1.)Your mother first introduced you to Florence Bone’s The Rose-Coloured Wish. What
do you most remember about that first impression?
I recall being impressed by the strength and resolve of Andreas, the woodcutter,
and a feeling of confidence in his capacity to free his family and community from
the evil menace. Though Bruno annoyed me, I suspect I sympathised with his need for
action and with his impatience over the unproven power of benevolence in the rose-coloured.
I also believed in the capacity of the lucky ringlet to make lives better by realising
every wish. The wild, outdoor adventure also appealed to me, since my own life was
mainly focused out of doors in the then open, thickly-wooded Chiltern Hills of south
Oxfordshire. After the children were taken prisoner I was disturbed by the sense
of gloom, incarceration and constant suspense created by the imminent reappearance
of The Ifinger Dwarf . The dense landscape of fir trees was akin to my imaginative
experience of fir plantations which I always associated with dark forces and haunting
in my childhood. Even at an early age, in any retelling, I looked forward to and
was moved by the emergence of the beautiful and authoritative Lady Alpenrose from
her guise as a Bright Beetle. (Of course, to some extent these comments anticipate
the answer to Qn. 3, since all such feelings become ineradicable.)
2.) Does your childhood impression differ from the one you now hold? If so, what
Later I was more interested in the contrast between Girelda and Bruno, and between
the parents, Madelina and Andreas. Previously, I found the comments from flowers
pleasingly decorative; now they hinted often delicately, sometimes outspokenly,
at wrong thinking and misplaced ambition. Mistaken ideas of what to wish for used
to feel like passing mistakes, or lightweight spells that could easily be reversed;
now wishes felt like a profoundly important projection of self towards a goal, more
formative and hard to unravel.
For me as a child The Ifinger Dwarf, was sinister in concept, and fearful as an ever-present
menace not yet encountered directly, but somehow once seen and heard, he was always
faintly ridiculous, almost a kind of Rumplestiltskin figure. Later readings made
him feel more disturbed and ‘twisted’ but at the same time more pathetic in view
of his origins and the source of his resolve to ruin the lives of others. As a child
I found the tale of the princess’s mocking rejection rather funny, but then (WISH,
Ch.XVI) I developed it into a narrative episode with its own tighter alliterative
meter, a potent turning point in the whole tale and yet potentially a cohesive life
sketch in its own right.
Fairy Wellwisher was once to me no more than a benign fairy-godmother type of figure.
In fact I used to call ‘smiley’, benign and evidently quite wise old ladies: Old
Grannie Wellwishers! (You see the indelible impression made by Florence Bone!) The
ancient yet ever-youthful mixer of dreams felt less significant than Andreas, though
I followed his respect for her insight. With later readings she loomed far larger
to me, and I felt all kinds of unspoken connections, and in particular she began
to stand for the visionary power of stillness and reflection as compared to ACTION
NOW AT ALL COSTS!
Possessing The Lucky Ringlet in my adult imagination felt like the likely start of
a whole chain of new problems. Issues of power and greed loomed up, which is no doubt
why in my own tale the ring was transmuted into a more complex, multi-faceted necklace.
Without balancing all the energies its jewels stand for at so many levels, you can
become, like Faengler, its slave, and your entire outlook will be distorted.
The above reactions go back a long way, since I read the original story to my children,
who have also retained long memories of its distinct atmosphere and events.
3.) What was it about The Rose-Coloured Wish that most influenced you to begin work
on WISH ?
I found myself recalling that tale in certain terrains: the adventure and its characters
kept returning. This made me consider quite idly and vaguely many kinds of ways of
recreating the peculiar atmosphere of F. Bone’s tale: mostly this boiled down to
notions of some lyrical poems in a sequence, or a short narrative poem. These would
bring the story back to life, keeping the spirit of the original but under new guises.
Then came a sudden formative moment, from which there was no turning back, much as
I tried to step away! One evening when on holiday in Wengen, in the Berner Oberland
of Switzerland, I went for a fairly low-level walk through mountain pastures and
forest margins, passed through a cluster of dense pines overhanging the track and
found myself recalling vividly the moment where Girelda leaves Bruno asleep and makes
her way to the dwarf’s cave. From then on, probably around 2005, I knew something
had to be written.
So it was this kind of ‘presence’ rather than any themes or characters that acted
as the impulse, or should I say ‘need’ to write. No doubt, though, there were specific
ingredients that swayed me: the predominance of alpine scenery, which had been an
inspiration from successive holidays in Switzerland, the flawed and dangerous notion
of acquiring magical powers, the intensity of experience within a short time frame,
the inherently believable world created within the tale, the unwritten sense of a
long, impenetrable history behind the surface of events, beings, and characters.
Last but not least, it was probably also F.B’s suggestion of wisdom acquired only
with patience and a long lapse of time, rooted in the natural world and its cycle
of birth, growth, death and renewal, diminishing and putting in its context, the
significance of human ambitions and life-spans.
(Here, of course, another question arises: why not invent from scratch? Why recreate?
The answer perhaps in part derives from my belief that there is no intrinsic merit
in striving to be what is called ‘original’ for its own sake, as if it is some kind
of guaranteed virtue. Originality is about as elusive as ‘happiness’: both have a
way of eluding you if they are pursued! The nearest any kind of artist gets to true
originality is by being faithful to the unique person he or she is, and, like it
or not, we are all made up of thousands of influences, consciously recalled or subsumed.
So why should re-rendering an old tale as it has impressed you be of questionable
4.) Are there any parts you were hesitant to change or omit from the original story?
Answering this is really to define the heart of my creative impulse and process.
For in fact nothing is omitted, but every ingredient is developed, as if the original
is a set of hints or a sketch awaiting fuller treatment. What I had enjoyed as a
child had simply, or maybe not so simply, assumed more complex and disturbing(or
more richly joyous) dimensions. Everything felt essential and integral so nothing
need be left out. I don’t think I would ever have embarked on WISH without this assurance
and conviction. In almost every case I can call to mind changes were made to enhance
what is implicitly present rather than to reject something for an assumed ‘improvement’.
This also applies to changes in nomenclature, and to my introducing specifics of
geography, time scales and hints of deep-seated histories.
5.) What do you hope readers, children and adults alike, will gain from reading WISH
There is perhaps an underlying moral implication, which grows out of the tale rather
than being insisted on didactically: thoughtful, sensitive approaches to problems
have more enduring results than impulsive, self-assertive actions. Not only do the
contrasts in the main characters suggest this, but it is written into all communications
with plants and creatures that retain balance and integrity (though contrastingly
some clearly don’t, e.g. Edelweiss and the Red Eagle)
Qualities of listening and receptivity are needed to appreciate that in the natural
world there are sources of renewal and regeneration of more than physical impact.
The reversal of such powers is found in the desolation of Faengler’s realm, and the
lost, demoralised nature of his servants. Both reflect his psychic and spiritual
I should also like readers to come away with a new slant on the ‘truism’ that what
we wish for becomes a decisive part of our make-up, and that once corresponding actions
taken are set in motion it is hard to unravel them, however much we may begin to
regret our original ambitions. Adam, for example, is only too well aware that his
boastful approach to acquiring the necklace may have been responsible for his children’s
headlong disappearance into captivity.
I hope, too, that this tale will impress on the readers a sense of danger, insecurity
and a longing for home and its comforts. This is part of the WISH adventure structure,
in that supposed conquests and acquisitions are of little consequence, compared to
fulfilments of orderly and purposeful life. The happy ending is perhaps only happy
in that a threat has been removed, what seemed to have been lost has been restored,
all without introducing a new menace in the shape of unnatural powers.
Other kinds of appeal might include the following:
a) The setting with its physical challenges and the majesty of the landscape, especially
the contrast between the vitality outside and infertile darkness inside Faengler’s
b) Engagement with the characters, particularly the children, but also figures like
the Wellwisher, the Robin, the Solemn Guard.
c) The comic strains: found in the arrogant eagle, the stuffy edelweiss, the absurd
guards, Clipetty and Clopitty, and the way all these figures are given an eccentric
mode of expression.
d) The writing itself: how it is phrased, and the songs attributed to various figures.
6.) What first influenced you to begin writing in general?
I first experimented with verse in my early teenage years and was never attracted
to prose. Probably because I never succeeded in gaining any credit for compulsory
prose fiction at school, but more importantly because I liked to refine a small pattern
to perfection rather than to work on a wide canvas. ( Even with WISH and RAINBOW
every line was hand-written to check the impact and the stress pattern, and the more
intensely lyrical parts consumed pages of sketches before being abandoned, I won’t
say finished, for poems never are!)
I wrote at first because poets I encountered and admired provided me with a feeling
of common ground, a condensed way of suggesting passions, confusions, contradictory
emotions in a form that carried conviction and authority, or so I felt! Early influences
were not contemporary at all , and this might have been why it took me a long while
to find a convincing voice and why form tended to be a major preoccupation at the
expense of content. Principally Donne, Eliot, Hardy, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Tennyson.
Subsequently the poets with whom I felt most at home were Edward Thomas and Robert
Frost, who marry form and colloquial speech with such dexterity.
7.) What part of writing and/or creating a story do you most enjoy?
I find this very difficult to answer, though I hope some aspects of the question
have been anticipated or hinted at elsewhere. Writing is always hard work and is
sometimes far from ‘enjoyable’, and to focus on the question specifically, I am essentially
not a story-writer at all, but I have used inherited plots and characters. Developing
hints in the latter to wider proportions has been satisfying and enjoyable e.g. the
Smith in RAINBOW.
8.) Are you currently working on a project or have any planned for the future?
I have adapted another ‘lost’ children’s story, ‘The IdleFairy’ by Hilda C. Adshead,
illustrated by Anne Rochester, first published in 1926, and now a rare book. My battered
copy belonged to my mother and she read it to us all as children. Now the writing
of ‘WOODSY’ is more or less finished, I have asked my step-daughter, Caroline Ward,
a fine illustrator, to provide some original plates and drawings.
The story has a simple plot.
Leaflag, a young, rebellious and ‘ne’er-do-well’ fairy neglects or only half listens
to its lessons and training, and after a pleasantly lazy and indulgent summer season
is consequently banned from the warm and secure underground winter festivities. Unable
to cope with winter’s asperities and famine, Leaflag takes refuge in a dolls’ house
inside 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 being only half-initiated in ‘magic’ practice he bungles every trick
he shows off with and gets them into more and more trouble, and he is disruptive
and selfish with every creature he encounters, until finally 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.
I have developed in more detail the initial drama of the anti-hero’s disobedience,
wintry isolation and discomfort. And the fear, stupidity and arrogance of the truant
are made more palpable in my version. Also, the elusive creatures called ‘fairies’
in the original are now ‘Woodsies’, who have an altogether more specific ‘folklore’
identity, and a corresponding behaviour pattern and purpose, as this opening passage
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.
He dreamed through or skipped daily lessons, not like
ours about reading, writing, calculating or science,
but about tending plants in every season,
about the special powers a woodsy might need
to help and protect many other living creatures
or each other. And Leaf-lag soon proved that
a little learning can be worse than knowing nothing.
He’d fiddle with buds before they were ready to open,
shut down flowers when they needed sunlight.
More serious trouble was just waiting to happen
because he’d thought he’d learnt complicated spells
for taking things apart to make them stronger than before.
This aimless youngster liked long summer days.
He wandered up and down wood-side ways
Looking for entertainment or somewhere to rest.
Once he decided to explore a bird’s nest.
(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.)
Once again, in common with WISH and RAINBOW, I am narrating in a free verse medium.
Each line is composed to have six main natural stresses, for example:
‘Gét a móveón or élse we’ll bé in tróuble!’
I cannot say 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 say 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.
Michael Tolkien answers questions from Arwen Kester: (Middle Earth Network)