Friday, 3 April 2015

Adventures of the Wishing Chair

Enid Blyton Adventures of the Wishing Chair (1937)
As a kid I led a sort of double life divided between home and the house of my grandparents. Whilst I've no reason whatsoever to criticise anything my parents did or didn't do, it was my grandparents who - presumably through having more leisure time and a slightly better budget - bought me books and encouraged me to read. My parents also bought me books from time to time, but otherwise generally left to my own devices. Of all the books I recall having read with my grandmother, Adventures of the Wishing Chair looms pretty large, at least equal to Brer Rabbit's a Rascal and six little Sir Prancelot picture books published by Collins. Naturally when I saw a copy in some junk shop in Shipston-on-Stour a few years ago, it was like the memory sherbert equivalent of a Diet Coke-Mentos explosion; and with it even being the same edition, I just couldn't not buy the thing. I'm not really in the habit of reading books aimed quite so squarely at those still half a decade short of being able to form dirty thoughts, but I refuse on principle to own anything purely for the sake of having it, and so...

As an adult, I've never been quite sure what to make of Enid Blyton or her work, and by weird coincidence I spent ten years of my life living across the road from her birthplace, as distinguished by the inevitable blue plaque on the wall above Plough Homecraft, from which I made regular purchase of screws, nails, tools and the like. I am aware of Blyton's oeuvre having accrued an unfortunate posthumous reputation for racist caricature, although I don't specifically recall anything of that sort in any of the books I read, at least nothing worse than the typical reinforcement of certain colonial-era values you find in children's fiction of a particular vintage, Rupert the Bear, Dan Dare, or whatever. This isn't to say that the casual racism didn't exist, only that I don't recall having directly encountered any of it.

Blyton's oeuvre also acquired a reputation for being of a low standard, one book churned out after another at the rate of something like fifty a year - formulaic, unchallenging, and lacking the obvious literary merit of a Winnie the Pooh or Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst there may be some validity to this accusation, it may equally be a case of condemning a horse for not being a cow given Blyton's aims and methods of composition:

I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee. I make my mind a blank and wait, and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind's eye... The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don't have to think of it. I don't have to think of anything.

And whilst we're rummaging around in Wikipedia:

If I tried to think out or invent the whole book, I could not do it. For one thing, it would bore me and for another, it would lack the verve and the extraordinary touches and surprising ideas that flood out from my imagination.

This presents the startling possibility of Enid Blyton having been the A.E. van Vogt - or even the André Breton - of children's fiction, and it is almost certainly to account for the appeal of Adventures of the Wishing Chair - that dream-like quality of casual surrealism splashed around all over the place without any obvious concessions to established narrative traditions.

The story begins with two very young middle-class children, Mollie and Peter, out on a mission to purchase a birthday present for their mother - all very commendable until, having bought a vase from a peculiar junk shop, they encounter the Wishing Chair. The chair sprouts tiny wings from its legs and will fly you wherever you wish to go, and because the wizard who runs the shop is freaking them out somewhat, they hop into the chair and fly away home. Reading this as a forty-nine-year old man, I must admit I found this blatant act of shoplifting a little weird given that neither the wizard nor his assistant - apparently a pixie - seem particularly malevolent or deserving of having their stock nicked by kids, and yet the chair is repeatedly referred to by Mollie and Peter as our chair from that point onwards.

Next they make friends with a pixie called Chinky - thankfully lacking obvious Asiatic characteristics, although the name still seems a bit of an odd choice to me - and Chinky serves as their intermediary with the realm of fairies, pixies, giants, and other mysterious creatures somehow inhabiting the castles of a world also including planes, buses, and trains to London. As intermediary, it is usually Chinky who presses the proverbial magic button, providing the means of escape from whatever situation the children find themselves in, which in turn most often results from the theft or appropriation of their magical chair - consequences here tending to be those which occur to would-be chair thieves, but not so much to the children themselves; so this is something in the tradition of a fairy tale without quite being one. The children are as isolated in their adventures as they appear to be at home with their play room at the end of the garden, kept far away from the adult world. Their adventures occur mostly as diverting novelties equivalent to play, incurring few serious consequences and requiring minimal agency on their part.

I can see the appeal of Blyton in how she speaks very directly to her intended audience and in their own terms. Adults remain principally remote figures not directly involved with the narrative, aside from a couple of chapters in which Mother briefly becomes yet another threat to Mollie and Peter's continued ownership of the Wishing Chair. The morality of the tales are fairly vague and rudimentary, mostly to do with the basic manners of those whom the children encounter, and with the children themselves held to slightly less rigorous standards.

The point here is, I guess, to engage with the very young audience without it feeling like a lecture, and I suppose this is where the accusations of poor literary merit come from. I can sort of see it, in so much as Adventures of the Wishing Chair commits most of the same crimes currently perpetrated by a certain telly show about a man in a blue box, although that isn't the same as saying that it doesn't do its job, or that it is without purpose of some kind. For all their potential flaws, Mollie and Peter come across as essentially likeable, even noble, and the tales for all that they may lack any overtly educational element, are engrossingly weird without too much to give young minds either a headache or nightmares.

Enid Blyton got children reading, and doubtless got children reading who might not have otherwise bothered. This was at least my mother's verdict, having herself been raised on Enid Blyton, so I guess my later introduction to Adventures of the Wishing Chair was simply a continuation of the family tradition. She knows they were terrible, as she has told me more recently, but loved them regardless. Bums on seats is never an indication of quality, but then neither is mass appeal necessarily an indication of its absence, and on the strength of this one I would say that Enid Blyton did what she set out to do very well.


  1. I have a lot of time for Enid Blyton despite having no great desire to read anything by her again, (with the possible exception of The Children of Cherry Tree Farm). She's one of those people (like Jeffrey Archer) who engages lots of people who wouldn't otherwise be reading books. As an adult, I much prefer the writing of, say, Just William or Pooh but frankly what adults think about children's books is sort of irrelevant. As you say Blyton was better at telling kids about the stuff THEY were interested in, such as what was in the packed lunch.

    1. Yes, the argument came around again more recently over Teletubbies being deemed lacking in substance, rather missing the point that small children loved it to bits.

  2. It's when you suddenly veer off at a tangent and review something outside of the sci-fi/comic book box that I enjoy the most. I laughed out loud when after mentioning Blyton's reputation for racist caricature, you then mention a pixie by the name of Chinky. This review is sublime.