Dec 21, 2010

The Box of Delights by John Masefield

The Box of Delights by John Masefield

The Box of Delights is a 1935 novel that opens with young Kay Harker on a train, returning home from boarding school for the holidays. Kay spots two suspicious-looking men on the train, whom he suspects of picking his pockets; later on, he’s told by an old, bright-eyed Punch & Judy man that ‘the wolves are running’. This mysterious message is the beginning of an adventure that Kay and his friends Peter, Maria, Susan and Jemima Jones find themselves involved in over their Christmas break. With their parents and guardians conveniently snowed in, there’s no one to hold them back, and the result is an adventure involving Herne the Hunter, running wolves, disappearing clergymen, and a mysterious box that allows its possessor to change sizes and travel through time.

There is something deliciously old-fashioned about The Box of Delights: the 1930’s language, the children’s freedom of movement, the very type of adventures Kay and the Joneses keep having: they all transport us to a different time. At the same time, there’s also something deliciously Christmasy about it: I’m very, very glad I decided to follow Jeanne’s advice and read Masefield close to the holidays this year.

The mood of The Box of Delights reminded me a little of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, which is probably my favourite Christmas book, and also, like Geranium Cat so well pointed out, of the works of T.H. White. I say this because of the book’s juxtaposition of the mythological and the ordinary. At one level, The Box of Delights is a traditional adventure story slash mystery, about a group of children trying to stop the terrible Abner Brown and his gang. Yet at another level, it’s very much a story about midwinter, about darkness, about snow, about all the things that make us feel frightened and insignificant and small, and all the ways we have of bracing ourselves against them.

Myths and folktales have always been a way of addressing this sense of cosmic smallness, and the best crafted fantasy stories do the same. When the right sort of elements are thrown in, this sense of smallness becomes almost enjoyable, rather than Lovecraftian or desperate. What I found interesting here (and also very Christmasy) was the way The Box of Delights contrasts this sense of mystery and darkness with very comforting and homely things. There are dangerous things moving out there in the night; things we’re powerless against. But there’s also warm milk with nutmeg before bed, and Punch and Judy shows, and choirs singing Christmas carols, and children dressing up as pirates and laughing and having the time of their lives while the snow falls outside.

This quote from a Guardian article about why The Box of Delights deserves to be as much of a classic as A Christmas Carol expresses what I mean better than I have:
…the whole book is shot through with a folklorish, mythological flavour, and even the “real” world that Kay inhabits is peopled by a cast of often eerie, mysterious, enigmatic and sometimes downright scary figures. Masefield then, at the drop of a hat, switches between his poetic descriptions and episodes that are downright fairytale-ish or Narnia-esque, with talking animals and mice armed with sewing-needle rapiers.
My one complaint about this (excuse the terrible pun) delight of a novel is that it has One of Those Endings. I don’t want to say too much about it, because if I do you’ll very easily guess what I mean, but it’s a type of ending easily belongs on my list of top ten most off-putting literary tropes. I decided not to let this bother me too much, though: the ending doesn’t have to ruin what came before; not unless I let it. I can always pretend in my head that those final paragraphs simply weren’t there.

Once I had finished The Box of Delights, I found out that it’s actually a companion book (dare I say sequel?) to Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, with which it shares several characters including Kay Harker. I’m mentioning this because some of you have told me you’re a tad obsessive about reading things in order, but I’m happy to report that The Box of Delights makes perfect sense as a standalone novel.

Also: I don’t usually much care about which edition of a book I read, but in this case I’m very happy I got the more or less recent Egmont edition. Not only are the Quentin Blake illustrations wonderful, but the book itself as a wonderful feel to it: a feel that goes very nicely with the comforting, old-fashioned tone of the story.

Here’s a passage I particularly loved:
At first he thought that the figure was one of those giant red deer, long since extinct: it bore enormous antlers. Then he saw it was a great man, antlered at the brow, dressed in deerskin and moving with the silent, slow grace of a stag; and, although he was so like a stag, he was hung about with little silver chains and bells.
Kay knew at once that this was Herne the Hunter, of whom he had often heard. ‘Ha, Kay,’ Herne the Hunter said, ‘are you coming into my wild wood?’
‘Yes, if you please, sir,’ Kay said. Herne stretched out his hand. Kay took it and at once he was glad that he had taken it, for there he was in the forest between the two hawthorn trees, with the petals of the may-blossoms 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 the trees were thinking. And he realised 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, worms; little, tiny moving things, incredibly small yet all thrilling with life.
Reviewed at:
Necromancy Never Pays
Shelf Love



  1. My gift to myself this morning--to *finally* catch up on yours and Chris's blogs. Thank you self!!! Tomorrow's gift to self may now be hitting the bookstore to find this book! I'd never even heard of it before--how is that, because it sounds positively wonderful!
    Love you!!!

  2. I love Quentin Blake! His drawings always enhance a book. Wikipedia says that "As of 2006, he has participated in the writing and/or illustrating of 323 books (of which he wrote 35 himself, and 18 were by Roald Dahl)." With all those books under his belt, it's almost inevitable he has touched all of our lives at some point or other!

  3. Was this one of the books Tom sent to Polly? It sounds familiar, and British and for children, which I always tend to assume means Tom sent it to Polly at some point. Anyway it sounds great, in spite of the -- I'm going to guess? -- "and then they woke up" ending? Adding it to my list!

  4. This is the second time I have heard of The Dark is Rising and I am officially INTRIGUED. On hold it goes! It's such an un-Christmasy title but both times I have heard of it, it was given the title favorite Christmas book. So I will (hopefully) be reading it before Christmas this year because I am decidedly not in any kind of Christmas spirit. Also, this book sounds delightful.

  5. Debi: I hope you find it! It would make a wonderful Christmas read-aloud :) You'd probably have to start in early November, though, as it's quite long :P

    Jill, I've come to associate him with Roald Dahl so much that it's almost weird to see his illustrations in other books!

    *spoilers warning*

    Jenny: Ha - I think I did say too much :P But I know you don't mind. I can't remember if this is one of the books Tom sends Polly, but it totally sounds like it could be! I should read F&H again and find out :P

    Lu: The Dark is Rising may sound un-Christmasy, but it captures the mood of the season SO well! It's actually the second book in the sequence, but you can read it before Under Sea, Over Stone - it features completely different characters. The only thing that matters is that you read both before the third book. Also, sorry about the lack of Christmas spirit :(

  6. OK, after one of your comments, I can figure out the type of ending, and I'd say you are a better person than I for forgiving. That type of ending would cause me to throw that beautiful book.

  7. This does seem like a really interesting book to read at this time of year, and I am a bit peeved that I have never heard of it before! Where have I been hiding!?! I am glad to hear that you really liked the book, although I might have to agree with you about the ending. Still, lovely review, and the book sounds amazing. I am going to have to give it a go. Thanks, Ana!

  8. Oh, do you think I could use this as a holiday read for my kids' book club next year? It's parent-child, and the kids are around 6 - 8 years old. All are avid readers, and the parents read the books to the kids.

    I was trying to find something that they won't have read before, and this sounds so perfect -- would it be too scary? Too long?

    If it won't work for them, I'm still going to find and read it for myself! Always looking for new books to read around the holidays. And I need to get out my copy of The Dark is Rising...

  9. Sandy: I wonder if it wasn't quite as clichéd in the 1930's as it has become now? Still, it IS cop-out, isn't it?

    Zibilee: We'll all just rewrite the ending in our heads :P

    Kiirstin: I don't think it's too scary, but I worry a little bit about too long (almost 400 pages). Might be worth a try, though!

  10. Sigh. I'd like to think that in the 30s that type of ending was fresher, but I don't know.

  11. Possibly I'm being too optimistic and it wasn't :P But honestly, I hope that won't put you all off the book. There's so much to enjoy here beyond that unfortunate final paragraph!

  12. I still think this sounds (dare I say it, am I the first?!) delightful!

  13. I'm so glad you loved this one, too! It's so true, what you say about it--"it’s very much a story about midwinter, about darkness, about snow, about all the things that make us feel frightened and insignificant and small, and all the ways we have of bracing ourselves against them." And the ways are so delightful--for US readers, some of them are a little foreign, but yes, Care, I found that delightful.

  14. This sounds marvelous; save that toxic last paragraph, of course. I think I'll investigate Masefield…

  15. This is one of those books that I have always wanted to read since I was a child and never have. I wish I had asked for it for Christmas now. It sounds so wonderful. I put it in the same bracket as The Children of Green Knowe.

  16. Based on a strong yet maddeningly vague sense of deja vu I experienced while reading this review, I'm almost positive I read this book as a kid. It sounds like just the kind of thing a younger me would have gravitated toward...details floated wispily back to me just as you mentioned them in your post, but I remember absolutely nothing else about it and haven't thought of it in YEARS. What a disorienting feeling! Anyway, thanks for the reminder of a book I probably quite enjoyed in an earlier life. :-)

  17. I'd never even heard of this before, even though I loved books like Five Children and It, Children of Green Knowe, and Swallows and Amazons when I was younger and this sounds pretty similar. Maybe for next Christmas!

  18. I remember this as a spooky tv show from when I was a child. But for the life of me Icouldn't get into the book at all when I tried to read it. Maybe I should try again as I loved Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising.

  19. This book sounds so wonderful! And perfect for Christmas time. Our library system only has one copy of it, which is currently on loan and overdue. I've just requested and am very much hoping it comes in during the next couple days!

  20. What. The Dark Is Rising is a Christmas book?? I seriously need to reread that one.

  21. Oh thankyou for talking about this book - which I adore - was given it when I was seven years old and have read it and read it and read it ever since. For me it is THE Christmas book par excellence - but Quentin Blake doesn't seem the right illustrator, for me: too quirky: I grew up with the old edition with drawings by Judith Masefield... The BBC did an excellent adaptation for TV about fifteen years ago, too.

    Yes, the ending isn't quite right, but I can forgive it - since after all the Christmas holidays are just about to begin (all over again)...

  22. I think this has recently been issued as an NYRB Children's Classic in a really beautiful edition. From what I read of it, I found the robber's tea the children have to be absolutely delightful but have to say the fantasy elements were a bit odd to me and didn't always make sense, it didn't seem to have an internal logic, at least from what I've read. Perhaps that explains the ending? (Just stealing a few minutes on a library computer!) It certainly does have a wonderful cosy British Christmas atmosphere in the book though.

  23. I recognized the illustrator immediately as he has done all of Dahl's stuff. This one sounds great!

  24. This beautiful edition was kindly sent to me by my Holidsy Swap Santa & I am so looking forward to reading it this Christmas (yes, I realise it is the 21st).

    I haven't read The Dark is Rising...

  25. This sounds like a fun book, and one I hadn't heard of. Also sounds like one I would enjoy more than A Christmas Carol ;)

  26. This sounds like ... well, a "Book of Delights." : )

    I love the cover, and I've always enjoyed books where children get to live these full, rich adventurous lives. (Their appeal was that it was so unlike my own "boring" life.)

  27. The Box of Delights sounds...well...delightful! I doubt I'll get to it before this Christmas, but I'll put it on my list for next year. I hope I can find the Quentin Blake edition -- anything he illustrates immediately takes on that Roald Dahl whimsy in my mind! It's disappointing to hear about the ending of this one, though I think your approach to it is a good one :-)

  28. The mere mention of Quentin Blake or to see one of his pictures makes me feel HAPPY AND ALIVE and instantly reconnects me with MY WHOLE CHILDHOOD.


    Thanks for doing that :D

  29. This book is interesting because it's in my time era, but I'm going off-topic to alert people that in today’s HuffPo, Al Franken has an alarming article on how the U.S. FCC is now making rulings that threaten net neutrality for getting sites like this one on mobile broadband devices. The FCC is also not banning the “paid prioritization” that could let corporate blogs buy the fast lane, putting our sites in the slow.

    The outcry from independent websites was crucial yesterday in improving the FCC ruling. But we need to stay alert and inform each other as new threats come up. We need a community of Paul Revere web bloggers.

  30. Lovely review, Ana, and I'm so glad that, like me, you feel you can ignore the ending. I too pretend that the final paragraphs aren't there, because otherwise it's one of the most joyous books I know.

  31. I can't help but be reminded of a Roald Dahl cover when I saw this!

    This one sounds like a lot of fun and I love that you call it deliciously Christmasy. What can be better than that? Ignore the ending. I don't know what trope you're referring to but don't let it ruin your fun.

  32. Ha--just noticed Jill's comment about what she found on wikipedia regarding the illustrations. Good eye, Trish. the end.

  33. This sounds just delightful (despite the ending). A good cozy read for this time of the year.

  34. Care: It had to be said :P

    Jeanne: Thank you again for recommending it!

    Clare: Do! The Midnight Folk also sounds excellent.

    Vivienne: GeraniumCat also compared it to Green Knowe, which I'm ashamed to say I haven't read... I should fix that next year.

    Emily: I can't remember that happening to me with a book before, but it does sound very disorienting!

    Aubrey: Do keep it in mind for next Christmas :) If you enjoy those, I think you'd definitely like this as well.

    Fence: I hope you have better luck next time!

    Alita: Fingers crossed that it does!

    Heidenkind: I mean the second one in the sequence of five, which is confusingly also titled The Dark is Rising :P

    Katherine Langrish: I'm quite curious about those old illustrations!

    Carolyn: I see what you mean about the fantasy elements having a surreal/dreamlike quality to them, but that was actually part of what I liked about it! Perhaps that does explain the ending to some extent, but I couldn't help but find it frustrating anyway.

    Staci: It's almost impossible to dissociate him from Dahl, isn't it?

    Claire, I hope you'll enjoy it!

    Amy: Aw, a Christmas Carol is awesome :P

    Jenners: Same here!

    Erin: I hope you do manage to find it for next Christmas!

    The Kid in the Front Row: lol, you're most welcome :P

    Shelley: Wow, I actually hadn't heard of that at all. Thank you for spreading the word!

    GeraniumCat: I'm glad I wasn't the only one to adopt this strategy :P

    Trish: There's no separating Blake fom Roald Dahl in all our heads :P

    Iliana: Yes - it was definitely cosy :)

  35. Is the cover by the same artist as Roland Dahl´s books? I know some people above also commented on the similarities, so maybe it starts with the cover.

  36. Alexandra: Yep, it is. But I'm afraid that's where the similarities start and end :P PS: Hope you made it home okay!

  37. Never heard of this book but it soundss wonderful. It was the passage you included that sent it over the edge for me. Thanks for the recommendation :)

  38. Ooh, this sounds fun. I love how kids in the 30s just got to wander about doing whatever they wanted ;-) My seasonal book was Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett, which I admit disappointed me a tad...

  39. Jenny Girl: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it!

    Aarti: I know! Lucky them :P Sorry to hear you found Wintersmith disappointing. It's probably my least favourite Tiffany book, but I still liked it a lot.


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