The Enchanted Wood
Review by Prabhu Viswanathan (August 13, 2006)
It's the year 1939. Bob Kane creates Batman. Nuclear fission is discovered. Adolf Hitler escapes assasination. Al Capone is released from Alcatraz. Germany invades Poland. World War II begins...
And three excited chldren move to the country. So begins one of the most beloved series in children's literature! When their father lands a job in the country, Jo, Bessie and Fanny look forward to an exciting new life. When their whistling, chuffing train finally draws into a tiny station, the tired family makes its way to the pretty little cottage that will soon be their home.
Hungrily setting into their milk and biscuits, and wearily settling into their roughly made beds, the children wake up refreshed the next morning and, after helping their mother with chores, eagerly set out to explore the countryside. They run happily across the pink clovered fields, and paddle merrily in a chattering, brown stream in the glorius sunshine, when suddenly they come to a wood, not far from their own back yard. It looks pretty ordinary, but the trees are a mysteriously darker green and seem to be whispering amongst themselves.
"It's a magic wood," says Fanny. But before they can venture deeper, they are called home for tea. And, for the next week, the wood remains unexplored—until one day, having worked very hard, their pleased mother cuts them sandwiches and chases them off into an afternoon of fun. Hearts thudding excitedly, the children make their rapid way to the wood. One by one, they jump over the ditch that separates the lane from the trees. Now it is darker and only a few shafts of sunshine peer through the thick tree cover. Walking down a green path, they discover a soft mossy bed under an old oak tree, and settle down to have their tea.
But suddenly, looking across to a clear patch of grass, Fanny spies six growing bumps that soon break the earth and explode into toadstools. As they watch eagerly, they see brownies march in and sit on the toadstools—and hold a meeting! At that moment an ugly gnome-like fellow creeps up and snatches a bag from one of the brownies. In a flash, Jo extends a foot and the hapless gnome falls over. But he's up like a bird, and as they chase after him, they see him disappearing up the tallest, mightiest tree they have ever seen.
It's the Faraway Tree. The goblins are scared of it. They warn the children of the dangers, and of the strange lands at its top, and explain that they never should venture into its branches. Which naturally means the children are eager to climb the magic tree at the first opportunity!
Once again, after working hard for a few days, the children are given a day off. When they make their way to the back yard and on to the lane, and then jump over the ditch, magic surrounds them... and the children feel suddenly rather different. Shivering with delight, they try to make their way to the Tree, but are unable to find it—until Jo hits upon the idea of calling the brownies, who promised their help whenever the children needed it.
Before very long the children find themselves up in the branches. Incredibly there are acorns and chestnuts growing together, but before they children can recover from this revelation, they are amazed to find a little window set in the side of the tree. As they peer inside, they encounter their first inhabitant... and an angry one at that. "Rude creatures!" shouts a pixie from inside, flinging a jug of water right at Bessie.
Taken aback at his rudeness, the children climb on and spot another surprise. A broad branch leads to a yellow door, and a knocker and bell. This is the pretty home of Silky the Fairy, and soon they all become firm friends. "This is a most interesting and exciting tree," says Jo, and the children learn about all the folk living there. But when they hear about the strange and mysterious lands that arrive and depart at the top of the Tree, they are determined to go up there immediately to discover all the exciting places.
They carefully pull themselves up to the very top, and up a purple hole, and climb a little ladder, and before they know it they are out in a strange new world. Suddenly, without warning, the whole land begins to swing around. This is the Roundabout Land, and everything and everybody goes round and round and up and about. Frightened, the children somehow make their way back to the tree, but they are now too tired to climb down. Just as they are in despair, they meet Moonface, who introduces them to the delights of his Slippery-Slip—a slide that goes all the way back down. For the promise of a future consignment of toffee, the children are cushioned for the slippery-slip journey to the foot of the tree. Laughing and trying to get their breath back, the children run home (but not after handing their cushions back to a red squirrel, whose job it is to send them back to Moonface).
Jo, Bessie and Fanny can talk about nothing else for a few days, and at the first possible opportunity they make their way back to the Enchanted Wood, with bulging pockets of toffee. Soon they are back amongst their friends, and while all of them are munching upon the delicious toffee, they learn that there is another land at the top. But Moonface, his mouth full of the chewy stuff, is unable to warn them not to go, and by the time he manages to get the words out, Jo has disappeared.
Jo finds himself in a land filled with snow and ice, and is captured by the magic and evil Snowman. This bad fellow has made all the polar bears his servants and now wants Jo as one too. Jo is put in with a family of bears, but he is made to work for the Snowman at every tiresome opportunity, until he is desperate to escape.
In the meantime, Moonface suggests to Fanny and Bessie that they take the help of Goldilocks and her Bears to rescue Jo. In the adventure that follows, they manage to rescue Jo from the clutches of the Magic Snowman and, in the process, that Cold and Evil Fellow finds himself melting into nothingness. The polar bears find themselves joyously free.
For the next few days the children feel they have had enough of adventures, but soon they miss their friends back at the Faraway Tree. Unable to keep away, they make their way back. But it's a sad time in the Tree, for Moonface has upset Mr. Watzisname, and as a result that angry man has thrown Moonface up into some dreadfully queer land at the top. The kind-hearted trio decide it is their duty to save Moonface, and braving a few painful and well targetted slaps as they pass Mr. Watzisname, they soon mount an all-out rescue attempt. Along the way, they meet a character who is to become another firm friend, Saucepan Man. With his unknowing help, Moonface is happily back where he belongs. The Saucepan Man, however, is unable to get back to his Land, and now has to find a new home with the Folk of the Faraway Tree.
And so the intrepid explorers find themselves in one adventure after another. They find themselves leading an unbalanced existence in the Rocking Land, and then visit the Land of Take-What-You-Want, where they generously prefer to take back gifts of goats, hens and spades for their parents. But not before Jo leads them to another escape, this time from Dame Slap, by showing off his skills as a pilot, for a plane is their only means to get back to the Enchanted Wood.
This book is all about strong characters and mighty lands and fascinating delicacies. They visit Toyland and meet Oom-Boom-Boom. They eat I-Never Rolls, and encounter Santa Claus (who is fascinated by pretty Silky, almost as much as he is by the Slippery-Slip). And in a final, nervous, edge-of-the-seat, thrilling climax, when the Red Goblins hold the Folk to ransom, and capture the Tree, the Children help save their friends from an ugly fate. Just in time to celebrate Bessie's birthday, in—where else—the Land of Birthdays. And what a party it turns out to be!
In my reviews, I guess I'm often rather sentimental, and teary eyed, and mushy. And I do the literary equivalent of a salsa every time I read and analyse a Blyton book. Have I thus a mental age of a ten year old? Guess I do. Do I care? Of course I don't!
I'll tell you what. There's football to go to, soaps to watch, pubs to visit, malls to shop in, gossip to be exchanged. But when you are tired of all that stuff, and want some real magic, why don't you visit me? I'll take you to a fascinating world, of Enchantment in a Wood, of Magic in a Tree, of Strange and Queer Lands, and I'll introduce you to some of the most delightfully charming little folk you will meet anywhere.
But be warned. You may never ever find your way back home again!