This is the second of my reviews of my top three in the Adventure series. At number three was Castle and here I discuss my number two – The Mountain of Adventure. As before, I won’t summarise the plot in detail because there are several reviews available. On this site, it has been reviewed by Fiona and by Stef, in two parts (part one is here and part two is here). There are also reviews by Keith Robinson on EnidBlyton.net and Anita Bensoussane on the Enid Blyton Society site from which the illustrations in this review are taken. In brief, the children are in holiday in Wales, and whilst on a donkey trek get lost and discover that inside a remote mountain a strange experiment is underway. A mad scientist has supposedly invented some wings that allow people to fly, and under the control of some foreign agents is testing them using ex-paratroopers. Snoopers are discouraged by a pack of vicious dogs. The children discover what is going on and get imprisoned in the mountain. But with the help of Bill Smugs’ they escape and the baddies are rounded up.
Mountain is the fifth of the eight volume Adventure series that appeared between 1942 and 1955, and was first published by Macmillan in 1949. The jacket illustration is here:
The excellent illustrations, as for the rest of the series, are by Stuart Tresilian. I have the first edition, but without dustjacket unfortunately, with the hardcover exactly as here:
So what are the strong and weak parts of this story? I’ll start with the weaknesses. It’s really not clear why a mountain in Wales would be chosen as the site for these experiments. Perhaps there is some special feature of the geology, but if so it is not explained. I also think that the way the Welsh people are depicted is rather derogatory or at least clichéd – there’s a lot of ‘Look you, whateffer-ing’. Evans, the family with whom the children stay, is always rendered as ‘Effans’, and David, who takes the children on the donkey trek, is treated pretty patronizingly as an illiterate coward. Then we have – gosh – a black man, Sam, described as “a negro”, who is one of the paratroopers and is portrayed as a gibbering imbecile. It’s the kind of thing that gives Blyton a bad name but, in a way, given the climate of the time, I think that the depictions of the Welsh are the more reprehensible. Published just after the Second World War, my guess is that Blyton had in mind that Sam was a black American, something still very exotic in Britain.
On the positive side, Mountain is first and foremost a science fiction adventure, of a sort fairly unusual in the Blyton oeuvre, comparable perhaps to The Secret of Moon Castle which I reviewed last year. There are some memorable descriptions of the strange machines inside the mountain, and some fantastic illustrations of this, including one that looks remarkably like a nuclear reactor:
In fact, I think that Mountain should be read as a novel about the fears of the nuclear weapon age, and about the potential dangers of science, or at least the subversion of science. The genius is depicted as not bad but mad, and taken advantage of by unscrupulous villains. In fact, the villains are quite excellent, in the form of “thin-lipped” Meier and “ape-like” Erlick. As in Castle (with Mannheim) the names are Germanic, which would make sense in post-war Britain. And their assistants, “soft-footed” and “nasty little slinky” Japanese, adept in the martial arts, also spoke to the period, even if it is rather hard to understand why a German-Japanese axis would be at work in Wales four years after the war had ended. Never mind, they are creepy and convincing and, as Bill understatedly remarks at the end, “probably had bad records”. What’s more, they chime with contemporaneous ideas about totalitarianism (George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published the same year as Mountain), most obviously in the illustration of the workers in the scientific plant, which has an almost Soviet Realist look to it:
Back to less weighty matters. Mountain is also great because – depictions of the Welsh notwithstanding – it does have a very strong sense of place and of remoteness. I think this is one of the great strengths of Blyton: she conjures up the kind of place where we might imagine having a holiday, and the kind of place where an adventure might happen. We also have some fantastic Blyton food. For example on their first night there is this extraordinary spread:
“A great ham sat ready to be carved. A big tongue garnished round with bright green parsley sat by its side. An enormous salad with hard-boiled eggs sprinkled generously all over it was in the middle of the table. Two cold roast chickens were on the table too, with curly bits of bacon set round … scones and cakes! The jams and the pure yellow honey! The jugs of creamy milk!”
Imagine reading that in 1949, when there was still rationing in Britain! Even now it seems sumptuous.
One of the hallmarks of the Adventure series (the same is true in the Five, but it is less strongly drawn) is a series of transitions from an idyllic holiday, to an exciting holiday, to an adventure. In Mountain the idyllic holiday quickly moves to the excitement of a donkey trek to see the Vale of Butterflies. The adults are quickly dispatched, with Mrs Mannering slamming her hand in a barn door (but reacting with commendable stoicism) and Bill having to look after her. Once on the trek David disappears in a panic as the adventure starts, and we are away.
There are some beautiful moments as the children discover the secret entrance to the mountain laboratory, and encounter the mad inventor, styled a King by his exploiters. As in Castle, Philip plays a starring, heroic role when, captured by the baddies, he is forced to try the peculiar wings. Fortunately the helicopter pilot who conducts the trials gets cold feet, and Bill and his men are able to take over the helicopter, rescue the children and rout the baddies.
I remarked in my review of Castle that I find Philip’s way with animals is somewhat implausible as a plot device. But in Mountain, although this does apply to his taming of Snowy the goat, it is much better with respect to the dogs. Initially appearing to be a pack of wolves they are in fact Alsations, and Philip’s ability to control them is crucial both to the children escaping capture and also to the round-up of Meier (who ends up “white with rage”) and Erlick (who is “almost weeping with panic”). It’s very pleasing to see the bullies laid low and it is not at all difficult to accept that these brutally trained dogs would respond well to Philip’s care.
Mountain is quite densely plotted, with a considerable amount of incidental detail and explanation of events. Even read as an adult it has genuine drama. There is a strong sense of place, good villains, a plausible plot and a serious science fiction theme. Against that, the adults are dispatched in a contrived way and the treatment of the Evans and of David is a bit irritating. It is certainly one of the finest of the Adventures, but does not quite make it to number one. Adopting the scoring system of public schools of the time that I used for Castle, I would rate The Mountain of Adventure as an alpha-minus-query-alpha-minus-plus, if only by comparison with my number one choice which I will review next time.