The Box of Delights or When the Wolves Were Running by John Masefield
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
John Masefield’s upbringing reads like something out of Dickens. Orphaned at a young age (his mother died in childbirth, his father in an asylum), he was taken in by a domineering and despised aunt who quickly packed him off to a boarding school where he was miserable and then to a maritime school (on the HMS Conway) where he was more miserable still. After weathering (badly) a month-long ice storm off Cape Horn, he landed in a Chilean hospital with sunstroke and a nervous breakdown before being deemed unfit and sent home. His aunt arranged for his next apprenticeship on a ship out of New York. Masefield failed to report for duty and, age 16, became a vagabond in America, determined to be a writer. The high point of his teen sailing years must have been the sighting of a lunar rainbow. Despite his traumatic experiences on ocean voyages, he is best known for his poems Sea-Fever (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky….”) and Cargoes (“Quinquereme of Ninevah from distant Ophir/ Rowing home to haven in Sunny Palestine.”) He was a prolific writer – of poems, novels, and plays – and was celebrated in the U.K. where he was Poet Laureate for almost forty years. Along the way, he
wrote the two Kay Harker books for children, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935), and these are strange gems indeed.
Kay Harker, like the author, is an orphan. Returning to his home and guardian for the winter holidays, he encounters a Punch and Judy showman on a station platform. This is Cole Hawlings, who gives Kay a message to deliver (“The Wolves are Running”) and the Box of Delights for safekeeping. The Box can make Kay swift or small, as well as open doors to the past. All of which comes in handy as he grapples with the nefarious and mercurial Abner Brown and his gang – their standard disguise is in the ecclesiastical robes of seminarians, but they can also morph into wolves or pirates or dive-bombing toy airplanes. The Brotherhood scrobbles (kidnaps) the Punch and Judy man, Kay’s beloved guardian, his friends Maria and Peter, the Bishop of Tatchester, and all the cathedral staff down to the choir boys. At the denouement, as the water is rising menacingly in the dungeon cells, it is up to Kay to overcome the sinister villains. And he must do so in time for the Christmas Eve celebration at the Tatchester Cathedral to take place at midnight.
The book is richly complex with an inspired confusion of elements. There are unicorn-drawn sleighs, stags, talking rats and mice, fairies, Roman legionnaires, jousting knights, Christmas parties, carol singers, incompetent police inspectors, and innocent diversions like building snowmen or sailing toy ships a la Christopher Columbus. It’s an unusual mix but it all combines to create an odd off-kilter universe that accommodates the real world and the fantastic. Kay is the unflappable center – good natured, matter-of-factly courageous, intrepid, honorable, decent. Masefield’s genius was to combine Magic and Crime. What other master jewel thief can you think of who could collapse his soothsaying boy assistant (his head telescoping into his chest) to punish him for insolence?
Masefield, with his poet’s eye, was a master of atmospherics. Try this.
“It was a dark, lowering afternoon, with a whine in the wind, and little dry pellets of snow blowing horizontally. In the gutters, these had begun to fall into little white layers and heaps….. Kay went on alone into the street. He thought that he had never been out in a more evil-looking afternoon. The marketplace had emptied, people had packed their booths, and wheeled away their barrows. As he went down towards Dr. Gubbinses, the carved beasts in the woodwork of the old houses seemed crouching against the weather. Darkness was already closing in. There was a kind of glare in the evil heaven. The wind moaned about the lanes. All the sky above the roofs was grim with menace, and the darkness of the afternoon gave a strangeness to the fire-light that glowed in the many windows.”
There is an uneasy eerie undercurrent of the ominous, the sinister, the creepy that runs through the story, but there are also passages of innocent delight. When read in December, it is a book that will give the reader the fantods on a wintry evening (as Peter would say) but also be a joyful harbinger of Christmas celebrations.
The endpapers and the diminutive illustrations, provided by Masefield’s daughter, reflect this odd and original tone.
“Jolly good chaps, the Romans,” Kay said.
“Oh, I don’t know, said Peter. “They were rather a mouldy lot. They were lucky chaps not to have to learn Latin grammar, but to know it naturally.”