Michael Tolkien

Lecture given at The Tolkien Society’s Return of the Ring Celebration:

Loughborough University: August 2012 (Uncut version with appendices)

FANTASY:  delusion or wisdom?                               

(Themes and emphases in JRR Tolkien’s Essay on Fairy Stories related to Michael Tolkien’s tale, RAINBOW.)


§1   I have had a lifelong admiration for and interest in my grandfather’s closely interrelated academic and fictional work, so I was delighted to receive an invitation from Lynn Whittaker on behalf of The Tolkien Society to talk about my fantasy fiction and relate it to some reflections on Tolkien work. I suggested I might do so in the context of some of his attitudes to this genre, as indicated in his own fantasies and in his Essay on Fairy Stories, and trace some of the conscious and more or less ‘accidental’ influences from JRRT’s work on my writing. I am all too aware that it is easy to simulate parallels or what critics call sources and analogues; but in the 1990s I became steeped in my grandfather’s work, both for its own sake and because I was committed to several public lectures. And it has probably been natural for some of this to rub off on my own fictional creative output, distinct though it is in so many ways.

§2   I’ll just say a little about my work to start with before I return to it in more detail. I have written two verse fantasy narratives of about 120 pages long, based on tales by a prolific children’s writer from the first half of the 20th century.  Florence Bone only wrote two fantasies of enchantment or make-believe: The Other Side of the Rainbow (1910) and The Rose-coloured Wish (1923), and these are now rare books. She was otherwise committed to historic fiction and school stories with a strong moralistic bias. The two fantasies now feel the least dated of her work; and I had long wanted to pay tribute to and revive them. In hindsight I felt I had taken up among several rôles two principal ones. First, like those early translators or imitators of ancient Roman and Greek texts, verse and prose, from the 15th century onwards, I would try to recapture and bring out the spirit of the original rather than turning out a literal rendering.  Secondly, perhaps I was working like the anonymous teller of long-told ballads who adds new touches, and develops inherent themes for a particular audience. (As in the sinister Scots ballad, The Twa Corbies toned down and yet subtly recast as The Three Crows) But whatever I was doing, my tales are not dependent on knowing the original and have an organic life of their own, or internal consistency: a notable ‘Tolkien’ requirement for fantasy, and one I will return to.

 (See Appendix 1 for WISH : misleading and genuine relationships with JRRT’s work)

§3   Tolkien’s Fairy Story essay was originally composed for the Andrew Lang Memorial Lecture, which he delivered at The University of St Andrews in 1938, and then published in 1964 along with the tale Leaf by Niggle, under the title Tree and Leaf.  The combination is significant as it suggests how his notions of fantasy were not locked up in the ivory towers of academia but were part of his own creative experience and practice, and he wanted that to be understood.

I have always found this essay an interesting accompaniment to his major fantasies and shorter works, though it’s less revealing than his imaginative insight into and preoccupation with the power and complexity of language. At any rate he said in his 1964 introductory note that the essay and ‘L by N’ were written ‘when the L/Rings was beginning to unroll itself and to unfold prospects of labour and exploration in yet unknown country, as daunting to me as to the hobbits…’

§4   Strangely, I turned to this essay and re-read it thoroughly when I was in a perplexed state over how to approach the writing of my second story, Rainbow on which I will be focusing.  And though I was about to paint on a miniscule canvas compared to Tolkien’s or indeed Niggle’s, I did feel daunted by the task I had set myself.

 §5   Florence Bone’s The Other Side of the Rainbow is a charming children’s fantasy and I wanted to retell it in my own style and incorporate my responses to its suggestions; but I hoped to enhance rather than lose its major theme: the quality of being open to wonder. By this I do not mean mere curiosity but whole-hearted response to the living world and beings who live in it.  And it so happens that the nurturing and development of WONDER  was felt by Tolkien to lie at the heart of what well-written Fairy Stories achieve or aim at.

§6   I’ll outline very briefly the substance of the original tale:

  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.

§7   Before I come back to Tolkien’s essay and how it prodded me in various directions, and while you have this information in mind may I just explain briefly how I adapted this narrative. With some exceptions I 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.

§8  My final chapter is entitled ‘Home?’ in the interrogative, 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 shall read from this closing chapter later on.)

§9   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 by F. Bone.

§10 On Fairy Stories (Page references to quotations relate to the Unwin-Hyman hard-cover edition of Tree and Leaf (1988) )

This an engaging essay with occasional self-confessed eccentricities, digressions and snatches of autobiography. First it clears away illusions about what qualifies as a fairy story, then measures the appeal and importance of the genre before examining principles that should govern the whole process of writing fantasy. I will reflect on five emphases that challenged me or endorsed my instincts as I approached the task of writing Rainbow:


1.) The crucial matter of FAIRY as a name for a being or a place of enchantment.

2.) How a dream structure or stress on illusion should be avoided.

3.) The mistaken assumption that fairy stories are primarily for children.

4.) The importance of interior consistency in a story, what Tolkien calls ‘subcreation’, or        ‘recreated reality’.

5.) The potentially refreshing and renewing capacity of well-written fantasy.


§11  Let’s consider‘FAIRY’ The fairy figures in F.B.’s tale, as in Eleanor Farjeon’s famous Flower Fairy Stories, appear to come from what Tolkien calls in his essay (UH.p12) the ‘long line of flower fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae…’ (derived, he says from the 17th cent poet Drayton’s verse tale Nymphidia) He always disliked them as a child and points out how Andrew Lang comments on tales that contain them:.. ‘they always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses, gardenias and apple blossom…(fairies) who try to be funny and fail or try to preach and succeed!’ Of course, the fairies in F.B’s tale are meant to be for the entertainment of children and are described and made to speak according to certain conventions (And I shall come back to whole issue of the assumed connection of Fairy Stories and children) Her Fairy Wonder and co. are not as absurd as Lang indicates, but they did present me with a challenge! I wanted the equivalent beings in my version to be anything but ‘floaty’ or whimsical and certainly not ‘preachy’, and not so diminutive they could only be found curled up on a flower petal. I needed them to be purposeful beings whose authority derives from their integral part in the natural world they take care of and about which the heroine’s sense of wonder was to be developed. Their foresight and insight must be felt to be based on experience acquired over a longer span of time than can ever be allotted to mortals.

§12 So I was struck by what Tolkien had to say about the term ‘fairy’(UH pp12-13) ‘Fairy as a noun more or less equivalent to elf, he writes, ‘is a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period.’ Before this period, he says, the term tended to refer to the realm of Faërie, a place of disturbing or inspiring experience from which figures might appear and exert certain powers, or ‘glamour’, in its older, less superficial sense. A place, too, which we might pass into and return from changed in all kinds of ways. Hence the new dimensions in the character and outlook of Smith in Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major. (References will be to Unwin Paperback edn.,1983)

(See Appendix 2 for further detail and ‘parallels’ on these aspects of Faërie)


He says ‘…fairy stories are not in normal English useage stories about fairies or elves but about…Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.’ He continues in a rather biblical mode to suggest that Faërie may well contain many phantasmagorical beings like dragons or dwarves but that it ‘holds the seas, the sun, the moon, and the earth and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men and women, when we are enchanted.’

§13   This approach endorsed and encouraged my thoughts and requirements in two directions:

1.) My need for guides and guardians, as I call them, to be figures who are unpredictable in size and in the way they choose to appear, speak and act.

2.) My impulse to celebrate through my heroine’s gift of wonder both the enchantment and the realities of the natural world, of which her guides and guardians are an essential part.

§14   But I should move from theory to practice and give you a flavour of the first encounter between Grace and the guardians who approach her with an initial test of choosing gifts prior to the journey that is proposed to her. Notice that at once it should be clear that the tale is not about the mysterious beings, call them what you will: it is about Grace’s experience.

§14a  Grace lay watching low sun set light to

walnut and mulberry trees so they looked like

bouquets of green fire clutched by black fingers,

the long shadows of chimney stacks, when suddenly

she noticed an altogether brighter light blaze up

between her bed and windows. At first it seemed

to come from kindly faces, then from their tall

figures each radiantly clothed in colours of flowers

she thought she recognised. She was not afraid,

just surprised as if she’d opened a door into

a well-known room and found instead a lofty

conservatory lit up with flowering plants.

The first to speak was robed in petal-like folds

of purest white like the rose outside her window.

‘We are flower guardians here to offer gifts.

We know our work delights you. Your choice will decide

the days ahead and colour your long life to come.’

(Was this a voice or a breeze among glossy leaves?)

    How strange it was to lie there and feel important!

But Grace felt she had to look and listen with care

while the guardians showed and explained their gifts,

though all the details you will hear about seemed

to take no time at all, so quickly and quietly spoken

were they, their movements graceful as shapes and shadows

of plants and flowers their garments made her think about.


§15 (DREAM & ILLUSION) This might be a good moment to touch briefly on my second emphasis, Tolkien’s views about dream and illusion as destroyers of engaging fantasy. To quote: ‘…if a writer tells you his tale is only a thing imagined (say) in…sleep, he cheats…the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realisation, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder…It is..essential to a genuine fairy story…that it should be presented as ‘true’ …

Since the fairy story deals with ‘marvels’, it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion…(UH p18, §§1-2 adapted)

At the outset of F.B’s tale Jane is merely an infant in a state of playful innocence and unawareness when addressed by the fairy visitors, and to some extent this sets the tone and parameters of the forthcoming adventures. My Grace is more mature and has a momentous experience she cannot fathom out, yet engages in rational dialogue about the proffered gifts even if their wider implications are at present beyond her. This was an instance of where a dreamy, illusory state would not do for me if the journey that lay ahead of Grace were to be a meaningful undertaking. The world she enters and journeys 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 a 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.’ Here’s the first occasion:

       §15a …………..                                          ‘Now, Grace,’

said the peddler softly, ‘after the fun and dancing

you’d maybe like to rest and try one of my dreams.’

‘Yes I would,’ she said, ‘but first please show me

the way to The Rainbow.’ ‘You’ll learn that

in your dream. It’s not the sort you have in bed.

It’s a waking dream, a new kind of seeing

that will guide you to The-Wood-That-Is-Not-There.

Rest in the long, dry grass while I find the best

one for you.’ And taking out a shorter, broader

ebony pipe, he played a slow, soothing melody.

Soon Grace felt her eyes grow heavy and dim,

and nearby buttercups turned to golden mist.

(A new chapter starts here and the anticipatory subheading I give to each one reads: (A chapter where Grace finds that a dream is not a way out of problems and that help arrives in unexpected ways)

Grace felt as if she’d woken up still deep

in the dream provided by the green peddler,

walking just before sunrise steeply down

a narrow cobbled street crowded with wooden buildings,

all shapes and sizes. A deserted old town

like the ones she’d seen in picture histories

that Aunt Miriam said were made up by the artist.

Nothing showed that anyone had lived here,

no scuttling rats, no stray cats or dogs,

not one sparrow chattering under the eaves.

All she could hear was the echo of her footsteps,

and turning a corner that seemed far below the place

she’d started from, Grace was amazed to see

broad meadows full of rushes and ancient willows

that ended in a deep, slow-moving river,

so fearfully wide that trees on the far side looked

like bushes, and she wondered if anything else

grew or moved in the haze beyond this leaden sheet.


§16   The dream here merely transports Grace into what Tolkien might call ‘The perilous realm’ or Faërie, just as in Leaf by N. the unlikely railway train takes Niggle to a further stage of enlightenment. The pedlar says the dream is a new kind of seeing, which is in line with a journey that increases a sense of wonder. Notice the ambiguity that G. woke as if she were still asleep. The dream rather than what it generates is the illusion; and she is at once in a world of tangible reality, where she knows what should be there and strangely is not, and senses at once how the river cannot be crossed, while her aunt’s remembered comment on illusory illustration alerts her that there may be more than meets the eye.

(In the tale as a whole the figures, creatures and plants Grace 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.)

§17 (FAIRY STORIES & CHILDREN) So here is a child heroine who is far from gullible, though of course inexperienced compared to the adult mentioned. So how about the presumed connection between children and fairy stories? It’s a question Tolkien considers in great detail, much of it challenging some of Andrew Lang’s assumptions and aims. What he says did help me to consider carefully the kind of audience I was aiming at, a matter I could not ignore, given that I was adapting a tale from the background he describes like this (UH p41 §3): ‘…the age of childhood-sentiment,’ he says, ‘has produced some delightful books (especially charming, however, to adults) of the fairy kind or near to it; but it has also produced a dreadful undergrowth of stories written or adapted to what was or is conceived to be the measure of children’s minds or needs..’ Earlier (UH p34 §2) he says there’s an error of false sentiment in thinking of children as a ‘special kind of creature’ rather than as ‘normal, if immature, members of…the human family at large.’ Relegating fairy stories to children’s supposed needs is rather like setting aside for their use ‘shabby old-fashioned furniture…primarily because adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused.’ He concludes (UH p35§2) that ‘fairy stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined..’ and further on (UH p.43§3) ‘If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can.’ He does not object to tales being written to be within the measure of children, and we have delightful evidence of his own success in this respect, but he says ‘it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy stories that are beyond their measure rather than short of it. Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books should at any rate encourage it.’

§18   When I reread this I found it echoed my instincts, and certainly cohered with the way I had written my other tale, WISH.  But it challenged me once again to make this new tale work at various levels that could be read and enjoyed by a young person and yet felt by an adult to say more than meets the eye at first reading.  Though I should make it clear while talking about layers of meaning that I never made use of allegorical structures. I don’t think I dislike burdening fantasy with such mechanisms as much as JRRT did, but I still have reservations about their manipulative strategy. Even so, I’d like to illustrate my use of levels of implication from the chapter where Grace meets the young knight, Sir Cloudy Lost-Heart and stays at his aptly named ‘Castle-in-the-Air.’ There have been hints that she is about to move on to more dangerous and threatening phase of her quest than he can ever know in his make-believe world of errantry, though he’s full of wise warnings about how she should stay alert. Meanwhile, his antics, character and moonlit residence are all quite attractive and engaging to a child. In the passage I have chosen, the dialogue and description may appeal to child and adult alike, but there is an undertow of implications about make-believe and artifice that shut out the world of living things. And, to revert to matters I was discussing about Faërie earlier on there’s an ironic query going on: is Faërie a nonsensical place of escape that leads to such poses or is it really a vibrant realm that enriches our appreciation for the everyday places we must always return to?

§18a They sat on high-backed moonlight chairs close to

tall latticed windows, their hundreds of diamond shapes

alight with ever-changing colours. Time to show

each other and admire their precious belongings.

He explained in detail how Smith and his dwarves

forged and hinged his armour to make it feel light

as a suit of clothes yet fend off every weapon

or swiftest arrow if he had to undertake

distant and dangerous quests. Knowing a little about

knightly feats of arms Grace asked politely

why he carried no mace, lance, sword or shield,

a question that seemed greatly to puzzle him at first!


‘Weapons are for attack or to defend oneself.

The first I never engage in; and my armour

is so strong and dazzling I don’t need a shield.’

Her turn to be puzzled and she wondered

what kind of quests he had to follow. Instead

she told him all about her various adventures.

He listened intently and said how much like

his own they were but his eyes kept returning

to and dwelling on her jewel-flecked belt.


He also began to look wistful, even downcast.

‘I’ve lost my greatest treasure’. ‘I’m so very sorry,’

said  Grace. ‘Tell me what it is. Perhaps there’s a way

we can find it.’ She knew what it would be like

to lose her wonder stone. ‘It’s my moonstone heart,’

said Sir Cloudy with a sigh. ‘That’s why I wear

a wooden one. I have to, you see. My crest contains

a heart, and I must not leave here without

one hanging from my neck. My knighthood’s at stake.’


*****(Grace then offers to search for his heart stone, and it occurs to her to make use of a gift, a shimmering gauze scarf, she has been given earlier in her visit to the underground halls where plants are nurtured and cared for. And the sudden transformation that occurs makes us feel the delusion suggested by permanent moonlight; for it is only by means of the life-giving light provided by the scarf that the stone is revealed.)

§18b At last only the wide, high fireplace flickering

with moonshine flames had escaped her busy eyes.

Then she thought of the gauze scarf, Clover’s gift,

unravelled it from a pocket and wrapped it round

her eyes and ears. ( And)just as she had been told

spring birds sang, the air was filled with the scent

of primrose, hyacinth and bluebell. Outshining

the bejewelled windows and beyond the moat

orchards were white with cherry, pear and apple blossom.


§19   Going further back in the tale we hear how others who are altogether down-to-earth and direct, view the knight. Earlier on Grace has visited an underground forge in her quest to have a silver spade crafted for Downcast Don, the unfortunate lad who has lost his way by being incapable of wonder. She talks to one of the Smith’s one-eyed, mini-cyclopean assistants about their work for Sir Cloudy {They are anonymous, just numbered One to Nine!}:

§19a The steel suit looked so delicate and fragile

Grace had to ask: ‘What is that made of?’

‘Moonlight’, said ONE, still ready to talk,

and he really seemed to mean what he said.


Or did it stand for something else? ‘Made for

a knight known as Sir Cloudy Lost-heart,

or, more respectably, Sir Substantial-Nebule.

A man of substance but as easy to pin down

as a cloud: hence nebule (once nebulous)

d’you see?’ Grace didn’t but nodded politely.

‘Still he’s a genial fellow and pays well.

Castle in the Air’s his home. Mostly he wanders

here, there and everywhere. Cloudy, d’you see?!’


‘If only I could visit him on my way to

the Rainbow!’ ONE had no idea what she meant

and said: ‘Take a look round our forge, the finest

you’ll ever see, and no smith equals The Smith

in strength and skill. Your man for massive tasks

or jobs so finicky they’d tie your fingers in knots.’

‘When will he appear?’ asked Grace, wondering

if he was hard to catch like the cloudy knight.

‘He’s linking up a spell-binding necklace

ordered by Sir Cloudy. Sir Beck-and-Call

if you ask me!’ So she’d have to wait.


§20 You’ll notice that one side of this dialogue is blunt and colloquial. Neither adults nor children care to be stuck in a rarefied, over-refined atmosphere or for that matter a dark and lowering one.

(You may be wondering by now if there are threatening or disturbing elements in Rainbow, the sort that appeal to children and adults love to hate! Yes! There is the dreaded descent into an underworld by means of being lowered down a well-shaft, and an encounter with a desert monster who is a fossilised embodiment of earth’s long-forgotten, slow unfolding. And just when Grace is near the promised Rainbow Garden she falls victim to the snares of the uncouth Menace and his terrible mother, and has to steal back to their cave to retrieve a vital lost treasure.)

The world of Faërie should be as all-inclusive as possible. In that way it can be more widely instructive, have a broader appeal and approximate the timelessness of the best tales that attract an audience of all ages and walks of life. As Tolkien says of the finest tales to survive (UH p32§3) ‘…they open a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself maybe…’ And it is in fact at the moment I have just been reading about when Grace has to wait to meet the busy Smith, that her perplexed frustration at appearing to get nowhere very fast makes her have a sudden insight:

      §20a{Waiting or taking long short cuts took up

much of her journey. Perhaps to find and cross the Rainbow

you learnt and wondered about every kind of colour.

And that far-off morning, as it now seemed,

the flower guardians had shown her that colour

was far more than shades and tones you happened to like.

Stray thoughts Grace tried hard to fit together.}


§21  INTERIOR CONSISTENCY/‘subcreation’

The question of children’s rôle as  audience/readers leads naturally to considering the fourth emphasis I have chosen to highlight in Tolkien’s essay: the whole matter of the  fairy-story-teller’s art and the all-important requirement to create an inclusive world with believable internal consistency. Children are often sharper about picking up fictional inconsistencies than adults may realise, as my grandfather used to point out about making up tales to tell his own children. And there is a passage in OFS (UH p36 §3-p37 §1) I must quote fully:

Children are capable…of literary belief when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’, (making) a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it what he relates is ‘true’(quote/unquote): it accords with the laws of that world…the moment disbelief arises the spell is broken…’

Mentioning ‘spell’ harks back to what he says earlier: UHpp31-2: ‘…small wonder that spell means both a story told and a formula of power over living men.) And once it is broken, he says: ‘… you are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside…’ Further on Tolkien suggests that to persuade a reader that a fanciful concept actually works within its own world and has a reason for doing so is a kind of ART that is not easily achieved.

(I took up this challenge in RAINBOW (Ch.3) where insects create a rainbow bridge over that impassable river Grace encounters when the pedlar’s dream lands her beside it, and then later (Ch. 10) when she has to encounter Ancient Rock-Heart to obtain the essential silver ore for Don’s spade, a creature beyond Grace’s imagining and introduced like this:

§21a… far across the sand she thought she could see

two peaks like mountains built from stone blocks,

unless it was a mirage, and then a huge shadow fell

across her. The largest woman known to the world

loomed up like a rocky precipice.


She sat motionless in the sand, arms folded,

her chin resting on them as she gazed out

across the desert and up at the high sun.

She seemed to be deep in thought or remembering

matters far back in time. Rock-Heart, thought Grace,

if that was what to call her when asking a favour.

Could she have missed seeing someone like this?

Maybe those distant peaks moved and planted themselves

next to her with one or two invisible strides.


How could she be heard from so far below?

Was this mountainous being cousin to Heartsease?


Her face reminded Grace of a church tower

glimpsed through mist: you found eyes, ears

a gargoyle nose and a gaping mouth,

or did you? As it was, the ancient being

took no notice of the girl who was about

the size of a snail to her. ‘How do I ask

for silver so Smith can make Don’s precious spade’,

she wondered, looking at the large bare feet

half buried in sand. And then she saw some steps

that ran up and over the crags and crevices

of this living mass of stone, and round her neck.

She must climb and quickly not to waste her trek.

The path was steep and had no rail but she ran

as if her feet were winged and she were weightless,

and soon passed below the staring eyes and on

towards a gigantic sea-shell ear.


She whispered: ‘Please will you give me a lump of ore

so Smith can make a silver spade for Downcast Don?’

How this mighty building of a person jumped to hear

such words without a warning! But only slowly did her head

rise with a creak from its pillow of folded arms,

shake from side to side and shout ‘No!’ And with that

her whole body became once more as rigid

as mountainside under your feet…


§22   In his search for what happens in making a successfully believable Secondary World (UH, pp49 §2-p50) Tolkien asks us to consider the difference between MAGIC and ENCHANTMENT:

Magic produces or pretends to produce an alteration in the Primary World...it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills…’ (None of us here has to think hard to find examples of that chicanery among forces at work within Tolkien’s Secondary World!!)

On the other hand, he says: ‘Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose…’

In my tale there is a moment when Grace recalls her chief guide and guardian, Heartsease:



§22a She recalled the strange gaze that saw beyond

the words she was speaking and assured you

that everything made sense, however odd it felt.


This in a way is what should be achieved in the creation of a Secondary World. And the visions provided by the Guardians in The Rainbow Palace to offer Grace a choice of direction have a similar integrity: does she want limited magical suspension or an enhanced awareness of the living world derived from her experiences in her journey through a Secondary World? I am going to read the explanation of what she has seen in the elaborate visions:

§22b                                             … just as before

it was the tall figure clothed in white-rose-patterns

who spoke to her and once again offered a choice:

‘What you choose, dearest Grace, decides the days

ahead and colours the long life you can expect.’

Views, mirrors, another test: so much she longed

to ask about, but White Rose was far from finished.


‘Two pathways. The first like your journey

wound along with purpose, the other circled

round and round and back to where it started.

Two landscapes: one rich in colour and growth,

the other gleaming with full-moon mystery.

Two pictures: now, and as you might like to be

if you retrace your steps, meet Sir Cloudy, return to

his Castle-in-the-Air and live for ever after

as his bride-to-be in moonlit make-believe.

Or you can live a life uncertain

as the travels you have completed

to make your gift of wonder come alive.

Wonder is not for wonderland. It keeps

hearts and minds open and ready to

accept much that cannot be explained away.

I’m sorry to say the knight’s secret way

to the rainbow is only one he hopes to take

at the dark of the moon when no silver light

brings his world alive; but he never does.

He can’t endure sunlight and falling rain

without which no colour-bow spans the sky.

He made a quest like yours, but moonlight captured him,

as the carefree wood, under-hill halls

or rainbow garden might have enchanted you.  

  Guardians unfold like the living earth we tend,

working to make it loved. You live in time

and place and must decide how and where.’



  What I have just read brings me to the last aspect I have selected from Tolkien’s essay, which for want of a better phrase I’ll call the potentially refreshing  and renewing capacity of well-written fantasy. He maintains that one value of fairy story and other forms of fantasy may be to renew appreciation for and see in a fresh light what has become dulled by over-familiarity, taken for granted, and probably most destructive of open-minded wonder, acquired!

He says (UHp53§2-p54§1): ‘…the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.’ However, he maintains: ‘…Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new) may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had or knew was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.’

§24 Now I have already stressed that to maintain and develop a sense of wonder is at the core of F.B’s tale, and my rendering of it develops this theme in complex ways.  It is significant that Grace’s own journey to the mythical rainbow cannot be completed until she has undergone what feels like a demanding diversion to assist the unfortunate Don. His view of the living world is dulled and blunted by having no sense of wonder. In this excerpt I’m about to read you’ll notice the kind of instructive liberty one can take in the Enchanted Realms: normal sight is exchanged for a capacity to see that depends on your state of mind. Here Grace has woken Don up and asks for his help:

§24a I’m on my way to find out what lies within

and beyond the rainbow. So would you try

to reach that key up there and we can walk along

green paths in the wonderful wood that lies beyond.’

All he’d heard so far was the word ‘key’.

‘What key? You must be seeing things!’ ‘Look!

It’s up on that gate post.’ Grace longed for

some lively flowers or insects with brains and eyes.

But at least the boy leapt up and stared hard. ‘I see

no key and no gate. What are you on about?’

‘It’s the gate into that wood,’ insisted Grace.

And he looked even more blank. ‘Wood?

For miles around there’s nothing but windswept bushes.’

Now it was her turn to stare in disbelief.

Might as well ask him his name, she thought.

‘I’m Donald, changed by grown-ups to Downcast Don,

Don-in-the-Dumps or just Down-in-the-Dumps.

The few friends I’ve got call me Doncas or Downer.


Grace wondered whether to laugh or feel sorry.

‘Your nicknames make you sound unhappy,’ she said.

Perhaps this was why he saw a dull heath

strewn with bushes and not the lively green wood.

‘So what’s your name?’ asked Downcast Don as if

he didn’t care and seldom wondered about anything.

‘Grace’, she said proudly. ‘Not a proper name,’

said Don with a gurgle that might have been laughter.

‘Think what you like. I’m happy with it,’

she said and threw her stone high into the air.

But coming down it slipped past her open palm

and rolled away until it rested under the gate.

Which Grace took to mean that she ought to look

into the wood, and wonder about seeing it

while Don could not. ‘What’s that?’ he asked

when she picked up the amethyst. ‘You’re always

tinkering with it. Looks like a glass bead.’

‘This gemstone is worth more than any jeweller’s price.

     Filled with my thoughts, when I feel wonder

it’s become part of me, and guides me in strange,

unexpected ways, not always easy to follow,

though they all bring me nearer to the rainbow.’

‘Who filled your head with this? It sounds like

nonsense to me.’ The boy seemed bored and yawned loudly.

‘Heartsease, the Flower Guardian, gave me the stone,

taught me its powers and how to respect them.’

Don laughed though it sounded like painful choking.

‘You’re living in dreamland. Grow up and discover

the real world. The only flower guardians I know

are gardeners, and what do they know about gems?’

He looked at Grace as if she were half his size.

(After I had written this and re-read it some time later it reminded me of a moment early in SWM where Noakes, the stand-in, second-rate cook mocks Alf the Prentice (later Smith) over his serious attitude to what he senses as an enchanted star, to be included as a surprise ingredient buried in the great cake. [Pp 7-8 UnwinPbk edn] ) In my tale, despite Don’s churlish attitude, Grace holds out her stone and says: ‘Just borrow it:/you’ll see much more than you thought was there.’

§25   Here, and in terms of what I have just read, I’d like to pick up again what Tolkien says about the manner of fairy stories.

(UH p55§2) ‘…fairy stories deal largely, or the better ones mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-teller who allows himself to be ‘free’ with Nature can be her lover, not her slave. It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things such as stone, and wood and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.’

§26 Later in the epilogue to his essay (UHp64) Tolkien suggests strongly the capacity of fantasy fiction to glimpse some truths, which show in themselves how the world’s limits and defects can be overcome. This comes about when a new appreciation of the familiar gives sudden all-inclusive perspectives. I hope to indicate some of this potential at the end of Rainbow when Grace returns to the orchard behind her home. It was from here that she set out in good faith on an indirect trek to the Rainbow realms, apparently with very little to guide her except the amethyst gem stone you heard about in her conversation with Don and which she had chosen as the best of gifts since it stood for the quality of wonder.  In the Rainbow Palace she had been told to relinquish it as her journey had made it unnecessary. She was to place it on one of the guardian’s looms for its moods and patterns to be threaded into sunsets and moonrises, so all who saw them would pause for thought. Down to the smallest details in the inclusive secondary world of this tale everything has an integral rôle.

 §27   Grace’s movement through the thin veils that divide the ‘here and now’ from the ‘beyond’ has not been an end in itself; it prepares for her reinvigorated return.  What she’s seen and heard does not set her apart from daily life but enables her to embrace it more positively. (This is the case, too, with Smith in Tolkien’s SWM. Only the vast shadow he casts (p.24) and noticed by his son, suggests that some deeply inaccessible part of him has been transformed. He remains a family man and an outstanding and discerning craftsman.) Like him Grace has encountered 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 have always been as frustrating and confusing as ever.

§28   Tolkien maintains (UHpp62-3) that if fairy stories have been rooted in a perception and appreciation of the primary world, part of the refreshment and renewal they achieve is what he calls The Consolation of the Happy Ending. For this he coins the term ‘eucatastophe’, literally a good final turn of events. He says it’s ‘…a sudden miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur’. It gives ‘…a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world…’ or to put it another way:

‘…of underlying reality or truth’. And, significantly, he adds that it ‘reflects a glory backwards…’

§29 Arguably, in my tale, Grace’s sudden, undramatic return to the orchard from where she set out is merely anticlimax or a device for getting her home, hardly ‘eucatastophe’. But we can infer how richly she is enjoying the detail and a more heightened sense of a whole, interrelated picture of the natural world, suggesting that her return to the ‘here and now’ links with her experience of Faërie:

§29a…she found herself looking at orchard trees

and beyond them a tall, thick hedge running beside

the long lane that skirted aunt and uncle’s land.

Early summer sun shone brightly and made

everything glisten after a passing shower.

The geese she’d just fed forgot to quarrel,

preened themselves and flapped their idle wings.

Was it the rain or could she see more clearly?

Hawthorn leaves were a glossier dark green

than before, their pale berries ready to ripen

for winter-starved birds. Lichen-patterned bark

of the oldest pear tree made a silver-grey beard

finer than Woodmaster-Oak’s trunk. At her feet

so many different grass-green families and armies

bustled into growth, and among them creeping

cheerfully back to flower, speedwells, camomile,

golden birds-foot trefoil and tufted ground ivy,

let wandering geese peck and trample where they would.


Along beside the hedge Grace was glad to see

foxgloves, stinking lords-and-ladies, meadowsweet

and whitening upturned umbrellas of parsley and hemlock.

On high in his elm tower a song thrush

repeated his warning: my-castle… my-castle!

Looking east beyond the house to where the shower

had passed she hoped to see a hint of rainbow.

Of course the sun was far too high to play upon

distant rain, but looking up she was amazed

to spot a most unusual many-coloured crest.

Have you ever seen a sun-shaft caught in

wispy cloud turn to watery stained-glass?

It’s the closest you’ll come to finding a rainbow flower.

§30 Similarly when she thinks she hears her guardian, Heartsease, sing (for the last time) it leads to some interesting perspectives:

§30a Just then a familiar high-pitched, sweet voice

sang on the air just as she had heard it

in that very place only moments ago,

or so it now seemed, when her guide and guardian

had appeared in folds of airy, shimmering violet.


Among violets under hedge

   farewell I wave to you.

Has Heartsease kept her pledge

   lovingly to guide you?


Over ravine of River Day

   I’ve brought you.

Time now to find your way

   where dreams may lead you.


It made Grace wonder if ‘dreams’ could mean

being dreamy and lazy or moments and faces recalled

after waking. The dreams the Piper gave her always

seemed to lead to anxious times and hard choices.

As for being back home from somewhere else,

so much in this orchard reminded her

of places she was meant to have left behind.

Were all those wonders and adventures ‘just

a dream’? Something she heard people say

about ideas, plans or fanciful hopes.


  §31 Both here and in the last few lines we see that she is slowly learning that there is no clear boundary between Faërie and the everyday. The meeting point between the two is in fact within herself, undoubtedly a joyous and promising perception, if as yet only dimly grasped, as the closing lines perhaps imply:


               §31a Still unable to believe no one had missed her

or might be searching orchard, lanes and fields beyond,

she dragged the rickety gate open, skipped

across lawns to the ever-open back porch

and into the kitchen where leftovers soup

simmered as invitingly as ever.

How glad she was that nothing had changed.

So was she after all just the same Grace?








Lecture given at The Tolkien Society’s Return of the Ring Celebration:

Loughborough University: August 2012 (Uncut version with appendices)


FANTASY:  delusion or wisdom?                               

(Themes and emphases in JRR Tolkien’s Essay on Fairy Stories related to Michael Tolkien’s tale, RAINBOW.)