Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Classic British Fantasy: THE ENCHANTED WOOD by Enid Blyton

Blyton, Enid. The Enchanted Wood. Illustrated by Jan McCafferty. London: EuroKids International/Egmont, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4052-2857-2. $9.14.

The first volume of Enid Blyton’s ‘Faraway Series’ tells the episodic adventures of three English children who live near a Magic Wood, which contains a Faraway Tree that provides an array of magic lands from the highest branches. The three children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, meet fantastical friends in the tree who share their sequence of exciting experiences in the ever-changing lands at the top of the tree. Silkie the fairy, Moonface, and Saucepan Man play particularly prominent roles in the children’s undertakings in such locales as the Roundabout Land, the land of the Magic Snowman, Rocking Land, the Land of Toys, and the book’s grand finale, Land of Birthdays. Along the way, the children encounter anthropomorphized toys and animals in imaginative settings and events that mix danger with wish fulfillment. While the perpetual stream of fantastic ventures may grow wearisome to older children, the book is ideal for children at the just-learned-to-read age, perhaps to be read aloud together, one sequence at a time. The two older protagonists, Joe and Beth, are about seven or eight (Beth has her 8th birthday at the end of the book), and Frannie is several years younger.

Critics have not always been kind to Blyton, but no wonder children love her! Her genius emerges in the narrator’s empathetic voice, which is unusually confidential and intimate, with frequent chatty interjections such as, when the children have returned home from an all-night adventure to be awakened for the day’s tasks almost immediately by their mother, “My goodness, they were sleepy all that day!” (85), or "'Plenty of time, plenty of time,’ said Moon-Face, pouring himself another cup of hot chocolate. But you know, there wasn’t plenty of time. For just at that moment…"(76)
Throughout the story, the narrator’s voice surrounds the reader with comfort and interest, as if the reader/hearer were curled up in a soft, loving lap, forever safe from mishap while sharing thrilling adventures. In fact, the narrator is so intimate at times that one isn’t sure if Blyton’s words are meant to be thoughts from the protagonists’ minds, comments from the narrator, or perhaps even thoughts from the reader’s mind considerately given voice in the text! At the end of chapter 26, for instance, the children run to the trap door at the base of the Faraway Tree to begin a daring rescue of their friends from the Red Army of Goblins. The last sentence is, “Ooooh! Another adventure!” (198). Again, in a singular example of metatext, when the protagonists (who are trying to find their way home from the Land of Toys) meet Santa Claus, he already knows about them because other children keep asking him for books about them, and Santa has read them all. The narrator--or the children--or the reader--share the reaction: “Well, wasn’t that a bit of luck?” (187).

The leap to magic isn’t so vast for a small child. Fantastic characters in the Faraway Tree in some ways resemble Mom and Dad, for example the workaholic Dame Washalot (the children’s mother takes in washing), or the rather grumpy Mr. Watzisname, or the ever resourceful and knowledgeable Moon-face. Silky magically produces Pop Cakes from her oven, and Mother Bear reaches into her closet for warm coats (never needed by the bears), in much the same way a grown-up retrieves, seemingly magically, whatever the small child needs at the moment. Similarly, punishment is dispensed without understandable cause by the more troublesome magical characters, and their authority is not questioned:
"'Naughty boy, to tell stories like that!' said Dame Snap, suddenly, in such a loud and frightening voice that it made him jump. 'Come with me, all of you.' There didn’t seem to be anything else they could do." (140)

Today’s scholar might trip on Blyton’s traditional gender characterization, with Joe taking the lead for adventure and Beth assuming nurturing responsibility, but such roles blend well with the period in which the text was first published, 1939. Perhaps even more startling to the contemporary reader is the children’s behavior in their ordinary home: they are cheerful, hard working, obedient, and respectful of their parents—without any sense of rebellion from the narrator or the characters themselves. Sometimes the children don’t get quite enough to eat. They count themselves lucky when, after a week or so of doing chores, their mother allows them an afternoon off to play outside by themselves with a picnic of bread and butter. They almost never complain or feel sorry for themselves.

For the adult, the text is interesting in its remarkable voice, as noted above, and in its unconscious reflection of early 20th century British culture. Perhaps most unique are some good tips should you ever find yourself in an enchanted wood: for example, if you want to understand what the trees are whispering to each other (“wisha wisha wisha”), wrap your arms around a tree and put your left ear to the trunk and you will know. My goodness, they are helpful!

Alexandra Boyer

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