Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Faraway Tree or Birth of a Fantophile Part 2

I said I’d introduce you to The Faraway Tree, so I’m making good on that now.

I’m not sure exactly how I was introduced to the books myself. I think it was when I spoke to the older sister of a friend, who was reading the books, and the idea interested me. I was already aware of Enid Blyton, having read some of the Noddy books. I think I must have been about 6 at the time.

Like most of Blyton’s work, the stories are very simple and easy to read, they also tend to be very episodic, almost like a collection of short stories on the one subject. The Wishing Chair books were much the same. The very concept behind both The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree lends itself to this type of story telling. It’s not the stories or even the characters that really grabbed me, even at this age I could recognise the recycling of stories, like David and Leigh Eddings, Blyton told the same story using the same characters over and over and it always ended up happily in the end. What hooked me were the concepts and the ideas that drove the books.

The central characters in the 3 Faraway Tree books are Blyton’s stereotypical 1930/1940’s British kids, or rather her idealised view of British children of the era. The real world very rarely, if ever, intruded on Blyton’s fantasies and as such although the 2nd of the books was written in the middle of the 2nd World War in 1943, there is no mention of it at all. The books seem to exist in a sort of never never land where time simply stopped in the early part of the 20th century. In the original texts the kids are called Jo, Bessie and Fanny. Unfortunately the Jack Booted Sook Brigade have gotten hold of them and their names were amended to Joe (apparently spelling a boy’s name without the ‘e’ confuses children. I deduced from the fact that Jo was always referred to in the masculine of ‘he’ or ‘him’ that it was a boy, I didn’t need the other ‘e’. Children really are more intelligent than censors give them credit for), Beth (apparently Bessie is old fashioned and has connotations to the American slave era. The 2nd part of that really threw me. It’s a corruption of Elizabeth for God’s sake! Even Queen Elizabeth I was referred to as ‘Good Queen Bess’ in old history texts) and Frannie (this one has a bit of validity, being that Fanny is American slang for backside and used to refer to the vagina in Great Britain and Australia, although at the time it was a common enough girls name, my mother actually had an Aunty Fan). There have been other changes, the golliwogs got it in the neck again, once again any reference to naughty golliwogs was replaced by goblins (I’m sure goblins find this offensive and I’m considering making a protest on their behalf) and any corporal punishment references were replaced, ie: villainess school teacher Dame Slap became Dame Snap and instead of hitting her unruly students, she screams at them loudly. Amazing.

Back to the story. Jo, Bessie and Fanny move to the country from the town. It’s never specified where they lived or where they moved to, but as the town is described as having dirty houses and tall chimneys it’s probably one of the larger British metropolises. The countryside is fairly generic and could be any rural locale. One thing I always found odd about the first book was that the kids (who all seem to be under 10) are allowed a large amount of freedom, their parents hardly ever worry that their offspring are off wandering about the countryside for hours on end. From this, and other work of hers, I can only conclude that Blyton was not comfortable trying to write realistic adults, and then again what under 12 year old really wants to read about realistically written adults? Parents are only used to either forbid or allow things when it’s convenient to the plot. Jo, who by virtue of his age generally takes the lead, suggests that they explore the nearby wood. The wood is separated from the country lane that their cottage is on by a ditch. They don’t get to explore very far the first day before they’re required at home again. When they mention the wood to their father and how it seems mysterious he says that the locals call it The Enchanted Wood (also the book’s title) and tend to avoid it.

Not so our heroes. The first chance they get (they seem to be permanently on vacation) they take a picnic into the wood. While they’re relaxing and eating they see a group of brownies. Now this is another point where Enid Blyton’s fictional children and real children differ. Any actual child confronted by a brownie would either run away to tell someone or try to catch it, that was if they even recognised what it was. Jo, Bessie and Fanny seem to have no problem deducing that the little bearded men in the forest are brownies and neither are they scared or particularly surprised. In fact they help the brownies when a gnome (again they know what he is) tries to steal something from the brownies. The kids chase the gnome up a tree, but the brownies give up the chase there. The tree that the gnome has climbed is known to them and everyone in the Enchanted Wood as The Faraway Tree, it is the oldest and most magical tree in the world. It’s top reaches all sorts of enchanted lands. Some are wondrous: the Land of Take What You Want, some are pointless: the Land of Topsy Turvy, some are unpleasant: Rocking Land, some are magical: the Land of Wizards. There is only one land at the top at a time, they move on fairly quickly and if you get stuck when a land moves on then you can have quite a job getting back to the tree, as the children will discover. The brownies are scared of the tree and warn the children that they should avoid it where ever possible. This is of course pouring oil on fire. If you want a child to do something then tell them not to.

First chance they get the kids go back to the wood with the intention of climbing The Faraway Tree. First they can’t find the tree, so they call for the brownies. Their 'leader’ Mr Whiskers, appears from down a rabbit hole (yes the rabbits do talk, and no the kids don’t seem to find this particularly strange. Fanny doesn’t surprise me, she’s a space cadet, but I always thought Jo and Bessie had more gumption) Mr Whiskers takes them to the tree and again cautions them against climbing it. The kids don’t listen and away they go.

The first really odd thing they notice is that the leaves and fruit of the tree change as you climb up it, then they see a small window in the tree’s trunk. The kids peer in and get a shock. A small man; a pixie, sticks his head out, screams at the children and flings a jug of water at them, which gets Bessie. This is their first encounter with one of the tree’s residents; the Angry Pixie.

Further up they see a door with a bell. Undeterred by their experience with the Angry Pixie they ring the bell. A voice replies and then when they don’t answer the door opens and a fluffy haired elf peers out. This is Silky, so named for her mane of hair. She’s described as an elf, but she’s always drawn with wings and looking like a fairy princess. She’s a home maker and is quite happy to feed the kids pop biscuits (a confection that only Silky seems to be able to make) and give them advice about the tree and it’s residents. There’s old Mister Watzisname, an absent minded gnome who spends most of his time sleeping outside his house and can’t remember his name. He did find it out once from a wizard, but promptly forgot it again. There’s also Dame Washalot, who takes in washing and tips the dirty water down the tree, regularly drenching unsuspecting travellers up the tree. Bessie gets hit by it as the kids make their way to the top and their first visit to a magical land.

As the land at the top is Roundabout Land it’s not a pleasant experience. They get lost and have to rely on assistance from a family of talking rabbits who help them find their way back to the tree. Fanny freezes while on a branch, and like the baby of the group that she is, refuses to go any further. This is when they meet Moonface. Exactly what Moonface is, is never described. He’s a small man of indeterminate age who is characterised by his big beaming moon of a face. His round house in the tree contains a slippery slip, which is a much quicker way of getting down the tree than climbing. He allows people to use the slippery slip as long as they pay him with toffee. He befriends the kids and agrees to let them use his slippery slip, complete with cushions for the journey down, as long as they bring him some toffee next time they visit the tree. The cushions are collected by a squirrel at the bottom of the tree. Quite a racket old Moonface has going on there, I don’t think he ever paid the squirrel, either. The promise of toffee gives the kids a reason to go back to the tree.

They decide it would be best to go at night and sneak out to give the toffee to Moonface. At night the Enchanted Wood is a different place, it’s lit up and all sorts of fairy folk wander about meeting and doing business. The Faraway Tree also does a brisk business with ropes hauling people up and down.

Jo unwisely goes into the land at the top of the tree and is caught by the obnoxious, dictatorial snowman that rules the land and housed with his army of polar bears. The land moves on before Moonface, Bessie and Fanny can rescue Jo. This is where Blyton’s imagination takes over again. Moonface concludes that his best option for rescuing Jo is to appeal to the three bears (as in Goldilocks and the 3 Bears) to accede with their relatives the polar bears on Jo’s behalf. They travel to the bears house by means of a windup toy train that has been enlarged for the purpose. There are two stops before the 3 Bears house. One is Golliwog Station (bet that’s not there anymore) and the other is Crosspatch Station. In Blyton’s version Goldilocks and the bears are very good friends, she lives with the bears and Papa Bear is very fond of her, they haven’t even heard of the story. Jo is eventually rescued, but that’s not all that important. What I loved was what Blyton did with the old fairy tale and how she wove it into her own story. We also found out that Moonface can do magic. It seemed to be forgotten after this particular story, but that’s not unusual in Blyton’s work, continuity was never a strong point.

The kids have all sorts of adventures with their new friends in the tree and midway through the book another major character was introduced; an eccentric tinker called the Saucepan Man. The Saucepan Man is hard of hearing because of all the saucepans and kettles he wears around himself that clash all the time, so he consistently mishears what people say, this gets him and usually whoever is with him at the time into trouble. I think he was intended to be some sort of comedy relief, but like Jar Jar Binks he proved to be more annoying than amusing.

The sequel: The Magic Faraway Tree introduced a new character. Cousin Dick (his name has since been changed to Rick, because Dick is slang for penis. Honestly!) came to stay with them. We also found out that the children’s mother’s first name was Polly. Initially Dick didn’t believe the stories his cousins told about the wood and the tree, so you just knew that they’d have to prove their validity by showing him, that was if they could stop hanging out with their magical friends in the first place. In what a very obvious attempt to parallel the original 3 kids first journey up the tree Dick had the Angry Pixie throw water at him and was soaked by Dame Washalot’s dirty water, the same as had happened to Bessie the first time she climbed the tree with her brother and sister.

Dick was a useful character, he was a good counterpoint to Jo, who was a bit prissy at times. Dick was a far more adventurous character, he was also a little bit naughty, but in the nicest possible way. None of Blyton’s characters were every truly bad, they were mischievious at worst. The stories in the book are largely retreads of the first one, although the Land of Dreams arc was extremely well done with things altering and changing in the same way they often seem to in dreams. Sometimes I have to remind myself that to the best of everyone’s knowledge the author had never taken acid.

It was in this book that the kids mother showed herself to be particularly clueless. Due to a misunderstanding caused by Dick, Moonface and Saucepan stayed a few days at the kids house. Admittedly the children’s parents had heard stories from their offspring about Moonface and Saucepan, but seeing them in the flesh is another thing altogether. I have to admit if I had kids and they suddenly started associating with someone who had a face like a big moon and an odd character who tied saucepans around himself I’d have to ask some questions, but this mother accepts them as friends of her children and lets them stay with no real questions asked.

The two of them head back to the tree when Silky comes and tells them that the Land of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe came to the tree and the Old Woman decided that she was tired of looking after a pack of ungrateful brats (she didn’t use those exact words, but the intent was there) and had decided to move into Moonface’s round house. The lunar faced man wasn’t having that and had to head back to the tree. He got his house back after the kids pulled a few tricks on the Old Woman. Blyton used the houses being taken over by people from one of the lands at the top of the tree stoyrline again in that book, and once that had been sorted out, she brought the book to its conclusion with an excursion to the Land of Presents, the previous book had featured the Land of Birthdays.

The 3rd and final Faraway Tree book was called The Folk of the Faraway Tree. Cousin Dick had returned home and was replaced by Connie, the daughter of a friend of their mothers. Connie’s mother had to go away for her health and the children’s mother agreed to look after the girl. Connie was the same age as Fanny and as an indulged only child was somewhat spoilt when compared to the other 3.

Connie didn’t get along with the others initially, she found them ‘quaint’ as to her they were unsophisiticated ‘country folk’ and she did not believe in fairies and magic. Even meeting Moonface didn’t change her mind. The kids decided that the only thing for it was to take her up the tree. As with Bessie and Dick, Connie’s first encounter with the Angry Pixie did not go well, he got her with ink. She met Silky and Saucepan and found them far more to her liking. Silky was nice and Saucepan was funny. She fell down Moonface’s slippery slip and eventually got in a huff and disappeared into the one of the lands at the top of the tree. There were two possible outcomes here, it was either a rotten land or it was going to move away before the others could get her back. This time it was the latter. By the time they got her back she was a believer and would be as much a part of the Faraway Tree as Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick.

The accepted versions of nursery rhymes was once again turned on it’s head when the Land of Nursery Rhymes came to visit and it turned out that Miss Muffett and the Spider were actually very good friends. Dame Slap reappeared in a multiple chapter story that also featured Saucepan’s mother.

While Connie now believed in the tree and it’s residents she was still a spoilt young girl and this managed to get her in trouble again. It was when the tree itself was attacked by an army of trolls that Connie pitched in with Jo, Bessie and Fanny and all the other folk of the Faraway Tree and the Enchanted Wood that it was obvious her character had learned from what had happened and she’d become a better person for it. This particular story arc also introduced an annoying rabbit called Woffles. Again he was meant to be comic relief, but just fell flat. There was a visit to the Land of Treats towards the end, but the final chapter was called Goodbye to the Faraway Tree. It wasn’t really goodbye, it was for Connie, but Jo, Bessie and Fanny would continue to live there and have adventures up the tree with their friends.

That was the last book, though. I have to admit that I was glad she ended it when she did, it was time. In many ways Enid Blyton milked concepts for all they were worth, but she didn’t do that with the Faraway Tree, possibly she liked the concept herself too much to kill it.

I have to say that these magical children’s adventures were my introduction to fantasy. From there I moved onto Tove Jansson’s marvelously whimsical Moomintroll books, CS Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and then onto The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. I’ve been reading fantasy most of my life and I’ve read some good, some bad, but mostly good. They were far from the best written books I’ve ever read, but I have Enid Blyton and her Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books to thank for it.

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