather’s friendships with other Inklings—either in conversation or from later research. We cover enough for several articles (which I’m looking to publish in various places). Here are some of Owen’s insights concerning his grandfather and Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling.
Much has been said about what Barfield and Williams shared with other Inklings—for example, writing Arthurian poetry. However, beyond “Inklings all together” discussions and Stephen Dunning’s 2004 compare-and-contrast essay, little has been written on how much Barfield and Williams overlapped. One rare contribution comes from Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, where he claims the first time Williams and Barfield met, Williams (knowing nothing about Barfield’s devotion to Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy movement), remarked, “I have just been talking to someone who told me I was an Anthroposophist.” (155). According to Grevel Lindop, “sadly, the conversation was diverted, and a potentially fascinating discussion lost” (308).
Even so, the story raises an interesting possibility. Williams an anthroposophist? Did Barfield and Cecil Harwood know there was a third Inkling who sympathized with Steiner’s ideas?
Before our interview, I email Owen about this story. Not surprisingly, he says his grandfather never told him about it. Even if the conversation went longer, it’s the sort of thing one tells a biographer when discussing famous friends. Owen’s conversations with his grandfather were always more personal.
“Grandfather quite often mentioned Lewis, but only in the context of a good friend,” Owen says. “The same went for the other Inklings… He really did not want to participate in a kind of celebrity culture at all.”
So, no inside track about what Barfield and Williams said on this occasion.
Owen also admits that he sometimes feels there isn’t enough nuance when discussing how much the Inklings influenced Williams.
“I think what set him apart, and people forget, is that Charles Williams was about 12 years older or so, quite a bit older,” Owen says. “But the thing is, if you’re 12 years older, and you see some young men setting up a society and doing some stuff, and doing their things, I think you sort of think, ‘Oh, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I’ve joined my own societies. I’ve done this kind of thing before, I don’t need to do it all over again.’ There’s a little bit of distance because of the age gap. And I don’t think that’s ever sort of brought out enough, or really teased out.”
It’s a good point. After the interview is finished, I reflect on how Williams and Barfield were both more than just Inklings. More so than Tolkien or Lewis, they had prior experiences or commitments (Barfield’s anthroposophy, Williams’ two secret societies) that equally influenced them.
However, this doesn’t mean that Owen thinks there’s no Williams-Barfield connection. In fact, he suspects the two men were already on similar wavelengths:
“I don’t think the conversation would have necessarily been that revealing, because I’m sure that Charles Williams knew a lot about anthroposophy,” Owen says. “Grandfather was a founding father of the Anthroposophical Society in Great Britain. They had a place—which they still have, near Baker Street in London. Charles Williams walked past there. I’m sure he would have attended talks and lectures there, because some of the things I’ve read about Charles Williams sound so much like the talks that Cecil Harwood would have been giving. I’m sure there’s a connection there. And of course, that’s why that man said [to Williams], ‘you must be an anthroposophist,’ because Williams was saying things that sound like anthroposophy, and it’s because he would have heard things from anthroposophists such as Grandfather and Cecil Harwood.”
This connection is the first of three areas where Owen believes Barfield and Williams overlapped.
“When Grandfather was teaching in Streatham, South London, Charles Williams was also teaching in Streatham,” Owen says. “The coincidence of them both teaching there is too strong. There must be a mutual person who brought them both there, put them in contact—and that was in the 20s. In the 30s, there’s all this work around the Anthroposophical Society and the talks, which were public talks, and Charles Williams would definitely have gone to them, because he was living in that area.
“And then the third occasion is during World War II, when Charles Williams was moved to Oxford, Grandfather also moved his family to Oxford. Although he was working in London, his family was near Oxford. His wife lived near Oxford, and his wife was a good friend—a confidant —with Lewis, and Lewis put her in touch, I’m pretty sure, with an amateur dramatic society called the ‘Oxford Players’ putting Christmas plays together. Charles Williams wrote some Christmas plays. So, this hasn’t been researched. It hasn’t been written up. It hasn’t been explored. But I’m sure there’s a connection there between the plays that Charles Williams wrote and the Christmas plays that Lewis and Maud were connected to.”
After these insights, our interview moves on to other Barfield subjects (which I hope to release soon in other areas). For Inklings researchers, here are some questions this information raises:
- Has anyone established if Williams and Barfield had mutual contacts that led them both to teach at Streatham schools in the 1920s?
- Has anyone researched the Streatham school where Barfield taught, particularly how Harwood co-founded the school, and any other Inklings connections?*
- Do records of Harwood and Barfield’s 1930s Anthroposophical Society talks show any common ground with Williams’ ideas?
- Do Williams’ letters reference the Anthroposophical Society’s Baker Street headquarters?
- Did Maud Barfield perform in any Oxford plays written by Williams?
- What was Maud Barfield’s friendship with Lewis like, especially during World War II?
- What does Lewis’ friendship with Maud Barfield tell us about Lewis’ interactions with women?
- Beyond Simon Blaxland de-Lange’s recent Harwood biography, what has been written about Harwood’s contributions to anthroposophy, the Inklings, or his friendship with Barfield?
- Has enough work been done on how Williams’ age difference and prior commitments (the Companions of the Co-Inherence, etc.) influenced his time with the Inklings?
- Is there any common ground between the ideas that Barfield explored via Steiner (mysticism, spiritual evolution, etc.), and the ideas that Williams explored in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross or the Order of the Golden Dawn (or ideas explored by his friends D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee)?
I want to end by thanking Owen A. Barfield again for a great interview. And encourage researchers to check out the Owen Barfield Literary Estate’s website.
*Note: After our interview, Owen clarified that Williams taught evening classes at one Streatham school, while Barfield taught at the New School Cecil Harwood co-founded in 1925. The school (relocated to Sussex, renamed the Michael Hall School) still exists today. See Simon Blaxland de-Lange’s Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age: A Biography and Sun King’s Counsellor: Cecil Harwood: A Documentary Biography, and Joy Mansfield’s A Good School – A History of Michael Hall.
Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. HarperCollins, 2006.
Lindop, Grevel. Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. Oxford University Press, 2015.