[Apologies to everyone, especially Laura as this was meant to go up at 9 this morning. My only excuse is I’m off work so I’ve lost track of the days again – Fiona]
I loved the Faraway Tree series when I was a kid, but I unfortunately lost my own copies a few years ago and the new editions didn’t quite cut it. Then one day my mother-in-law told me she had a set in her garage that belonged to my husband. I happily accepted them and immediately started re-reading them (when I should have been helping with the garage cleanup).
It was so good to read them again that I thought I’d do a few reviews, starting with the first book in the series: The Enchanted Wood. I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, but you have been warned.
Published in 1939, the book starts with Jo, Bessie and Fanny moving from a town with their parents, as their father has now got a job in the country. The cottage is not far from a wood, which looks ordinary except that the trees are ‘a darker green than usual’ and sound as thought they’re whispering secrets. After finding out that its name is the Enchanted Wood, they naturally have to explore.
On their first trip into the wood, they help out some brownies and find the Faraway Tree. The brownies warn them that it’s dangerous and aren’t happy to find out that the children mean to climb it on their next visit. They try to stop them, but Jo throws an acorn at one, who thinks he’s been shot.
Since it’s growing acorns, you’d assume – Bessie did – that it’s an oak tree, but it soon begins to grow chestnuts a bit higher up. That’s one of the many peculiar things about the tree; one minute it’s growing lemons, the next it’s growing cherries or oranges.
Another are the folk living in the tree – there’s the Angry Pixie, who throws soup or ink over people who look in to see him, Mr Whatisname, who can’t remember his own name and doesn’t have a very pleasant temper either, and Dame Washalot, who lives up to her name by doing washing in the tree and emptying her soapy water down through the branches and onto any unsuspecting person climbing the tree.
There’s also Silky, the beautiful golden-haired fairy who becomes friends with the children and introduces them to pop-biscuits – when you bite into them, you find your mouth full of new honey – and of course the aptly-named Moon-Face, who lives right at the top of the tree and owns the famous Slippery-Slip, which is the fun way of getting to the bottom of this huge tree if you don’t feel like climbing down and have some toffee on you. These two appear more than any other character in the tree, apart from someone else who arrives halfway through.
And then, just past Moon-Face’s house, is a ladder leading up into the clouds. When the children climb it – you’d just have to – they find themselves in Roundabout Land, which always spins around to music and only stops in a blue moon.
Like my post (sorry), the book does take a while to get into the actual adventures, but the early chapters help the readers understand who everyone is and what the tree is like. And this is just the first of many adventures, as the girls and Moon-Face travel on the train through the woods to ask the three bears for help when Jo gets caught in the Land of Ice and Snow.
They all visit the land of the Saucepan Man – which results in this funny, deaf little man who wears pots and pans living in the tree, singing his strange songs and taking part in their adventures – and end up at Dame Slap’s school after escaping from the Land of Take-What-You-Want, which just shows that even the nicer lands can be dangerous.
One of the hazards of having strange lands arrive at the top of the tree is that the inhabitants aren’t always pleasant and some may want to visit the Faraway Tree and cause problems. In this case it’s the red goblins, who lock everyone up inside their houses and won’t let them out until they tell them some magic spells. But the help of the whispering trees and the brownies – even though they were scared of the tree – the children and the tree folk manage to trick the goblins and take them prisoner.
There’s always a nice land for the children and their friends to visit at the end of the books and this time it’s the Land of Birthdays. It (luckily) happens to be Bessie’s birthday and their mother agrees, but insists they wear old clothes as their adventures up the tree have damaged some of their good ones by this stage – she has been fairly relaxed about their strange friends coming to visit, so it probably isn’t too much to ask.
Bessie, understandably, isn’t too thrilled about wearing old clothes to her party, but not to worry, there are fancy-dress costumes for everyone once they get there. There’s also games and prizes, a table where the birthday girl can wish for her own food and a wishing cake – which can only be trouble in the hands of the deaf Saucepan Man, leading to another easily solved problem.
These books were probably intended for younger readers, but they still hold up for adults years later – the lands, the characters and the tree itself are so imaginative. The only fault is that some of the ways they escape from lands or solve problems sometimes feel a bit to convenient – what if there hadn’t been a plane in the Land of Take-What-You-Want or if Rocking Land had tilted another way – but I guess that’s so they get to visit more than one land instead of spending the whole book escaping the first.
Next time I’ll take a look at the second book, The Magic Faraway Tree.