Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In a letter of 28 June, 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote to the author that his book had “scored a direct hit” with the children of a friend.
The book was The Silver Trumpet,
its author was Owen Barfield (1898-1997),
and that friend was Tolkien.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’m always interested in reading things which JRRT read, from The Red Fairy Book (1890)
to The Marvellous Land of Snergs (1927)
to the novels of Mary Renault, such as The King Must Die (1958).
The Silver Trumpet is available on-line (https://archive.org/details/silvertrumpet –but without its illustrations), so, now that the Holidays have provided a break, I’ve read it—twice.
Barfield was a long-time friend of Lewis’, the two having met at Oxford sometime just after the Great War. Barfield met Tolkien for the first time sometime from 1926 on and Barfield’s much later description of that first meeting is interesting reading:
“We dined together at the Eastgate Hotel, nearly opposite Magdalen College, Oxford. In those days there was as yet no Hobbit, no Lord of the Rings, no Screwtape, no Inklings even. For some reason Tolkien was in a ridiculously combative mood and seemed to me to contradict nearly everything I said—or more often what he (wrongly) assumed I was just going to say—before I had even got as far as saying it. But although Lewis actually apologised for him when we were alone afterwards, there was no occasion for it. The whole conversation was so entirely good-humoured and enjoyable; and his random belligerence had only made me laugh. That together with Tolkien’s hurried, low-pitched and sometimes almost inaudible utterance, is what I best remember. I have never had a conversation quite like it before or since.” (quoted from “Was Owen Barfield an Inkling?” by Bradley J. Birzer in The Imaginative Conservative, 25 July, 2019. Tolkien was aware that he could speak quickly and perhaps even occasionally mumble—see his very gentle letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February, 1967, Letters, 372)
In time, they became friends (JRRT later even going on a walking tour with him and Lewis) and Tolkien later testified to Barfield’s influence on Tolkien’s ideas of language (see Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings, 42), but The Silver Trumpet came before all of that.
Unlike The Hobbit, the title object is not the object of the story, although it does appear several times. Instead, this is a kind of generational fairy tale, which begins with twin sisters, named Violetta and Gambetta, who are so alike that their father, the King, appoints an official, the Lord High Teller of the Other from Which, whose job it is to tell them apart. He immediately decides that their names are too similar and shortens the one to Violet and the other to Gamboy (although why to “Gamboy” is never explained). At their christening, Miss Thomson, who is a stand-in for the fairies who appear at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, and who “was growing a sort of witchery woman in her old age”, gives them two magical gifts:
1. identity (a bit puzzling, this, as they are twins, after all)
2. the seemingly-cryptic “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.”
As much as they look alike, the princesses are diametrically opposed in behavior, Violet being sweet and Gamboy being sour and always critical.
Then the prince of the first generation arrives: Prince Courtesy, who is the original bringer of the silver trumpet of the title. It is, clearly, a magic horn, as everyone who hears it is immediately charmed—and even Gamboy becomes positively dreamy.
(This is an illustration from the 1968 second edition, by Betty Beeby, but the trumpet seems more like it’s been slapped together from a plumber’s toolkit than like the enchanted instrument in the book—here’s a close-up–)
Other than being a hornist, Courtesy is the usual fairy tale prince come in search of a princess for a bride and he’s helped by an odd little character, a dwarf called “Little Fat Podger”. (I’m guessing that this name is, in fact, a tautology, as a “podge”, in British English, is a short, fat person. Perhaps Barfield picked it for the rhythm?)
Little Fat Podger is the court jester, and his speech—and behavior—are peppered with what appear to be dance moves, like “Up—up—up—and again!” He is devoted to Violet and is delighted when she is taken with Courtesy.
Needless to say, then, Prince Courtesy, in time, becomes King Courtesy, having married Violet, and the second generation appears in the form of Princess Lily, but two things go badly wrong:
1. Princess Gamboy, even more sour than before, and jealous of her sister’s happiness, attempts, in disguise, to stir up trouble among the common people against the throne
2. a famine overtakes the kingdom, making Gamboy’s job easier, as she suggests that the royals have no problems with starvation
This revolt falls apart, however, when, for a reason I’m not going to explain, Queen Violet suddenly dies, leaving King Courtesy with the baby Princess.
Over the next few years, the King and his daughter become very close, much to the displeasure of Gamboy, who eventually figures out a way to isolate the Princess (again—I’m not going to explain, leave it that it has to do with toads…)
(And yes, it’s clear that Barfield has fun with “The Frog-Prince”—“Der Froschkoenig”—actually, in German, “The Frog King” and the full title is “Der Froschkoenig oder der eisener Heinrich”– which is the first tale in the Grimms’ original Kinder- und Hausmaerchen of 1812—for a translation, see: https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/175/grimms-fairy-tales/3066/the-frog-prince/ )
Gamboy then proceeds to bewitch the King into marrying her—but then Prince #2, Prince Peerio, turns up, who, having seen a portrait of Princess Lily, travels the world (a little confusedly, having no map, but only a compass) in search of her. This being a fairy tale, there are more complications, someone returns from the dead—in fact, two someones—and the story ends—do we need a SPOILER ALERT?—happily.
It’s a lovely book—Barfield, always with fairy tale conventions in mind, as well as story-telling patterns—keeps the narrative moving along and I particularly liked Little Fat Podger and Prince Peerio, who is perfectly prepared to put aside being a prince to find and win Princess Lily. The second reading was as much fun as the first and I can readily understand why, in his diary, C.S. Lewis wrote of the book (then in manuscript), “nothing in its kind can be imagined better”. (20 October, 1923—found at: https://www.owenbarfield.org/read-online/the-silver-trumpet/ )
Thanks, as always, for reading.
Be prepared to pucker up to a toad if it’s your duty,
And remember that, as ever, there’s