The Silver Trumpet - Owen Barfield's Fairy-tale As A Metaphor For A Tectonic Shift Of Consciousness

It really matters how we name things.
Castle on a hill
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The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility. G.K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy)

In his 1925 fairy-tale The Silver Trumpet, Owen Barfield, “the first and the last Inkling,” coined a metaphor of the silver trumpet to capture the idea of the ultimate mystical experience that produces a tectonic shift of consciousness in a human being. 

In some ways, The Silver Trumpet is Barfield’s playful prelude to the main idea he would later unfold in Saving the Appearances (1957). The silver trumpet seems to represent a perfectly “saved appearance” that becomes for us the doorway into the invisible realm. It is a mystical vision that, according to Chesterton, illumines everything by the “blaze of its own glorious invisibility.” 

Are humans separate from nature?

In his seminal work Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry, Owen Barfield points out that modern consciousness perceives the world through the lens of a scientific worldview. Humans see themselves as separate from nature — the observable phenomena. And this separation between the observer and the observed is at the core of the scientific method that says: “The more you take yourself out of the experiment, the more objective the results will be.”

The problem with this method is that there’s no way of knowing whether it is right or wrong in the first place. It’s not provable. It’s just an assumption. Looking at the world as if it’s totally out there and separate from me may be highly practical — and science has been very helpful from a purely pragmatic point of view. But no one can conclusively show that the world exists separately from me as the observer. This method is simply a lens (a vantage point) that we have chosen for all practical purposes. And one consequence of such a view, according to Barfield, is that it engenders a non-participatory worldview and, eventually, leads to idolatry.

If I habitually see the river as an object out there, totally unconnected with me, I will, eventually, reduce it to H2O — I won’t be able to see anything beyond what is visible out there because that would be against my lens, my scientific method. I have no proof, of course, that there’s nothing more to the river than meets the eye. I have simply assumed that there’s nothing else to it except the chemical formula. It is my mental image of the river but I take it for reality.

Why do humans have idols?

Barfield says that we create idols when we equate the visible phenomena (the appearances) with reality. We have created a mental model of a thing and said: “Now we know what the thing is.” We take the appearances literally. We don’t notice that we are not dealing with the full reality of the river but only with a “mental image” of the river. Idolatry is equating the way things appear with the way things are.

Idols are little gods that reduce reality to some manageable mental model. A practical model to be exact. This model, then, impersonates “the thing” it represents and shrinks our world into a caricature. Our relationship with the world is broken. We are totally disconnected from it.

Owen Barfield argues that in ancient times, the participatory view of life was the norm, and phenomena themselves, such as a rainbow or a tree, were not only “seen” differently — they must have been different. Because the modern man sees and names the river as “water resources,” the reality of the river is shaped into something less than it is.

Is there power in a name?

Ultimately, reality becomes what we name it. The river was something else in ancient times when it was called, say, Lethe. The name has the power of shaping reality by invoking “the law in which we were made” — using Tolkien’s vernacular.

In The Silver Trumpet, the power of names becomes almost palpable when the Lord High Teller of the Other from Which distinguishes between the two little Princesses by changing their names:

Lord High Teller of the Other from Which was not a fool at all but a very wise man. He had noticed something about the two little Princesses which nobody else had noticed. Moreover, he knew a great deal about the magic power of names, for, soon after he had given them these new names, everybody else began to notice the same thing too.

Where is Nimrodel?

In The Lord of the Rings, there’s a beautiful story about Nimrodel, an elf-maid, who lived by a small river in the eastern foothills of the Misty Mountains. Later, the river would bear her name. Nimrodel had to flee her home when the gold-seeking dwarves, greedy for gain, had awakened Balrog, the demon of the ancient world. Deeply disturbed by the evil, she found comfort in the love of Amroth, and together they were to travel to the Undying Lands. 

But they were separated in their journey, and Nimrodel was lost. The “Lay of the elf-maid” Legolas sang to the grief-stricken fellowship after they had lost Gandalf in the mines of Moria is full of yearning and longing for the one lost. Paradoxically enough, Legolas urges the fellowship to step into the river Nimrodel to wash away their sorrows.

He says that the river has healing powers and is able to give rest to the weary. She who was distressed and lost still lingers in the enchanted waters and offers solace to those overcome with sorrow. We can only be comforted by someone who is acquainted with grief. And we can only comfort others with the same comfort we ourselves have received. 

The river was overflowing with tears of Nimrodel and that’s why it was able to dry up tears. This is a timeless motif that echoes back to the story of the One who took up our sorrows by becoming the Man of Sorrows. He was lost so we could be found. By naming the river “the healing waters,” Legolas unveiled the spirit of the river, its power, and mystery — its true Name. He saw through the appearances, and by doing so he saved them.

To know the river means to encounter the river and discover its true name. This type of knowledge is a relationship. It’s participatory at its core. For Barfield, to save the appearances means to stop taking the images (things) literally and start seeing them as signposts pointing to a larger reality. Only then they don’t reduce the world to a caricature but become what they were meant to be — gateways into the invisible Kingdom. By looking beyond the images we save the images.

The “saved appearances” then become our “silver trumpet"— when through the medium of those physical elements we hear the Song from beyond the veil of the world. The voice of the silver trumpet worked miracles. Barfield describes its magic in a way that suggests similar connotations to what C.S. Lewis would call the “curse-lifting” power of the restorative language.

“But if true verse but lift the curse, they see in dreams their native Sun.” The Birth of Language

The effect of the silver trumpet on the inhabitants of the Mountainy Castle was staggering — its spell-breaking power was so remarkable that it was able to assuage surges of evil in the heart of princess Gamboy and, eventually, transform her into Viola. Its sound was irresistible. It caught people unawares and awakened them to something that words could not express. It was, so to speak, the Mercurian gift of fiery speech in the form of a musical sound. 

What is Gregory Palamas known for?

Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox monk of the 13th century, came up with a curious doctrine about the uncreated divine energies present, as it were, in the invocation of the divine name. Thus, the Name is not merely an empty sound or a denotation but a living symbol that ushers the invocator into the power behind the sound shape. The true name has a potency to awaken, revitalize, and reveal meaning. 

His teachings were further developed by an early 20-century Russian theologian Pavel Florensky (Onomatodoxia). Florensky was keenly aware of the power of words to engage the invocator into sacramental communion with Logos. A powerful word will not just communicate but change. The message is not just information; it is transformation.

What inspired Tolkien to create Middle Earth?

Incidentally, Tolkien’s Middle Earth started with a name. Tolkien talks about how he came across a strangely-sounding name of Earendel when reading a piece of old Anglo-Saxon literature. Later he said that upon reading the first few lines of a poem produced

“a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words.” 

He first encountered a name — a call from beyond the veil of the world, which he described as the primary reality. The stories of his legendarium were crafted around that name. For Tolkien, the narrative was a secondary reality, a sub-creation. The Name was primary. 

The silver trumpet is Barfield’s metaphor for a tectonic shift of consciousness that happens to a person when he or she is awakened from the spell of unconsciousness by the Music from the invisible realm. This magical sound breaks into this world through some physical medium — an image — but the transformed consciousness goes beyond images, saves them, and communes with the Music of the spheres.

Just as the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis were born in Music — the Music of the Ainur and the Song of Aslan — so also the silver trumpet represents the irresistible call of ultimate Beauty as the primary reality. 

The Greek word for “beauty” — kalos — has the same root as the verb “to call” — kaleo. Beauty calls. Kalos kaleo

Every element of the created world still incarnates this primordial Music and echoes it back to a receptive heart. Every created substance is still an echo of The Song. Every blade of grass, every tree, every river, and every stone are the flesh and blood of Logos. Logos is the primary reality. The Word made flesh. The eternal Logos reveals itself under the guise of visible elements, and every created thing reverberates to the tune of the Silver Trumpet — the Song of God revealed through the created world.

The silver trumpet is Barfield’s mythical way to capture the meaning of “final participation” — our ability to read the letters in the book of creation without taking them literally. As we go beyond the appearances, we save the appearances, and so they become for us the very physical incarnation of the Music of the spheres. We commune with that Music and get transformed by it.

What happens when the Ainur sing together with the Children of Illuvatar?

Magical Book
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There is a passage in The Silmarillion that foreshadows the ultimate goal of all creation which is highly suggestive of Barfield’s final participation:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Iluvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

The Music of the spheres may be great, but there is a greater Music than that of water, grass, and stone. When the Children of Illuvatar awaken from their sleep of unconsciousness, they will participate together with the Ainur in the making of a greater Music when each fully knows his or her part — their secret Name. Only then shall the themes of Illuvatar be played aright.

It is also said that these new themes will take Being in the moment of their utterance because Illuvatar will give to their thoughts the secret fire. This is the essence of Barfield’s final participation. Each individual theme becomes woven into the celestial harmony of many voices playing one Symphony. 

Little Fat Podger put it well:

“Music hath charms. Harmony, you know, harmony — Form versus Chaos — Light versus Darkness — and the Dominant Seventh. It’s all one.”

I am a translator and blogger who believes that all change comes from inside out, not from outside in.

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