Art and Literature News

WISH Granted: an Exclusive Interview with Michael Tolkien

Michael_TolkienBooks have a funny way of sticking with us. I can still remember my mother reading The Monster at the End of this Book when I was no more than 3 years old. An undisclosed amount of years later, the smell of the book’s pages, the mark of blue crayon scuffed on the cover, and most of all, my mother’s Grover impression, are still fresh in my memory. For Michael Tolkien, one of those impressionable stories was Florence Bone’s, The Rose-Colored Wish.

The grandson of of J. R. R. Tolkien, Michael studied English Language and Literature at the University of St. Andrews, received a B.Phil in Restoration and 18th Century English Literature at Merton College, and went on to teach at a secondary school. While he currently speaks at lectures on adult education, he devotes much of his time to writing.

The same copy of The Rose-Colored Wish that was read to him as a child was later passed on to him, and eventually, was the much-requested story by his own children. Though the original book was published back in 1923, Michael took on the challenge of re-writing the story, putting his own imprint within it’s pages and giving it the new title, Wish.

The story consists of an evil enchanter, who with the use of a wishing chain, preys on farmers by ruining their crops, kidnapping their children, and stealing their livestock. Two village children take it upon themselves to steal the chain and use it to their own advantage, however, their actions soon spark a whole new set of problems.

In this exclusive interview, Michael Tolkien discusses his writing process, his early memories reading The Rose-Coloured Wish, and future writing projects he has in the works.

Arwen:  Your mother first introduced you to Florence Bone’s The Rose-Coloured Wish. What do you most remember about that first impression?

Michael: 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.)

Arwen: Does your childhood impression differ from the one you now hold? If so, what has changed?

Michael: 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.

Arwen: What was it about The Rose-Coloured Wish that most influenced you to begin work on WISH ?

Michael: 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 lowlevel 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 creative validity?)

Arwen: Are there any parts you were hesitant to change or omit from the original story?

Michael: 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 deepseated histories.

Arwen: What do you hope readers, children and adults alike, will gain from reading WISH ?

Wish_coverMichael: 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 malaise.

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 the tangible 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 realms. 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.

Arwen: What first influenced you to begin writing in general?

Michael: 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 handwritten 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.

Arwen: What part of writing and/or creating a story do you most enjoy?

Michael: 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 storywriter 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.

Arwen: Are you currently working on a project or have any planned for the future?

Michael: I have adapted another ‘lost’ children’s story, ‘The Idle Fairy’ 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 stepdaughter, 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 his 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. 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 shows:

There are many tales about woodsies or woodsters,

spirit-folk who live and look after plants

on the edge of woods, once known as wood-shores,

which is why some call these beings woodsors.

One such story has often been told in many ways,

perhaps because it can be made to fit the times

you live in. It’s about a young woodsy

we’ll call Leaf-lag from the name of his tribe.

(All woodsy family names begin with Leaf,

followed by another L word, such as Leaf-lore,

Leaf-long, Leaf-limb, Leaf-link, Leaf-love, Leaf-light…)

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.

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 móve ón 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.

For more information on Michael Tolkien’s writing and lectures, and to order your own copy of Wish, visit michaeltolkien.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Truly a great piece of information and interview. I had no idea he had written such a book. Am excited to buy it now.

  2. Well done Arwen – and many thanks to Mr. Tolkien for the interview – wonderful!