Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Owen Barfield's EAGER SPRING

So, recently a long-delayed project finally saw the light of day. Back around 1985, I spent the greater part of a research trip to Wheaton reading and making notes on his long unpublished novel ENGLISH PEOPLE. Ever since I've been firm in my judgment that this is one of the great lost Inklings works, and that anything I could do to help get it into print would be well worth the effort. So when the idea of printing some of Barfield's unpublished works was mooted a few years later by Bookmakers Guild, an Oregon publisher, and I was asked to write an introduction to one, I accepted with enthusiasm. I would have preferred for it to have been ENGLISH PEOPLE, but understood the publisher's reluctance to lead off with a long (500-page) novel written about 1930, the only surviving typescript of which was missing one crucial section.

The text I was sent instead was EAGER SPRING, a short novel Barfield had just written, which I quickly discovered was v. good indeed -- one of his best works, to be ranked with UNANCESTRAL VOICE, THIS EVER DIVERSE PAIR, and ENGLISH PEOPLE. It was surprisingly contemporary, being concerned largely with the threat of deforestation and toxic wastes yet stylistically more in keeping with Jean Giono's THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES, and no one reading it would have guessed its author to be in his late eighties. I wrote my Introduction in short order, sent it off and had it accepted by both Mr. Barfield and the publisher, and waited with great anticipation for the book to appear.

And a much longer wait it turned out to be than I expected. Not long after I completed my work on the introduction (January 1991), the publisher went out of business.* Thereafter the project languished and the unpublished book sank into obscurity. Indeed, after Barfield's death (in late 1997, not long after his 99th birthday) I was contacted by one of his executors, from whom I learned that my by now rather tattered photocopy of the typescript was the only copy of the text known to remain in existence, and would I please provide them with a copy (I was glad to oblige).

Thereafter occasional queries on my part led to assurances that one or another of the executors had plans for one or both works, but nothing seemed to come of them. Part of the marchen that ends ENGLISH PEOPLE, "The Rose on the Ash-heap", eventually got published in A BARFIELD SAMPLER [1993], and recently [2006] Simon Blaxland-de Lange, whom I'd met in 1998 at the Lewis/Barfield Centennial Mythcon at Wheaton, completed and published his biography of O.B., one chapter of which included a detailed synopsis of ENGLISH PEOPLE. But a synopsis, while welcome, cannot really take the place of well-written fiction, and "The Rose on the Ash-Heap" is by no means representative of the work as a whole any more than "Virginia's Conte", the final section of EAGER SPRING, is of that later and much shorter work; in each case the main text is far, far superior in every way to the relatively brief marchen or conte that follows.

And so the years flowed by until fall 2007, when to my surprise someone new took over management of Barfield's opus: his grandson (also named Owen Barfield), who made it his first priority to get his grandfather and namesake's works back into print. One of his first projects was EAGER SPRING, which I'm happy to say has now at last seen the light of day, complete with my Introduction (slightly revised to take into account the passage of another sixteen/seventeen years). My copy finally arrived on November 10th, 2008** -- making this the longest gap (so far) between my completion of a project and its seeing print.

For more on EAGER SPRING, and future plans for the Barfield Press, see www.owenbarfield.org


--JDR
current reading: FRAGMENTS OF ANCIENT POETRY by James MacPherson [1760]
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*they did manage to release one Barfield, several years earlier [1986]: a re-issue of THE SILVER TRUMPET, his first book.

**along with another new Barfield, NIGHT OPERATION, a dyspotian short story that had originally appeared in the journal TO-WARDS in 1983/84. While the story itself is not at all my cup of tea, I have to say that Janet Hipolyto has done a wonderful job with her introduction, bringing out elements in the tale that I certainly missed on my first reading of it years ago (e.g., that the three main characters in a sense represent Barfield, Harwood, and Lewis, or that it turns into a kind of grail-quest in the end).

3 comments:

Anke said...

Great News!
So glad to read about the progress on Barfield's works.

Ian Collier

C Jay Irwin said...

So when might an edition of 'English People' be published? Or is it too incomplete to ever see the light of day?

I've just ordered 'Eager Spring' and I'm looking forward to reading your introduction.

Jay Irwin, Montreal, Canada

KaNij said...

That was an interesting read. I thought Eager Spring, including your introduction, was wholly wonderful. Having read Blaxland-de Lange's synopsis (and the Rose on the Ash-Heap), I would love to get my hands on English People someday.