The Box of Delights

 

 

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The Box of Delights or When the Wolves Were Running by John Masefield

1935

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 of51Z5+yo35bL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_f 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.

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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.”

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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.

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Aside:

“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.”

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The Children of Green Knowe

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The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

1954

Illustrated by Peter Boston

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

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So begins The Children of Green Knowe. And already we are witness to a rare exquisite prose and a gift for conveying character, describing nature, and creating mood. Lucy Boston penned this, her first manuscript, at the age of 62, and she proceeded to write six volumes of the Green Knowe chronicles, inspired by the 12th century Norman house that was her home.

Tolly is en route from his lonely boarding school existence to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother in the ancient castle of Green Knowe. Mrs Oldknow provides the kindness, wisdom, and solace that is lacking in his life, his father and step-mother being off in remote Burma. She shares with him the stories of three children who lived at Green Knowe in the 17th century, and gradually Toby, Alexander, and Linnet come to people Tolly’s world. Lucy Boston is able to convey perfectly the palpable richness that accompanies the spirit children, even when they are invisible and silent, contrasted with the flat emptiness when they are absent.

The beautiful blend of reality and fantasy that is introduced in The Children of Green Knowe is continued in The Treasure of Green Knowe, every bit as good as the first. This time “the others”, who come from the turn of the 19th century, are Susan, a young girl blind from birth, and Jacob, a slave boy from Barbados brought to England to be her eyes. The Green Knowe chronicles, with their breathtaking writing, are a treasure of children’s literature, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

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Box:   “At one side there was a beautiful old rocking horse – not a “safety” rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.”

Box: “At school he was learning to ride real horses. They were not, alas, at all like Feste, Toby’s horse. Their coats were not shining silk but rough like railway upholstery, and when one patted them, clouds of dust came out.”

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The Polar Express

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The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

1985

Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg

At some point in every childhood, the first crack of doubt appears in the veneer of belief.  A child is confronted by a more jaded peer who asks witheringly, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”  The pressure is on.  The child faces a painful conundrum.  Should he or she really give up the carefully worded missives to the North Pole and the excitement of opening the replies (with their spidery rune-like writing and envelopes proclaiming “Sleigh Mail!”), the Christmas Eve plate of star-shaped sprinkle cookies and peeled carrots for Saint Nick and the reindeer, the laying awake in bed hoping to catch the sound of sleigh bells and the scattering of hooves on the roof, and the joy of rushing downstairs on Christmas morning to find the stockings filled – yes, Santa Claus really did come?  It’s a slippery slope, for where Santa goeth, the other two characters in the mythical trinity – the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy – are sure to follow close behind.

In The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg tells a story in which those who retain their belief are in an enviable state of grace.  On Christmas Eve, a boy arises from bed to find a train standing perfectly still in front of his sleeping house.  The cars are filled with children in their pajamas or nightgowns, all heading to the North Pole.  Upon arrival, Santa Claus chooses the boy to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas, a silver bell from his sleigh.  On Christmas morning, the boy finds the bell under the tree and he and his sister hear the most beautiful sound in the world, while his parents hear nothing and think the bell is broken.  “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them.  Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound.  Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”polar express

Van Allsburg began as an artist rather than a writer, and his distinctive illustrations are imbued with a strong narrative current.  He borrows from the surrealists the juxtaposition of objects onto impossible backdrops – a house floating by the partially submerged heads of Mount Rushmore (in Ben’s Dream), a straight backed chair with nun levitating high above two priests in a cathedral (in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), or the train in front of the house in The Polar Express.  The illustrations have a luminous mysterious quality, often with a vaguely ominous or unsettling undercurrent, as when the Polar Express passes silent wolves standing sentry in the forest.  This could not be further from the candy cane and gumdrop school of Christmas art.

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Aside:  Fritz, a white bull terrier with a dark eye patch, first appears in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, where he is turned into a duck by a fez-wearing magician.  Like Hitchcock in his own movies, Fritz turns up for a cameo role in each of Van Allsburg’s subsequent books.  In The Sweetest Fig,  his image appears on the label of a wine bottle.  In Probuditi, he becomes a tea pot.  In Two Bad Ants, he is a shade of himself in the spinning refuse of a garbage disposal.  In The Polar Express, he is a hand puppet impaled on the boy’s bedpost.