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!