I still cannot remember exactly when I discovered Enid Blyton. My recollections starts with those wonderful stories of pixies, brownies, goblins, gnomes, trolls and fairies; sometimes living in a world of their own, sometimes co-inhabiting an idyllic English countryside alongside nice and naughty boys and girls.
Also, long before Toy Story, there were her toy stories where Teddy Bears and Golliwogs regularly came to life at night and had exciting adventures in the nursery.
Noddy was a perennial favourite (though I did not read much of his stories). Also, there was a character called a Golliwog in almost all the tales. I could not understand what this strange being was supposed to be, but I was fascinated by him (this negative racial stereotype of an African has long since disappeared from children’s books and toy shelves, but I still miss him).
The book I first remember in its entirety, however, is The Book of Brownies. The old hard-bound copy I got from the Thrissur public library was almost falling apart: yet the yellowed pages had the magical musty smell of old books, and the old-fashioned illustrations inside were fascinating, of the brownies with their conical caps and long ears and noses. It also helped that I had read this story in Malayalam as a serialised children’s novel in Mathrubhoomi Weekly – the brownies had been changed to children in that version.
This is a full length novel of three brownies (Hop, Skip and Jump) who become unwitting accomplices of a witch’s plot to steal the Princess. The King does not believe they are innocent, however; they are banished until they can locate and bring back their ‘goodness’ (since they exclaimed “Oh my goodness!” when the Princess was spirited away – and according to the King, they don’t have any, only badness!). The brownies know that this is next to impossible, so they begin their journey with the idea of rescuing the Princess. What follows is the story of their quest, told in episodic format.
And what a quest! The parts I remember well are the magic cottage without a door; the land of very clever people where you have to speak only in rhyme; the witch (or ogress? – I don’t remember) who can be killed only by speaking a very long word without pause – and the ‘goodness’ bottles, representing the goodness in one. How Hop, Skip and Jump win and lose, and win by losing, make up a fascinating children’s tale. No wonder it is a classic.
Then I started buying books – the library was not enough to supplement my voracious appetite. Most of the money I got for my birthday, for Vishu and Onam (I had started requesting people to give me Onappudava as cash by then, so I could buy books with it, rather than dresses!) went for books, most of them authored by Enid Blyton. Those days, the cheap ‘Armada’ editions of most of her novels cost twenty to twenty-five pence each. One penny was equivalent to twenty paise then, which meant a novel cost 4 – 5 rupees. Since my stash usually amounted to twenty-five rupees, this meant 5 – 6 books at least.
The books had very bad binding, and most of the pages were falling out soon; but they were a treasured possession. I still have them, and I have used the same covers as the copies I have in this article. It was a great pleasure to see my son reading the same books, after a gap of nearly forty years!
I think the first books I purchased were the “Secret” series, the “Adventure” series and the “Mystery” series. Of these, the first two were more or less of the same mould – a group of children, two boys and two girls having fantastic adventures in outlandish places. The “Mystery” series with the “Five Find-Outers and Buster the Dog” were somewhat different in the sense that they were traditional mysteries with a surprise at the end. I had a special soft corner for this series because of lead protagonist, Fatty, was a fat uncouth youngster like me. Many of those mysteries, in hindsight, were awfully easy to see through; however, they were mystifying enough for a pre-teen.
These followed the so-called “Barney Mysteries” (I came to know the name only now), the gang of children slightly different by the addition of the delightfully infuriating orphan “Snubby” and the gypsy boy Barney and his monkey Miranda. Then of course, came The Secret Seven and The Famous Five.
The composition of Blyton’s children’s gang is remarkably standardised: of the two boys, one will be slightly more of a “he-man” type than the other; one of the girls will be a wilting flower, a real “girly-girl” type, the other more bold (the extreme case being Georgina – “George” – in The Famous Five). Sometimes, there will a gypsy child and last but not the least, a pet of some kind – most often a dog. These pets stole the show, actually Jack’s parrot Kiki in the Valley series and Timmy the dog in Famous Five.
There were also the family stories, which I read later. Looking back, I see these to be cloyingly sentimental, like a seventies movie and full of dated middle-class values – but I loved them. Some of them, like The Six Bad Boys, The Family at Red Roofs and House-at-the-Corner still bring a lump to my throat in remembrance of the emotions they aroused in me at the time.
Probably the last set of Blyton novels which I read before I outgrew her were the “Circus” series. These were different from the other stories. They were centred around the circus run by Mr. Galliano, and narrated the tale of Jimmy and Lotta and the circus animals. Needless to say, now I understand that the lives of circus members are not so idyllic, especially the animals!
Recently, Enid Blyton has come under a lot of fire for her racist statements and portrayals and for the supposedly “middle-class” values she perperates. In England, a nation which celebrates their authors, I found her conspicuous by her absence (except for the odd “Noddy” statue here and there). Also, her second daughter has written a book which portrays her as not a very benevolent mother or a good wife – see the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enid_Blyton). I also understand that her books are being removed from school libraries or “sanitised” to make them suitable for our politically correct society. However, I read Blyton in the simple ages before such concerns were very important – and I am thankful that I could enjoy her books for what they were: thumping good tales for children.