Adam Phillips Addiction Enid Blyton Escape

The Magic Faraway Tree

I am an Enid Blyton baby. I don’t know if children read Enid Blyton these days, their parents having perhaps seen the less than hagiographic biopics (Enid, with Helena Bonham Carter: an especially acidulous Blyton). Or maybe they’ve read the “nightmare mother” exposés online [1]. But for me, Noddy and Big Ears, The Secret Seven, Famous Five, and perhaps above all The Magic Faraway Tree shaped the contours of my childhood.

The Faraway Tree series, published very early on in her writing career (1939), is about a magic tree inspired by the Norse mythology that had fascinated Blyton as a child. The idea of the Yggdrasil tree, placed at the center of the cosmos and rising through a number of worlds, is found in northern Eurasia and forms part of the shamanic lore shared by many peoples of this region. This seems to be a very ancient conception, perhaps based on the Pole Star, the centre of the heavens, and the image of an omphalic tree in Scandinavian myth. Among Siberian shamans, a cardinal tree, often thought to be an Ash, may also be used as a ladder to ascend the heavens.

According to Blyton’s daughter Gillian, the inspiration for the magic tree came one day when she was trying to create a new story “and suddenly she was walking in the enchanted wood and found the tree. In her imagination she climbed up through the branches and met Moon-Face, Silky, the Saucepan Man and the rest of the characters. She had all she needed.” As in the Wishing-Chair series, these fantasy books typically involve children being transported into a magical world in which they meet fairies, goblins, elves, pixies and other mythological creatures.

But instead of the dragon Níðhöggr or the stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, Blyton populates her mythical tree with a hodge-podge of oddballs who her child characters (stand-ins for the children readers) visit whenever they like. There’s Moon-Face, a man (?) possibly afflicted with neurofibromatosis or Proteus Syndrome. Think Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. Moon-Face’s rotund face is never referred to as an oddity though, rather it serves as an identity marker. His house inside the tree is also round and filled with curved furniture. Two other larger than life roomies accompany the children on their adventures: The Saucepan Man and Mr Whatzisname. The Saucepan Man is covered with pots and pans, and perhaps for this reason is partially deaf. He lives with Mr Whatzisname, who cannot remember his own name (!?) although Wikipedia informs me that “during a particular story at the Land of Secrets, Mr. Watzisname discovers that his name is ‘Kollamoolitumarellipawkyrollo’. This is forgotten by the end of the story (even by the man himself) and he goes back to being Mr. Watzisname.”

There is also Silky The Fairy, who seems to identify as female, and perhaps for that reason, isn’t supplied with any salient characteristics, existing instead as a somewhat bland, almost sexless Barbie doll cipher. Anti-social elements pique the plot via The Angry Pixie, who lives in a house with a tiny window and has a habit of throwing cold water, or any liquid, at hand over people who dare to peep inside. Also Dame Washalot, who spends her time washing her clothes and throwing the dirty wash-water down the tree. If she has no clothes to wash, Washalot washes the dirty laundry of other people and even the leaves of the tree.

What is it about the Faraway Tree series, I have often wondered, that struck me so forcibly as a child, so that returning to the books now more than 40 years after a I first read them, I am still completely bowled over and enchanted by the adventures they contain?

I think it’s the promise of escape to alternate worlds. Books for a child, or for the inner child, are an objective correlative of this kind of escape. No doubt cannabis and other intoxicants and dissociatives work this way too. Re-reading these books, it is clear that the children go on a series of “trips” whenever they climb the tree, as we do whenever we vape cannabis flowers or eat magic mushrooms.

Reading these books now, I recognise how archetypally escapist they are, and also how as a child, I mainly read to escape. To escape the constant bickering of my parents, and other anxiety-provoking dynamics of family life, to escape boredom and the constraints of this particular conscious Self growing up in that particular culture at that time. I still read to escape, to some degree, although for this reason I am puzzled by the fact that I am not especially interested in the outskirts of escapist literature: fantasy and science fiction. Maybe because I don’t find the linguistic texture of these books as satisfying as a broadly-speaking “realist” literary novel. Or maybe because I do still like to be tethered in some way, rooted (like the Magic Tree in Enid Blyton’s book itself)  in this world, even whilst exploring alternate/escapist realities. Which is perhaps why I fear trying psychedelics, even whilst feeling comfortable with cannabis; I still fear the hallucinatory power of LSD or psilocybin. Maybe I don’t really want escape in that way, maybe what I want is just a different way of seeing and being in this world, let’s call it The Enlightenment Model, where the essence of reality is perceived and understood with regard to its depths and riches in ways that we don’t normally have access to.

“The founding and fading myth of Adam and Eve is a great escape story,” Adam Phillips reminds us, taking us, as all good psychoanalysts must, to the mythical foundations of the stories we tell ourselves both as individuals, as well as a culture. “[It’s] the story of a failed breakout,” he goes on to suggest. “Transgression is the attempt to find out exactly what it is that is impossible to escape from. In seeking forbidden knowledge about God’s creation they discovered just what there was to fear about God. The biblical story dramatizes, whatever else it does, the link in our minds between curiosity and release –how our ideas of freedom depend upon our finding out what we have to fear. We find out what the world is like by testing it, by testing ourselves against it.”

Later, he writes in this, one of my favourite Phillips’ books, Houdini’s Box:

“Addicts –to work and money, to drink and drugs, to political ideology and fundamentalist religion –are the heroes and anti-heroes, the spirits of the age, because they (we) enact and dramatize our dilemmas about freedom and memory. About what kind of freedom is possible, and about how this is bound up with what any given society (any education) persuades us is worth getting away from; or, indeed, worth abolishing so that it is no longer there, apparently, to affront us. If we happen to live in a society that prefers artists to drug-dealers, then either we won’t think of good art as escapist, or we will have more or less tacitly agreed that whatever the art in question has released us from is unacceptable. That the lives we want depend upon avoiding, say, poverty, or ugliness, or guilt, or complexity, or frivolousness, and so on. Our negative ideals –what we are not supposed to desire, to like or to be like –are the materials from which we make our positive ideals. Our values are born out of perceived threat.

I like this idea a lot. It feel it’s something I’d like to think more about, maybe by reading a later book of his, Unforbidden Pleasures, which I think he explores this notion in greater depth.

The escapist myth of this Faraway Tree, is that its very highest branches poke through the clouds via holes, maybe a metre across in diameter. Every few days, as if on a neverending carousel, a new world with unique aspects special to it, comes to rest above these holes. One can climb up the branch, and then onwards via a ladder through the hole and beyond into an entirely new setting where all the strictures of our lives are upended. These Lands might be classified into spaces that are either facsimiles of childhood anxieties or panaceas of a sort.

Take the Land of Topsy Turvy where everybody walks on their hands and everything is upside down. Or The Land of Dreams which works more like a Bunuel film, or a Dali painting: distorting or manipulating reality in weird and woozy ways. And also in anxiety-provoking ways as often the characters get stuck in these lands, as when the Sandman throws sand in the children’s eyes to make them sleep. And yet, like all good (children’s) literature, these lands, as fantastical as they seem at first,  mirror in some essential way our earthbound dimension. For don’t we all crave for things to remain the same (especially if they’re enjoyable), but fear their fixity if they’re not? As in the Land of Tempers where everyone rages and fumes on a Trump-like scale. This might be a dramatic excursion for those visiting, but if  losing your temper means you will have to stay in this land forever, as it seems Orange 45 (as Greg Proops calls him) has had to do, the Land of Tempers might quickly become a kind of hell realm, where the only anxiolytic comes in the form of raging against Jews, and Trans people, and immigrants, and the media.

Then there are those lands that are therapeutic, useful, and seem to work as some kind of panacea, including The Land of Spells, inhabited by witches and wizards, and The Land of Magic Medicines which the children visit when their mother is ill to buy her medicine.

My favourite Lands as a child (no surprise there) were those of pure wish-fulfilment: The Land of Do-As-You-Please, The Land of Toys, The Land of Goodies, and The Land of Presents. Last night, a little stoned on Durban Poison, and very much enjoying a Tea Pigs Redbush/Honeybush cuppa with soya milk that drank like condensed milk at times, I snuggled in bed with Max and read the second Magic Faraway Tree book, marvelling at the twists and turns that Blyton orchestrates, ultra-prolific potboiler of a writer that she was, her plot twists often worthy of a Netflix series, always keeping you reading on and turning the next page.

There is something at once deeply sensual and restrained about her writing, which often comes out in her descriptions of food. Take this description of Google Buns for example [2]:

“The buns were most peculiar. They each had a very large currant in the middle, and this was filled with sherbert. So when you got to the currant and bit it the sherbert frothed out and filled your mouth with fine bubbles that tasted delicious.”

Currants, sherbert, froth? Yuck, but also enticing. Here’s a description of another Blyton delicacy I dreamed of tasting when I read these books as a child: Pop Biscuits.

“As soon as you bit them they went pop! And you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the biscuits.”

Or how about a Toffee Shock: “A Toffee Shock gets bigger and bigger as you suck it, instead of smaller and smaller – and when it is so big that there is hardly any room for it in your mouth it suddenly explodes – and goes to nothing.”

Gathering together a larder of Blyton delicacies for this essay, I am struck by how all of them involve a kind of surprise in eating, perhaps the child’s surprise in discovering a taste experience for the first time: like the ultra-salty deliciousness of a piece of anchovy sitting in the milky gloop of mozzarella on one’s pizza, or jam filling in a donut. But also the surprise of non-food related experiences: one’s first kiss, or other early sexual experiences for example. Also the surprise of a plot-twist itself,  a word used in an electrifying and unanticipated way – a linguistic hallmark of all good writing, I think.

Barbara Stoney describes Blyton’s descriptions of food in a story called ‘Mother! Mother!’ as being “more reminiscent of an orgy in an Edwardian emporium than a modern child’s idea of a good ‘blow-out’. Enid Blyton writes of tongues, ham, pies, lemonade and ginger-beer. This is not just food, it is archetypal feasting, the author’s longing for the palmy days of her own childhood.”

Michael Woods also tries to deconstruct the psychosocial ingredients of Blyton’s formula: superior social status, the absence of anything that smacks of the work-a-day world, the high fantasy level, and a strong animal interest.

“For most adults who write children’s books, once the communication barrier has been largely overcome, the main problem is to write what children want to read and yet remain intellectually honest to themselves in presenting the world as it really is. For Enid Blyton it seems unlikely that any such dilemma raised its head; she was a child, she thought as a child, and she wrote as a child; of course the craft of an extremely competent adult writer is there, but the basic feeling is essentially pre-adolescent. Piaget has shown us that children tend to make moral judgement purely in terms of good and bad and that it is only with the advent of adolescence that the individual is able to accept different levels of goodness and to judge the actions of others according to the circumstances. Enid Blyton has no moral dilemmas and her books satisfy children because they present things clearly in black and white with no confusing intermediate shades of grey.”

There is something in this that I need to think about in relation to cannabis. It is captured well in this Liesl Mueller poem too:


Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

This “something secret going on,/so marvelous and dangerous//that if you crawled through and saw,/you would die, or be happy forever” energises the motivation for psychoactive substances, poetry being one of these substances. It is not just about turning away from the humdrum everyday into something strange and magical and enchanting, where trees (and plants) present opportunities to explore entirely new worlds, or worlds that function as simple but potent thought experiments. A more sophisticated version of this, albeit more high-tech is HBO’s Westworld television series.

Rather than physically travelling to strange and iconoclastic worlds though, some of us choose to read: novels, short stories, or poems saturated with dense dream-logic. All taking us in unforseen ways to somewhere different, or someplace other than our everyday conscious experience.

[1]  “The truth is, Enid Blyton was ­arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct,” writes Imogen Blyton of her mother. “As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult, I did not hate her. I pitied her.”

[2] Yes, this is 1943, and yes that’s what she called them. A lot of Blyton’s writing has been “cleaned up” and bowdlerised, but Google Buns remain untouched.