Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas in The Box of Delights

The Box of Delights, written by John Masefield in 1935, is a classic children's novel, but I read it for the first time last Christmas. Before last year, I didn't even know that John Masefield wrote children's books. I thought he was just the Salt Water Ballads guy, the guy who wrote "Sea Fever." ("I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.") But then I got a book called Spellbound, a compilation of Diana Wynne Jones' favorite fantasy stories -- highly recommended, by the way -- and in that book I read an excerpt of The Box of Delights. Now John Masefield is one of the authors I read every Christmas.


The Box of Delights is about Kay, a boy who comes into the possession of a magical box during his Christmas holidays. The title is also a description of the book itself, which is crammed full of every possible thing you could want in a story, at least if you were a boy in the 1930s: time travel, jewel thieves, wolves, an evil wizard, talking animals, gangsters who fly stealth airplanes, mysterious strangers, gods and goddesses, pirates, and magical transformations on almost every page. This book is a lavish entertainment.

(The endpapers, illustrated by Judith Masefield, give you a sample of some of the book's variety.)

Its Christmas scenes are lavish too, especially the Christmas party that Kay and his friends attend at Tatchester Palace. They have "the biggest and most glorious Christmas Tree that had ever been seen in Tatchester," decorated with glass globes and electric lights, and stuffed full of incredible toys. It takes John Masefield almost two pages to describe all of these toys: whistles, drums, popguns, swords, dolls, teddy-bears, trains and railways, airplanes, farms, zoos, aquariums, soldiers, bricks, books, sewing kits with silver thimbles, costumes, jewelry, toy boats, and all kinds of candy. And there's more:

"All round this marvellous tree were wonderful crackers, eighteen inches long. The Bishop made all the children stand in a double rank round the tree, each with one end of a cracker in each hand. The musicians struck up a tune and they danced in the double rank three times round the Christmas Tree. Then the Bishop gave the word: they pulled the crackers, which went off with a bang together, like cannons. And then, inside the crackers there were the most lovely decorations -- real little tiny coats of coloured paper that you could put on, with the most splendid hats and necklets like real gold."

(A 1930s label for a box of Christmas crackers. I love how happy the random dragon in back is.)

This is a book in which one boy gets everything he has always wanted. That doesn't just include Christmas presents. In one scene, Kay enters an enchanted forest and meets Herne the Hunter, the horned spirit of the woods, who grants some of Kay's lifelong wishes by turning him into a stag, a wild duck, and a fish. The forest is just as rich and beautiful as Kay's Christmas party:

"... For there he was in the forest between the two hawthorn trees, with the petals of the may-blossom falling on him. All the may-blossoms that fell were talking to him, and he was aware of what all the creatures of the forest were saying to each other: what the birds were singing, and what it was that the flowers and trees were thinking. And he realized that the forest went on and on for ever, and all of it was full of life beyond anything 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 thrilling with life.
'Oh dear,' Kay said. 'I shall never know a hundredth part of all the things there are to know.'
'You will, if you stay with me,' Herne the Hunter said."


(George Cruikshank's print of Herne the Hunter, 1840s.)

Later in The Box of Delights, Herne takes on the role of Santa Claus, taking Kay for a ride in a glittery, icy sleigh driven by a team of flying unicorns. Is it strange that two of my favorite Christmas books -- The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising -- feature Herne the Hunter? I think that Susan Cooper must have been inspired by The Box of Delights, even though The Dark is Rising is so different in tone. The Box of Delights has some serious moments, but it's not a work of epic fantasy. It's more like a magic show that keeps unfolding enchantment after enchantment. That's exactly the kind of experience I want to have at Christmas.


3 comments:

  1. Oh my goodnes, I feel like I need to find a copy of this book as soon as possible! and I had no idea he wrote children's stories either.

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  2. I think you would like it! It's the sequel to a book called The Midnight Folk, which I haven't read yet -- I think you can appreciate The Box of Delights without reading the other book, though.

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