The Enid Blyton Society
Ring o' Bells Mystery
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Book Details...

First edition: 1951
Publisher: William Collins
Illustrator: Gilbert Dunlop
Category: Barney Mystery Series
Genre: Mystery/Adventure
Type: Novels/Novelettes

On This Page...

Reprint Covers
Review by Anita Bensoussane
Further Illustrations


Wraparound dustwrapper from the 1st edition, illustrated by Gilbert Dunlop

1st German edition published by Blόchert Verlag in 1962,
illustrated by Nikolaus Plump with the title Riddle of the Underground Path
Foreign Titles
German: Rδtsel um den unterirdischen Gang
French: Le Mystθre Du Carillon
Dutch: Robbert Jan en het geheimzinnige kasteel
Spanish: Misterio en la Aldea
Portuguese: O Mistιrio da Mansγo dos Sinos
Latvian: Ringobelzas noslepums
Icelandic: Radgatan a Klukknahvoli
Slovakian: Skrivnost Podzemnega Hodnika

Brief Summary by Robert Houghton: When Barney the circus boy hitches a lift to meet his friends Roger Diana and Snubby at Ring O Bells village, he stumbles across the start of a mystery that seems impossible to solve – strange noises in the night, bells that ring by themselves to warn that enemies are at work, legends and characters that seem to survive the centuries, and secret passages and priest holes in Ring O Bells Hall. Fact seems to merge with fantasy and legend as a thrilling story unravels. Are the legends of Ring O Bells Hall coming true, or can there be a more human explanation?

Full Review (This may contain spoilers):

Anita Bensoussane's Review
I spoke of the brilliance of The Rilloby Fair Mystery but even that is eclipsed by The Ring O'Bells Mystery, which is truly dazzling. Blyton is at her best in this book, interweaving fantasy and reality, past and present, to create a haunting and unforgettable story.

Following a bout of influenza, Roger, Diana and Snubby are unable to return to school after the Easter holidays but are sent away with Miss Pepper to convalesce. They are to stay in the fictional village of Ring O' Bells in Somerset, at the boarding-house belonging to Miss Pepper's cousin (Miss Hannah), whose golden spaniel, Loopy, is the perfect companion for Loony.

The Easter holidays to which Blyton refers, by the way, are not the holidays in which The Rilloby Fair Mystery took place, as the children remark that it is a long time since they last saw Barney. Therefore, it must be a year later. Snubby and the others are typical of Blyton children in that they remain the same age for several years running (an ability which I envy!) Snubby, who was twelve in The Rilloby Fair Mystery, is still twelve just over a year later. In fact, when we reach The Ragamuffin Mystery, which is the final book in the series, he is still twelve!

From the moment the children set eyes on the village, they feel that it looks "as if it's out of a nursery-rhyme," with crooked cottages set amid ancient woodland, inhabited by colourful characters who resemble nursery-rhyme or fairy-tale folk. Old Grandad, reputed to be over a hundred years old, thrills them with his stories of long ago. For him, the past seems more real than the present and his tales of the olden days transport Roger and the others back to a time of wolves and outlaws.

It is the woman caretaker at Ring O' Bells Hall, a "grim" stone building which is uninhabited but open to the public, who first tells the children how the bells at the Hall supposedly rang themselves long ago at the very moment of the death of Hugh Dourley's son. Since then they have reportedly rung themselves every so often to warn of enemies.

Old Grandad is a descendant of Hugh Dourley, who lived at the Hall in the seventeenth century, and he carries his name. Likewise, Naomi Barlow, who lives in the woods, is a descendant of Old Mother Barlow who, many years ago, was threatened by wolves -– -– until the bells at the Hall rang out to alert the villagers and they came to her rescue.

Because the place -– -– and even its inhabitants -– -– appear barely to have changed for centuries, there is a sense that this is a village in which time has stood still -– -– a "dreamy, half-forgotten place," Miss Pepper calls it. Its insularity is underlined by Miss Hannah's comment about the caretaker at the Hall: "It's a pity she's not a native here."

The children are intrigued to learn from Old Grandad that the secret passage at Ring O' Bells Hall, which has now apparently been bricked up, was not blocked when he was a boy. However, he refuses to reveal where it led but simply keeps repeating: "Ask Mother Barlow," and the children reluctantly let the matter drop, seeing that the elderly man is confusing the past with the present.

When Barney finally arrives (having hitch-hiked to Ring O' Bells!), the story follows a similar pattern to that of The Rockingdown Mystery for a while. Barney sleeps at Ring O' Bells Hall, just as he once slept at Rockingdown Hall, and is disturbed as before by noises in the night, leading once again to an exploration of underground passages. Ring O' Bells Hall has the same air of melancholy about it as Rockingdown Hall and even Snubby comes over "all poetical," remarking: "It's a pretty queer place, I must say, all furnished with old, forgotten things that seem to stand and dream in the rooms." It seems odd that the children themselves do not comment on the resemblance to Rockingdown Hall.

Once again the atmosphere of the story is all-important, with the past impinging on the present, yet in this book Enid Blyton goes further than in The Rockingdown Mystery. In the quaint village of Ring O' Bells, peopled with characters who appear to have stepped from the pages of nursery-rhyme or fairy-tale books, it is not only the line between past and present that is blurred but the distinction between fantasy and reality. The children allow themselves to be drawn into a fantasy world, behaving at times as if they're bewitched. When the bells jangle out one night at the Hall, the children seem quite ready to believe that they rang themselves as a warning, just as the legends tell. And they are startled by the sight of Naomi Barlow with her red cloak and ragged hood -– -– "Red Riding-Hood grown old." That Naomi Barlow has green eyes is mentioned repeatedly throughout the book. The suggestion is that this makes her a witch -– -– as Roger says: "All the books say that witches or anyone distantly related to the Little Folk have green eyes. I'm sure Naomi's old grandmother, or whoever she was, was a witch, and that's why Naomi has green eyes." It's funny that the children should consider green eyes to be so creepy, since we were informed in The Rockingdown Mystery that Snubby's own eyes are green! Having green eyes myself, I was amused by all this as a child!

The caretaker at the Hall is described as "an angry black witch," while another villager, Ma Hubbard, not only looks like Mother Hubbard but fetches bones for Loony and Loopy from her cupboard (which fortunately is not bare!) Unnerved, Diana over-reacts when she spies the old-fashioned cupboard, clutching Roger's arm and whispering: "Look -– -– the cupboard! She's got a cupboard!"

The whole village is so steeped in fairy-tale and legend that it gives the impression of being a world outside the everyday world. Perhaps Blyton was harking back to her own childhood days -– -– days in which fictional worlds held a fascination for her but in which she also found Grimm's fairy-tales "cruel and frightening," as she recalls in The Story of My Life (1952.) There is something chilling about Ring O' Bells with its legends, secrets and alarming characters, yet it has an irresistible charm too, causing not just Roger and the others but the reader him/herself to feel enchanted yet on edge. Of the four children, Diana is most affected by the atmosphere of the place and the tales she hears: " their secret hearts they wondered if there was some truth in the old, old stories, and if bits of that truth were not still hidden here and there in this beautiful, ancient countryside. Diana, especially, wanted to believe it -– -– it was romantic and exciting and mysterious." When the shop woman first tells them where Naomi Barlow lives, Diana repeats the phrase "Ring O' Bells Cottage away out in the wood!" over and over, like an incantation.

While sleeping at the Hall, Barney hears curious, spasmodic noises in the night which he believes come from the secret passage. The children investigate, only to find that the passage appears to have been bricked up as described. However, when they spot the caretaker entering the passage with a man they realise that there must be a way through the brick wall. Unwilling to risk going that way again, the children decide to explore the passage from the opposite end. Naomi Barlow's talk of a long-ago drowning leads them to deduce that the other end of the passage must have its outlet in her well (like the passage between the Isle of Gloom and the well at Craggy-Tops in The Island of Adventure.) The three boys climb down into Naomi's well and follow the passage but eventually come to a roof-fall. Behind the roof-fall lies a man who is seriously ill -– -– it was his coughing that Barney heard at night in the Hall. It turns out that the caretaker belongs to a gang of kidnappers who have captured the man -– -– a detective who knew too much -– -– and are keeping him prisoner down the secret passage. He communicates with the boys through the rubble, asking them to hide in the Hall that night and alert the police when the gang arrive, so that the crooks will be caught red-handed.

The three boys go to the Hall as arranged, though not Diana because she's only a girl! All seems lost when the gang catch them -– -– until Barney, who has been locked up in the bell-tower, has the idea of ringing the bells to summon the villagers to the Hall. This is ingenious as Barney knows that everyone in the neighbourhood will hear the bells except for the crooks, who are in the passage deep underground with the prisoner. So the bells ring as a warning of enemies after all, leading to the capture of the caretaker and the rest of the gang. The villagers (and even Roger and Snubby, who are locked up or hidden elsewhere in the Hall), believe at first that the bells are ringing themselves. It is only later that they discover they were rung by Barney -– -– who has also realised that the jangling heard on a previous night was caused by his pet monkey, Miranda, leaping on to the bells and setting them swinging. This rules out any supernatural explanations, just as we would expect from a Blyton adventure book.

There are several stylistic features worthy of closer examination. Old Grandad has a colourful way of talking, speaking in a Somerset "brogue" which is redolent of a less mobile world. He enjoys spinning a yarn. Unable to read or write ("I never did have no learning, but I wasn't any the worse for that,") the oral tradition means a lot to him and he clings to the old times and the old legends. Relating the story of a time when the bells "rang theirselves," he begins:

"In the days when there were wolves round about here...In the days when there were wolves, there came a hard winter. Ground were so hard that my old Grandad said sparks could be knocked out of it if so be you hammered it! But that's a tale, o'course. Well, one night the wolves came in a howling flock to Ring O' Bells, looking for cattle, looking for chickens, aye, and looking for humans too."

Repetition, dialectal words and phrases, non-standard grammar, speaking of a "flock" of wolves instead of a "pack" -– -– all these things help Old Grandad's character come through so strongly that we feel as if we're actually there listening to him.

Rhythmic sentences, full of repetition and lists of words, crop up regularly in Enid Blyton books to convey a sense of movement or urgency. On these occasions, Blyton often makes use of onomatopoeia, with some words being written in capital letters to denote loudness. The episode where Barney rings the bells demonstrates this wonderfully well:

"He rang the bells. How he rang them! Surely never, never before had those bells rung so wildly, so madly, so insistently.

Jingle jangle-jangle, jing, jing, JING, jangle, JANG, JANG, jingle, jing, JING, JANG, JING, JANG, JING, JANG ..."

Then comes an evocative passage, notable for its sounds and rhythms, as Blyton sweeps the countryside, examining the effect of the reverberating bells on the surrounding community:

"But the sound of the bells went far and wide over the countryside. The jangling leapt out of the old tower and penetrated into cottage windows, and into dog-kennels, and into the barns. This was no hurried, flurried spell of ringing such as the bells had given before -– -– it was a summons, a warning, a signal of danger!

Dogs barked. Cows lowed. Cats fled to corners. Men threw the bedclothes off and leapt out of bed. Women screamed."

Although Enid Blyton's writing has been criticised for its simplicity, in this series her vocabulary is more varied. In The Ring O'Bells Mystery alone we find "brogue," "purloining," "tantalising," "stentorian" and "fusillade" -– -– all unusual words for Blyton.

One feature of Blyton's style which is in evidence in this book is her tendency to place a pair of alliterating words together for emphasis. To give just a few examples, we have "a rogue or a ruffian," "prying and poking," "big and bright" and "still and silent." Blyton is similarly fond of rhyming phrases, describing the secret passage as "dusty and musty." This is capped by Kiki the parrot in The Castle of Adventure (1946), who keeps repeating the phrase "musty, dusty, fusty," in the old castle.

At the beginning of Chapter 14, Blyton shows the children all talking simultaneously by putting different statements in speech marks, one beneath the other, none being attributed to any child in particular. This is a common device of hers, especially at times of excitement or wonder.

Blyton herself gets carried away by the excitement occasionally. When Barney, Roger and Snubby enter a room in the Hall one night to find themselves confronted by the gang, Blyton addresses the characters, heightening the tension: "Run, Barney, run, Roger and Snubby. Run for your very lives!" It is as if the characters are independent of her and she is identifying with the reader in urging the boys to escape.

There are echoes of The Ring O'Bells Mystery in The Circus of Adventure, which was published only a year later in 1952. Quarry Cottage, where Jack and the others stay, is like a fairy-tale cottage. At a nearby farmhouse lives an elderly lady known as Aunt Naomi, reminding me of Naomi Barlow. The children in The Circus of Adventure go picnicking on a hill amid the spring flowers, just as Roger and the others do. At Borken Castle, Jack discovers the entrance to a secret passage hidden behind a moving picture, while in The Ring O'Bells Mystery a moving picture conceals a knob which opens the passage at the Hall. A bell-tower plays an important part in both stories and, in The Circus of Adventure, Gussy informs Philip that "the bell used to be rung when enemies were sighted in the old days." All these elements recall The Ring O'Bells Mystery, even though the context differs, making me wonder whether Enid Blyton had fallen under her own spell. Was she so reluctant to let go of the fairy-tale world she had created in The Ring O'Bells Mystery that she carried parts of it with her into The Circus of Adventure?

The Ring O'Bells Mystery certainly holds me spellbound. The story is more complex than my summary suggests and there are plenty of Gothic elements which add to the atmosphere -– -– secret chambers, a spiral staircase, suits of armour, a thunderstorm and the "dim and shadowy" woods. The Ring O'Bells Mystery is a compelling read and, although the first four titles of this series are all excellent, it's this book that is my personal favourite. These illustrations are hidden by default to ensure faster browsing. Loading the illustrations is recommended for high-speed internet users only.