The magic of Masefield

This is the first in a series of occasional posts throughout the festive season on books with a seasonal theme.

John Masefield, who was to become Poet Laureate, wrote 2 books for children between 1926-1935. The one shortly before he became Poet Laureate, the other just after. The Kay Harker sequence comprises The Midnight Folk and, the better known, The Box of Delights.

I first read The Midnight Folk when I was about six, and it remained one of my favourite books throughout my childhood. I didn't read Box of delights until I was in my late teens, and initially didn't like it as much as Midnight Folk, although this has changed as I've grown older. Oddly I'd never read the two books immediately after each other, and it was a slightly strange experience.

The Midnight Folk follows the adventures of young Kay Harker. An orphan, he is being cared for by his handsome, but unsympathetic governess, Sylvia Pouncer. Adventure ensues when one night he's awoken by his favourite cat Nibbins, who tells him that there is villainy afoot. Kay is drawn into a hunt for buried treasure. But will Kay find the treasure first with the help of Great-Grandpapa Harker, who comes out of his portrait to speak to him? or will it be the old guard - Kay's former toys? or the villains of the piece - a party of witches (including his governess) led by the villainous American wizard, Abner Brown?

A mixture of magic, Treasure Island, and Boy's Own adventure story - it's a great mix. The book appears to be set very firmly in late Victorian England with countryside somewhere around the Malvern Hills, near where Masefield grew up. And it's an enchanting, occasionally rather grisly tale. Set in the springtime, it's a year round good read.

As an individual book Box of delights works brilliantly, but as a sequel it doesn't really work. Although there are many delightful elements in it, it lacks the timelessness of Midnight Folk being firmly set in 1935. This does create a problem when reading the books back-to-back, as Kay Harker is only a year or so older than he was in the previous book, but it also appears as though 30 years have gone by!

The basic storyline is very good, and is a great one to read at this time of year. Tatchester Cathedral is about to celebrate its millenium on Christmas Day, Kay en route from school to home befriends a Punch and Judy man, who is being pursued by some villainous types - Abner Brown is up to his dastardly deeds again. When the Punch and Judy man entrusts Kay with the box of delights adventure ensues. Kay travels back to Roman times, meets a shipwrecked mariner, and foils Abner Brown's plans. But can he rescue the Cathedral staff in time for the Christmas service, and restore the box of delights to its rightful owner?

The basic story is delightful, although the ending is a bit of a let-down. I thought it was a real shame that some of the characters from the first book in the sequence (eg Nibbins, the guard) weren't used more fully in this, and I did find the dislocation of time oddly disconcerting - this wouldn't be a problem however if you read the book in isolation.

Much more poetic than the first volume, Box of delights is beautifully written, although the narrative can occasionally be dragged nearly to a halt by overly descriptive passages. Having said which it's clearly a very influential book - I would be willing to bet slightly more than my shirt that Susan Cooper of the (Dark is Rising sequence had read this - there are so many parallels, likewise J.K. Rowling, and T.H. White in his majestic The Once and Future King. It also, oddly seems to have a link to an earlier blog post - Death of a Chancellor, in which David Dickinson uses some of the major elements from the plot of Box of delights, subconsciously this may have been why I had some problems with the Dickinson book!

This is a great fun read for the festive season, and a wonderful gift for young bookworms - if you're an older bookworm it's probably best read with mince-pies, mulled wine, and some carols on the wind-up gramophone.


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