Welcome to October in the Junkyard! Lots of blogs tend to go with some kind of a build-up to Halloween during the month of October, and last year we went big with the horror. I won’t speak for Mike, but for my own part I would like to do something different this year and build up to Halloween in a magical way instead. A couple of weeks ago I started writing about the Studio Ghibli films, and on Wednesday will be looking at My Neighbour Totoro, which is the first one where Miyazaki really went big with the spiritual themes. Like several of his films, and many from the wider world of anime, Totoro is about children connecting with a magical, spiritual world that coexists with our own.
Although the approach is informed largely by the Shinto faith, I see strong connections with Western traditions of children’s literature, most notably in the significance of trees. There is a strong tradition of the enchanted forest in fairy tales, often as frightening places, but forests can also be magical places of refuge, such as in Snow White. Enid Blyton tapped into that theme in a short series of books that many readers will remember from their childhood: the Faraway Tree books.
I can’t tell you how much I adored those books as a child. There were several Enid Blyton book series I loved: the Wishing Chair books, the Famous Five books and the Island/Castle/Whatever “of Adventure” books, among many others. But there was something special about the Faraway Tree.
Apart from a short story and a picture book there were three main entries in the range, which were the three I had as a child: The Enchanted Wood (1939), The Magic Faraway Tree (1943) and The Folk of the Faraway Tree (1946). The books were about three children, Jo, Bessie and Fanny, who move into a house at the edge of an Enchanted Wood. Exploring the wood they find magical fairy-folk living there, and a huge “Faraway Tree”. Living in the trunk of the tree are a variety of magical people: the kind and gently Silky, the Angry Pixie (who flies off into a rage when they look in his window – I had a neighbour like that when I was a child), Dame Washalot (who throws her washing water down the tree), Mr Whatzisname (whose real name is so long he can’t remember it), the Saucepan Man (who has an unusual and noisy fashion sense) and Moonface, who lives at the top and has a slide that goes all the way down through the centre of the tree. Oh, how I wanted to go down a slide like that as a child!
If all that doesn’t sound magical enough, the topmost branches of the tree reach up through the clouds to strange, magical worlds, but the worlds come and go, so the children can visit them but mustn’t stay too long for fear of getting stuck. These lands at the top of the tree can be weird ones, nice ones or scary ones. Each book ends of course with a nice one, but Blyton loved to scare children as well. The name Dame Slap will still send shivers down the spine of many an adult who read the Faraway Tree books.
So the books were enormously imaginative and did what only the best of children’s literature does: transports children to another world in their imagination. In the second book the children are joined by their cousin Dick, and in the third by a girl called Connie, who comes to stay when her mother is unwell. Both interlopers have major character flaws, and Blyton has a lot of fun basically humbling them.
You might have noticed that a couple of the names used by Blyton have nowadays become profanities, which is a shame. The names “Dick” and “Fanny” crop up a lot in Blyton’s books, most notably in the Famous Five series, and it’s sad when this kind of thing happens to our language. Later editions of the books have rectified this, changing the names to Rick and Frannie. As far as I know those new editions have not been as successful as the originals. Mess with nostalgia at your peril. The revised editions have a bigger problem than that, because they tried to sanitize the originals, for example changing Dame Slap to Dame Snap, and rewriting her as a teacher who tells people off sternly rather than engaging in corporal punishment, in addition to a host of more baffling changes such as changing pop biscuits to pop cakes. But ultimately if you are going to do this you might as well just publish some new books instead. Apart from the strange assumptions about the way children engage with literature inherent in the rewrites, they are merely a sticking plaster over a kind of fiction written in very different times. The gender stereotypes and whiff of class superiority are unaddressed, and to me they are much more potentially damaging to the attitudes of a child than the fear of an archaic teaching practice, or a couple of silly names… and that is to say “more damaging” in the sense of “more than nothing”. So not damaging at all. Adults’ misunderstanding of how children engage with fiction knows no bounds.
So let’s forget about the watered down versions and look at what Blyton was really doing with these books. Like Miyazaki, she makes a clear distinction between the world of adults and the world of children. There are magical places that children can connect with. Something is lost when we become adults and we can no longer find Faraway Trees or see Totoros. And you may experience something of that if you try to revisit the favourite books of your childhood. Something might feel like it’s lacking, not quite as you remember. Children can lose themselves in a magical world, whereas adults can often struggle to be transported in their imaginations in quite the same way. But don’t worry. If you have children of the right age they will love these books too. They will even love the modern sanitized versions, but they will probably love the originals more, complete with the full horror of Dame Slap. In childhood the Enchanted Wood comes to life, and what wonders are to be found there… RP