We never had a Christmas in the country before. It was simply ripping…
— E Nesbit, New Treasure Seekers
Love it or loathe it, Christmas is coming. Even if modern Christmases are increasingly tawdry* (a perpetual cry, I’m sure) at least we have past literary Christmases to fall back on for a quantum of solace when modern commercialised Yuletides get too much to bear, when our childhood memories of more magical midwinters need reviving, when we want the traditional once-upon-a-time seasonal fare to give us reassurance and sustenance.
As you may have noticed, I recently reread and reviewed John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk as preparation for a readalong of his more familiar The Box of Delights for the Twitter readalong #DelightfulXmas.
I then took to wondering how children’s fantasy literature through the years has presented and evolved the seasonal theme; a few thoughts are offered here (links are mostly to my reviews).
An early reviewer of The Midnight Folk (1927) saw John Masefield as the immediate successor to Edith Nesbit, who’d died in 1924. When it came to Noël she had ranged from the humour in the chapter titled ‘The Conscience Pudding’ in New Treasure Seekers (1904) to the more sentimental poem ‘Christmas Roses’ and on to the seasonal ghost story ‘The Shadow’ which had nothing remotely Christmassy about it. Then The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) starts around Bonfire Night in November and hurtles towards the end of the year, but any mention of Christmas is avoided. In fact I don’t remember if she ever dealt with the feast day in her fiction in any way that could be construed as nostalgic — but I’m happy to be corrected.
On the other hand Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) is all about the nostalgia: the tree, the presents, going to church in the snow. Available as a DVD (sadly not as a Box set!) and also on YouTube, the 1984 BBC adaptation remains a perennial favourite for viewing at this time of year, not least for its finale on Christmas Day and its haunting theme tune** melding the carol ‘The First Nowell’ with a catchy ostinato. There is even a marvellous website dedicated to that production here.
C S Lewis must have been familiar with Masefield’s fantasy, virtually referencing it in his 1950 novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (part of his allegorical Chronicles of Narnia). For here too is the snow, the menace (the witch Jadis instead of wolves and the wicked Abner Brown), the talking animals and the means of accessing other worlds, all elements present in Kay Harker’s story. But Lewis also enjoyed Nesbit’s fantasies — especially the magical episodes in the trilogy involving the Psammead, the Phoenix, and the amulet — because echoes of these can also be found throughout the Narnian Chronicles.
Let’s jump to another set of chronicles, those beginning with Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962). While there is no magic in the first of the Wolves Chronicles, here we again have snow, plus the wolves (and wolfish villains) from Masefield. While there is no mention of Christmas the story opens (as several of the Chronicles do) in or around dreary November, and continues past a wearisome midwinter to a more promising spring. Aiken’s debt to Masefield is more than just the wolves and word loans (like ‘scrobbling’ for capturing, especially kidnapping) — she is able to present the actions and emotions from a child’s perspective and, in addition, there is a certainty that the imaginations of both authors know no bounds.
Before Aiken’s novel there were other magical winterlude children’s novels, such as Alison Uttley’s haunting A Traveller in Time (1939) and, of course, Lucy Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954) and its sequels. Like many of the previous novels, the Green Knowe books feature a grand house or mansion (such as Seekings, The Old Professor’s House, or Willoughby Chase) where adventures start with secret passages or wardrobe doors or, in young Tolly’s case, the mansion itself and even the snow-covered garden.
Then there is Susan Cooper’s remarkable but quite sombre The Dark is Rising (1973): set in the countryside, partly in an ordinary family home and partly a local manor house, there is snow, magical talismans, mythic creatures, a call to adventure at the midwinter solstice, and a protagonist — Will Stanton — who is sensitive to the great forces ranged against each other.
Within all these narratives — very disparate in many ways, in tone, in language, in historical and geographical context — there are all these commonalities, linked by magic. True, in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase the magic is so muted as to be non-existent; but I’m convinced that with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a likely model the ‘magic’ of what that Victorian author calls presentiments, sympathies and signs is what permeates Aiken’s fantasy and furnishes its spirit.
Of course, a white Christmas is also what we remember about these fantasies. Susan Cooper’s novel even features a riff on the Twelve Days of Christmas, familiar from the folksong. The twelve days traditionally run from Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany, though it’s very possible to imagine a variation going from midwinter’s eve to the New Year, as seems to be case in Will Stanton’s story.
In The Box of Delights, with its twelve chapters, is it possible to postulate a different set of Twelve Days? The climax comes on what appears to be Christmas Day itself, suggesting that the sequence should start somewhere around the 12th or 13th December. Now this is approximately when Kay Harker is returning by train from his boarding school to Condicote for the Yuletide holidays, dates when the Michaelmas terms of many independent schools still often end, when they break for a very lengthy vacation. It is on this day that Kay comes to meet both friends and enemies, who will launch him into fresh adventures.
This might be the point when we start to discuss the class system as portrayed in 20th-century fantasies for children, but this should be for another time perhaps.
Have you noted other children’s fantasies which centre on a white Christmas? I don’t mean the likes of the Harry Potter books, where the season is just one episode among many, but those where midwinter is the very theatre in which the magic unfolds.
I will conclude now with some apologies for not interacting regularly and consistently with posts by fellow bloggers: blame the time of year, one when I seem to be involved with a great many rehearsals and musical performances for Advent and Christmas; I shall catch up when I can!
* * * * *
* ‘Tawdry’ derives from St Audrey (originally Æthelthryth or Etheldreda, a 7th-century queen who was also Abbess of Ely in East Anglia). Lacework sold at the medieval fairs on her feast day in midsummer were often regarded as old-fashioned, substandard or tatty: St Audrey goods soon acquired the epithet tawdry.
** Excerpted from the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony (1927)