Night Operation and Eager Spring
by Owen Barfield
Reviewed by Simon Blaxland-de Lange
Both books published by the Barfield Press UK in 2008 on behalf of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate.
By the time he wrote the first of the two stories under consideration, Owen Barfield (1898 – 1997) had become known to what might be termed a select minority of specialists as a philologist whose research into the history of language and the origin of words had led him seriously and consistently to question the assumptions underlying many of the conclusions of the cultural historians, philosophers and scientists of his time. His own arguments had been clearly marshaled in a trilogy of books published after his retirement from the – for him – not especially scintillating routine of a solicitors’ office, Saving the Appearances (1957), Worlds Apart (1963) and Unancestral Voice (1965). Well familiar by then with Barfield’s Law of Literary Endeavour (‘when a book appears with anything upsetting in it, the few who read it don’t need it, and the many who need it don’t read it’), and having concluded that he had said what he had to say as clearly as he could and that if the majority chose to ignore him (as opposed to responding with views of their own) there was not much that he could do about it, he reverted in his seventies to the form of a fictional narrative previously employed by him in his early career as a writer and culminating in his long unpublished novel English People (written in the late 1920s), although the imagined character of Burgeon flits through several of his discursive treatises from the intervening years.
It is curious that, of these three of his most substantial works of fiction (the novel referred to and the two booklets under review), only Night Operation (1975) has been published before. There is no evidence to suggest that Barfield, who wrote each of these works out of inner creative impulse as opposed to being commissioned or otherwise coerced by external marketing aims, was indifferent to his inability to reach a wide circle of readers. Indeed, he made considerable efforts to find a publisher for English People; and he made it clear in a conversation with the present writer that the legal career which the failure of these efforts prompted was not for him a prior intention. By the time he wrote Night Operation, the pressure to earn enough to support a family was of course no longer an issue.
But he never lost sight of the wish to find a way of making his ideas better known. Herein, perhaps, lay the problem; for even where he adopted a fictional form of writing, Barfield was still trying to say something that most people did not want to hear. Now that – thanks to the enterprising initiative of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate – the early 21st century has the opportunity to reassess the relevance of these two stories, it will, I think, become clear that the messages of both of them were deeply and authentically prophetic.
Night Operation, prompted biographically in part by its author’s work at the time with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), is – as Jane Hipolito observes in her excellent introduction - able to speak all the more clearly to a world living in the aftermath of the 11th September 2001 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The 22nd century human society of Barfield’s sole work of science fiction has reverted to inhabiting the sewers serving our present society because of a dread of terrorist attacks and airborne bio-chemical invasion. The overwhelming fear engendered by these phenomena coupled with another thoroughly contemporary situation, namely, economic collapse, as given rise to a society obsessed with security, standardisation and control of information; and it is only through a mixture of luck and the continuing existence of a few elderly people who have a dim awareness that life has wider significance that the chief character in the story, Jon (who to an extent represents Barfield himself), and through him also his friends Jak and Peet (characters that at least one person has suggested have a close affinity with two of Barfield’s friends; C. S. Lewis and Cecil Harwood), is able to break out of this horrific mental and physical prison, where the glories of human culture have been buried in a virtually inaccessible library and replaced
by a preoccupation with the three ‘Es’ (ejaculation, defecation and eructation). However, the most moving part of the story relates to what the three friends discover when they finally succeed in reaching Aboveground; for it is evident that, in contrast to the situation below ground, some small steps have indeed been taken by way of a spiritualisation of human perception, the ‘final participation’ as defined by Barfield in Saving the Appearances.
Eager Spring, written in 1985, was intended for publication in 1989, but the publisher unfortunately went out of business before the deed was done (and not, let it be stressed, afterwards). The natural imagery that provides the context for the story combines elements of the south-east of England’s North Downs and Wealden ridge of Ashdown Forest, suggesting that the story was woven in Barfield’s mind while he was still living in South Darenth, Kent, in the early 1980s following his wife Maud’s death in 1980, but frequently visiting Forest Row, near to Ashdown Forest. At the time Barfield was deeply interested in the work of the Biodynamic Agricultural Association; and in July 1985 he was invited to give the keynote address at its annual conference, where this organisation’s profound commitment to the environmental movement, which has since become an increasingly central preoccupation of especially Western humanity, was explored at some depth. He had also been deeply moved by Jean Giono’s story, The Man Who Planted Trees, first published in 1954.
Out of these elements Barfield fashioned a lengthy novella which gathered together, in the context of a profound exploration of the marital relationship of the chief protagonists, Leonard Brook and Virginia Fisher, many of the themes of his life’s work: the study of language and literature, the evolution of human consciousness, the struggle between good and evil and the present challenges posed through Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical research. But the passion with which the story reflects the crucial importance for present times of environmental activism as an aspect of giving something back to the Earth which has hitherto nurtured the human family is unique to Barfield’s writings. While Virginia’s Conte – a story within the book itself – whose mediaeval associations cannot be wholly explained out of the fictional fabric of the story, is one of the most moving pieces of writing that Barfield ever penned. We are, moreover, left with unresolved mysteries. Does Maria actually die? And does Virginia survive her heroic ordeal? As John Rateliff rightly says, Eager Spring ‘is, quite simply, one of the best things [Barfield] has written’.