Michael Tolkien



  Florence Bone’s The Other Side of the Rainbow (1910), a now forgotten young children’s fantasy, was my source for this verse narrative.  I never thought of  ‘improving’ on the original or making what I wrote dependent on knowing it. I was inspired to develop and adapt its implications and possibilities and write a tale with its own style, coherence and momentum. By coincidence when I was about two-thirds of the way through writing Rainbow I saw the film based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it seemed to be conceived on similar principles in regard to Lewis Carroll’s work. Two years ago though, wondering how to begin and rejecting every first chapter, I wrote in my notebook: why alter and adapt this charming fantasy of innocence, colour and bizarre little capers? A century on I could read it comfortably to a child of 6, 7, or 8 years, so where do I come in?


  Its narrative outline is simple and the tale’s unique flavour is derived less from its subject matter than from its lively, uncluttered and never sentimental characterisation of plants, creatures and larger-than-life figures, and from its internally consistent imaginative world presented in a gently humorous and coaxing style.


  A little girl the author calls Plain Old-fashioned Jane, is chosen in infancy by benign ‘fairy’ figures to receive the gift of unaffected, open-minded wonder for and sympathy with the natural world, and to travel by unexpectedly roundabout ways to the mythical rainbow garden, bridge and palace as a means of developing and refining her responses. These lofty, ethereal places will provide the ultimate glimpses of perfection. But many of Jane’s strangest and most challenging adventures arise from her willingness to assist Joyless Joe, who at first despises and distrusts all she has come to believe in and care for. Her way forward is sidetracked by a quest to acquire a silver spade, the means for this lad to make a new, exploratory start: she must visit an underground forge, a desert-dwelling giantess, and an under-hill nursery where all plants are cared for. Only then is she free to rise to higher realms of wonder but even here she is tested by her degree of concern for unfortunate figures, and just on the verge of the promised garden, forgetting warnings, finds her progress seriously threatened. After Jane reaches the heavenly palace the tale ends in a kind of romantic apotheosis. She is transformed into the ubiquitous maiden of post-Mallory quest-and-conquest yarns, and rides away with Sir Magic Wonderful. Earlier on this lonely, gallant, quasi-Arthurian knight has entertained her in his moonlit, gothic palace.


  With some exceptions I have more or less followed Florence Bone’s narrative scheme. Unlike Jane, my central character, Grace, is well into girlhood when she is tested with a choice of gifts. In addition to visiting ‘The-Wood-That-Is-Not-There’ with its enhanced sense of nature’s mysteriously benevolent power, my traveller has to pass through ‘The-Wood-That-Must-Be-There’ where the retrospective contrasts and uninviting atmosphere present an unruly, tooth-and-claw post-Darwinian wilderness. My Rainbow Garden has many more contrasting scenes than in the source tale, and in my version the Rainbow Palace on the summit of the bow bridge is not the setting for the final scene. It is an enthralling place but one for finding perspectives and making choices about the future, whereas little Jane exits from here to dwell happily-ever-after with Sir Magic. In my tale he is Sir Substantial Nebule (or more familiarly Sir Cloudy Lost-Heart) an attractive figure but apparently caught in a time warp. Similar temptations to escape have been apparent at many stages of Grace’s journey.


  My final chapter is entitled ‘Home?’(implying where is it? and how is it reached?) Grace descends the vanishing rainbow steps to meet again some of the principal characters she has encountered and make a choice of how best to go back and venture on in the world. Her return to the mundane moments when her journey began is meaningfully ‘undramatic’ but accompanied by a more vivid perception of detail.


 I include all Florence Bone’s characters: guiding ‘fairy’ figures of authority, birds, animals, plants, insects. But their appearance, disposition, behaviour and speech is often radically changed or developed to suit the purpose and concepts of my story. This also affects the content and style of the more lyrical passages attributed to them.


  Without my realising it for some while, I adapted an appealing tale to write the kind of story of enchantment (a surprising but motivated journey into Faerie) along lines that might do justice to a genre which seems so often to have been misunderstood or abused.



  The world entered into and journeyed through is not an escape, a dream or a holiday from reality but a series of places and encounters from which the adventurer discovers new perspectives about her own day-to-day experiences and the limitations these impose.  The dreams twice provided by the Pan-like peddler are really gateways or transitions into new phases of Grace’s quest. At the end she comments on how they lead ‘to hard choices and anxious times.’ Also her moving through the thin veils that divide the ‘here and now’ from the ‘beyond’ is not an end in itself; it prepares for a reinvigorated return.  What she sees and hears does not set Grace apart from daily life but enables her to embrace it more positively. Certainly she experiences strange transformations, bold colours, unusual kinds of communication but all are recognisable as derived from the living, evolving world as we know it, and physical obstacles and limitations remain as frustrating and confusing as ever. The figures, creatures and plants she meets are mostly wise and purposeful: there are no comfortably endearing or absurdly rapacious ornamental freaks who thrive in an aimless dream world. The inhabitants of ‘Faerie’, I feel, should be recognisable as living beings or things but with more dimensions, larger-than-life but not merely in the sense of physical appearance or potency.


  Throughout I have avoided two debased and abused terms: ‘fairy’, either as noun or adjective, and ‘magic’. The figures who advise and assist Grace are Guides and Guardians, and their rôle, partly mysterious, partly practical, and consistently beneficent, is global. Their wisdom is acquired, not artificially inherent, and they are one manifestation of universal forces at work in the earth’s evolution. Their appearance in many forms is vital both to the story and to its implications. But it is primarily about Grace, not about them.


  Why the focus on Grace, some may ask. Perhaps because the tale suggests that more is asked of those with talents and gifts, and they may be chosen to be tested by traversing wider realms that are both beyond and within. Here their elevating moments are only achieved by shouldering unexpected demands and adversities and by learning to see below and through surfaces. Grace is a child from a specific background but that does not mean the tale is only significant for children. She may be all or none of us, since one of its principal themes, indeed its raison d’être, is the retention and development of childlike wonder.


     I have tried to give the ‘extended’ dimensions or fictional world that Grace enters consistency and coherence and a set of references protagonist and reader can accept and feel at home with. If what’s called ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ needs to be made, the spell (in the ancient dual sense of story and imposed power) is broken. Once a fantasy tale becomes piecemeal and haphazard it loses conviction. Even so both central figure and reader should also feel that many experiences cannot be easily explained away. Phenomena glimpsed in a world of peculiar if, within their context, ‘believable’ dimensions and occurrences, are no more likely to be fully understood than motives and contradictions of characters in ‘conventional’ fiction.                                    

Author’s Preface to RAINBOW