Following the resounding success of my Locus Quest, I faced a dilemma: which reading list to follow it up with? Variety is the spice of life, so I’ve decided to diversify and pursue six different lists simultaneously. This book falls into my BEDTIME STORIES list.
I have a little boy and love reading to him, so this reading list will cover the classic (and new) children’s stories we’re enjoying together.
My wife, Millie, and I are taking it in turns to pick bed-time stories for our baby boy, Fin. Winnie-the-Pooh was my choice and then to follow it, for her pick, we’ve just had The Enchanted Wood. I’ve already picked The Wind in the Willows to follow.
Enid Blyton is a very familiar name to me, I must have read most of both the Famous Five and the Secret Seven stories as a child, but somehow The Faraway Tree series passed me by completely. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it before Millie began telling me about it.
The premise is simple enough: a family from the city with three children (a boy and two girls) move out to the countryside. The children are told of an enchanted wood nearby and in that wood they discover a magic tree. Many magical folk live in the woods and up the tree, but at the very top of the tree is a ladder through the clouds to a magical land. The question is, which magical land will be through the clouds today? For it changes, quite regularly, you see. And you never know if the land through the clouds is nice or nasty – but you’re guaranteed an adventure!
We picked up a copy of this book from a second hand book store in the Cardiff arcades and it was a modern re-print. I was only a few pages in when she started complaining that it wasn’t how she remembered it –two of the children’s names were different! She stole the book from me and started flicking through it – “she's called Dame Slap, not Dame Snap!” she muttered. Having never read the stories before I was none the wiser, but apparently at some point the books have been amended by the Politically-Correct Brigade. Determined that we stay true to her childhood nostalgia, Millie picked up her original copies of the series from her Grandmother’s house.
I think this PC editing is all a bit over the top. They changed the little girls, Bessie and Fanny to Beth and Frannie (why bother?) and the evil schoolmistress, Dame Slap (who slaps naughty children) to Dame Snap. I’m sure there are other changes too – having now read the original book there are gollywog dolls and a pony called Blackie –I doubt those survived the editor’s scalpel. All of which, while quite interesting, is an odd subplot for a widely beloved children’s book - and quite apart from the magic of the story itself.
Reading a book aloud gives you a different outlook on a writer’s style, its rhythm and meter, vocabulary and narrative flourishes. Blyton’s work is an absolute pleasure to read aloud, with a wonderful flow and even though dated, the language is infectious – I found myself using Blyton-esque phrases in regular conversation, “oh, how absolutely tremendous!”, “that’s a simply marvellous idea!”, etc.
Some of the magical lands at the top of the tree were playful and imaginative and will stick with me – The Rocking Land, The Land of Take-What-You-Want and The Land of Birthdays. But some others seemed rather uninspired and forgettable – The Roundabout Land, The Land of Ice and Snow, The Land of the Saucepan Man, etc.
Likewise, the characters who inhabit the enchanted wood and the faraway tree were a bit hit and miss for me. Moon-face – a bit weird. Silky – lovely! Mister Whatzisname and Dame Washalot – one note wonders. The Red Squirrel – cute. The Old Sacepan Man – annoying! As for the three children – I never developed different voices for them with my read aloud as I did with the characters of Winnie-the-Pooh because quite frankly they all spoke exactly the same way and had near identical characters. They’re all idealised clone-kids, (good, kind, considerate, hardworking, respectful, etc). Considering how many of these identikit kids Blyton uses in her stories , she must have had a production line churning them out… Famous Five + Secret Seven + Faraway Tree Three = the Fiction Factory Fifteen?
Overall I did enjoy the experience of reading The Enchanted Wood aloud to my son as his nightly bedtime story, but I’m not convinced it ranks as an all-time great. I’m pretty sure Millie would like us to work through the whole series, so maybe it will grow on me, I’m certainly happy to give it a chance.
After this I read: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell