John Masefield: The Midnight Folk Mammoth 2000 (1927)
“You must be the master in your own house. Don’t let a witch take the charge of Seekings. This is a house where upright people have lived. Let’s have no Endorings nor Jezebellings in Seekings.” — Grandmamma Harker’s message to Kay.
In 1885 orphan Kay Harker finds himself under the guardianship of the insensitive Sir Theopompous and the stern tutelage of an unnamed governess. His former companions, a collection of stuffed toys, have evidently been removed, their place taken by the declension of Latin adjectives for ‘sharp’, and by exercises in French, Divinity and the like.
When freed from lessons he quietly explores and investigates the surroundings of his ancestral home of Seekings, uncovering a nefarious plot to steal some long-lost treasure. He is therefore following family tradition and living up to the family name: the Harker shield displays three oreilles couped proper (that is, three disembodied flesh-coloured ears). So, true to form, Kay eavesdrops, harkening to conversations and learning from what he overhears.
Young Kay (whom we may imagine as around seven) inhabits a magic realist world midway between dreams, imagination and daily life, one inhabited by a combination of guardians and governesses, servants and smugglers, wild animals and witches, knights and toys, ancestors and archvillains.
The impetus to investigate and solve mysteries while avoiding perilous situations drives the reader forward as much as it does the protagonist, in a chapter-free tale full of incidents and wonder. The joy of this narrative is that one can quickly and easily shrug off scruples about implausibilities and engage fully in the ebb and flow of story.
Part of my own ease comes from remembering myself at the same age, with the same sense of life being a dreamscape where reality was of one substance with imaginings. Maybe a lot of the novel’s strange-yet-familiar quality comes from the author’s own remembered past being a kind of foreign country, where “they do things differently”.
As has been pointed out to me, at times The Midnight Folk feels like a mash-up between Treasure Island and Halloween, what with ecclesiastical gold and South American settings and a clandestine witches’ coven meeting at at dead of night. But it is much more complex than that: the three ears of the Harker arms underscore several trios of themes.
There are three treasures (smuggled goods, a highwayman’s plunder, and the aforementioned Spanish gold), three principal hidey holes (caves, the highwayman’s lair, and under a hearthstone), three prime locations (Seekings, Trigger Hall in the North of England and Santa Barbara in South America), not forgetting three groups of friends for Kay (his old toys, the animals at Seekings, and Arthur’s knights); there are even three generations of the truly sinister villain, each one called Abner Brown.
The Midnight Folk is a novel to immerse and lose yourself in, a story in which to go with the ebb and flow. Yet for all its fantastic elements it has a tell-tale authenticity at its heart. There is much of Masefield’s own childhood here, epitomised by drawings of Kay’s toys (their names clearly holding significance for Masefield) which intersperse the text. There are also snatches of folksongs and nursery rhymes here — all with new words, one for example evidently modelled on A Frog he would a-wooing go — which must’ve formed a nostalgic background during the author’s early years.
Masefield’s mother Caroline Louisa died in 1885, followed by his paternal grandparents and then his unhappy father George in 1891. An unsympathetic aunt and uncle became the guardians of the five Masefield children, perhaps providing the templates for the wicked governess and overbearing guardian Sir Theopompous. Are we surprised that Kay’s proposed replacement guardian bears his mother’s name?
His teenage experiences as a naval cadet and then in the merchant navy provided the seafaring subplot in the novel, though his maiden voyage in 1894 to Chile, when he was not yet 16, was ruinous to his health. Nevertheless, on his return home to recuperate his authoritarian aunt insisted on him pursuing this career, to his dismay.
In early 1895 he jumped ship in New York, where he took odd jobs and read voraciously: here he acquired and retained the first volume of Malory’s Morte Darthur, aspects of which work emerge in this novel in the scenes at the earthwork known as King Arthur’s Round Table. Sites associated with Arthurian legends, such as the Dorstone and Old Oswestry, abound in Herefordshire and Shropshire so it was only natural that the famed monarch’s court should appear in the narrative.
The Midnight Folk alludes to Kay’s companions whom he meets around and after the witching hour, but there is much more to enjoy here than talking animals: there are some fine descriptions of the delights of nature, of the fun to be had cataloguing objects, of the slow realisation of who exactly the chief witch Sister Pouncer is, of the truly dastardly character of Abner Brown — all three of them.
This is a truly magical tale, “the best book of its kind that has appeared since Mrs Hubert Bland died,” declared the reviewer in The Illustrated London News in the week before Christmas in 1927. Mrs Bland is of course better known as children’s author Edith Nesbit, who’d died in 1924, so high praise indeed.
The sequel, also featuring Kay Harker, is The Box of Delights and will be a Twitter readalong under the tag #DelightfulXmas beginning 21st December 2019 and continuing to 3rd January 2020