I remember #66 The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton from when I was a kid. I read a lot of Blyton’s books and I think this series was my favourite.
The Magic Faraway Tree is the sequel to The Enchanted Wood. In The Enchanted Wood, three siblings discover an enchanted wood, where trees talk to each other and magical things happen. At the centre of the wood is the Magic Faraway Tree, an enormous tree with magical people living, like squirrels, in its trunk and whose branches stretch up into the clouds. If you climb up through the clouds, you come to a magical land, which changes every few days. In The Magic Faraway Tree the children are joined by their cousin and climb the tree again for further adventures.
There are two more books in the series but it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in – or at least, I didn’t feel lost or confused skipping The Enchanted Wood.
A magical world, an adequate story
Blyton’s world creation, in this series, is rather brilliant. The Magic Faraway Tree itself would be enough for a book. It is populated by a cast of fabulous characters, fairy folk with special powers, odd food and an unusual willingness to spend time with children and tree them as adults. Add in the carousel of lands at the top of the tree, and you’ve got somewhere that many people will want to go and live.
The Magic Faraway Tree isn’t the only book I’d rather visit than read. Reviewing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Harry Potter books I mentioned that in each the world outstrips the story – in Charlie, Charlie is barely present at his own adventure, he’s simply a conduit for our visit to Wonka’s. Rowling has better stories, but the world still sparkles more than anything else.
Interestingly, there are other similarities between the books. That children are the means for exploring the worlds isn’t surprising, given these are kid’s books, but they all have at least one fey not-quite-human guide and the books all feature fabulous sweets with punny names as a central delight and plot device.
But is it good for you?
Blyton published The Magic Faraway Tree in 1943, twenty years before Charlie and fifty years before Harry Potter. Blyton was born in 1897, when Victoria was still on the throne, so by 1943 she was already 56, had several dozen or perhaps a hundred books and seems to have been fairly set in her ways. The morals and attitudes in her books don’t seem to reflect the changing period she was living in – there’s no hint this book was written during the war, nary a rationing card or air raid siren in sight – but instead seem to have been set at an earlier date, perhaps in reaction to said changes
I don’t think Blyton’s books are good for you. The Magic Faraway Tree is an excellent example of how gradual, repeated microactions add up to a rigid view of the world where a single trait (such as gender, skin colour or a fondness for sweets) marks the bearer out as unfit for leadership roles and relegates them to, at best, second class adventures.
The edition I read of The Magic Faraway Tree had clearly already been edited and updated – all the children’s names had been changed, from Jo, Bessie, Fanny and Dick to Joe, Beth, Franny and Rick. I don’t know what other changes have been made, how many golliwogs and little lectures on how men are constitutionally unsuited to doing the washing up have been taken out, but speaking only of the edited text, there is plenty left in to object to.
Joe (I’m using the names and other details from the edition I read) is the designated leader of the group – perhaps he’s 2 or 3 years older than the rest, which might make sense, but that’s not clarified. They all seem much of an age (which is odd, in a family where the kids are supposed to have come along one after the other in the usual way) but Joe is the boy, so he leads. Rick is disqualified from leadership because he is greedy. It’s pretty much his only character trait. The two girls are indistinguishable and are only seen separately when one has to selflessly stay back at the house to care for someone, completely missing the adventures.
I didn’t spot any indication that Joe is older or better prepared or smarter than anyone else, and Rick is shown as clumsy, greedy and generally second-rate, yet whenever anyone has to take an active role in the peril, it’s the boys who do so.
It’s an interesting example of sexism – you could argue that the girls go on and participate in all the adventures, and that’s true, they do. However, it’s when the group splits up that you notice that the boys take the active / dangerous role and the girls take the caring / food preparing / home making role. It’s absurd – so girls are brave / strong / bold enough to climb a tree and go on adventures in the lands above and deal with whatever happens, but only if the boys aren’t around.
The deference that everyone shows to Joe confused and annoyed me as well. It’s just not likely, unless he is actually significantly older than the others, and even then that doesn’t excuse the adult fairy folk from deferring to him. There’s one scene where the other three children all want to do something which Joe thinks might be dangerous – and they beg and plead for him to change his mind, as though he’s a parent refusing to drive them to a concert or pay for cinema tickets or something not another kid who can’t, really, stand in their way. I appreciate that I was born 40 years after this book was published, but from my recollections it just seems ferociously unrealistic. Where there’s no real power imbalance, cooperation is inevitable.
So I’m in a quandary. Even the revised edition of The Magic Faraway Tree is not up to scratch – it’s not a book that will stretch a child, that will encourage them to learn new words or to treat people more kindly or challenge stereotypes. And yet, I loved this book as a child, and I spent hours thinking about going to the lands at the top of the tree or inventing my own. The big idea is fantastic and charming. The lands at the top of the tree are fabulous and fun. I just wish that someone else – the fabulous E Nesbit perhaps – had written the books, as the stories are insipid and bombastic, full of twee moralizing designed to keep everyone in their place.
I don’t believe that books should be banned, but I do think that some books shouldn’t be encouraged. A book can change your life – they’re packed full of ideas and marvels – and I feel that Blyton’s books are like some old fashioned sweet, the kind where the original recipe called for a food dye made of lead or cadmium. I don’t think the one or two Blyton’s will hurt anyone, but an exclusive diet would probably give you slow poisoning.