A box of dreams

The Box was of some very hard wood of a dense grain. It had been covered with shagreen, but the shagreen was black with age and sometimes worn away so as to show the wood beneath. Both wood and shagreen had been polished until they were as smooth as a polished metal.
— From Chapter Four, The Box of Delights

I now offer here what’s planned as my final thoughts on John Masefield’s fantasy The Box of Delights, though one shouldn’t say anything is actually final where thinking is concerned. These thoughts will focus on magic, on time and on space, and not just because these aspects are interconnected.

When I consider the magic in the novel I think of the materials — the Box itself and the Elixir of Life, principally — and the types of magic that seem to manifest in the narrative. In terms of time and space I want to highlight when exactly Masefield sets both this story and its predecessor The Midnight Folk, and where geographically speaking he imagines them happening.

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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.

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“Greed puts out the sun.”

Islands

Ursula Le Guin: The Other Wind
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

O my joy!
Before bright Ea was, before Segoy
Bade the islands be,
The morning wind blew on the sea.
O my joy, be free!

When Lebannen, king of all the isles of Earthsea, remembers this fragment of a ballad or lullaby from his childhood he is sailing on the Inland Sea. A storm has passed; whether it is the words, the tune or being on deck that has brought the words to mind matters less than that it is a leitmotif for this final novel in the Earthsea sequence, and perhaps for the whole sequence. It recalls a beginning and even an ending, for on the last page Tenar whispers the final words to Ged: O my joy, be free . . .

The Other Wind is, however one looks at it, the last novel in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence: the collection Tales from Earthsea includes episodes which predate the events in this swansong instalment but these two books, along with Tehanu, form a balancing trilogy with the first three books which, the author came to recognise, gave a rather unbalanced worldview of her creation in terms of gender.

As Earthsea’s existence and survival is bound up with balance, it was only morally and poetically right for its Creator to follow the male-dominated first trilogy with a second reasserting female contribution; and if that involved if not retconning then at least establishing that the fulcrum of power on the Island of Roke was initiated by women as much as men justice could not only be done but seen to be done. And though some benighted erstwhile fans saw this somehow as too politically correct, to this reader at least Earthsea’s yin was finally complemented by its yang and Le Guin’s passion made manifest.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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The firebird flies again

Phoenix fire plaque, Pickering © Copyright Pauline Eccles and licensed for reuse
Phoenix fire plaque, Pickering © Copyright Pauline Eccles and licensed for reuse

E Nesbit:
The Phoenix and the Carpet
Puffin Books 1994 (1904)

The common advice to would-be fiction authors is to “write about what you know”. A phoenix and a flying carpet aren’t of course really within one’s everyday experience, but at heart the events that take place and many of this fantasy’s settings are taken from real life, a fair few of which hark back to Nesbit’s own childhood in the Victorian period.

The reminiscences in Long Ago When I Was Young, though only first published as a collection in 1966, were serialised before Nesbit embarked on her career as a children’s writer and were partly the spur for her successful forays into publishing. A significant number of the incidents in The Phoenix and the Carpet can in fact be directly traced to the memories she presents in Long Ago.

A mysterious keep-like stone structure that appears in ‘The Topless Tower’ and ‘Doing Good’ is based on the same building that the young Edith encountered in France, as recounted in the chapter entitled ‘In Auvergne’. ‘Doing Good’ also highlights themes that she had previously visited within ‘In the Dark’ and ‘Mummies at Bordeaux’. And ‘Two Bazaars’ may well be partly based on the bazaar that Edith experiences in ‘Lessons in French’. But it is the stories we’ve come to enjoy, not the echoes of an author’s childhood.

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Upright people and witches

Nighttime
WordPress Free Photo Library

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.

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Do children never learn?

psammead

Edith Nesbit:
Five Children and It
Wordsworth Children’s Classics 1993

E Nesbit does it
again: do children never
learn? Of course they don’t.

When the five children in this story ask what ‘It’ is, and It tells them it is a Psammead, the immediate comment is the stock phrase “It’s all Greek to me.” And of course that is the point: Psammead would be Greek for ‘sand fairy’, which is what It is.

This is perhaps a clear indication that Edith Nesbit was writing not just for children but also for adults, herself included, the kind of educated middleclass adults alive at the tail-end of Victorian Britain.

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