by John Masefield
320 pages, NYR Children's Collection
Review by Pat Black
When The Wolves Were Running
You’ve probably got a favourite Christmas. Mine was 1984, when Band Aid released Do They Know It’s Christmas? When Santa brought me a new bike, an army of Star Wars men and a Scary Faces monster make-up kit. Easily the best ever.
It was also the year that the BBC produced a six-part TV adaptation of The Box of Delights, running in the weeks up to Christmas. It starred the wonderful Patrick Troughton as a wizardly Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings, who gives 1930s schoolboy Kay Harker his magical little box for safe-keeping, away from the evil Abner Brown and his gang of child-stealing Scrobblers. The box can make you travel small, or travel swift – but that’s not the only magic that surrounds this tale. Kay goes to all sorts of weird places thanks to the box, joining mythological figures such as Herne the Hunter and Arthurian knights as well as historical ones such as the ancient Greeks and Romans. There are some Narnia style creatures, too, with nasty wolves, talking rats, phoenixes, demons and sprites providing vivid splashes of colour.
The special effects look a bit gumby these days, but it made a big impression on young Pat. I wasn’t surprised to read a lot of fond memories of the show on the internet. It was scored to an orchestral version of “The First Noel”, the opening bars of which take me back to that same feeling of excitement I had watching the adaptation on our own magical box. Happy days, indeed.
A few years later I read the source novel, written in 1935 by then-Poet Laureate John Masefield. I found it surprisingly tough going for a kids’ book – the flights of fancy were a little bit too far-out in places. The hero, Kay Harker, slips from reality to fantasy in the blink of an eye, and this makes for a sometimes uneven tone. But it has a grand, jolly hockeysticks Christmassy vibe; the snow is deep, Kay’s home for the school holidays to his family’s wonderful country estate, Seekings, and the Jones children are joining him for presents, carol services, muffins, roast chestnuts and god knows what other upper-middle class festive frippery.
But there are odd, threatening figures on Kay’s trail, even on the train back to Tatchester – including a strange fellow who seems to turn into a fox whenever the train goes into a tunnel, who tricks him and picks his pockets. And there are running wolves all the way through the novel, a constant sense of encroaching threat. Who are these villains? What do they really want, besides control of the box?
Happily, or unhappily, we never find out. The book descends into more of a rescue/robbery-foiling plot once Kay and Cole Hawlings decide to save the captured bishop of Tatchester and his Christmas choir. And Masefield keeps his moments of fantasy vague. I guess we can cut him some slack because, well, he’s a poet; I suppose he was aiming for the texture of a dream, though sometimes this is at the expense of plotting.
That said, there are some terrific fantasy scenes – the parts where Cole Hawlings escapes into a painting, and when Kay joins Herne the Hunter for a shape-shifting journey through the Wild Wood as stag, bird and fish, are the book’s stand-out moments. Masefield also captures children at play very well – Kay, Peter and the rest of the Jones children are a regular little gang, having fun in the snow while trying to solve the mystery of the child Scrobblers. The boys are buoyed along by the gangster-loving Maria, whose preferred solution to every difficulty is to shoot it full of holes.
Coming back to a cherished property as an adult, I was most struck by an anti-authoritarian tone. Although Kay is a boarding school boy from a monied family, that family is strangely absent from Kay’s life; same with the Jones children. We’re told that the parents are having to spend Christmas abroad, with only a governess and servants left behind to look after the youngsters at Seekings. How odd to have a Christmas story without a sense of family in it.
The local police chief, who Kay repeatedly tries to report villainies to, is a bumbling, sweetie-eating idiot who doesn’t listen to a word the boy says. And then there’s the fact that the main baddie, Abner Brown, goes around with a dog-collar, as do his henchmen. This foreshadowed Philip Pullman’s Consistorial Court, for me. Although the book does have a very kind Bishop as a good guy, with Christmas as a central theme, paganism and English/Celtic mythology also figure very heavily; perhaps a bonkers conceit for a more conservative Christmas book... less so for a Yuletide book.
Sadly, it’s not a great book – and be warned, the last paragraph (rumoured to have been included at the publisher’s insistence, not Masefield’s) will have you reaching for your guns. So why do I love it so much? It’s down to nostalgia and sentimentality, I guess. This is the season for it. Why else would we settle down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street each year?
Enjoy the book for what it is – a wonderful fantasy - but I’d urge the curious to take a look at the BBC DVD of the TV show, first. It’s especially good if you’ve got kids young enough not to snigger at chroma key special effects and men-in-suits. I’m pleased to tell you, it’s still great, and it keeps the feeling alive. Mike Newell is apparently preparing a big screen version of the Box of Delights, in time for next Christmas. If you can’t wait until then, there’s a Quentin Blake-illustrated Egmont edition on the market. It deserves to be a perennial classic for a new generation of children.
Merry Christmas, everyone.