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Night Operation / Eager Spring

Night Operation. Owen Barfield. [United Kingdom]: Barfield Press UK, 2008. 64 pp. $12.99. 978-0-9559582-1-2.
Eager Spring.
Owen Barfield. [United Kingdom]: Barfield Press UK, 2008. 143 pp. $14.99. 978-0-9559582-0-5.


(This review originally appeared in Mythlore 105/106.)

Reviewed by David Bratman

The three principal Inklings were noted for their novels — though “romance” would be a better word for most of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s work for adults — but none of the other senior Inklings wrote much prose fiction, except for Owen Barfield, who is a curious case. Some scholars, such as Diana Pavlac Glyer, classify Barfield’s Worlds Apart and Unancestral Voice as novels, but they are philosophical dialogues with only the thinnest of novelistic coating. In the books in hand, Barfield shows a little more interest in the narrative art, but here too his interest is less in telling a story than in using it as a framework for expressing his ideas of the mind. This is a form of art going back at least as far as Plato, and practiced by such distinguished modern philosophers as Douglas R. Hofstadter, usually with blunter didactic intent than here.

Barfield’s philosophical writings can be abstract or even abstruse — W.H. Lewis notoriously considered them unintelligible — and when faced with a Barfieldian observation that all language is essentially metaphorical, or that our understanding of the physical universe is a result of shared conscious assumptions about its nature, the average reader may wonder: What are you supposed to do with this knowledge? What effect does it have on your personal philosophy and on the way you should live your life?

To address these questions, Barfield turns to fiction. For many authors, fiction is the more opaque medium and non-fiction is where they turn to make themselves clearer — one thinks of Tolkien patiently explaining in letters what he was up to in The Lord of the Rings, or Lewis deliberately hiding Christian symbolism in Narnia-but for Barfield, fiction is a practicum, a thought experiment. His fictional works, including the philosophical dialogues, are all intellectual histories of their characters, showing what they think, and what they do, in response to in response to stimuli. Yet in that context they can be interesting narratives.

Apart from those dialogues, however, Barfield’s fiction has been hard to find. His major early novel of the 1920s, English People, has never yet been published. Now two shorter works of his later years have appeared as modestly sized separate paperback books from the Barfield Press, an imprint set up by Barfield’s literary estate to make his works more conveniently available.

Night Operation, a novelette or short novella, was written in 1975 and first serialized in a periodical in 1983-84. Eager Spring, a long novella written in 1988, was announced for publication the following year but never appeared in that form. This is the first separate book publication for Night Operation (which also appeared in the collection A Barfield Sampler in 1993) and the first publication ever for Eager Spring. Each short book appears with an introduction by an American Barfield scholar, Jane Hipolito for Night Operation and John D. Rateliff for Eager Spring. Each offers a clear direction to help the naïve reader into an understanding of the significance of the story.

Night Operation is a dystopian science fiction tale, deliberately reminiscent of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and as robustly denunciatory as Lewis’s That Hideous Strength or The Great Divorce, whose readers may find the satiric descriptions here somewhat familiar. It is a story of three young men raised in a regimented and repellent future society, dwelling in the remnants of our underground sewers. In a wild extrapolation from some 1960s and 1970s fringe cultures, this society teaches its youngsters to love ugliness and depersonalization. But the heroes — who have a relationship of friendship through differences, and even through outright opposition, similar to that which Barfield had with Lewis — can see something beyond that. They — in particular the principal character, Jon — rediscover fundamental morality through studying the old meanings of words, and, in a classic science fiction cliché, become the first people in ages who dare to go Outside. Barfield’s breezily caustic anti-modernism, so reminiscent of Lewis, is thus combined with Tolkien’s love for rooting around in the depths of language. Barfield’s affinity to his fellow authors is no better shown than here.

Eager Spring is lass sarcastic than Night Operation, but more penetrating in its analysis of what troubles our society. This is Barfield’s ecological story. The human focus is on a young woman named Virginia. Like Jon in Night Operation, Vi expresses Barfieldian awareness of the world she lives in. In particular there are two things. One is a question which comes up in her reading: Why is Paleolithic art superior to Neolithic? Her husband, Leonard, though an archaeologist, cannot answer the question and does not even consider it important. But to Vi, it suggests the notion that human civilization is not one of continual progress, that earlier humans had an awareness of and connection with nature that may have been lost.

This primes her for further consideration of the second matter, which runs continually through the book: Our specific treatment of the natural environment around us. This is tracked through the fortunes of the spring whose name forms the story’s title. When Vi first visits it, it is dry, through deforestation of the surrounding land and its consequent inability to hold water. But she meets a man who has made it his life’s work to plant trees in the area, and on a later visit she finds that the spring is running. But later still it is fenced off, as the water is no longer safe to drink. Why? The answer to this question ties in with the reason for the original deforestation, the industrialization of the landscape.

At this point the story, which had begun with a country walk and an intellectual exercise, becomes genuinely exciting, in an Erin Brockovich way, as Vi becomes an active environmentalist and has her own close-up encounter with industrial pollution. This is the equivalent of the point in Night Operation where Jon makes the active move to go Outside. At the end of the novella, Vi presents Leonard with a short story, a conte, that she herself has written, and which is printed in full in the book. This reinforces the point by telling a similar story in a different setting, this time explicitly connecting industrialization to moral depravity as well as to the destruction of the landscape and the displacement of its people.

In all his fiction, Barfield takes his readers inside the intellectual processes of his characters, but he does not simplify or diminish these characters. The three boys of Night Operation, and the married couple of Eager Spring, are simultaneously very close and worlds apart in their thinking. Barfield is not interested in a conventional fictional depiction of a friendship or a marriage under stress. Instead, his focus is on Jon and Vi — and also the other principal characters — trying to make connections and conclusions in their minds that they can’t always grasp.

But the thinking is always sharp and the language is straightforward. The penetrating thought which is characteristic of all Barfield’s work comes through with particular clarity in this form of writing. Barfield is not concerned with the art of literature, but he is very concerned indeed with the art of philosophy.

(Part of this review is adapted from the author’s review of A Barfield Sampler in Mythprint, Feb. 1995)