My festive recommendation this year is John Masefield’s `The Box of Delights’, which begins with a boy coming home for the Christmas holiday and ends in a cathedral at midnight on Christmas Eve. Or not, but I’ll come back to that later. `The Box of Delights’ dates to 1935 and has been in print ever since. It is the second of two novels for children which Masefield wrote about young Kay Harker. You don’t need to have read the first book – `The Midnight Folk’ – in order to enjoy the second. `The Box of Delights’ is easy to find as an ebook or a cheap paperback but if you are looking for a Christmas treat go for the beautiful hardback, with illustrations by Judith Masefield, published in The New York Review of Books Children’s Collection. In 1984 the BBC showed an adaptation of `The Box of Delights’ which used a mixture of live-action and animation and starred Patrick Troughton (the second Dr Who). This is still worth watching and you can now get it on DVD.

The story is set in a fictional part of rural England during the early 20th century. Kay Harker is returning from boarding school to spend the Christmas holiday with his delightful guardian, Caroline Louisa, at Seekings House. On the train, Kay is tricked out of some of his pocket-money by a foxy-faced man and a chubby-faced man dressed as clergymen. During the journey, Kay also meets an old tramp known as Cole Hawlings who is carrying a traditional Punch and Judy show. Mr Hawlings seems to take an instant liking to Kay and entrusts him with a strange message. In the nearby market-town, Kay is to find a woman with `very bright eyes’ wearing `a ring of very strange shape’ and tell her that `The Wolves are Running’. He carries out his mission but is chilled to notice that there are some very wolf-like dogs padding about.

The Jones children (three girls and a boy) are staying at Seekings while their parents are away. Cole Hawlings agrees to come with his puppets to perform for the children. After the Punch and Judy show, he seems to use magic to conjure up extraordinary visions. Then the Bishop of Tatchester and the Cathedral Choir turn up to sing carols and to invite everyone at Seekings to a Christmas party. Mr Hawlings is being pursued by the two sinister clergyman from the train and escapes in a very unusual way. That night Kay is summoned by a dream to the nearby hill-top known as King Arthur’s Camp. Because Mr Hawlings is there, Kay sees the Camp as it was long ago, under attack by a pack of wolves. The Punch and Judy man can no longer fight the New Magic of the evil ones who can take wolf-form, so he asks Kay to look after his `Box of Delights’. It once belonged to a Master Arnold who is now lost deep in the past. Mr Hawlings shows Kay that if you press the Box in a certain way `you can go swift’ or `you can go small’.

The next morning Kay and Peter Jones see Mr Hawlings abducted by men with a plane. It is only the first of many abductions. Tatchester Cathedral is preparing to celebrate its thousandth Christmas but one by one the people who work in the cathedral start to disappear. The police won’t believe Kay when he discovers that an old enemy of his, Abner Brown, is behind the abductions. Abner is determined to get hold of the magical Box of Delights and thinks that Mr Hawlings gave it to somebody from the cathedral. Kay uses the Box to make himself small enough to spy on Abner’s gang, to enter wondrous lands, and to go back into the past in search of answers. Soon all of Kay’s friends are in danger. No-one is safe while the Wolves are running….

The story has a rather disappointing framing device, so I would suggest finishing the book one paragraph early. My summary makes the plot sound more logical and less original than it actually is. Masefield was clearly more interested in writing a ripping yarn than in creating a coherent Fantasy world so `The Box of Delights’ is a plum-pudding of a book. In case you don’t know, you can put all sorts of things into the mix for a traditional Christmas pudding – any kind of nuts, dried fruit and alcohol and even silver or porcelain charms. Into his novel Masefield tossed witches, werewolves, fairies, talking rats and mice, medieval magicians, jousting knights, pirates, time-travellers, gangsters with guns, a futuristic car that can turn into a plane, and figures from history and legend such as Alexander the Great, Roman Legionaries and Herne the Hunter. He has particular fun with his silky-voiced super-villain, Abner Brown, who is masquerading as the `very holy’ Reverend Doctor Boddledale. Abner’s dastardly plots are treated as dark comedy. This ruthless man intends to stop the joyful celebration of Christmas and betray his own gang before retiring to a tropical island but, thanks to Kay, not everything goes to plan.

John Masefield was an interesting man who had a childhood nearly as adventurous as the one he gave to Kay Harker. It involved the loss of both parents and the family fortune, an old country house, a horrible governess (on whom he modelled the character of Abner’s witchy wife, Sylvia), a cruel guardian and being sent away to train as a sailor at the age of 13. This may explain why, in spite of the absurdities of the plot, `The Box of Delights’ gives a real sense of Kay being forced to face dangers and responsibilities at a young age. For someone who became famous for writing poetry and prose about the sea, Masefield was a very reluctant sea-farer. He suffered dreadfully from sea-sickness and only ever wanted to be a writer. He should be better known as a Fantasy author since he invented an entire South American country, Santa Barbara, which features in `The Midnight Folk’ and in adult adventure novels such as `Sard Harker’ (1924).

By the time Masefield wrote `The Box of Delights’ he was England’s Poet Laureate. There are poems scattered throughout the book and some very poetic writing when Masefield is describing the`Delights’  enjoyed by users of the magical Box. The immortal Punch and Judy Man, Cole Hawlings, conjures up a phoenix on a nest of cinnamon sticks in a `sole Arabian tree, oozing gum, its leaves dropping crystals of spice, its flowers heavy with scent, its fruit shedding sweetness.’ When Kay first opens the Box he goes past `two hawthorn trees, with the petals of the may-blossom falling on him’ and realizes that `the forest went on and on for ever, and all of it was full of life beyond anything that he had ever imagined: for in the trees, in each leaf, and on every twig, and in every inch of soil there were ants, grubs, worms: little, tiny, moving things, incredibly small yet all thrilling with life.’ Much of the magic in the book is grounded in a celebration of England’s countryside and traditions.

The story includes most of the elements of traditional Christmas, such as snow, carol-singers, midnight mass, `holly, mistletoe, tinsel, crackers, toys…Christmas cakes and big plum puddings’. The Bishop throws a terrific Christmas party with `the biggest and most glorious Christmas Tree that had ever been seen in Tatchester’ laden `with the most exquisite gifts’ for the children such as `aeroplanes, which you could wind up so they would fly around the room’, `boxes of soldiers with cavalry and canons’ , `acting sets with costumes of different colours’ and `white and scarlet stockings all bulging with chocolate creams done up in silver paper.’ No wonder that Kay exclaims, `I say, I do love Christmas’. His feisty friend Maria Jones insists, `Christmas ought to be brought up to date…it ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.’ `The Box of Delights’ provides those too. So, if you want a book to spend Christmas in, this could be the one. I wish all my readers a Very Merry Christmas. I shall be back in the New Year with something dark and Nordic.

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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