I have been planning for a while to write about The Land of Far-Beyond, but have been held back by no longer having a copy. It seems to be out of print and second hand copies are often eye-wateringly expensive. But I have taken the plunge and for a ‘mere’ £26 have acquired a late reprint of the 1970 Dragon paperback edition (since doing so I have discovered that a new edition comes out in October 2016). The edition I have is the one shown here (this and all other images taken from the Enid Blyton Society website):
This book is not much discussed on Blyton sites, including this one, although there is one excellent review by Anita Bensoussane on the Enid Blyton Society website. I have always remembered it as being an unusual book and it has been interesting to re-read it now for the first time since I was, perhaps, 10 or 12. First published by Methuen in 1942, it is indeed very different to the other Blyton books, or the ones that I know, anyway. It is a loose re-interpretation of John Bunyan’s 1678 religious allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Whilst Blyton’s story are often ‘moralistic’, sometimes gratingly so, The Land of Far-Beyond is a morality tale, with explicitly religious themes.
The book starts with a depiction of children running wild in the City of Turmoil, playing cruel tricks, stealing, and sadistically throwing stones at animals. A mysterious stranger makes ‘burdens’ appear on their backs which represent all their cruelty, flaws and sins. What used to be carried in their hearts and souls is now externalised to be part of their bodies. These burdens appear in the illustrations to look like large, rough rucksacks but they are physically unmovable and, of course, heavy and painful to carry. The only way to be rid of them is to travel the arduous journey to the Land of Far-Beyond and enter the City of Happiness (the Celestial City in Bunyan). This they can only do by following the narrow path and not departing from it.
The children are joined by five adults who have also had burdens placed on them by the stranger. They are Sarah Simple, Mr Fearful, Gracie Grumble, Dick Cowardly and Mr Scornful. As in Bunyan, the characters have names to express their characteristics. Actually, the children are the exception as they are called John, Lily, Anna, Peter and Patience, but it is explained that Anna means ‘merciful’, Peter ‘rock-like’ and Patience, well, patient (John and Lily alone are omitted from the general pattern). So the ten characters set off on their journey.
Although the details are different to Bunyan’s story, the basic principle is the same. The path to salvation is a narrow one and the problems arise from being tempted off that path. These temptations are represented by characters such as Mr Doubt, the Demons of Boredom or Lord Arrogance; or by hazards such as the river of Hate, the house of Lies or the tunnel of Disgust. On the other hand, along the way there are some allies such as Comfort, Courage and Mr Industrious.
Mostly, there is an internal logic to all this – Miss Flatter leads the travellers into the Meadows of Conceit, for example. But they only end up in the Castle of Giant Cruelty because they are helping Temper, Rage and Wrath who have injured each other fighting. It is not that the travellers themselves have exhibited these failings. At all events, gradually they all fall by the wayside or go back to the City of Turmoil, and only Anna, Peter and Patience enter the City of Happiness and lose their burdens. The book ends very abruptly at this point.
Mr Scornful does reach the City of Happiness, but is turned away at the gates because he has not lost all of his scorn or learnt all the lessons of the journey. However, an alternative route is offered to him so he may lose his burden eventually, although we are not told. He is the only one of the characters with any depth, and he does show himself often to be both brave and sensible, and acts as the leader, and the children value this. Other characters are rather hard done by, I felt. Miss Simple gives up the journey because she believes the warnings of Mr Doubt, but being simple is hardly a sin and she is kind and good-natured so it seems harsh to imply that salvation is reserved for the intelligent.
Despite being very different to Blyton’s other books, as I re-read it I thought that it was in a way slightly similar to the Faraway Tree stories and the Wishing Chair stories in that it is a series of mini-adventures, with each encounter with a new set of characters being like, say, a new land at the top of the Faraway Tree. As with Bunyan, the descriptions of the landscape of the journey are very evocative, and have an eery, dream-like quality. There is also a sense, not intended by Blyton of course, of the kind of computer games where you have to navigate various rooms or hazards to progress to the ultimate goal. I’ve since read that some computer game designers are indeed influenced by the Pilgrim’s Progress.
Finally, re-reading the book what was most instantly recognizable and striking was not the story, although it is engaging, but the extraordinary illustrations by Horace Knowles. These are the same as in the original edition and they have a strange, mediaeval character that is most haunting. Blyton was very well-served by her illustrators. For those alone I think my £26 was well spent, but in fact reading the story again was also rewarding. It is as entertaining and thought-provoking as I remembered.