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“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

They all left their umbrellas and raincoats behind, and went up into the Land of Enchantments. It wasn’t a twilight land like the Land of Secrets; it was a land of strange colours and lights and shadows. Everything shone and shimmered and moved. Nothing stayed the same for more than a moment. It was beautiful and strange.

Enid Blyton was an indelible part of childhood for decades, but I wonder how her books compete with today’s Rowlings and Dragon Ball Zs and Nintendo DSs. I also wonder if she actually liked kids, as some of the troubles she visits on her characters for such dreadful crimes as being talkative, or curious seem extreme. Of course these books were written during the era where children were to be seen and not heard. Which despite the ambient prudery, has always given the Faraway Tree books a special place in my heart. This Blyton series always seemed more unfettered and wild to me, compared to the adventures of various numerically aligned gangs of whippersnappers that she trotted out.

The Folk of the Faraway Tree is the third in the series. As such Joe, Beth and Frannie have already discovered the magical tree that lead up into the clouds, inhabited by many strange characters. There’s their friend Moon-Face, whom as the illustrations depict has a very big face, just like a moon. The fairy Silky, who is more sensible than her lunar companion. Saucepan, who walks around clanging and banging, as he has tied many pots and pans to himself. He is quite deaf as a result. The Angry Pixie, who is well named and Dame Washalot, who does just that. At the top of the tree is a ladder leading into the clouds, where visitors find a strange series of lands that rotate every once and a while. The children visit the different lands with their friends from the tree and have many adventures.

One day Joe, Beth and Frannie are told by their mother that Curious Connie is coming to stay with them. They are not very happy at the news, as they think the little girl is far too spoilt and always asking annoying questions. Determined not to let her have her way during her visit, the children decide to bring her up the Faraway Tree, which should give her a good shock and stop her nonsense. Sadly after Connie arrives only to be greeted by the sight of Moonface walking down up to the door of their house with an invitation to tea, she happens upon a neat solution to her dilemma. She refuses to believe he exists.

Even after she climbs the Faraway Tree and has a series of unfortunate encounters with the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot and Little Miss Muffet’s spider, she still will not accept the evidence of her own eyes. It is all far too silly. She also makes a firm enemy in Saucepan, whose deafness has a habit of clearing up when he is being insulted by obnoxious little girls. The children are further dismayed when they lose Connie in one of the lands above the Faraway Tree after she runs away in a fit of pique. When they follow, they discover the lands have already revolved and there is no sign of their trying charge. They will need all the help they can get, including some magic beans, giant-repellant and a tricky spell that keeps trying to escape them on its little red legs.

When I spoke to my local librarian about taking this book out, her face lit up with fond memories. The Faraway Tree series can still be admired for their wild imagination and cute adventures with a strange menagerie of trolls, pixies, giants and well-known figures from childhood rhymes.

There is also a very moral element to the proceedings, with Jack, Beth and Frannie always asking permission from their bemused mother to climb the Faraway Tree and only after doing their chores. Connie is shown to be spoiled and self-centred. Her various travails in the lands above the clouds serve to teach her a series of lessons in how to behave. This is reminiscent for me of Eustace in C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is transformed from a selfish brat into yet another paragon of catholic virtue by the book’s conclusion.

With rich wordplay, some lovely illustrations and a cruel sense of humour, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed atop the Faraway Tree.

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