Owen Barfield’s Arthuriana

As you know, I’m deep into the final editing stage of The Inklings and King Arthur. Last week I posted about CW’s Arthurian works. Today, here is a rough draft of my thoughts on Owen Barfield. Tomorrow, Tolkien; on Friday, Lewis. Your comments, questions, suggestions, and corrections are eagerly invited.

barfieldOwen Barfield (1898-1997) composed the fewest Arthurian works of the authors under consideration, and none of them were published during his lifetime. Two of them remain unpublished as of the writing of this chapter. Indeed, only one of the four listed in the appendix is a genuinely Arthurian piece of literature. What is interesting about his approach to Arthur and the Grail is that he uses these tales, as he uses many others both established and original, as subtle vehicles of spiritual meaning. In many of his writings, “Barfield, like his fellow Inklings, creates a medievalist world of romance wherein Christian spiritual ideals and truths are illustrated and presented as providing a superior alternative to the modern world of materialism” (Grewell 16). Even when the secondary world is not quasi-medieval, it still frequently illustrates or embodies such spiritual alternatives. Lewis summed up Barfield’s approach neatly in a letter explaining to a mutual friend that he could no longer debate with Barfield about Anthroposophy, because “The chief points chiefly at issue between the Anthroposophists and me then were precisely the points on which anthroposophy is certainly right—i.e. the claim that it is possible for man, here and now, in the phenomenal world, to have commerce with the world beyond” (letter of March 1933 to Daphne Harwood, qtd. in Letters 1599. Emphasis original). This may be the meaning Barfield attempted to convey in all of his writings: that it is possible for temporal humans to communicate with transtemporal reality.[1]

But Barfield’s few Arthurian works are certainly not pieces of blatant Anthroposophist or Christian propaganda. Indeed, their methods of communicating meaning are extremely understated. One appears merely comic, one merely academic, one pragmatic, and one fantastic. But a closer examination reveals the shrewd ways they are constructed as agents of significance.

First, the comic work. C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield exchanged a series of parodic letters between June 11th and June 20th, 1947. Eugène Vinaver’s magisterial Works of Sir Thomas Malory had just been published, and Lewis reviewed it in The Times Literary Supplement. Lewis discussed how foreign the morality of the Morte is to its twentieth-century audience and ended with this sentence: “But how different such nobility may be from the virtues of the law-abiding citizen will appear if we imagine the life of Sir Tristram as it would be presented to us by King Mark’s solicitors” (Letters II: 780). Barfield, a lawyer, took up the challenge: “using the notepaper of his firm, Barfield and Barfield, and acting as if for King Mark of Cornwall, led off with the first letter to Messrs Inkling and Inkling. Lewis replied as the solicitors Blaise and Merlin, representing Sir Tristram” (Hooper, Letters II:781).[2]

Monty-Python-and-The-Holy-Grail-Behind-the-scenesThese letters are a delightful and hilarious example of the kind of friendship that Barfield and Lewis enjoyed: they banter back and forth, employing many registers of humor from simple insults to sophisticated literary witticisms. Barfield creates a particular type of absurdity (not entirely dissimilar from Mark Twain’s method in A Connecticut Yankee) by restating elements of the Medieval text in contemporary legal jargon. The last letter in the series, by Lewis, is in mock Middle English, and its tone of erudite jocularity contrasts pleasingly with the buffoonery of its content.

More importantly for the present purpose: this epistolary joke reveals quite a bit about Barfield’s interaction with Arthuriana. To begin with, they show that he was very familiar with the legends in general and with Malory in particular. Barfield is conversant with the names of people and places, and with terminology such as “garboils” (a “garboil” is “a confused disordered state”). But there is a deeper kind of understanding revealed in the following extended quotation: King Mark’s solicitor advises a potential jury

to take into consideration such facts as (a) the previous long and close personal association between our respective clients (b) the fact that your client was at the time employed in a fiduciary capacity in a matter of the utmost delicacy (c) that your client owed to ours at the time not merely the loyalty of an old friend but the allegiance of a tried and trusted subject and (d) the unwritten law of chivalry and the obligation imposed thereby on your client, as the only person of equestrian status on board a small vessel carrying a female passenger of noble rank. (Letters I:782)

This is seriously funny. But it also touches on some important elements of Medieval romance literature, showing that Barfield had a deep understanding of the values that undergirded, if not an historical chivalry, at least the literature of chivalry.

There is the “fiduciary capacity” in which Sir Tristram relates to King Mark. He is a sworn knight; Mark is his king, his lord, his sovereign. There is an essential hierarchy implied here as well as ethics of permanent loyalty and selfless service. These are continued in “the allegiance of a tried and trusted subject.” Barfield himself, of course, believed in a higher, divine authority who forbade adultery and treason, and fidelity to God’s laws is one means of having “commerce with the world beyond.” When Barfield refers to “the unwritten law of chivalry,” he evokes a whole field of study, and one in which C.S. Lewis was intimately involved.

In 1936, Lewis had published The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, in which he wrote extensively of “courtly love”: the “love religion of the god Amor” or “erotic religion [that] arises as a rival or parody of the real religion and emphasizes the antagonism of the two ideals” (Allegory 18). That same year, Lewis had engaged in a debate on this topic with Charles Williams; in fact, as I wrote in an article on Williams’s medievalism:

It was also over the so-called “Religion of Love” that Williams and Lewis first met, exchanging letters on the topic between 11 and 23 March 1936. Yet they did not agree: Lewis denigrated “the Religion of Love’’ as idolatrous; Williams praised it as a way to God and went so far as to claim that “Infidelity to love consists in the deliberate preference of some other meaner motive and occupation to love, and the identification of love in marriage with Christ involves something very like the identification of infidelity with Antichrist” (Outlines of Romantic Theology 52). (Higgins “Double Affirmation” 69-70)

While I doubt that Barfield read these letters between Lewis and Williams, it is extremely likely that chivalry, courtly love, and romantic theology were among the more frequent topics of conversation at meetings of the Inklings in the 1940s. (Question: would Barfield have attended these meetings in the 1940s? How often did he meet Williams? Any information is welcome.)

This discussion of the Mark and Tristram letters, then, shows that Barfield was thoughtfully engaged with Arthurian materials, even though his literary interactions with them were infrequent, and that he quickly got to the heart of the story and to deeper ethical matters beneath the admittedly chaotic surface of Malory’s tale(s).

Barfield had probably been interacting with Malory’s Morte even before the discovery of the Winchester manuscript and the publication of Vinaver’s edition. Barfield’s copy of the Everyman’s Library edition is extant, and he has made marginal notes throughout it. These notes have been transcribed by Angela Grimaldi; she analyzes them in a 2010 article entitled “Owen Barfield’s marginalia in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur,” and they are the most academic of his Arthurian interactions.

Grimaldi writes that “The exact dates of Barfield’s notes and annotations are, unfortunately, unknown.” This is also the case with The Quest of the Sangreal, discussed below. But a little bit of textual comparison and biographical speculation suggests that both were made between 1935 and 1947. His Everyman’s edition “was originally published in 1906 and reprinted in 1934 (volume two) and 1935 (volume one)” (Grimaldi). This provides a terminus post quem for the marginal notes, at least: he could not have started marking up this book before it was published in 1935. And it is reasonable to suppose that he would have stopped using this edition and switched to Vinaver’s in 1947, especially since he engaged in correspondence with Lewis over the appearance of Vinaver’s book.

Furthermore, the passages Barfield marked in his Malory appear to me to be significant for the composition of The Quest of the Sangreal, which is a sixteen-page performance piece “adapted from Malory.”[3] For three reasons, then, I propose that both the annotations and Quest were composed between 1935 and 1947: the annotations look to me as if he marked his Everyman copy when he was working on The Quest of the Sangreal, as they appear to be interested in the same characters and episodes; he is already very familiar with the Morte when he writes the Mark and Tristram letters; and Quest is already quite old when he writes about it to Cecil Harwood in 1968.

What, then, is The Quest of Sangreal and what does it reveal about Barfield’s use of Arthuriana? It is Barfield’s only truly Arthurian work.[4] It is a sixteen-page typescript entitled The Quest of the Sangreal.[5] This is the work that I called “pragmatic” above, and its practical purpose was for use in an Anthroposophist education. It is a prose adaptation, in an archaic style, which Barfield claims is from Malory. However, several of the incidents are not from Malory, but from Chretien, the Mabinogion, and other sources.

It retells the major incidents of the Quest for the Holy Grail. Its perspective interlaces stories of Galahad with those of Perceval. It recounts Launcelot’s love of Guinevere and siring of Galahad. This is interwoven with Perceval’s life: the death of his father and his mother’s attempts to keep him from finding out about knighthood,composite then his times learning from elves, from one of King Arthur’s knights, from his uncle, and from a castle full of witches. Meanwhile, many knights set out “upon the quest of the Sangreal” (p. 8). Perceval is knighted by King Arthur, then goes to the Castle Carbonek, where he sees the Grail procession. It consists of “a spear of mighty size, with three streams of blood flowing from the point to the ground” and “a large salver… in the which was a man’s head surrounded with a profusion of blood” (8). Perceval fails to interrupt his host’s conversation to ask questions about these strange objects, and so is called “Perceval the Recreant” for his “craven silence,” which was responsible for keeping King Pelles’s kingdom in danger. Later, Perceval, Bors, and Galahad return to the castle, where they and a few other knights see “the hallows” and “the holy meat”:

There they saw angels, and two bare candles of wax, and the third a towel, and the fourth a spear which bled marvellously that three drops fell into a box…. Right so the man took an obley [wafer] which was made in the likeness of bread. And at the lifting up there came a figure in the likeness of a child and the visage was as red and as bright as any fire, and smote himself into the bread, so that they all saw it that the bread was formed of a fleshly man; and then he put it into the holy vessel again, and then he did that longed to a priest to do to a mass. (16).

After that, “there entered into the hall the Holy Greal covered with red samite,” which passes through the hall and out again. Then Galahad heals the wounded king, and Joseph of Arimathea tells the three Grail knights to set sail for the city of Sarras.

In one sense, then, Barfield’s Quest of the Sangreal is standard Arthurian fare, a pastiche of some of the main Grail texts. In another way, however, it is unique in the history of Arthurian literature, and a locus of some of Barfield’s most distinctive literary and educational practices.

These distinctives are revealed not in the text itself, but in a letter that precedes The Quest of the Sangreal in its folder in the Bodleian library. It is to fellow Inkling Cecil Harwood, written on 6 July 1968. Cecil Harwood was a fellow Anthroposophist, married to Marguerite Lundgren, founder of the London School of Eurythmy. In the letter, Barfield writes that he is happy to think that this work will continue “to be performed as eurythmy.”



According to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, “Eurythmy is a singing through movement; it is singing. It is not dancing; it is not mime” (“Eurythmy as Visible Singing,” Lecture 7). It is a kind of interpretive movement that is often used in Steiner and Waldorf education. In this art form, a narrator reads a written text or a musical selection is played, and the performers listen for significant sounds. They move in prescribed ways, using expressive gestures, in response to those significant sounds.

In the letter to Harwood, Barfield insists 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 School, guaranteeing that it would not be published nor read, only performed, as long as the School held the copyright.

This text, therefore, is a performance piece, not a work of literature. Indeed, Barfield laments what he sees as its poor literary quality in that same letter, as he apparently looks back at it after some time. This performative nature is perhaps the second clue about the educational and philosophical ideas that underlie the text, the first being the selections Barfield chose to include.

The next is that there are four musical interludes throughout Quest, four times that “(music)” is written in parentheses. These occur right after Perceval first meets the Fisher-King and “Perceval rode to the palace and the door was open, and he entered the hall” (7); the next morning, after he has failed to answer the questions and awakens to an empty castle, “Whereupon he turned his horse’s head, and, full of musing, rode deep into the forest” (9); after a witch called Domna tempts Perceval to betray King Arthur, “But Perceval gainsaid her, and promised her all the help that he might. So either took leave of other and went to their couches,” (11); and almost at the very end of the piece, after the three knights have seen the Grail, and “Then prayed Galahad to every each of them, that if they come to King Arthur’s court that they should salute my lord Sir Launcelot, my father, and of them of the Round Table; and prayed them if that they came of that part they should not forget it” (16).


“Sir Galahad at the ruined Chapel” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The music seems to be associated with moments of magic or of high spiritual significance, and would serve to heighten these moments. The Quest of the Sangreal, then, is a simple story, but an adaptation with a life beyond the page. It carries a dramatic message about the power of language, speech, and movement, as all of these would be emotionally moving and potentially revelatory in a live performance. It also relies upon Steiner’s teaching, so central to all of Barfield’s work, about the evolution of human consciousness, because the educational method in which eurythmy is used relies upon the child as his or her own best teacher based on the divine spirit inside each (hence a kind of free, uninhibited performance). A teacher in a Waldorf school

holds the conviction that what he meets in the child from week to week, from year to year, is the expression of a divine spiritual being that descend from purely spirit-soul existence and evolves here in physical-bodily existence between birth and death…. [The teacher] has tremendous reverence for the growing person who, from the first day of his existence in a physical body, shows how his inner soul nature is revealed in his features, in his first movements, utterances of sound, and first beginnings of language. (Steiner, Education as an Art 23)

On this philosophical foundation, eurythmy makes sense as a means by which that divine spiritual being can express itself through movement, sound, and language. The selection of moments of high spiritual significance in The Quest of the Sangreal, then, punctuated by music and embodied in physical gesture, make it a distinctively Anthroposophist text. What appeared to be a simple adaptation from Malory and Chretien turns out to be far more subtle and significant than that.

Night OperationBarfield’s final “Arthurian” work was written in 1975 (Hippolito ix). Night Operation, a work of dystopian speculative fiction, is a locus for questions about what to include and what to exclude from the canon of Arthurian literature, discussed above. But this novella, in which the three main characters have a kind of mystical “Grail” encounter, similarly explores ideas of human consciousness and communication with the transtemporal. Christopher Bennett Gaertner discusses Night Operation in detail in chapter five, “Shape and Direction: Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies.” Gaertner writes that the story “provides a setting in which Barfield’s views on human consciousness are manifest, how those views are a response to the intellectual issues of the Inklings’ (and our) day, and how those speak to an interpretation of the collective Arthurian works of the Inklings.” Indeed, Barfield’s fiction, like that of the other Inklings, is directly relevant to our own times. In particular, as are many dystopian works, Night Operation is uncannily prophetic in its warnings about the reduction of human life to biological function and the ways the human race locks itself away from any possibility of communication with the divine. It has many other areas of applicability, too:

Barfield’s apologetic defense is directed primarily at the scientific materialism, Modernist fragmentation, and logical positivism that by turns dominated much of academic thought in the West in the twentieth century. Its implications are just as important, however, for much of today’s academic culture in the West, dominated as it often is by materialist politics and Postmodern relativism (though much of Barfield’s thought, particularly his theories of language, are quite compatible with Postmodernism). (Grewell 29-30).

Grewell goes on to state quite practical ways Barfield’s thought applies to “the university, the arts, and the evangelical church”—and I would add that Lewis’s, Tolkien’s, and Williams’s ideas also can be used for the regeneration of these institutions in the twenty-first century.

In the largest and most important ways, then, Barfield’s Arthuriana are like those of his friends. They all strive to communicate spiritual truth. They all use speculative fiction and visions of the fantastical to speak into their own times. And they all observed and analyzed the movements of their lifetimes and projected warnings into our own. And yet, of course, Barfield’s works were distinctive. Lewis had a habit of taking up everything that interested him at the moment, including bits and pieces of Arthuriana, and tossing them into whatever his current project was at the moment. Tolkien was much more methodical, taking all the myriad threads of literature and history that he could hold, including Arthur, and weaving them into his own ever-growing legendarium. Charles Williams did just the reverse: he took everything else and wove it into his Arthurian myth. But Barfield? He only used the Grail a couple of times, as a vessel of Anthroposophist ideas.

[1] Jason Jewell and Chris Butinsky explore this topic in all four writers in their chapter, “Spiritual Quest in a Scientific Age.”

[2] The story of Tristram or Tristan is a tragic love triangle (or quadrangle). Tristan is a knight in the service of King Mark of Cornwall. King Mark sends him to collect the lovely lady Isoud or Iseult, who is to marry the king. Tristan and Iseult drink a potion and fall in love, with much resultant suffering to all parties (including Tristan’s wife, who also happens to be named Iseult). The tale of Tristram and Isoud may date as far back as the sixth century (Lupack Encyclopedia 371). It occupies more than a third of Vinaver’s Malory and was one of the central tales for Arthurian adaptation.

[3] Barfield, ‘The Quest of Sangreal’, typescript copy, n.d. Bodleian Shelfmark: Dep. c. 1101. ml#barfield.C.1.

[4] The Quest of the Sangreal was not available to the authors of the chapters in this collection; I only gained access to it for a couple of hours in the Bodleian Library’s Special Collection, at the kind permission of Owen A. Barfield (the grandson of the Inklings) when this volume was well underway.

[5] Bodleian Shelfmark: Dep. c. 1101. ml#barfield.C.1.


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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8 Responses to Owen Barfield’s Arthuriana

  1. Thanks; this is super helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you – very interesting about ‘my least-known major Inkling’! It makes me want all the more to reread ‘Mark v. Tristram’ (which someone just telling me about Diana Glyer’s discussion had kindled in me). And to read Night Operation (and, thanks to Alan Ryan, Eager Spring). And, so keenly, to experience ‘The Quest of Sangreal’! (I have not yet done much eurythmic homework: I suppose, given all the stuff on YouTube, ‘outsiders’ are permitted to experience such things.)

    If all the stuff on YouTube is anything to go by, would it be in keeping with Barfield’s accepted terms for its being “used solely for the purposes of Eurythmy” to be officially performed, filmed, and posted online by the London School of Eurythmy?

    Meanwhile, your quotation from p. 16 is very tantalizing! Could you tell us more about who “the man [who] took an obley” is, and in what context he did so? And about what, if any, connection there is between the “large salver… in the which was a man’s head surrounded with a profusion of blood” of p. 8 and “the holy vessel” of p. 16, and (if known) whose head it is and what vessel (a ciborium? a chalice?)? (Perhaps footnotes would be best for this.)

    There seems to be a typo in the quotation from “Steiner, Education as an Art 23” – at least I can make no sense of singular “descend” in the phrase “the expression of a divine spiritual being that descend”. Is it in the source?

    I was shocked to read in a review of Simon Blaxland-De Lange’s biography of Barfield that it recounts Barfield’s adultery with the wife of a close friend. If this is true, ought it to be touched upon in your attention to “deeper ethical matters beneath the admittedly chaotic surface of Malory’s tale(s)”?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you! I could not remember where I had read this, but think I have found it again, and see that I was misremembering (and/or misinterpreting) the details. I feel pretty confident that it was this passage that stuck (all too fuzzily!) in my mind: “Third and most startling is Blaxland-de Lange’s account of the early breakdown of Barfield’s marriage, and the degree to which his conversion to Anthroposophy shortly after his marriage to Maud Douie permanently blighted their relationship. As Blaxland-de Lange tells the story, Maud seems to have considered that the brilliant poet and scholar she had just married was throwing his talent away and ruining his career in order to devote himself full-time to propagating the weird cult he had just joined, for which she had no sympathy whatsoever. If this is true, then it explains and gives poignancy to the loving yet bitterly estranged couples that appear again and again in Barfield’s work (e.g. The Mother of Pegasus, English People, Eager Spring). And just as surprising are the biographer’s revelation of two serious affairs, with Josephine Spence and Marguerite Lundgren (later Mrs. Cecil Harwood), which nearly led to second (or even third) marriages midway through Barfield’s long life.” The source is John D. Rateliff’s review in Mythlore 103/104 as reprinted online.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Question: would Barfield have attended these meetings in the 1940s? How often did he meet Williams?”

    Starting with the Index entries for Barfield in the printed selections from both Warren Lewis’s diaries and Tolkien’s letters, the only one I found was Tolkien’s letter of 24 November 1944 (Letter 90), but do reread it – it’s a good one!

    Humhrey Carpenter’s footnote in The Inklings about Barfield and C.W. is worth rereading, too (p. 155 in ed.1: third footnote in ch. 4).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Did you know that another cache of comedic Arthurian letters, which seem close in style to those between Lewis & Barfield, exist? They are called ‘The Camelot Jousts’
    by Maurice Baring (1984-1945). I think Lewis and Barfield must have read them….they were published originally in the Morning Post and collected later in a volume Dead Letters 1910.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Thank you! I’ve never read these, but hope to remedy that soon, as a quick check shows that the Internet Archive has scans of the first and second impressions, the U.S. first edition, and a 1920 Secker reprint!


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