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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Boxing Days

An initial attempt at a Yock Valley railway map

As many of you know, over Christmas and the New Year I joined in a Twitter readalong of John Masefield’s 1935 classic The Box of Delights under the hashtag #DelightfulXmas.

You may also know that this involved a chapter-a-day discussion, enlivened by creative tasks such as literary efforts and artistic responses.

Before I post a review you may like to see some of my own contributions to #DelightfulXmas — in two parts, this being the first — and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting young Kay Harker and his cohorts maybe this may stimulate a desire to make their acquaintance!

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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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A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

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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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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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