Owen Barfield’s ‘The Rose on the Ash-Heap’ and the Eternal Feminine

Owen Barfield was a member of the Oxford Inklings, alongside J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a writer, poet, and devotee of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy. He is seldom talked about except by academics, yet he had a great impact on the writing of his friends, and his own considerable creative efforts merit attention. His one unpublished novel, English People, is a tour de force of domestic drama, philosophy, and even conspiracy, and contains within it a kind of story-within-a-story, The Rose on the Ash-Heap. It is this inset story which I mean to look at in this article, for it ties together the themes of all his work in a concentrated, mythic style.

Barfield was intensely preoccupied with the idea of the eternal feminine – a concept linked to Gnosticism and its Sophia principle, but more thoroughly developed by the German Romantic writers such as Novalis and Goethe. His own world view was distinctly Neoplatonic (albeit mediated by his Anthroposophy), and these two factors may be said to account for the entire thematic scope of his novel.

Like his great friend C.S. Lewis, Barfield was fascinated by Neoplatonism and its impact on Western thought. In particular he saw a remedy for the modern malaise of materialism by a return to a triadic understanding of anthropology and of the structure of the cosmos. Modern man, he believed, had an empty gulf between his reason and his appetites where his heart ought to have been. His answer to the problem of “men without chests” as Lewis called them, was a devotion to the eternal feminine – a kind of principle or energy which would unite these opposing poles of human nature and bridge the gaps that alienated man from man and man from the cosmos. The concept of the Neoplatonic triad – a notion that for any two things to exist properly there must be a third thing in-between, the Tertium Quid, that unites them – was instrumental for his thinking. In fact, the story I am analysing in this article was originally titled ‘Tertium Quid’, as it seeks to identify this unitive and mediating principle with the eternal feminine.

The Rose on the Ash-Heap is an extended Märchen – a genre of German fairy-tale that many great Romantic writers adopted as a medium for their more philosophical ideas. Barfield’s tale is rich and densely packed with meaning, and I intend to give a rather full summary, so those who would wish to avoid spoilers should not read too far ahead. There is a lot of detail to unpack, and this overview is by no means exhaustive, so I would recommend getting a copy of the book to enjoy the story properly.

In the beginning of the tale we are introduced to Sultan, the wealthy heir to his father’s kingdom, located somewhere in the East. Possessing all he could desire, nevertheless he falls in love with a dancer in the local temple, and is willing to leave all behind in order to be with her. Yet when he makes this decisive step, cutting himself off from his kingdom and leaving his brother in power, he discovers that the Lady he loves has left to go to the West.

Sultan follows the Lady across Asia and into Europe, where she stops along the way teaching groups of people to dance, in a movement symbolic of the spread of Romanticism from the East into Western Europe as Barfield conceives it. Sultan follows her as far as Albion, always a step behind, and at last catches up with the Lady, who has now been adopted by the King of Albion.

Naturally, he asks the King for her hand in marriage, and he agrees – Sultan is able to share an embrace with the Princess before going to sleep and dreaming that he already possesses her in marriage. Yet he is woken by a great clamour and a smell of burning – the palace and everyone in it has been burnt to the ground. The supreme rival and enemy of the King is responsible – Abdol, an industrialist and early capitalist, who began his monopoly of power by breeding horses (which will take on a significance later on) and then branched out into producing factories and oil.

Having lost all that might keep him there, Sultan flees from the capital and ventures even further West, to escape from the reign of Abdol who is spreading his influence everywhere. He befriends a poet, and then a philosopher on his journey to the extreme edge at the West of the world.

The Poet is a melancholy character whose own sense of lost love, expressed in beautiful verses, consoles Sultan. The Philosopher is a great deal more Stoic in his attitude towards loss, and ultimately he is too cold and analytical for Sultan really to see eye to eye with him. Indeed, the philosopher appears somewhat obsessed with the quantitative sciences – he is forever talking about how distant the stars are, and how negligible human existence must be in a universe of such scale. Sultan sees behind this pessimism a kind of laziness and irresponsibility that grates on him.

Leaving them behind, Sultan finally reaches the coast and spends a night in a hotel where he receives a vision in the stars of his beloved, the Lady, talking to him through the constellation of the virgin. The scholar Jane Hipolito describes this dream-vision as the turning point in the story, and this can be read quite literally, for afterwards Sultan begins to travel East once again, ending up back in the capital of Albion.1 Where the palace once stood there is only a wasteland, transformed by Abdol the new ruler into a crowded and gaudy fairground, with nasty things lurking under the surface.

In the fairground Sultan discovers not only the usual childish amusements, but considerably more sinister ones. Those familiar with Spielberg’s A.I. will call to mind the automated fairground in that film, but Barfield goes even further (writing in the 1920’s!), in directions which even Kubrick (the film’s original screenwriter) didn’t manage to go. There are not only devices offering glimpses of ‘pornograms’ to the rows of idle consumers, but booths offering sex-dolls for hire, complete with real human flesh and hair.

The crowning horror of the whole place is an enormous mechanised Christ figure mounted on a cross, which shakes its head mechanically to refuse a sponge dipped in vinegar. The letters above the cross flash out an advertisement: ‘IT’S NOT ABDOL’S’ and then: ‘ABDOL’S VINEGAR’. Everything in this society has been subordinated to consumerism, so that even the Crucifix loses its meaning.

Sultan is forced to scrounge a living in the environs of the fairground, having spent all his money searching for the Lady. Eventually he grows desperate to escape, disgusted that the enticements of the place are beginning to attract him in spite of himself. Returning to the ruins of the palace – now a huge pile of ashes and junk – he finds a solitary rose growing there, which speaks to him in the voice of his Lady, directing him onwards. Ascending the peak of the ash-heap, he finds a door hidden in the wreckage that he hadn’t noticed before. Within, he finds a huge circus arena, with no visitors around but only a lonely Ringmaster. Sultan learns from this Ringmaster that Abdol permits this circus to exist, but deters the local inhabitants from visiting it. With nowhere else to go, Sultan agrees to join the company there.

Those in the circus learn to ride horses bareback, in preparation for their initiation ceremony, known as a ‘Godiva-Send’, in which they are to ride naked through the fairground, being pelted with excrement and abuse from the fearful inhabitants of Abdolbion (the new name for Albion), who hate and fear both nakedness and horses.

Sultan chooses for his steed the largest and wildest of the horses – one with the greatest admixture of Abdol’s own breeds. The Ringleader remarks that this horse is big enough to seat two – a comment of no small significance, as we shall see.

We can clearly see Sultan’s training as symbolic of his mastery over the passions. The unconscious occupants of the fair hate the horses as they hate and fear their own unruly passions, to which they are blind (being consumed by them). Yet one who has mastery over his lower instincts is in fact strengthened by them. The purpose of this kind of asceticism is to rule over the body and harness its potential in the best way, and this is Sultan’s achievement in the circus.

While all this training is going on, more and more enquirers come into the circus and join the troupe, including Sultan’s old friends, the Poet and the Philosopher. The former has an easy mastery of his horse, completing the training before even Sultan, while the latter struggles, requiring all kinds of extraneous equipment to keep him seated and balanced. It is clear that the Philosopher is uncomfortable with the body, being so cerebral. The Poet, on the other hand, lives in his heart so to speak, and thus has found the happy medium between the brain and the liver. Mastery of the latter is easy for him.

The sexuality so central to the Kabbalistic tradition makes an awkward appearance when Sultan finally completes his ‘Godiva-send’ and is admitted to the night-time revels, a reward for this initiation. The circus floor is transformed into a lush, green garden complete with a fountain of youth in its centre. All around the garden beautiful people, possessing both youth and wisdom, mingle and make love in a kind of Arcadian paradise. Bizarrely, when Sultan sees his old friend the Philosopher looking shy and a little aloof at the edge of the revels, he takes on the form of a young woman to comfort the man. No real distinction is made between friends and lovers in this place, Barfield tells us.

This is not the first appearance in Barfield’s novel of such a notion. Earlier in the main narrative, one of the main male characters has a brief vision of his previous lives (for we are into reincarnation now) in which he had relations with a previous incarnation of his best friend – then a kind of courtesan. No explanation is given for this by Barfield, except the suggestion that a certain innate sympathy exists between individuals which can bridge their many incarnations. This notion of reincarnation also comes in to account for the psychological issues various characters are dealing with. Gerald, who is said to have previously incarnated as the courtesan, struggles throughout with an obsession around the eternal feminine – depicted in terms of some engulfing and annihilating force.

In any case, this strange moment in the Märchen is passed over without any elaboration, and Sultan awakes the next day in his normal form and state in the circus. Having in a certain sense achieved the fountain of youth and mastered his whole self, Sultan is finally reunited with Lady, who rides in on his horse, Abba, with enough room for him to jump astride as well. Thus follows the consummation of his search for the eternal feminine; yet it is not the immediate end of the story.

What follows is, in fact, the apocalypse. The inert, mechanical forces of Abdol have finally reached the height of their corruption, and are animated by a sinister energy. Thus it is against an army of fairground robots – as magical as they are technological – that Sultan and the other initiates of the circus battle as it were for the soul of Albion.

In this final cataclysm all comes together, quite literally, for the victors meld together in a single embrace – a return to the One which appears to annihilate their individuality. Even the moon, that archetypal symbol of femininity, is drawn into the Earth’s orbit, and joins with it in a kind of marriage. It is in this story, and its conclusion especially, that Barfield’s Neoplatonism shines through most clearly, as does its commonality with the teachings of the Kabbalah.

The problem we see with this world view, and the solutions it offers to the crisis of materialism (however accurate it may be in diagnosing the symptoms), is that it is monistic. In spite of the appeals to the Neoplatonic triad as some kind of reconciliation of the One and the Many, the result as we have seen is either a merging of all things into a unity, or an inherent polarity that requires some kind of mediation. Both these ideas are quite compatible with one another, and Joseph P. Farrell has studied their impact on the theology of the Latin church in his seminal work God, History, and Dialectic. In a sense, the solution offered by the Neoplatonist does nothing but wind the clock back, so that the entire process of degeneration of culture towards materialism will only happen again. Thus eternal recurrence and reincarnation become natural corollaries of that world view, to its detriment.

What is required is rather an Orthodox understanding of theology and anthropology which will truly harmonise the relationship between the One and the Many without creating any inherent tensions or oppositions. We will have to look to the Church and to her traditional teachings to find the solution to our problems, not to any philosophers emerging from within the Western tradition.

1 The Rose on the Ash-Heap, p.xii

Photo by sanjoy saha on Unsplash


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