Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, May 28, 2007

If It's Good Enough for Hugh and Liz...

The Magic Faraway Tree (1943)
Five Have a Wonderful Time (1952)

Note: These books may not be quite undead enough, as they come back into print every few years in the UK (with hip covers, and the racist and sexist bits taken out), but I'd never heard of Enid Blyton until my colleague and fellow L.A. true crime afficianado, Greg, suggested she might be a good subject for this project. The book titles were so silly and the premises so weird that I couldn't resist. Apparently, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley came together over a shared childhood obsession with Blyton's books.

Before J.K. Rowling was born, the biggest name in children's fantasy literature was another Brit by the name of Enid Blyton, and none of this waiting around 2 years for sequels with her. During her career, which spanned from the early 1920s until the late 60s, Blyton published around 600 books, and edited and wrote her own magazine. The year she died, Blyton's output was a little sluggish -- only 7 books.

However, while Rowling is lauded by fans and critics alike, Blyton's books received a frostier reception, particularly from librarians who thought her formulaic, monosyllabic stories were something for children to grow out of as quickly as possible.

I don't know, though. I read two of Blyton's best-known books, and really, I'm kind of surprised that a Leary/Burroughs-esque circle hasn't formed around them.

The Magic Faraway Tree is the story of three children who live next to a forest that happens to contain a magical, faraway tree crawling with forest friends like Moon-Face, Silky the Elf, and the Saucepan Man. At the top of the tree is a freakin' portal to alternate dimensions that change every few days. These include: the Land of Topsy-Turvy; the Land of Take What You Want; the Land of Do As You Please.

When Dick, their sort of naughty cousin, comes to visit, the first thing they do is spend two days telling him all about it, and promising to take him there once their parents allow them to stop farming. My heart really goes out to Dick those first two days. I mean, he's sent into indentured servitude on a farm with a bunch of batshit crazy cousins who are really excited about dragging him into the woods without adult supervision to commune with elves. I'm sure it crossed his mind that he was going to spend his summer vacation being sacrificed to Satan.

What's also weird about the book is that the parents (or at least the mother; the father is never really seen) are not only aware of their children's rich fantasy life, they also accept it as gospel truth, instead of assuming they'd all been out licking toads.

Now, Blyton's Famous Five series, featuring the adventures of Dick, Julian, Anne, George (a tomboy), and her dog, Timmy, is perhaps her most (in)famous. Blatantly sexist, snobbish, and anti-gypsy, The Famous Five Have a Wonderful Time is the eleventh book in the series, and clearly, Blyton had just run out of titles by then.

The book starts with the entirely implausible scenario of the children and their dog going on holiday by themselves to stay in a caravan surrounded by a campground of circus people. While the boys run off and play, little Anne and George spend their mornings tidying up and shopping for provisions. Anne actively loves housewifery, and is about as much fun as an instructional video.

The circus folk are super cool, and eat fire and throw knives and tame snakes, but for some reason, they don't warm to the wealthy children summering alone on their turf. The Famous Five are mystified ("But we're not like other children"). Then their old pal Jo, a little gypsy girl they befriended on a previous adventure, appears, and just happens to be related to the fire-eater and his wife (she is also frequently described as "filthy" and "dirty"). The circus folk are all deeply ashamed of how they treated the Famous Five, and they all become great friends. Jo even sleeps under the Famous Five's caravan. What a sport that filthy little gypsy girl is!

Somehow, tied up in the whole thing is a plot about a kidnapped scientist trapped in a nearby castle. Sure, why not.

So, I guess the moral of the story is, if you're a little kid who can't get drugs, reading the stories of Enid Blyton will tide you over until you can go to the magical, faraway tree all by yourself. Thanks again, Greg.

No comments: