Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series is getting a makeover. Our favourite story from the weekend press comes from the publishers, Hodder, who claim that today’s children are put off reading Blyton because of the dated language.
So no more peculiar fellows, no more luncheon, no more galoshes and sou’westers. Instead we’ve got strange men, lunch, wellies and rain hats (probably not all in the same sentence, but then Julian, Dick, George and Anne got up to all sorts of high jinks, so you never know. Come to think of it, ‘high jinks’ has probably been revised right out of the new versions too.) Welcome to the silly season for news.
This is nothing more than a bit of clever PR on Hodder and Chorion’s part, no doubt, but it’s also part of a wider trend for updating classic stories with modern language. (See recent BBC productions of Merlin and Robin Hood for modernisation tactics).
If we eradicate every bit of strange sounding dialogue, then we lose something intrinsic to that story, or that character. We are, ‘at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for [our] society’ – that’s how American linguist Edward Sapir put it in the 1920s. We are, in part, shaped by the language of our community. So if we start homogenising language, we lose that extra layer of meaning.
The argument is that children are turned off by dated language, but shouldn’t parents at least have the opportunity to expose them to it? And since when are children bored by funny-sounding words? When we were kids, we loved coming across weird words in the Blyton books, or working out the Latin jokes in Asterix.
We should leave Blyton and the rest of ’em alone because by updating everything, we end up with a very narrow view of the world. And having a better appreciation of how our language, and our culture has evolved — which includes acknowledging that people said ‘dirty tinker’ and ‘golliwog’, never mind ‘luncheon’ — gives us insight.
As the philosopher Julian Baggini put it: ‘It matters that we understand the lives of people in different times and places. This is always worthwhile because it enables us to see that the ways of our lives are not fixed. They could be different. It’s a good way of questioning assumptions about what the right way to live is.’