A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

Kay Harker, Masefield’s alter ego, has no siblings (unlike his creator) but does have playmates in the shape of the four Jones children, particularly the stolid Peter and Peter’s more rumbustious sister Maria. In place of of the pompous male guardian and sinister governess of The Midnight Folk Kay now has the sympathetic Caroline Louisa, a mother figure who bears the same name as Masefield’s own mother and who will suddenly disappear, as the author’s own mother did (though for Kay it won’t be as permanent).

But before all this comes about, Kay is to meet several strangers, starting with rather dubious clergymen on a train, then a travelling Punch & Judy man, a shape-shifting horseman, a mysterious woman, Arthurian knights and bloodthirsty pirates. And he will also re-encounter some old foes in the form of the sinister magician Abner Brown, the witch who was his governess Miss Pouncer, and the untrustworthy Rat.

The Box of Delights is too rich and complex a tale to summarise adequately, for it works at several different levels. Superficially it is a fantasy, with magic manifested in a painted landscape one can enter, a hillfort and Roman camp, flying cars, supernatural familiars and, of course, the Box of the book’s title, which allows the possessor to both ‘go swift’ and ‘go small’. With this small container, and the book within it, Kay becomes the hero of his own adventure — a spy, a sorcerer’s apprentice, a rescuer of kidnapped individuals, and a sea captain saving a marooned man.

On a deeper level there is manifested Masefield’s poetic sensibility, his love of nature, his awareness of the numinosity of old places. And below all that there is an understanding of a solitary child’s psychology, how deep loss may be masked by irrepressible curiosity and imaginative play, how fears may be signified and addressed by means of symbolism.

Add to all this the expectations aroused by the season: small wonder then that all the nostalgia of Christmas decorations, toys, lights, the comfort of church services, bells and carols and so on may be threatened by bitter cold and those of evil intent, all encapsulated by the chilling phrase ‘The Wolves are Running.’

Is the magic real or is just a dream? Or is reality what we think we’ve perceived or experienced? Masefield’s novel allows one to suspend disbelief by taking us back to a time when, seemingly powerless in an irrational adult world, we children were only able to effect change for the better in the safety of our imaginations.

Kay is able to retire behind the valance surrounding the table in his room. In a world gone mad it is tempting to find shelter and comfort, if not behind a curtain, then at least in a book like this.

John Masefield’s daughter Judith, who illustrated the novel (1920 photo, National Portrait Gallery)

This review will be followed by what’s planned as a final post in this sequence.

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