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

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. 


What are some examples of modern-day idolatry?

Idolatry, in Barfield’s thought, is taking images literally. He argues that modern consciousness equates the image of a thing with the thing itself. And this is the result of a non-participatory view of life that says: “The world is an object out there and totally separate from me as the observer.” Moreover, if I want to know this world, I must not relate to it in any way — which is the only way to keep my “experiment” clean. In a non-participatory worldview, the basic assumption is that to know something means to study it externally. In a participatory worldview, to know something means to relate to it.  

If I am totally disconnected from the tree I see outside, I won’t see anything in it beyond what is visible. In fact, I must not assume there’s anything to it beyond what I can see. Owen Barfield says that by taking the images literally we create idols out of them because we look at them, not through them. By looking at them we assume that the sign is the thing it points to. We look at the Sun and conclude that it actually is what it appears to be — a ball of gas.

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.” C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

When we confuse the visible shape and form of a tree with what the tree is we create a mental image of it and take it for reality. We believe there’s nothing more to it than meets the eye. We have confused the appearance of a thing with what the thing truly is. In Barfield’s symbolism, it happens when a person loses the Silver Trumpet —the only thing that can save the appearances and restore them to their divine status.


When prince Courtesy’s father, the king of Dravidia, gave his son the Silver Trumpet, he warned him to never ever part with it, not even to save his life. Yet, this is exactly what happened. He lost it to save his life — namely, not to feel rejected by his beloved princess Violet. This opened Pandora’s box of endless troubles which led to his ultimate confusion — losing Violet and replacing her with her counterpart, her “unsaved image,” Gamboy.

The twin sisters, Violet and Gamboy, stand, respectively, for a saved and unsaved appearance. When we take an image for reality, the image stops being a representation of the invisible world; it becomes an idol, a mental projection of how we choose to see things (Barfield calls this process “figuration”). 

When we don’t see the difference between the ball of gas and the Sun, the appearance of the Sun is equated with the Sun. And it becomes an “unsaved” image. It doesn’t serve its purpose anymore — pointing to what the Sun actually is. Instead, it becomes a dumb idol and, eventually, a doorway for demons to come into our world. 


What is wrong with idol worship?

In Barfield’s mythology, Gamboy is an unsaved appearance of Violet — reality reduced to a mere shape. She is an image taken literally — an idol. And as such, she becomes a portal for demonic forces to enter Mountainy Castle and lay a curse on all its inhabitants. When we worship an idol— an unsaved image— we open the door to evil. Since youth, Gamboy was reading her big black book that, as it turns out later, was full of magic. 

There was a good deal of magic in that book. And, of course, as it was a black book, it was Black Magic.

When we equate appearances with reality, we lose the appearances. They no longer reflect reality; they substitute for it. In Barfield’s story, Violet dies. Prince Courtesy dies too — spiritually. The castle is under a spell; there’s grave silence everywhere. 

For months, nay, for years now, the Castle, he said, had been like a painted castle. There was a spell on it. The King silent in his study all day and the Princess shut up in her tower. Even the servants went about their work with hushed voices and glum faces. A silence like death seemed to have come upon them all.

When images cease to be signposts pointing to a larger reality, they are no longer images. They stop being transparent and no longer point to heaven. When we start worshipping them, they allow the forces of hell to flood our world. This is the price prince Courtesy had to pay for being too courteous when he parted with the Silver Trumpet — the only thing that could save the appearance of his beloved!


Until the Silver Trumpet was regained, Violet was gone and replaced by Gamboy. But in some ways, Violet was still present — behind Gamboy’s empty shell.

The King positively started because of her likeness to Violet. Her eyes seemed to grow larger and more transparent and to move nearer to him, and it was as though a voice spoke out of them saying “It is I, Violet, who am looking at you, my own darling: not dead, but hidden in here.

The moment we take an image literally instead of looking through it, Violet becomes Gamboy. Reality dies. The world shrinks. The Sun becomes a ball of gas. The river becomes just H2O. Human beings are reduced to machines. Trees become firewood. Life becomes survival.


What did the ancients think about the Sun?

The ancients knew that the appearance of the Sun and the Sun itself were two different things. They looked at the Sun but saw a perfect reflection of the invisible Deity: 

[The Sun] is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. Psalm 19

Gamboy is what happens to Violet when she [Violet] is looked at, not through — in other words, when an image is deified. When prince Courtesy confused an image for reality he lost the image and reality with it. The image was transmogrified into a monster and cursed its worshippers. 

Did Gambetta ever exist as a separate individual? 

And in less than thirty years they were saying that there never had been anybody called Aunt Gamboy at all.

Owen Barfield drops a hint every now and then that there wasn’t any Gamboy to begin with. She is simply Violet in her unsaved appearance. She is Violet who is no longer a reflection of divine beauty and grace — she has been confused for the source of beauty and grace.


Besides, there was a magic connection between the appearances of the two sisters established at their Christening by Miss Thomson — a local witch:

As long as you both live, you shall love each other more than all else in the world. As long as one of you is living, both shall be…

The image and reality behind it are magically connected. As long as the Sun endures I can still awaken to what it represents, see through the image and catch the glimpse of the divine presence. As long as one is living, both shall be… Lost images can be saved. But you need the Silver Trumpet to do that.

What is the Silver Trumpet? It is our ability to see through the images. The image is saved as long as it is taken for what it is — a shadow of the invisible world. Then, the image is good, holy, helpful, and sacred. It is an icon — a portal into the divine presence. 


What is the difference between the first and the second Adam?

Prince Courtesy’s fault was set right by Prince Peerio — the “second Prince” and “the second Adam.” The “second Adam” in the Bible is the “second man” who comes to rectify the wrongs of the first man. He does what the first Adam failed to do. Incidentally, Prince Peerio’s journey starts with seeing an image — a portrait of princess Lily, Violet’s daughter. And he was so struck by her beauty that he decided to find her and convince her to marry him. He even got in a quarrel with his father, the king of Strenveig, over it.

It was this picture which had been the cause of their quarrel. A wealthy merchant of the kingdom, who, although he was a merchant, loved good painting, had bought it a week ago for a heavy heap of gold and presented it to the Prince; and Prince Peerio, the moment he saw it, had fallen in love, not with the picture, but with the Princess. 

He fell in love — not with the picture but with the Princess! Peerio saw through the image and fell in love with the reality behind it. Even after he learned from the stable-boy that princess Lily was far from perfect, his love for her didn’t shake because he saw who she really was behind her appearance.

For nothing that the stable-boy had said had changed his love for her. He only longed more than ever to marry her and to give back to her her joy in life.

By seeing through the image and loving the reality it represented he undid the curse of unsaved appearances. And princess Lily was saved from her curse — the fear of toads that Aunt Gamboy instilled in her gentle soul through her dark arts. 


When we see through the images, the world comes alive. Just blow the Silver Trumpet, and the river is no longer just H2O — lo and behold, it is the Music of the Ainur clad in matter, and Ulmo, enamored of its beauty, descends into the created realm to become the Lord of Waters.

Sunset at sea
Image from Pixabay

To show them the result of their actions, Illuvatar led them into the Void and spoke, “Behold your Music!”. The Ainur saw a Vision of what their song had created — “a World that was globed amid the Void… but was not of it.”

The wind is no longer “the horizontal motion of air caused by the pressure difference between two places.” It is the breath of the Spirit. 

The Spirit breathes where it will, and you hear the voice thereof.

The Sun is no longer a ball of gas but the bridegroom coming out of his heavenly chamber.

And the queen is no longer Gamboy but Violet coming out of her grave and into the bright sunlight.

And still the Trumpet rang on, till the air about their ears felt as solid as water and shook as tempestuously. Her [Gamboy’s] features went on changing and sliding into one another, like clouds over the sky, moving and clearing until there, beside her husband, white-robed and laughing in the sunlight, stood none other than Queen Violet herself!

And the first thing the resurrected Queen says is:

Where is the Silver Trumpet?” she cried at once, as she awoke, and looking anxiously round her: “where is the Silver Trumpet?”

“Here, Your Majesty,” said Prince Peerio, walking up and handing it to her with a low reverence. She took it and gave it to King Courtesy.

“Guard it,” she said; “guard it in the future even at the cost of your life.”

Why? Because it is the gateway to Heaven.


What did the bird say to C.S. Lewis early in the year?

A bird on a branch
Image from Pixabay

On Sunday morning, September 20, 1931, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson walked together on Addison’s Walk in Oxford. They were busy discussing all kinds of theories when suddenly they were “interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath…”

Here’s what C.S. Lewis wrote about this “rush of wind” years later:

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! — the gates are drawn apart.

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