May 22, 2010

The Box of Delights

John Masefield, poet laureate of the U.K. from 1930 till his death in 1967, is perhaps best known for his poem “Sea Fever” (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”). He was also, however, one of the finest and most influential writers of children’s books. I first read The Box of Delights in Kenya, when I was about ten. When I went to the States for college, I was horrified to find that no one had heard of it, and that the only available edition had been butchered by an abridger (who had somehow managed to trim out all the most marvelous and magical parts). Happily, New York Review Books recently came out with unabridged versions of both The Box of Delights and its precursor, The Midnight Folk. It now seems to be finding some sort of readership in the U.S.

The Box of Delights was first published in 1935, and achieved immediate success in Britain, where it is viewed with the same reverence as A Christmas Carol. It follows the adventures of Kay, who meets Cole Hawlings, a traveling Punch and Judy man, at a train station. Hawlings has a magical box that is coveted by a gang of criminals disguised as clergy. Knowing he’ll soon be “scrobbled” by the gang, Hawling gives the box to Kay, who gets into adventures.

Among the supporting cast of characters, Maria, Kay’s gun-toting cousin, stands out (“I shall shoot and I shall shock, as long as my name’s Maria”), as does Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Kay’s former governess. The novel is delightfully illustrated by Masefield.

Three years after The Box of Delights came out, T.H. White published The Sword in the Stone, which was to become the foundation of The Once and Future King. Certain sections of White’s book owe much to Masefield’s, including the parts where the Wart turns into various animals. In 1948, C.S. Lewis published the first of the Narnia books. Lewis revered The Box of Delights – “The beauties, all the ‘delights’ that keep on emerging from the box – are so exquisite, and quite unlike anything I have seen elsewhere” – and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in particular, has a similar feel: snow, wolves, magic, Christmas. Two of the children are even named Peter and Susan. Several sections of The Magician’s Nephew, as noted here, are also indebted to The Box of Delights. But the book that pays the most overt homage is probably Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. The Christmas theme, a boy meeting strange people with bright eyes who wear unusual rings, and the scenes with Herne the Hunter are all heavily inspired by the earlier novel.

If the novels by White, Lewis, and Cooper had come out today, there would probably be a media furor and lawsuits once people realized the similarities with The Box of Delights. So the book is also a lovely reminder of a more innocent time, when writers were free to be inspired, and free to purloin scenes and characters and turn them to their own uses, in trying to recreate a bit of magic.