Having recently reviewed my top three ‘Famous Fives’, I’m now beginning a series on my top three of the ‘Adventure’ series, of which the first, at number three in my ranking, is The Castle of Adventure. The series are very different: there were some twenty-one Fives, published between 1942 and 1964, and only eight Adventures, published between 1944 and 1955. In general, the Adventures have more detailed and complex plots, and I assume were aimed at slightly older readers.
Both series feature four children, two boys and two girls, but in the Adventures these are two pairs of siblings whereas in the Five they are three siblings and a cousin. As so often in Blyton there is a weird family set up. In the Adventures, one pair of orphaned siblings (Jack and Lucy-Ann Trent) are adopted by the widowed mother of the other pair (Philip and Dinah Mannering). There is no father or uncle in the Adventures, but instead Bill Smugs (Cunningham) is the male adult, who later in the series marries Mrs Mannering. Unlike Uncle Quentin, Bill joins in rather than gets in the way of the adventures, partly because he is a policeman or even, it’s sometimes implied, an intelligence officer.
In both series there is a fifth member of the team: Timmy the dog for the Five, Kiki the parrot for the Adventures. And here I have to make a declaration: I think that Kiki spoils the Adventures (whereas Timmy adds to the Five) because I find her completely implausible both in the range of her language and her capacity to make sense in context. Timmy is believable and wonderful; Kiki is absurd and ludicrous. There – I have said it and won’t repeat it in my future reviews.
So, now, to Castle. It is the second in the series and was first published in 1946 by Macmillan. I have the 1953 reprint of the first edition, in hardback but sadly without its dustjacket. Illustrations are by the wonderful Stuart Tresilian. The first edition dustjacket is pictured below (all images in this review taken from the Enid Blyton Society website).
My unjacketed cover is exactly as depicted here:
There are other reviews of the book on this site, by Fiona and by Stef, two reviews on the EnidBlyton.net site and another on the Enid Blyton Society site. So, unlike my reviews of the Fives, I am not going to summarise the plot in detail. Briefly, the children discover that in a ruined castle near their holiday home there is a gang of foreign agents using it as a base to spy on an adjacent secret military research site (so secret that even Bill does not know what goes on there). Instead of a plot summary I will identify the good and bad aspects, as I see them.
Chief amongst the bad aspects is Tassie. Described as a “gypsy”, she is the usual stereotypical Blyton outsider who is dirty, dressed in rags, can’t speak English properly, and lives like a semi-wild animal. She does aid the children in the Adventure but she is also presented in pretty demeaning ways. Another negative to me is the device, used often in the series, of having Philip’s uncanny ability to tame wild animals play a part in the plot. Here, Button the fox plays a key role in carrying messages. As with Kiki the parrot I just don’t find that realistic (if you disagree, just try taming a fox cub to carry messages for you).
But there are so many good things in this story! First and foremost, the castle itself. The idea of finding a remote and semi-ruined castle – with secret rooms, old suits of armour and underground passages – is exciting for children and still has an appeal for adults. Later in the series we are told that the setting is Scotland, but there is no particular sense of that in the book. Even so, the picturesque rural location, including an archetypal cottage, do give Castle a classic holiday feel. At the same time, the mundane details in the background, such as trains and lunch in a country hotel (see illustrations) make for a cosy atmosphere.
But we want more than cosiness, we want an adventure – and we get it! There is a gradual build up as the castle is explored and Jack has the adventure – but not Adventure – of trying to photograph the eagles nesting there. Soon mysterious lights and traces of human occupants in the castle herald the beginning of the adventure proper, and events begin to move more quickly. Key moments of excitement include Philip very bravely standing up to the baddies (see illustration), even in the face of genuinely vicious treatment.
The chief baddy, called Mannheim but known as Scar-Neck, is a great villain, indeed even his nom de guerre is perfectly chosen. And the denouement, with a wild thunderstorm breaking out right on top of the castle could hardly be bettered. In a splendid example of the literary device of ‘pathetic fallacy’ the next day brings “clear morning sunlight”, a resolution to the adventure and, even, reference to those Blyton perennials the “burly policemen”. The castle, alas, is all but destroyed but it will always be for us as Jack describes it in the closing sentence – the Castle of Adventure!
Overall, a fine story and easily in my top three Adventures. But compared with my top two (which I will cover in future reviews) the plot is a shade more simplistic and the sense of place a little less strong. With marks knocked off for Tassie and Button as well, Castle gets what Dick and Ju’s schoolmasters might have described as ‘beta-plus-query-alpha-minus’.