On Saturday, June 6th, I arrived at 9:56 in the morning at the Weston Library, one of the buildings of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library system. I had traveled from Pennsylvania to New Jersey to Dublin to the rural west coast of Ireland to London to a little English village and then finally to Oxford—to see 16 pages of archival material that exists nowhere else on the planet.
Gripping the slightly crumpled pages of my Application A (for a Reader’s Card), Application B (request to view Special Collections), permission from Owen A. Barfield to view his grandfather’s papers, proof of academic employment, proof of residency, and promise to hand over my firstborn child, I waited for the Bodleian to open. While loitering in the lobby, I causally glanced at a copy of the Magna Carta.
It’s that kind of place, Oxford. You can be sauntering along and suddenly say, “Oh! I know this place. It’s where Henry VIII did such-and-such, or Elizabeth the First Slept Here, or so-and-so was burnt at the stake, or hey there’s a copy of the Magna Carta.” It’s mind-boggling to us baby Americans with our paltry couple-centuries-old Mayflowers and Constitutions and busts of Washington.
So then the Library opened, and there was no problem getting my application approved. Since I have possessed a Reader’s Card in the past (when I spent a summer studying in Oxford in 2006 as part of my M.A. program) and only wanted to view one item that day, I didn’t even have to swear The Vow to kindle no flame nor fires therein. Good thing, too, since I brought my Kindle™ in with me.
Then I stepped through the sacrosanct doors, climbed the marble stairs, collected the box that had been set aside for me, and settled down to read The Quest of the Sangreal by Owen Barfield.
Thankfully, this document was typed (no struggling with Edwardian handwriting this time) and was only 16 pages long, since I had a short 2.5 hours before heading off to the Charles Williams Society lunch and meeting. That meant I could read it twice, take copious notes, inquire about photocopies, and generally wrap my head around this short piece of writing.
The Quest of the Sangreal is one of only three works Barfield wrote that have anything to do with the Matter of Britain—with Arthurian legends. The two others are Night Operation (a dystopian novel with a kind of metaphorical “Grail encounter” at the end, discussed at length by Christopher Bennett Gaertner in my forthcoming volume The Inklings and King Arthur) and a series of parody letters exchanged with C.S. Lewis under the personae of lawyers representing King Mark of Cornwall and Sir Tristram of Lyonesse in the matter of the love of Iseult. Do read these letters (of June 11th-20th, 1947); they are unspeakably hilarious. The last is in Middle English, and anticipates Chaucer Hath a Blog (and Chaucer Doth Tweet) with uncanny accuracy. Basically, Barfield and Lewis invented the Internet in 1947. Next up, Tolkien’s cute cat memes.
Anyway, enough of the frivolity. The Quest of the Sangreal is a prose adaptation, in an archaic style, from Malory, and it retells the major incidents of the Quest for the Holy Grail:
- Sir Launcelot’s love of Guinevere
- Pelles’ conniving to get Launcelot to sleep with Elaine and get her pregnant with Galahad
- the death of Perceval’s father and his mother’s attempts to keep him from finding out about knighthood
- Perceval’s time living with and learning from elves
- Perceval’s time living with and learning from one of King Arthur’s knights named Sir Owen
- Launcelot’s meeting with and knighting of his son Galahad
- Perceval’s knighting by King Arthur
- the departure of many knights “upon the quest of the Sangreal”
- Perceval’s time living with and learning courtesy from his uncle
- Perceval’s meeting with the Fisher-King, seeing the Grail procession, and failing to ask the essential questions
- Perceval’s time living with and learning arms and strength from a castle full of witches
- Perceval’s fight with the Black Knight
- Perceval’s falling into a swoon for many days.
- Perceval’s awakening in the company of Bors and Galahad.
- Voila! “they had fulfilled the quest of the Sangreal.”
- They see the Grail procession again.
So that’s the content of this document.
But what’s most interesting about it, to me, is a letter that precedes The Quest of the Sangreal in this folder. It is to fellow Inkling Cecil Harwood, written on 6 July 1968. In it, Barfield says that he is happy to think that this work will continue “to be performed as eurythmy.” I didn’t know what “eurythmy” was. I looked it up. It’s a kind of interpretive movement that is important in the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Barfield went on to insist that he wants “to assign the copyright to the London School of Eurythmy in consideration of an undertaking by the School to use its best endeavors, so long as the copyright lasts, to ensure that it is used solely for the purposes of Eurythmy, and particularly that it is not at any time published or duplicated and distributed so as to become available as reading matter.” Harwood signed it on behalf of The London School of Eurythmy, guaranteeing that it would not be published nor read, only performed.
Oops! And here I read it on the page. And yet, it is written as if to be read on the printed page, not performed. There are no notes about the Eurythmy at all: no prefatory note about how the Eurythmy would work, no choreography, no stage directions, no speech-headers. The dialogue is run into the text like in a novel. There are a few intervals where “(music)” is written in parentheses—when Perceval enters the Castle Carbonek, when he leaves it and flees into the woods, when he sleeps in the house of the witches, and when the final Grail Procession occurs. And that’s it.
But I was out of time at the Bodleian. No time to go find a reference work on Eurythmy. So I went to speak to the Charles Williams Society (tune in later for a post about that), and then headed off to Venice for a holiday.
And on Monday evening, I was riding a vaporetto up the Grand Canal, when two Dutch girls came and sat next to me. They were very friendly and spoke excellent English (as well as several other languages, I gather), and we got chatting. They were about to graduate from high school and were on their Senior Trip all around Italy. They go to a Waldorf school. Waldorf! Isn’t that Rudolph Steiner’s school, I asked? Indeed, it is, they replied. Are you Anthroposophists, then, I asked? Yes, we are, well, sort of, they laughed. So then, I asked with trembling anticipation, do you practice Eurythmy? Indeed, they do.
So they proceeded to explain to me that Eurythmy is something between dance and exercise, a kind of improvisational movement based on gestures that are associated with phonemes—with spoken sounds. I told them about The Quest of the Sangreal and asked them how it would work. They said that someone would read the text aloud, and performers would execute semi-choreographed, semi-improvised movements in response to what they perceived as the most important sounds in the spoken work. I gave them my business card and asked them to put me in touch with their Eurythmics teacher. I haven’t heard anything yet, so this afternoon I’m off to the local university library to read up on Barfield and Steiner and Eurythmics.
Meanwhile, I would be very grateful for any information on the topic to which you can point me. I also have not been able to determine anything about when The Quest of the Sangreal was written, whether/when it was performed at the London School of Eurythmics or elsewhere, or really anything contextualizing at all. So if you know of any resources that might help me with those points, please do send them my way. I am much obliged to you!
Wow. Sounds like Barfield would make a nice runner-up for the title of “Oddest Inkling.”
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Do consider reading “The ‘Great War’ of Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis: Philosophical Writings, 1927 – 1930” edited by Norbert Feinendegen and Arend Smilde (the first of the JIS Inklings Studies Supplements, 2015) – it is mind-boggling (though at more than 21 quid including p & p, you might first try to get a good library near you to invest in it…)
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Thanks! It sounds really interesting.
Arend Smilde includes a chronology of previously published letters that form a part of this ‘Great War’, so if you have access to Lewis’s Collected Letters in any way, you can get a taste of it – especially reading around in volume 3, the ‘Supplement’ (pp. 1486-1595) and the following ‘Great War’ letters section (pp. 1596-1646), though also in letters to Barfield in volume 1, between 27 May 1928 and – just exactly 85 years ago! – 19 June 1930. (I’m only starting to get caught up with the Collected Letters myself, and have not read most of these, yet!)
All that in 16 pages!
Here’s a link for a London College of Eurythmy:
And one for the Rudolf Steiner House:
(Their “Links” include a site – which I have not visited – called ‘Peredur Eurythmy’ and ‘Peredur’ is the Welsh for Perceval…)
Speaking of music, there’s a jolly setting out there of The Vow, but I’m having no luck tracing it online (what, no YouTube recordings, with that irresistibly tender ‘neither to kindle… kindle…’?).
The Internet Archive has four titles by Steiner about ‘Eurythmie’ (all in German) – as well as two others in French. It also has an English translation of his Four Mystery Plays (in two volumes), as well as the German original, Vier Mysteriendramen, in one (among many other works by him). Wondering if eurythmy dialogue is ever spoken as dialogue by more than one speaker, I have not tried to discover the answer in the German works… (The plays are certainly meant to be put on as plays.) “Oops! And here I read it on the page.” Presumably, a eurythmy reader would prepare in some way using the text, rather than encountering it ‘cold’ for the first time at the performance?
And lots of eurythmy videos on YouTube, including various ones performing poems (e.g., Kathleen Raine’s ‘Let in the Rain’)!
Hmm… including one with part of a play with one male voice declaiming all the roles, women’s and men’s, characters in dialogue.
In researching elementary educational methods, I read a bit into Waldorf schools. There’s a lot in their methods that just sounds so…. pretty. And relaxing. Including Eurythmie, of which I actually bought a ridiculous teacher’s handbook. One of the biggest attractions of Waldorf educational philosophy is that it views the child as already a spiritual being, endowed with full humanity.
In the end, I picked out a lot of the things I liked about Waldorf methods– things like their storytelling methods and form drawing techniques, and a sort of arts-based elementary pedagogy. But the deeper I went into the philosophy, the more I couldn’t reconcile with Christian orthodoxy, and so I could never become a full-blown adherent. I found the website, “www.waldorfcritics.org” to be helpful in articulating my discomfort with the underlying goals of their pedagogy.
All that said, my kids have really liked doing the Eurythmie alphabet on YouTube. 🙂
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Barfield’s contributions in the new edition of ‘Great War’ writings include glimpses of a sort of ‘incorporation’ of elements of Christianity which I suppose (in my pretty gross ignorance) are Anthroposophical rather than peculiarly Barfieldian and which seem a far cry from Christian orthodoxy.
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I look forward to reading more here about eurythmy, which sounds fascinating.
Isn’t the Weston Library a wonderful place? It turns out I was there at the same time as you! (June 2nd – 9th, reading Tolkien manuscripts).
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You were there at the same time?!? That’s wonderful–and terrible that we didn’t meet.
Thank you for all of these resources, folks. They are very helpful.
A couple more! A.C. Harwood has two contributions well worth reading in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (1979) which is apparently reprinted (with a new introduction) as Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections by Those Who Knew Him (2005). And the “Cecil Harwood” Wikipedia article about him says that he and his wife, Marguerite, “built up the Eurythmy work in England with performances, international tours, the London School of Eurythmy and finally the book on which they collaborated with Marjorie Raffé, Eurythmy and the Impulse of Dance”! (And it has a reference to C. S. Lewis, My Godfather: Letters, Photos and Recollections, by Laurence Harwood, (IVP Books, 2007).) Some of his books seem to be in print, and I suppose others are available second-hand.
Wish I’d known you were in Oxford as I would love to meet up! Fascinated by the Barfied as I had not been aware of if before and of course I’m gibbering with excitement about your book on the Inklings and Arthur. I could fill a book with musings about Fall of Arthur, which had so many errors in it.! If you get over this way again do get in touch. You’ll find me on Facebook and can pm me there.
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I also wish we had met up, John! Well, perhaps again someday. It’s nice to know someone is “gibbering with excitement” about my upcoming book.
Errors in TFOA? It is, sadly, riddled with typos — or are you referring to errors of fact?
Errors of fact as well. Even David Brawn, who’s my first editor years ago and is now looking after the Tolkien legacy, wished he had asked me to check it!
Well, too bad he didn’t, then. Have you written a blog post with a list of the errors? That would be very useful.
Sadly, no time at the moment. I read it very quickly when it appeared and was too caught up it to make notes. But I can and will list things later.
This is fascinating. Thank you for running this blog as diligently as you have done and I cannot wait for King Arthur and the Inklings to arrive. I do not remember when or how I first learned of Charles Williams (I don’t think it was when I read Carpenter’s The Inklings, but I’m not sure where else I would have found out about him) but I remember the absolute joy I had reading Descent into Hell and then the discovery of the Arthurian poems was like having the landscape of his very unique retelling roll out in front of me (an experience I can only compare to having read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. I don’t think Tolkien would be happy with the comparison but alas it is true). It has evolved into a broader exploration of the Inklings that has been a wonderful experience. I discovered your blog as I searched for more information and studies of Williams and have been a regular visitor for quite ever since. Again I am eagerly awaiting King Arthur and the Inklings (I suppose I have been secretly hoping for such a volume as soon as they announced The Fall of Arthur’s publication). Thank you for all your hard work.
I must ask is Barfield’s “The Quest for the Sangreal” going to play a part in any of the essays (perhaps your introduction since you were there studying the manuscript). I am especially curious about this text since it appears then that Lancelot would be the one figure all four Inklings would have made a central, or at least important, figure in some piece of writing. Is there a possibility of it being published in the forthcoming volume as an appendix or is there anyway you know to read the text without having to travel to the Bodleian Library to read it?
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Thank you for this kind comment, Brice. I am delighted that you are such a thoughtful reader of the Inklings.
I do believe that Owen A. Barfield, the grandson, has plans to publish “The Quest of the Sangreal” at some point. Keep any eye on http://www.owenbarfield.org. Cheers.
A welcome update! I have not tried to dig into the Internet Archive sources, yet, but placing Barfield’s emphatic aspiration, expressed as recently as 1968, “to ensure that it is used solely for the purposes of Eurythmy, and particularly that it is not at any time published or duplicated and distributed so as to become available as reading matter” in terms of the theory and practice of eurythmy invites attention. Have things changed a lot, in the past near-half-century, with all those eurythmy films on YouTube showing the use of various published works intended to be read and (in cases like Murder in the Cathedral) performed, but not written with eurythmy in mind? Or was it always – or long – characterized by taking up independently existing works as well as ones written with it in mind? Were the ‘original’ works always restricted, whatever else might be done (even including recording them in one form or another)?
I have little to contribute to the information on eurithmy on this 4 years old post. But the text by Harwood has been transcribed to music. It has been used as Waldorf school anthem in the Netherlands (and perhaps internationally) for many years now. Here’s a video of a high school performance https://youtu.be/jyl6yS3HK7g
Godspeed on your academic endeavours! Kind regards from another (former) Dutch Waldorf student.
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