The original story has a simple plot which I follow:
Biddlekin, a young, rebellious and ‘ne’er-do-well’ fairy neglects his lessons and
training, and after a lazy summer season is banned from the warm and secure underground
winter festivities. Unable to cope with winter and hunger, he takes refuge in a dolls’
house in the playroom of a large house. The two young children, whose noise and size
at first terrify the visitor, are delighted with his presence, a secret close-kept
from adults. But not having learnt constructive ‘magic’ he shows off or loses his
temper with negative tricks which he cannot reverse, and this gets the children into
more and more trouble. He is disruptive and selfish, and his only way out is to make
for the closed doors of the winter palace, beg for admittance and face up to the
discipline his teachers are waiting to impose for his own good.
This tale is freely based on Hilda Adshead’s ‘The Idle Fairy’, illustrated by
Anne Rochester, published in 1926 as part of Warne & Co’s Welcome Series for young
children. Recently I read it again out of curiosity since every now and again quite
by chance I am reminded of something in the story. I realised then that like so
many well-told tales it leaves the reader room for further exploration or another
slant on what is actually encountered. My mother read it to us in her gentle,dead-pan,
authoritative style, which I can still hear if I listen carefully. The 1930 copy
I inherited is now a forgotten and ‘rare’ book.
Such source material is undoubtedly a product of its time. The children, Harry and
Mabel, are cared for by an all-purpose nanny, tutored at home, subject to formal
routines and disciplines and strictly applied sanctions. Their parents are shadowy
figures, who seldom feature in their daily lives. Into this smoothly run upper middle
class home comes Biddlekin, a kind of naughty-boy derivative from Eleanor Farjeon’s
tribe of flower fairies, complete with neat tunic and wings. He hopes to take refuge
from being out in the cold, where he is both literally and socially. He has gallivanted
his way through summer, skipped lessons, and could not face being forced to apply
himself throughout the underground winter festivities. The children’s excitement
over encountering a fairy figure is soon reversed when they find themselves saddled
with a selfish, spoilt brat, who, when thwarted, is spiteful, destructive, and not
in the least concerned that they have to take the blame for his antics. While young
readers’ sympathies are tilted in favour of decent standards and good order, the
perverse Biddlekin is someone they can relate to, and there’s a lot for them to enjoy
in the disruption and in the adventures of the idle visitor, who gets more than he
bargains for in his supposedly cosy winter quarters. And not content with making
demands on the children, who lose patience with him, he recruits a widowed mouse
to look after his needs, until cowardly failure to rescue one of her children from
a cat makes her round on him fiercely as unworthy of his tribe: shouldn’t he know
how to protect small creatures?
So here is a ‘fairy’ figure out of place in a human household, learning the hard
way that he must return to his own kind and adapt to their disciplines. . But once
he has achieved this, he returns stealthily and tactfully to repair some of the destruction
brought about by his malicious abuse of transformation spells he had not learned
how to reverse.
I follow the pattern of this narrative with its neat and entertaining plot, though
I have written in a way that should appeal to a slightly older age group than the
original, and hopefully to adult readers as they read it to their children. In line
with this I have developed the characters of my children, John and Lisa, who are
several years older than Harry and Mabel, rather more ‘streetwise’, and recognisably
contemporary, though no less excited by a small intruder who promises to wield special
powers. And while the visiting ‘fairy’ has many of the character traits of Biddlekin,
his background is more specific and complex.
I avoid the term ‘fairy’, except when human characters use it for want of a better
word. Although Hilda Adshead implies that her ‘fairies’ are at best industrious and
purposeful, and that a dropout is the exception, the word has become associated with
diaphanously-winged miniature beings, sentimentally presented as ornamental, mischievous
or wayward. I have gone back to an earlier concept of ‘fairie’, a ‘world’ running
parallel with our own and rarely encountered by humans. Its beings, though not subject
to our physical limitations, are often intimately concerned with the creative and
cyclic processes of the natural world, and when encountered they appear to be larger
than life and filled with a multi-dimensional insight beyond our capacity.
Woodsies, as explained early in Chapter 1, are a branch of this race of beings with
a specific ‘folklore’ identity and a corresponding behaviour pattern and purpose.
Leaflag the renegade woodsy shares Biddlekin’s fear, stupidity and arrogance, but
these are made more palpable in my version. Both have stepped badly out of line,
first by failing to prepare for the tasks of their tribe’s calling, and secondly
by coming into contact with humans, not for a serious, mature purpose, but because
their foolish behaviour has left them stranded and with few other choices.
As in my previous verse fantasies I have chosen to narrate, in a free verse medium.
The standard and predominant line is composed to have six main natural stresses,
‘Gét a móveón or élse we’ll bé in tróuble!’
I am not sure if this has advantages or not, though readers who have made recordings
of WISH and RAINBOW find it has given them guidance with pace and dynamics. But it
is the way I have become used to writing narrative, and to honing down my expression
to essentials. Sceptics maintain it’s a waste of ingenuity or makes no difference
to them, and publishers are irritated by the oddities of presentation they have to
deal with! In this case, especially as there is so much mundane dialogue, I have
experimented with turning some chapters into prose; but I was unhappy with the result,
and so were my first readers.
My illustrator, Caroline Ward, chose her subjects freely, and she did not see a
copy of the original story until long after her own work was finished. She has shown
considerable understanding of the spirit and intention of my narrative, and added
dimensions to a number of decisive moments and turning points in the tale. I have
found her approach most supportive, both in her perceptive comments, but also through
her discovery of subtle sources of drama and colour that surprised me into a new
awareness about my own work.
in hardback, paperback and Kindle download, is based on , ‘The Idle Fairy’, a lost
tale for young children by Hilda Adshead (1926)
I make more of the anti-hero’s disobedience, wintry isolation and discomfort. And
his fear, stupidity and arrogance are more detailed in my version. Also the creatures
called ‘fairies’ are now ‘Woodsies’, who have a specific ‘folklore’ identity that
includes a consistent behaviour pattern and purpose, suggested in these opening comments:-
Woodsies can take on any human shape,
and have appeared in larger and finer forms
than we can ever hope to have, though mostly
they just need well-disguised bodies strong enough
to care for plants that like wood-filtered light.
They are mainly practical, wise, and helpful,
but all families have misfits and trouble-makers
and sometimes young woodsies like Leaf-lag
won’t grow up and have to learn the hard way.
Woodsies have no wings. They just have to think
to be in another place. Some people who know
their haunts and have quick eyes may have seen
flashes of light and taken them for shiny wings.
My step-daughter, Caroline Ward, on the basis of her own reading and choice of subjects,
has provided a series of fine illustrations to point up the most dramatic moments
in each short chapter.