By Vikas Datta (09:34)
Grew up in India between the 1960s and 1980s? Chances are that you, if you were fond of reading, had your first brush with English books through a magnificently inventive author whose oeuvre stretched from a range of mysteries solved by an adventurous group of pre-teenage siblings and their friends, or trips to magical lands with all manners of fantastic beings, or the exploits of a group of girl students in a boarding school.
Children – the reading ones – will have a special cause to be thankful to women. J.K. Rowling may have been most recent to create a world relished by children – and their elders too – but a more abiding influence has been another English woman, blessed with a vivid imagination and indefatigable ability to translate it into words, whose over 700 works have sold over 600 million copies and are still popular.
For a long time, Enid Blyton (1897-1968), responsible for the varied fare set out in the beginning, was the definitive author of children’s books. She was, by no means, the first woman to write for children – having quite a few distinguished predecessors like Anna Sewell (“Black Beauty”), Edith Nesbit and Beatrix Potter – but the hold she had on the minds of her audience, both in her country and around the world, can never be overestimated, despite all the criticism.
Blyton’s output includes at least four series of mysteries with a group of pre-teenage children as protagonists, three school series – two of them in girls boarding schools, and at least two series involving siblings coming in contact with magical places and items.
Then there are story arcs starring brownies and pixies (and featuring goblins, fairies, giants, goblins and other fantastic beings from English folklore), a half-pixie determined to set right the wrongs he sees around him, a forgettable old fogey who can be counted to confuse his wife’s instructions and cause mayhem, children in a circus, about life on a farm, a host of short stories , adaptions of the stories from the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, Arthurian and Robin Hood traditions and much more.
Blyton’s most known stories are about the exploits of Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers, the Malory Towers and St Clares’ school stories, the Brer Rabbit series as well as the adventures on the Magic Faraway Tree and the Wishing Chair, and of course, Noddy, but, as mentioned, there is a lot more that will still overwhelm your senses.
Among my favourites were the 15 books of Five Find-Outers, (Larry, Daisy, Pip, Bets and Frederick Algeron Trotteville, or Fatty as he came to be known, and his Scotch terrier Buster) as they solve various mysteries in their village of Peterswood despite the opposition of local policeman, the obnoxious P.C. Goon and their strict patients. But they have support in Inspector (later Superintendent) Jenks, after their fortuitous meeting with the downcast group (following a scolding by parents and being told not to meddle any longer), disturb him fishing. He is first unsure of what they are :”The Fine Doubters? What do you doubt?” when they introduce himself but comes to know he has come across a most gifted band and backs them to the hilt.
Another that I can still remember in detail despite reading it nearly three decades back is the “Book of Brownies”, three of which get into trouble when they inadvertently become accomplices in the abduction of a princess and have to undergo a long and hazardous quest to rescue her.
Then there was Adventures of Pip, about a pixie, who encounters (and is occasionally confused by) various manifestations of nature, as well as the Sunshine Book, was it?, a compendium of tales, adventure as well as fantasy, which included two accounts of a walk in the countryside in different seasons and the flora and fauna you may expect to see.
Blyton however faced continuous criticism – in her heyday, the BBC dismissed her work as “devoid of literary merit” to the 1960s accusations of much simplicity and recycling of plots, not to mention sexism, racism, elitism, and the like, and that a number of short-sighted libraries banned her works.
The critics may have their reasons but the issue raises a pertinent question: can any literary work be relevant for all times? Obviously not, it is a rare work that can resist reflecting the norms of the time. Books and other social manifestations have to be viewed through the prism of relativism, or assessing anything against the backdrop of its particular milieu. Or in other words, just read the story and worry about the subtext later.
Happily, millions of readers seem to have followed this sensible course and her books are still in print despite some revisions for political correctness, especially in the Enchanted Woods series – a most ludicrous example which raises more doubts as to what the PC brigade thinks regularly than the effect on impressionable minds.
(22.06.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)