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Re: [mythsoc] Owen Barfield

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  • Larry Swain
    I am done traveling for a time and hope the list will indulge me returning to this thread. On Sun, 08 May 2011 07:38 -0700, David Bratman ... Letter from
    Message 1 of 38 , May 23, 2011
      I am done traveling for a time and hope the list will indulge me
      returning to this thread.

      On Sun, 08 May 2011 07:38 -0700, "David Bratman"
      <dbratman@...> wrote:

      >>According to Lewis, Tolkien _said_ he learned it from Barfield.
      Letter from Lewis to Barfield, ca. 1928, CSL Collected Letters
      3:1509: "You might like to know that when Tolkien dined with me
      the other night he said ... that your conception of the ancient
      semantic unity had modified his whole outlook and that he was
      always going to say something in a lecture when your conception
      stopped him in time. 'It is one of those things,' he said, 'that
      when you've once seen it there are all sorts of things you can
      never say again.'"
      I'm sure it's true that it resonated with thoughts Tolkien had
      already had, even if he hadn't quite realized he was having them;
      I doubt that any new idea can strike a mind so forcefully so
      immediately if it does not.<<

      I can buy this, that for some reason and somehow Barfield gave the final
      spin to ideas that Tolkien had already picked up in his training but not
      formally articulated, though I'd say that looking at Tolkien's
      pre-<i>Poetic Diction</i> creative and scholarly output he was already
      practicing what Barfield preached, even if unaware of it.

      >> But by this testimony, he learned
      something important from Barfield, and he thought it worthwhile
      to refer to Barfield in this context; see Tolkien's Letters p.

      Well, Tolkien doesn't say that, does he? He states that the *only*
      thing that is indebted to Barfield in The Hobbit is one sentence and
      idea...not that he learned something important. "The only philological
      remark (I think) in The Hobbit is on p.221 (lines 6-7 from the end): an
      odd mythological way of referring to linguistic philosophy, and a point
      that will (happily) have been missed by any who have not read Barfield
      (few have) and probably by those who have." I don't see that as a claim
      that something important was learned from Barfield. But even that idea
      seems an odd one to derive from Barfield since it is part and parcel of
      19th century philology that saw language as formerly having more
      meaning, richer overtones, metaphoric resonances that were typically
      communicated by and through mythology--hence most of the great
      philologists of the 19th century were vitally interested in mythology
      and folklore.

      >> Lewis continues: "We went on to observe on the paradox that tho
      you knew much poetry and little philology the philological part
      of your book was much the sounder." So, though I am not a
      philologist, and Barfield by Tolkien's reckoning was not a
      philologist, Tolkien _was_ a philologist and he respected
      Barfield's work in that area. I don't claim to be able to
      evaluate the truth or value of Barfield's theories in any
      authoritative sense; I am reporting what Tolkien said, and so are
      Flieger and Anderson.<<

      Well, Flieger, Anderson, and you are reporting what Lewis said Tolkien
      said, at least one remove from the actual speaker. The issue isn't one
      of respect for Barfield's work. There are many works I read that I
      respect; that doesn't mean I have derived ideas central to my work and
      creative output from them. It is the last claim that Tolkien derived an
      idea that influenced everything he wrote thereafter from Barfield that I
      question and neither Lewis' statement that we can't investigate beyond
      what is in the letter nor Tolkien's own statement about the single
      philological comment in The Hobbit are sufficient to sustain such a
      view, much less that it was Barfield who conceived of the idea in the
      first place. Lest we forget, Barfield had written "History in English
      Words" using a rudimentary philological method and influenced by
      philologists *BEFORE* he wrote Poetic Diction.

      >>And given Tolkien's endorsement, I wouldn't take uncritically any
      other philogist, however credentialled, who said that Barfield
      (and therefore Tolkien) was full of hot air. (If that is what
      Larry is saying: I'm not sure if it is.) <<

      I appreciate the benefit of the doubt. It would be a strange thing
      indeed to belong to a list and society thinking that two of the writers
      to whom the list is dedicated are "full of hot air." I suppose stranger
      things have happened. But no, I don't think either one are full of hot
      air, not any hotter than 98.6 anyway. But I'm not convinced that the
      only direct comment we have from Tolkien is as much an endorsement as
      has been claimed; the only other statement is Lewis' and even he admits
      they were talking about something "quite different"....we can't tell how
      well Lewis' report actually squares with Tolkien's remarks, so that
      statement isn't quite as helpful as it might seem at first either.

      Since so much time has passed, i've retained the previous discussion
      below for context.

      Larry Swain

      This would not be a
      case of an expert vs. a crank, but one of dueling experts, and
      all an outsider can do is step back and let them work it out.

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Larry Swain
      Sent: May 8, 2011 7:04 AM
      To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Owen Barfield

      Apologies for the hasty reply. I'm on the road, but saw this and
      some of the responses, but I rather think Barfield discovered his
      notions in Tolkien and Tolkien's field philology. 19th century
      philologists were looking for the roots of language, an
      ur-language that tied all the newly discovered languages
      together. Now this is important, because largely theologically
      driven, because if we discovered the ur-language, the language of
      Eden, we'd have discovered the most important, basic root of
      humanity (who 19th century thinkers said were distinguished from
      mere animals because of *reason* and *language*). Human
      languages were once richer in meaning and expression than they
      are now, we must get back to the roots (hence etymology was the
      vital tool to determine meaning). Thus while language changes,
      from this point of view, they devolve. Latin, Greek, and
      classical Hebrew are better and closer to the ur-language than
      modern French, Greek, and reinvented Hebrew. These ideas are
      deeply embedded in Tolkien's mind; so deeply that I doubt he got
      it from Barfield rather than his early studies in language and
      philology. I'd say if anything Barfield borrowed from Tolkien,
      or at least arrived at his notions independently and the two
      shared them.

      Why such a different view? Well, frankly, Bratman, Flieger, Wiki
      author, and Anderson, and I know 3 of the 4 at least are
      well-known Tolkien and Inklings scholars, are none philologists
      or trained philologists, and in at least 2 of the cases, know
      about philology only through reading Shippey and a few other
      Tolkien scholars.

      I don't have time or energy right now to offer an opinion on list
      that differs from David's and the resultant problems such a
      difference will create. But for what it is worth, I give this
      too quick a run-down.
      Larry Swain

      On Sat, 07 May 2011 23:42 -0400, "Ernest Davis"
      <davise@...> wrote:

      Thanks, all, for their helpful comments about my last post.
      I had another question about David Bratman's discussion in
      Mythprint about
      the passage about Bilbo's inexpressible staggerment. David
      "it expresses, in Tolkien's terms a philosophical point about the
      of language that Tolkien learned from Lewis' friend, the
      philosopher Owen Barfield: that words we've barked down to dull
      meanings once rang with what we'd now call figurative
      However, Douglas Anderson in the Annotated Hobbit, commenting on
      the same
      passage, citing Verlyn Flieger, refers to "... Barfield's thesis
      language in its original state was premetaphoric: that there was
      once an
      ancient semantic unity of word and thing, and words therefore
      refered to
      realities. Language is now, however, no longer concrete and
      The Wikipedia article says "He shows how the imagination of the
      creates new meaning, and how this same process has been active,
      human experience, to create and continuously expand language,"
      sounds like language is improving.
      So I'm not sure whether, in Barfield, language is getting better
      or worse,
      and, if worse, whether that is because it is becoming more or
      Of course, I suppose I should go read "Poetic Diction" for
      myself. But in
      the meantime, if anyone can clear this up quickly, I would be
      -- Ernie

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    • John Rateliff
      Very sorry to hear it. I never met Edward Carlos Plunkett, though I did meet his father (the famous Lord Dunsany s son). Thanks for posting the news, Dale. We
      Message 38 of 38 , May 26, 2011
        Very sorry to hear it. I never met Edward Carlos Plunkett, though I did meet his father (the famous Lord Dunsany's son). Thanks for posting the news, Dale.
           We can be grateful to this Lord Dunsany for one thing: he allowed the publication of a number of his grandfather's works that had lain neglected in a bank vault for decades -- a novel, a play, a volume of short stories, and various odds & ends. None of them had the stuff of greatness that makes me rank Dunsany as the best fantasy short story writer ever, but it's good to have even the lesser works of a great writer.
           --John R.

        current reading: THE BOOK OF WONDER [1912]

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