The Mentor of Tolkien and Lewis

I finished in two days “A History in English Words” by Owen Barfield.

Barfield was an Inkling, a good friend of Tolkien, a better friend of C. S. Lewis, and a scholar who heavily influenced both of these legendary writers.

As best as I understand it, Barfield explained to them and the rest of the modern world that when language was invented, the world was a magical fairyland of Gods, and most things took their name from the gods.

Owen Barfield

Owen Barfield

As an illustration, when an infant sees a man and says, “Da Da!”, he has really only one concept: his daddy who is a man. The baby does not yet recognize other men. Not until he gets older will he be able to differentiate between his father and other men.

The same is true with society and language. “Panic” comes from Pan, the greek god of herds. Whatever Pan does to make those herds stampede is the same thing he does to humans when they go “pan-ish-like” or “pan-ic.” Only later, would an emotion known as panic be separated from a ghost who makes you panic.

The Latin word “spiritus” means wind, spirit, and breath. This is because when early man saw wind, he assumed it was a god breathing onto the world.


Who cares, you might say. Well, Tolkien and Lewis came to believe that this enchanted view of our world is much closer to reality than modern man’s sterile, “natural” view of nature. Barfield contradicted another scholar, who said myths were a “disease” of language. Rather, as Tolkien later put it, language was a disease of mythology. To say it another way, the gods came before the words.

Tolkien and Lewis believed the world is teeming with angels of many rank, both good and bad, along with the activity of the Holy Spirit.

If you think this is out of step with the enlightened leaders of the Reformation, think again.

John Calvin, in his commentary on the four living creatures in the early part of Ezekiel, says that “All creatures are animated by angelic motion.”

John Calvin

John Calvin


Calvin’s assertions were so strange that his modern translator argued with him in the footnotes. Nevertheless, Calvin went on to say: “While men move about and discharge their duties . . . yet there are angelic motions underneath, so that neither men nor animals move themselves, but their whole vigor depends on a secret inspiration.” (pp 334ff).

Modern man has lost his way. Not only is his worldview wrong, it is also boring.

What Tolkien did was bring excitement and mystery, enchantment and angelic or elvish magic back to the universe. People, who have eternity planted in their hearts by God, have been longing for this better version of reality.


Read about Dean W. Arnold's screenplay on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Barfield and the Inklings.