From Image to Imagination – Transcending Modern-Day Idolatry in Owen Barfield’s Fairy-Tale The Silver Trumpet

rose leaves

In his 1925 fairy-tale The Silver Trumpet, Owen Barfield expressed mythically what he would later expound philosophically in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry:

The life of the image should be none other than the life of imagination.

In other words, without imagination images are dead. Imagination is their lifeblood. Their substance. Their content.

When we look at the phenomena and confuse their appearance for what they represent, we take life out of them. The images are lost. They have been turned into idols by our refusal to see through them.

The moment I say: “The appearance of the tree equals the tree,” I am making an assumption that there’s nothing else to the tree than meets the eye. This mental concept is no more than an assumption (I don’t really know if the appearance of a tree equals a tree).

But I choose to see the tree through a non-participatory lens. In doing so, I refuse to go from an image to imagination.

I refuse to transcend the images with imagination (properly speaking, with faith as the ability to see the invisible). I refuse to go beyond the symbol to what it symbolizes. I take a sign for the thing it points to.

In The Silver Trumpet, this curious relationship between an image and imagination is captured in the relationship between Prince Courtesy and Princess Violet.

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Who is Tulkas? The “Expecto Patronum” of Tolkien’s Universe to Fight Off the “Darkness of Unlight”

A sailboat at sea

Who is Tulkas in The Silmarillion? What is the symbolism behind this myth?

C.S. Lewis once defined a good myth like this: 

The narrative is more of a net whereby we catch something else.

The story itself may be quite ordinary – a sculptor carved a lady out of a block of stone, and it became alive (Pygmalion and Galatea).

Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, and her mother Demeter prevented all plants from growing until Hades was commanded to let her go for some months out of the year.

There’s nothing extraordinary in the story itself. Yet, we feel there’s something behind it.

Elizabeth Browning put it like this:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

It’s how we choose to look at the common bushes that determines whether we see them burning.

According to G.K. Chesterton, such is the function of our imagination:

The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.

And such is the function of mythopoetry – a genre that allows us to look at ordinary things through the eyes of Faerie and discover a world of extraordinary meanings behind them.

The key to entering Faerie is inside each and every one.

In Owen Barfield’s philosophy, this change of lens happens when a person allows their state of consciousness to be shifted by a line of poetry. And then they follow the call ringing through “this verse that lifts the curse” and enters the perilous realm of Faerie.

The cosmogonic myths of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion are of the same nature – they are an invitation to enter through the door of the external story and into the invisible realm behind the story, which is the land of Meaning.

One such myth is the myth of Tulkas the Valiant.  

How did Tulkas beat Melkor?

Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength… he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy.

Who is Tulkas? Why did he come to Arda last to aid the Valar in their battles with Melkor? And most importantly, why was Melkor so afraid of him?

So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering cloud and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter, and forsook Arda, and there was peace for a long age.

Of all the Valar, Melkor hated Tulkas the most.

There’s a spiritual and mythical significance to this. Tulkas is hated with bitter hatred because he represents the laughter of Iluvatar in the Great Music.

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How Owen Barfield Saved The Appearance Of Princess Violetta In The Silver Trumpet

A book with rivers flowing out of it

Once upon a time there were two little Princesses whose names were Violetta and Gambetta; and they lived in Mountainy Castle. They were twins, and they were so like each other that when Violetta came in from a walk with her feet wet, Gambetta was sometimes told to go and change her stockings…

The Silver Trumpet

So opens The Silver Trumpet, a fairy-tale written by Owen Barfield in 1925. It was his first published book and the first fantasy book ever published by the Inklings. According to the author himself, he felt that in all his books he was “saying the same thing over and over again.” But what is this “one thing” he was saying over and over again? And how did he say it in The Silver Trumpet?

The Silver Trumpet is a mythical depiction of what Owen Barfield would later unfold in his other works and, in some way, a prelude to what seems to be the overall message of the Inklings — the world is God’s music clad in matter. In Saving the Appearances, Barfield points out that we live in the world of unsaved images — images that have been taken literally and turned into idols.


The images (or appearances) we observe around us are so much “like” the things they represent that we have a hard time distinguishing between them. We take a representation for the reality behind it. For us, the image and the thing it represents look alike, almost indistinguishable — like the two little princesses, Violetta and Gambetta, who were so like each other that even the Queen had a hard time distinguishing them.

The Queen used to be so fussed and worried by the confusion that, what with one thing and another, she persuaded the King to appoint a special Lord to distinguish between them [the princesses]. And he was called the Lord High Teller of the Other from Which.

The Lord High Teller of the Other from Which was the only one who noticed the difference between the two princesses. But it was not in their appearances but in what transpired through the appearances.

Moreover, he “knew a thing or two about the magic power of names,” and so he found a way to tell the two princesses apart — by changing their names. By calling them Violet and Gamboy he brought out into the light of day what was otherwise invisible — the princesses were “as different inside as a Church and a Booking Office.”

In Barfield’s mind, the two little princesses who were almost identical in appearance represent the confusion of the modern mind about observable phenomena. We tend to equate appearances with the reality they point to. This anthroposophical dilemma Owen Barfield would later explore in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. 

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The Third Theme of the Music of Iluvatar – a Mighty Echo of Owen Barfield’s “Final Participation”

Sunrise over a lake

If there is one connective tissue between the fantasy imaginations of the Inklings, it is the theme of our participation in the Divine Music – the Music of Iluvatar.

The worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Owen Barfield are born in Music and governed by Music.

In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Ainur descend into Arda, the created Realm, as individual themes of the Music of Iluvatar to behold their unique part becoming incarnate in the visible elements of air, earth, water, and other substances.

Enamored of their part in the celestial symphony, the Ainur follow this “music-made-flesh” into Arda and dwell therein because each yearns to participate in the Divine Thought.

They didn’t yet know how the Music would end – the only thing they knew was that the discord of Melkor would somehow be resolved by the coming of the Second-born to whom Iluvatar gave “strange gifts.”

The Third and final theme in the Music of Iluvatar announces the coming of Men in a soft, slow, and immeasurably sorrowful theme, from which its beauty chiefly comes.

How does Narnia start?

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia also begins in Music, the Song of Aslan, which is “the deeper magic” of his fantasy world – the magic of growing that opposes the black magic of domination.

Aslan sings his world into existence, and all the stars join him in the Song.

Owen Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet is a metaphor for the Music from the invisible realm that awakens us from the spell of unconsciousness when we hear the call. Its call is irresistible and shatters all man-made idols, or the “unsaved images,” so our transformed consciousness can commune with the Music.

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What Led Anakin To The Dark Side – Can “Good” Lead to Evil?

Anakin Skywalker

Like any true myth, the story about Anakin Skywalker turning to the dark side is compelling in its overwhelming persuasiveness. What led Anakin to the dark side?

C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter to Peter Milward that a good myth is

“a story out of which varying meanings will grow for different readers and in different ages.”  

And then he added that a myth is not really dependent on the words in which it is told or the art form in which it is conveyed. It’s not the narrative itself that makes the myth convincing but something much more elusive. 

“The narrative is more of a net whereby we catch something else.”


What led Anakin to the dark side?

What I caught in the net of the Star Wars myth is HOW Anakin was led to the dark side — it happened, oddly enough, through his inordinate desire for something good.

As a young boy he swore a solemn oath at his mother’s grave: “When I grow up, I will become strong and will never let my loved ones suffer and die.” 

This oath marked his transition to the dark side long before it happened in chronological time. At that moment, a bargain was struck in his soul for the possession of a loved one in exchange for breaking God’s law.

At that moment, he made a decision for himself to never ever part with his loved ones again, no matter the cost. The perfectly good desire — to protect his loved ones from death — turned in him into a demonic possession when he put it on a pedestal.

As Tim Keller said, an idol is a good thing turned into the ultimate thing.

An idol is usually a good thing that we make ultimate. We say, “Unless I have that, I am nothing.”


Why did Anakin choke Padme?

When Anakin had to choose between losing Padme — fearing that she might die in childbirth — or turning to evil to “save” her from death, he chose evil. It was his desire to “save” her at all costs that led Anakin to the dark side. For him, the dark side became a means of saving his loved one. He chose evil to achieve what he thought was the ultimate good. 

Ironically, this led to Padme’s death. He choke the one he wanted to save with his own hands. When we turn a good thing into the ultimate thing and try to get it at all costs, we lose that good thing — destroy it with our own hands.

Such is the harsh logic of idolatry. We are captivated by some version of good and turn it into the “summum bonum” — without noticing it. And then everything becomes a means to an end, a sacrifice offered on the altar of this god. 

A wise man once said that a myth is something everyone knows without being told. This “story” lives in humanity’s collective unconscious, and we all instantly recognize it once it is put in the form of a narrative.

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