Multi-accoladed poet and founder of the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Bill Manhire relives the magic of Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree, in this essay adapted from a talk given at the 2017 Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival.
Before I could read, the stories that mattered most were tales from the Brothers Grimm as told to me by my mother, and the Oscar Wilde fable, The Happy Prince, as read by Orson Welles on the record that adults played on a big piece of furniture called a radiogram.
In other words, there was the everyday world in which I lived; and then there was this hugely ‘other’ world that came in stories, and in adult voices, and which was pretty scary when it wasn’t full of sadness. My mother told her own invented stories, too, about the adventures of Johnny Johnson and Betsy Balloon. They were simple ‘and then’ stories, yet were inflected with the homesickness of a recently arrived Scottish war bride. I think I probably found their sadness even more baffling.
But the book that mattered to me most once I started reading – and which changed my sense of the world’s architecture – was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. The Faraway Tree grew in an enchanted wood, and it was where a group of children had adventures well beyond the oversight of the adult world. Instead of parents, they had the company of creatures who lived in the tree: Silky, Moon-Face, Mr Watzisname, the Saucepan Man, Dame Washalot. And there were endless rounds of tea parties, with exotic sweet things: Pop Biscuits, Google Buns, and Toffee Shocks – these last grew bigger and bigger till they actually exploded in your mouth.
The Faraway Tree grew in an enchanted wood, and it was where a group of children had adventures well beyond the oversight of the adult world.
I’m struck now, as I wasn’t when I was six or seven, by the name Google Buns. The founders of Google have a different origin story for their name, but it could be that their deep, dark secret is that they were Enid Blyton fans. I also remain surprised Google Buns aren’t available commercially:
They each had a very large currant in the middle, and this was filled with sherbet. So when you got to the currant and bit it the sherbet frothed out and filled your mouth with fine bubbles that tasted delicious.
I’d buy those.
Bill Manhire, at Mossburn Primary School in 1953, age seven (left); and more recently in Wellington (right)
The Faraway Tree was part of the world’s natural bounty – it grew different fruits and nuts at different levels of itself – but it was also a bit like a funfair. There was even a sort of helter-skelter inside it. You could sit on a cushion and go twirling down to the bottom, and back out into the forest.
But it was what was at the top that was most important. A ladder reached up from the tree’s topmost branch, and so you could climb up through cloud to find yourself in a strange new land. The lands rotated constantly, and sometimes without warning, so you didn’t know quite where you would end up; or even if you could get back safely. You might climb the ladder and be in a land full of children’s wish fulfilments: the Land of Treats, for example, or the Land of Do-what-you-please, or the Land of Birthdays. But you might also end up in far more unsettling places: the Land of Spells, or the Land of Topsy-Turvy, or the Land of Ice and Snow, where the sun and the moon shone at the same time from different sides of the sky.
Every land meant some sort of adventure, and often some sort of change and shape-shifting. Pleasure and danger tended to go hand in hand.
Pleasure and danger tended to go hand in hand.
In the Land of Dreams, for instance, the children find themselves in a field of red poppies, and across it is moving the mysterious figure of the Sandman. He scatters sand in the children’s eyes, casting them asleep. When they wake, an ice cream man is approaching. Alas, they have no money, their pockets are full of marbles, but – fortunately! – this is just the kind of payment the ice cream man wants. He hands them packages which contain large whistles. When the children blow on them, six large policemen come puffing up, asking if help is needed. When the children say no, the policemen take them to a swimming pool and tell them to jump in. ‘Don’t be silly,’ says one of the children, ‘there’s no water!’ At this news the policemen burst into tears, their tears fill the pool, and the children promptly push them in. The moment the policemen hit the water, they turn into tiny blue fish, and swim off into the distance, flicking their tails.
The great thing about the Faraway Tree books ... is that they override our sense of the difference between what is real and what is fantastic.
I love the imaginative power of a sequence like that. It has metamorphosis at its heart, as does the Faraway Tree itself, acting as a portal between worlds. The great thing about the Faraway Tree books, and there are three or four of them, is that they override our sense of the difference between what is real and what is fantastic. There’s an easy two-way traffic between the world of everyday life and the world of the imagination – something found also in the greatest works of literature, and of course in legend and folktale. And of course, if children can climb a ladder into other lands, the people of those lands can just as easily descend into ours. Faraway can sometimes be – thrillingly – quite close by.
As the novelist Haruki Murakami says, ‘The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake.’
Or, as one of the children from The Magic Faraway Tree put it many years earlier, ‘It’s so queer – being awake and having dreams.’
Bill Manhire’s most recent books include The Stories of Bill Manhire and the poetry collection Some Things to Place in a Coffin, both published by Victoria University Press. His award-winning 2005 collection Lifted has just been reissued as a VUP Classic. Bill is now an emeritus professor at Victoria University, where he founded the well-known creative writing programme. He once spent 45 semi-heroic minutes at the South Pole.