Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tree Planting

Three pages largely concerning a tree planting ceremony, it was hosted by Filgate and the guest ‘planter’ was Henrot Gutch, in recognition of it being ‘Muddah’s Week’ as announced by Filgate. The only characters shown in the first two pages were the former representative of ‘da docks’ and Cerebus’ mother in law. The chapter ended with Filgate making a joke about Henrot’s name sounding like a sneeze with the predictable enraged response from Mrs Gutch.

Although Dave was the master of saying a lot with few words, pictures or pages I question the wisdom of dividing the chapters up this way. The comics were not originally published in this form, because loyal and devoted as Dave’s readers were even they would have had difficulty accepting two or three page issues on a bi monthly schedule. This one is so short that the punchline on the last page is so predictable it's not even funny. The three page joke as an issue was rather pointless as it doesn’t tell the reader anything or advance the story, nor does it provide any foreshadowing. At this point the book seemed to be stuck in a rut with Cerebus locked into a life he didn’t want and neither he or his creator knew how to get him out of it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

First Impression

This chapter seems to have a prologue all of its own. It's titled Note and it's torn up pieces of a note sent to Cerebus. It is unclear as to whether he received it. From what can be deciphered of the fragments it's letter congratulating him on his appointment and marriage. The reason I wonder if Cerebus read it is because it is signed Jaka, daughter of the House of Tavers. I can't imagine him tearing up anything from Jaka. He would treasure it. As Dave had taken to doing in this section of the book it was bordered in that faux Regency style, once again simply reinforcing the period the author wanted the reader to be in mind of without having to use street scenes or even display characters. He's one of the cleverest comic artists I've ever seen and Church & State Vol I was right in the middle of his Golden Period.

The actual chapter is one of the funnier ones and mainly because it contained one of the series best punchlines. Weisshaupt has arranged for his puppet Prime Minister to meet a Mrs Tynsdale-Clyde, heading up another of Weisshaupt's anti Cirinist commissions. Like many anto Cirinists Mrs Tynsdale-Clyde is a reformed Cirinist. Weisshaupt is concerned that Cerebus will somehow embarass him. The biggest problem is that Cerebus is continually fiddling with his trousers, he complains that the tailor has made them too tight. Weisshaupt sees it as a sign of vulgarity and tells him to stop it.

Mrs Tynsdale-Clude is a buttoned down prude with an extremely impressive bosom. Just as Weisshaupt introduces Cerebus there is a ripping sound and Cerebus tail pops out the front of his trousers. We, the readers know Cerebus has a tail, Mrs Tynsdale-Clyde does not, and it does not look like a tail. Mrs Tynsdale-Clyde faints. Cerebus tells Weisshaupt: 'Cerebus told you his britches were too tight!' Laugh? I nearly died.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Another very short chapter, possibly the shortest I've seen. It's two pages. There are only three images and two characters. One is the Elf reading Cerebus' memoirs and the other is Cerebus himself togged out in his Prime Ministerial garb, complete with wig. It's short and sweet and the text is another extract from the aardvark's memoirs, mostly whinging about how rotten it was to be Prime Minister.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Carroll E. King Reads

The title referred to two things. Carroll E. King Reads was the name of the shop seen on the opening page, arresting the attention of the well dressed, groomed and walk stick carrying individual wandering past. It also referred to the Reads themselves. Reads were Weisshaupt's idea. They're books. They were soft porn of the kind that generally features Fabio on the cover. Weisshaupt claimed that they were written by important political figures such as Cerebus.

Initially the gentleman on the front page who enters the shop to inquire as to what the shop sold in addition to Reads is scornful of the medium, considering it an entertainment only for the lower classes he purchases The Prime Minister and the Hussey after reading some of it's racier passages, which really proves Weisshaupt's point.

The second part of this short chapter is entitled At The Club One Afternoon. The script is across two pages in an old fashioned font that is reminiscent of the late 19th century, which is also the period Iest seems to be set in.

It features two stuffy gentlemen of the type that were thought to frequent exclusive gentleman's clubs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are discussing Cerebus in approving tones, they seem to find him admirable.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

All Lined Up

Cerebus is once again the Prime Minister of Iest, only this time he is not his own man...errr...aardvark. He's Weisshaupt's puppet, I guess you could argue he was Astoria's puppet the first time, but he had far more control of his own destiny then.

Relations between Cerebus and his mother in law have deteriorated to the point where they cannot even get through a meal without a shouting match and a food fight. This is much to Sophia's distress. The warrior woman worried about her mother dying alone and unloved (a common theme in the book) and wants to set her up with Blakely. Cerebus loathes Henrot and wouldn't even wish her on someone he dislikes as much as Blakely. Cerebus undisguised view of his mother in law as a vicious, old, fat, ugly woman upsets Sophia to the extent that she refuses to talk or have anything much to do with him, even in bed.

Cerebus is rescued from having to try and mend bridges with Sophia by being summoned to attend the pope. Pope Harmony IV to be exact. Harmony's II & III having been killed off by their successors. Once again the mysterious Lion of Serrea is mentioned, because apparently one of his representatives has to be present.

The Pope himself does not seem to be in his right mind for most of his meeting with Cerebus. Babbling incoherently about Weisshaupt and Cerebus' destiny as a priest. He also has knowledge of Lord Julius, Cirin, The Abbess, Astoria, Wenda and even Perce. Everything that is being said is dutifully written down by the Lion of Serrea's representative and the key moment is when Harmony IV says it is Cirin not Weisshaupt who will prevail. A bearded man carrying a crossbow appears and is informed by the scribe that Harmony is a Cirinist. As such he must die. The crossbowman takes aim and fires, Harmony dies with Cerebus standing beside his throne.
The large picture of Cerebus wide eyes with the sound THUNK and blood splattered across the HU & N is brilliant work and tells the reader the story without having to show what really happened.

The second last page sees, for me, the welcome return of the Elf. She greets Cerebus when he returns and breathlessly asks incessant questions about what the Pope is right. An angry and stunned Cerebus walks past her without answering and enters his bedroom. Sophia inquires as to whether Cerebus wants to make up and he angrily replies No.

To welcome readers back to Iest and The Regency Dave decorated the border of every page with a regency style wallpaper design. You don't pick up on this until a second read, but it puts the reader back in the setting immediately and is a very effective technique. This was yet another reason why Cerebus had to be an independent publication, back in the 80's it simply wouldn't have survived as a mass market publication.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Suddenly Sophia

Cerebus wakes in a hotel in Port Seprania (I assume in new Sepra) with a pounding headache. He's been on another bender. He gets out of bed and hears a ching in the usual pounding of a hangover. The last panel on that page is brilliant, 5 shots of Cerebus' face going through a gamut of emotions, settling on stunned shock when he looks downward.

Cerebus is wearing a chainmail bikini. As the only person Cerebus knows who wears such attire is the feisty, randy and decidedly crazy Red Sophia this is not a good development. His worst fears are realised when he looks at the rumpled bed and sees an equally rumpled Sophia laying there.

Worse is yet to come. Weisshaupt walks in and it appears that he drugged Cerebus and whilst in a drugged and inebriated state Cerebus not only slept with Red Sophia he married her! Weisshaupt's administration has made leaving a legitimized marriage (Sophia claims they legitimized it at least 12 times) a hanging offence.

This is all part of the devious bureaucrat's plan to reinstall Cerebus as the Prime Minister of Iest. As the aardvark has no choice at the present time he lets Weisshaupt's flunkies dress him in wig and suit and prepares to go back to Iest. The final insult is meeting Henrot Gutch. Henrot is Cerebus' new mother in law and to say that she is the mother in law from hell is putting it rather mildly.

Dave was at his funniest both with art and script in this one. Images of Cerebus wearing only Sophia's bikini were hysterical as were the scenes with him in the suit and the wig, coupled with his almost permanent scowl.

Although I'd never been much of a Sophia fan, she seemed more amusing in this and the character had a little more depth, now she wasn't threatening to cut heads off and had been made into more of a girly girl, who just happened to have a penchant for chainmail underwear.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Mystic We: The Origin of the Wolveroach Part 3

The Wolveroach dives into the soldiers and like his namesake is virtually unkillable and at the same time a killing machine. Even before the 'enhancements' the Roach seemed to be immortal. He doesn't die, simply changes incarnations, truth be told Dave is a good writer and it's against his, or any decent writers, interests to kill off major characters while they're still of use, especially if they're fan favourites, which the Roach has always been.

Michelle, because of her nature and her connection with 'Uncle Artemis', is distraught and believes that he will be killed. Cerebus on the other hand, has gone up against Artemis on a number of occasions and seen him survive things that no one has a reasonable expectation of walking away from. He attempts to reassure Michelle by telling her that even he would think twice about scrapping with the Bug and his new muscles. This doesn't help. Michelle has taken Cerebus at face value, is unaware of his reputation as a mercenary and doesn't realise that he is a formidable opponent.

While he's arguing the point with her, he hears a voice in his head that directs him to the cellar. He finds the Wolveroach there. He has been possessed by Professor Charles X Claremont. The Professor's body was damaged beyond all repair by the 'apocalypse beasts', but his mind and spiritual form live on, he just has to use hosts, in this case the Wolveroach. When considering the somewhat strained relationship between Wolverine and Professor X this was rather amusing. Wolverine would have gutted Professor X if he ever tried a similar stunt.

Claremont informs Cerebus that he is all knowing and as such knows that Cerebus has fallen for Michelle, but that he will never get her. His only hope is to do as Claremont instructs him. Interestingly Claremont does say that Jaka still loves Cerebus.

Cerebus tries using Claremont's advice and gets a bowl of egg salad dumped on his head, this was largely Claremont playing a joke on the aardvark and using Cerebus' emotional state to make it work.

Cerebus decides to leave. He appears at the door to the room with the window that he and Michelle used to sit by. His sword and book are under one arm, he's definitely moving on. He can see a ghost of himself and Michelle sitting in the window, laughing. Michelle gives him the 1,000 crowns he wanted in a sealed courier's pouch, then she tosses the key at him to save him the trouble of cutting it open. Cerebus walks out and slams the door behind him. Michelle's face is shown in silhouette as he walks out of her life.

The Why & The Are: Origin of the Wolveroach Part 2

While Countess Michelle looked after her fiance; Vichy, she left Cerebus with Artemis. Cerebus has never gotten on with the Bug at the best of times. Mostly when they're alone they end up fighting. Because the Roach is, as usual, so completely in character that he's unintelligible to anyone sane Cerebus gives up.

Michelle seems rather put upon and feels as if she has to do everything, because no one else will help her. Personally I feel she has a persecution complex and actually likes having crises in her life. Why else would she invite Cerebus to stay with her when she obviously knows what he's like?

Unsurprisingly Artemis disappears. For some reason Michelle blames this on Cerebus, but it's just how the Roach is and how he's been ever since he got apprehended in Beduin with Elrod.

Later that night Cerebus and Michelle are again sitting on a couch by the window talking. Cerebus tells Michelle that the girl he almost married left him, she ran off with someone called Thomas. Her name was Michelle, which explains why he opened up to the Countess about her, they shared the same name.

The Wolveroach reappears and as usual stands there looking heroic and spouting gibberish. He seems to be under the impression that Michelle is his lover and that like with Astoria Cerebus has stolen her. I wondered if Dave was trying to make a parallel with Wolverine's longing for Jean Grey, but knowing he could never have her because she was in love with Cyclops. He goes up to the roof for his final stand, because there are a group of armed soldiers on the property looking for him. I've never know if this was meant to happen or this was Dave's way of complying with Marvels cease and desist order and making it work in the context of the book.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Origin of the Wolveroach

Cerebus and the Countess drag the unconscious Wolveroach upstairs and Cerebus deduces that he isn't really the Countesses uncle. One puzzling thing was the Roach's incredible weight. He had been bulky ever since his Captain Cockroach days, but that was all muscle. This time he collapses the bed when they get him onto it.

Aside from Weisshaupt and Cerebus the Countess appears to have the longest association with the Roach. Weisshaupt brought him to her after spiriting him out of Beduin as a wanted felon. The Countess became quite fond of him, which is probably when she adopted him as her 'uncle'.

It was the Countess that Weisshaupt took the Roach from and moulded him into his 'hero of the realm' Captain Cockroach. When Weisshaupt got himself into trouble and went missing the Roach lost all focus and had no idea what to do with himself.

Astoria came to the Countess and said she needed somewhere to stay. She very quickly latched onto Uncle Artemis and seemed to befriend him, what she was doing was giving him someone else to follow, another cause to use his unique abilities to further.

In his Moon Roach guise he would occasionally visit the Countess and stand outside, on the second floor window ledges. The Countess was also aware of his regular personality changes and of Astoria's relationship with Cerebus.

Somehow he managed to escape the clutches of the church when Cerebus' government fell and let the Countess know that had survived by writing to her as Father Artemis Roach. He returned to his original protectoress not long after that. I found it interesting that she referred to him as Artemis all the time. I wonder where the name came from. I don't think it's his actual name and the readers had not been made aware of the businessman's name, the one that Cerebus had first met. Possibly it was a name the Countess made up for him. In any case the Countess' story about the Roach completely invalidates Astoria's Moon Roach origin story.

At this point Cerebus and the Countess are interrupted by the arrival of Weisshaupt. He claims to have entered through the door they left open when Artemis came in. I don't know if the Countess has any retainers, but she should sack them, because they appear to just let anyone wander into the place.

Weisshaupt is his usual supercilious, scheming self. There's a mention of a Sir Gerrik, which is not expanded upon, but promises an interesting story in the future with more than a whiff of scandal about it.

Weisshaupt is at it again, trying to put together his United Feldwar States concept, he offers Cerebus the Prime Ministership of Iest again, which Cerebus refuses, even though Weisshaupt has signed agreements with Lower Felda, New Sepra, Togith, Iest and Palnu. With Lord Julius on side Weisshaupt thinks he can't possibly lose. He doesn't seem to know the wily Palnan bureaucrat very well, even when Julius says he's on your side he probably really isn't.

Weisshaupt believes that the new incarnation he's given the Bug makes him the perfect tool. The Wolveroach combines the best elements of the previous versions. He has the crazed lone wolf aspect of the original Cockroach, he's the product of a scientific breakthrough like Captain Cockroach, although like Captain Cockroach, it's a bogus breakthrough. The character that the Wolveroach was based on; X-Men's Wolverine had an unbreakable adamantium skeleton that combined with his mutant healing factor made him near unkillable. I was wondering how they'd do that in Cerebus' world and the explanation also accounted for his increased weight. Weisshaupt had given him a costume with 200 pounds of moulded lead stitched into it. He also has the deadly assassin part of the Moon Roach in him as well. Weisshaupt has informants in the government who tell the Roach who to kill, they're known as X-Persons. Initially they were to be called the X-Men, but one of them pointed out that no Cirinist would ever work for an organisation that had the word 'men' in it. The fact that if Dave had done this he would have had to contend a massive lawsuit with Marvel is not mentioned. On that point Dave was forced to pull the Wolveroach because Marvel threatened legal action on the grounds that it was too close to their character of Wolverine. They never complained about Captain Cockroach (Captain America) or the Moon Roach (Moon Knight). Dave did eventually make his peace with Marvel, but he was sure ticked off at the time. I can't say I blame him. Captain America was virtually public domain and the Moon Knight was never more than a B list hero, but parody one of their A listers and watch the legal threats fly.

Weisshaupt is ordered out of the house by Cerebus and takes his leave. It isn't mentioned and maybe it was coincidental, but there was a definite resemblance between the Countess and Weisshaupt. It then dawns on the Countess that she accidentally left 'Uncle' Artemis in the same room as her 'fiance' and that can't be a good thing. I was still struck by the speech patterns on her fiance and how he sounded so much like the McGrews. Maybe he's Onlian.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Countess & The Aardvark

Cerebus arrives at the Countess' estate in the pouring rain.

Given the lack of servants and the spartan look of the house it would appear that the Countess is somewhat impoverished, although that's at odds with the 400 crowns she gave Silverspoon to get Cerebus there in the first place.

The Countess is a rather masculine looking woman, who when she greets Cerebus is actually dressed in a rather mannish manner. It struck me that a number of Dave's women in the books do tend to look rather androgynous, very strong featured. Even Jaka's face is drawn that way at times. It's either a style or something he does unconsciously.

The Countess is intensely interested in Cerebus' book and he's determined to only give very concise answers. He's equally interested in finding out whether she is a Cirinist or a Kevillist. Although both were effectively religions, with Kevillism being an offshoot of Cirinism, at this stage they seem to come across more as political factions. As the book is called Church & State this makes sense. There is very little division between the two.

I think I picked up a continuity error midway through this chapter. Cerebus tells the Countess that he came because she sent him 300 crowns, yet in the previous chapter it is very clearly stated that it was 400 crowns. It could be possible that Cerebus is trying to make the Countess think Silverspoon pocketed the other 100, so that way if she wants her money back he'll still be able to keep that 100, plus what Silverspoon and Rosencrant....sorry Gwane and Trystrim gave him.

The Countess also asks Cerebus questions about what Lord Julius is like. She seems to think he's joking when he replies that Lord Julius is a lot like a bottomless pit you have to keep throwing money into. The Countess seems to think he's being flippant, but the aardvark could not be more serious.

They are interrupted by the appearance of an odd character, who dresses and talks like a McGrew, and seems to be labouring under the misconception that he is the Countess' fiance. He may be crude, but I got the feeling that he bankrolls the Countess.

Dave developed quite a habit of writing parts of his story in prose with one large chunk of it per page. He does that here, with Cerebus writing his memoir. He finishes this entry off with the revelation that Lord Julius moustache is painted on.

When Cerebus encounters the Countess the following day she is wearing sundress, although she still looks like a man, and is in a playful mood, going so far as to push Cerebus into a fountain in her garden. It's a move she soon regrets as we all know what happens when Cerebus' fur gets wet.

That night as the Countess and Cerebus sit in the window talking by the light of the crescent moon we find out a little more about the aardvark's past. He tells the Countess that he lived with a girl for while when he was 18, but she wasn't old enough to marry. He reminisced that she was spoilt and crazy, but never dull. The reminiscences are cut short by a crash downstairs.

Cerebus goes to investigate with the Countess in tow and stops dead. The Countess lets out a shocked cry of Uncle Artemis! Her 'uncle' is the Roach! He's in a different costume and he's unshaven, but it is the Roach. Kevitch still seems to be with him, narrating his movements and promising that they can't miss the secret origin of the Wolveroach! Part one of a three-part miniseries. Then he passes out.

Dave had obviously decided to take on one of Marvel's actually one of comics, biggest heroes of the 80's. The X-Men's Wolverine. The 3 part miniseries was another comic reference. The most popular characters got limited spin off books, usually they showcased the characters origin.

The rest of the story was worth it simply for the appearance of the Roach as an incarnation of Wolverine.

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.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The birth of a fantophile

I was going to do the 3rd chapter of Church & State, but was prevented by the fact that I haven't yet gotten around to reading it. I still wanted to post, so luckily saw something the other day that piqued my interest enough to write about it.

As I believe I've mentioned before I'm a fantophile. I'm not even sure if this is the accepted term or whether it's actually a real word, be rather cool if it's not, I've always wanted to create my own word and have it come into popular use. A fantophile by my definition is someone who enjoys reading fantasy novels. By fantasy I mean things along the lines of Lord of the Rings, not adult erotic fiction, although a number of the paranormal romances creeping into the genre now fit that description.

The other day I saw an article on a blog asking a number of fantasy authors what book first got them interested in the genre. The twist on this was that they were asking recognised authors. I've seen the same question asked regularly on various SFF themed forums. What prompted me to write about it was the depressing lack of orginality shown by many of the authors and the respondents in answering the question. So many of them said The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. There's nothing wrong with either book. I loved The Hobbit myself (less so Lord of the Rings, but that's probably a subject that deserves a post all its own), but it was far from the first fantasy novel I read or what got me interested in the genre. Most of those that didn't reference Professor Tolkein credited novels that were squarely aimed at readers 10 and over. This puzzled and made me wonder what they read before and when they started to read for pleasure.

I started reading almost as soon as I could start to recognise words, my primary reason for going to school was so that I could learn to read, and when someone asks me what book or books got me interested in fantasy I don't answer The Hobbit. I don't even answer The Chronicles of Narnia, which is another popular answer. Not sure if the fact that Tolkein and C.S Lewis (the author of the The Narnia Chronicles) were friends and colleagues is coincidental or not. If I think about it and am pressed for an answer then I reply Enid Blyton.

Outside of her home of England and the Commonwealth Enid Blyton is best known for The Famous Five; a series of children's whodunnits (she wrote 21 in all) about 4 British kids and their dog Timmy, who solve mysteries. She also wrote The Secret Seven, The Adventurous Four and Five Find-Outers and Dog. I hadn't even heard of the last 2 until I started to research this post (yes, I do research these!), and they weren't as popular as the FF, in fact The Secret Seven was largely the Famous Five with 2 extra cast members. Outside of that series Enid Blyton also became notable for her creation of the Terror of Toytown; the wooden doll Noddy. Even today Noddy is fairly popular in England and Australia.

I read the Famous Five books and the Secret Seven and I read a lot of Noddy. I still have a number of Noddy books, the ones before they were made politicallly correct by removing golliwogs and anything else that certain members of society thought may upset the youth of today. The books that I loved of Enid's were when she gave full rein to her imagination.

Aside from sleuthing pre teens and talking toys Enid also wrote a lot about fairies. Fairies, pixies, gnomes, goblins, brownies, things that don't even have names, Ms Blyton did them all. Enid Blyton's fairies were of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century kind, the ones that small girls like to think live at the bottom of their gardens. The ones that have gossamer wings and fly around wearing party frocks.

Two of the series featuring magical creatures were The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree. In the Wishing Chair series (there were 3 of them: The Adventures Of The Wishing Chair, The Wishing Chair Again & More Wishing Chair Stories) two siblings; Mollie and Peter find an old chair in an odd shop. They purchase the chair for their playroom, not knowing that it can grow wings and fly. It doesn't just fly anywhere either, it flies to magical lands. On their first journey they encounter a mischievous pixie by the name of Chinky who is being held prisoner by a giant. They rescue him and he goes to live in their playroom. Although Chinky is an integral part of the books he turns out to be a handful and most of the trouble that the kids and the chair find themselves in is largely due to the annoying pixie's nature and tendency to get himself into situations. In the second book the siblings and Chinky have to rescue the chair from a magical race called Slipperies, who have kidnapped it and cut off it's wings. The 3rd book was cobbled together from stories in the first book and some of Enid Blyton's anthologies. Although there was an amazing imagination and a fair bit of originality in The Wishing Chair books they were not a patch on the Faraway Tree books.

You now know how and why I became a fantophile. I'll introduce you to the Faraway Tree some time later.