Why The Box of Delights is almost the greatest children’s novel in English, and what insights that offers

I read thousands of books as a child. After a shaky start, wherein I was rescued by Sheila McCullagh’s Griffin Pirate readers, I could never get enough of them. Our house was already full of books, but I worked my way through the children’s section of Glebe Farm public library, Birmingham Central library, the school library and numerous birthday and Christmas books. Over six years I was in half a dozen book clubs, including the Puffin Club, and relished our weekly trips to Hudsons bookshop, now Waterstones, in Birmingham. Some of the books I grew out of even as I was reading them. The Famous Five may be all very well, but once I had discovered Sherlock Holmes, there was no going back.

However, if I had only read four books in childhood, or if I now had to pick which four I would have taken with me if forced as a child into exile, they would have been A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K LeGuin, The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien, The Horse and His Boy, one of the later Narnia books by CS Lewis, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

By far the richest of these, but also the most infuriating, is The Box of Delights, which, like the book which Mephistopheles offers Doctor Faustus, contains almost everything. However, unlike the other three, which are flawless gems, The Box of Delights contains one catastrophic failing.

First, what is it about the Box of Delights which makes it so rich? Each of the other three are daring forays into other worlds — Earthsea, Narnia and Middle Earth. In their own ways they are towering works of major creation. However, unless you are a young wizard living in an archipelago, or a short furry-toed creature in the Shire, or a kidnapped prince living in a magical world, they tell you about their worlds, but not really about your world. They are vividly imaginative, but do not stimulate a child’s observation of the world around them. Let me say now that I deeply prefer works of pure imagination over works of pure observation. Jennings, Just William and the Railway Children are all very well, and I enjoyed them while I read them, but it was the works of imagination which had the greatest impact on me.

However, the Box of Delights is something quite different, because it encompasses imagination, observation, and encapsulation of everything you ever read. 

John Masefield’s imagination was always vivid. His first Santa Barbara novel, Sard Harker, 1924, which connects in some unfathomable and unspecified way with The Midnight Folk, is an amazing odyssey of experiences and sensations. The plot itself is quite linear, but the journey is spectacular. The Box of Delights, though, is not just full of imagination, but is also about imagination. The exact properties of the titular box are not well delimited — it allows one to travel in time, to become tiny, to travel fast, and to enter magical worlds. As importantly, it is an object people are willing to steal, kill or even die for. In searching for a symbol to describe the imagination, it is hard to find a better one than the box of delights itself. One could not possibly say that this is a greater work of imagination than Earthsea, Narnia or Middle Earth, but it is fair to say that it is just as great.

However, Masefield excels in the area of observation. From the curious waddle of country folk to the ways of life on board ship, and from the songs of country folk to the way land responds to a sudden fall of snow, we have an extraordinarily vivid appreciation of things which we had not perhaps otherwise noticed. This is not to say that my other favourite books were not vivid — CS Lewis, in particular, manages to conjure scenes of extraordinary vitality in a very few words. However, Masefield made me look at the world around me in a new way. The dialogue, too, is much richer and more varied, and captures many different kinds of voices. Country folk, clergy, talking animals of different kinds, criminals, children, the police, newspapers and magical people all have their own distinct ways of self-expression.

One of the most startling features of the Box of Delights is how it encapsulates lots of other books. It is not merely a genre-bender, comprising as it does gang-crime, fairy-story, beast-fable, children’s adventures, exploration and time-travel, but rather more than that. In it we have the echoes of Puck of Pook’s Hill (Kay does not merely meet the Romans, but travels with them), Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Mrs Tiggywinkle, The Snow Queen, the Greek myths, the Bastables, the Wind in the Willows, Alice, and most of the rest of the canon of children’s books written up to that point. True, there are talking mice in Narnia, but one never gets the imaginary mouse’s world view that we get in the Box of Delights. Masefield’s deft writing means that we easily move from detailed boys’ adventure fiction in one scene to the shores of Troy a few pages later, and from a desert island in the Caribbean to a magical journey on dolphins over the waves, to deep snow drifts, underground passages and a fight with aeroplanes.

The premise of the Box of Delights is an old and well worn one — the pursuit of a treasure. However, we rarely see the treasure itself taking such a hand in its own preservation, and also in causing the near fatal danger in which the protagonist finds himself. Plot-wise, Masefield has also overcome his previous problems with linearity. Its direct precursor, The Midnight Folk, is  made up of a problem, an investigation, and finally a discovery which concludes it. This is very serviceable, but, in plot terms, does not distinguish it particularly from the Famous Five or Poirot. There is no particular reason why the discovery should not have been made in chapter two, rather than at the end. By contrast, the plot conclusion of the Box of Delights brings together the numerous repercussions of the premise in a way that could only have taken place once the other elements of the plot had happened. The actions of Kay’s enemy Abner Brown become progressively more desperate and the ramifications greater as he is thwarted. There is a very real danger, which persists on the umpteenth reading, that the only result of all of Kay’s activities will be the unnecessary deaths of choir and clergy, of his guardian and friends, and with Brown gaining not only the Box, but also the Elixir of Life.

Characterisation, too, is strong. Masefield had, by this time, perfected his ability to make a character memorable in just a sentence. The ‘foxy faced man’ and the ‘ha ha what?’ man are unforgettable, and yet occupy very little of the story. We could never confuse the rat with his nephew, or the tree mouse with the house mouse, or Jemima with Maria. The only character left blank is Kay himself, who is the Everyman figure who allows the reader to enter the story world, much as Harry Potter does three generations later.

In terms of its strengths, the Box of Delights outweighs really any other book I read in my childhood.

However, unlike A Wizard of Earthsea, the Hobbit and The Horse and His Boy, which are all, in their own terms, more or less perfect, The Box of Delights has an unnecessary flaw which makes it, ultimately, a disappointing experience.

This flaw has to do with the frame, and, like many flaws, it gives us far more insights into what makes a great story than do the book’s strengths.

If you have not read the book, you really should. If you have read it, but have forgotten, the story can be summarised as follows: Kay Harker, a schoolboy, is on the train home for the Christmas holidays, when he meets two suspicious looking clergymen, who trick him into gambling with them. He also meets an old Punch and Judy man. Subsequently, he discovers that the clergymen are actually gangsters, intent on ‘scrobbling’ the Punch and Judy man to obtain a magical box. The man entrusts the box to Kay, and is subsequently kidnapped. The adventure plays out as Kay is first pursued by the gangsters and then sees all others who came into contact with the Punch and Judy man kidnapped by the gang. Kay travels back in time, using the box, to find its creator, and finally penetrates the gangsters’ lair with the aim of retrieving the kidnap victims and returning the box. However, by the time he is in a position to do this, he is powerless in magically miniature form, and has lost the box. He goes through a terrifying underground adventure, rescues the prisoners, retrieves the box, and sees his enemy, Abner Brown, sent hurtling into the depths by a well aimed bag of flour dropped from a hovering plane by disgruntled gang members. With help from magical friends, he then returns with the kidnap victims in time to save the 1,000 year anniversary Christmas service of the county’s cathedral.

If the story had finished at that point, it would probably have been the best children’s story ever written. But it does not. Just as victory is achieved, Kay begins to wake up. He finds himself back in the railway carriage, and it has all been a dream.

It should not take much imagination to understand why this is such a disappointment. The entire book we have just read — by contrast with its predecessor, The Midnight Folk — is now seen to be a nothing, a dream. In the world of the book, nothing which we have read is ‘real’.

I can only speculate on why Masefield wrote this in. We do know that, a few years later, CS Lewis was pressured against publishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because fantasy for children was seen as frivolous, and children ought to be reading realistic, true-t0-life books. However, anyone who has got to the end of The Box of Delights has clearly enjoyed fantasy enough to read that far, and the damage, if damage there is, is already done.

What is happening, though, is that Masefield is imposing an additional frame narrative as a last minute afterthought on a book which needs none. This should give us some insight into framing in general.

Frames

It was JRR Tolkien, in Tree and Leaf, who first introduced me to the idea of stories having a frame. The frame may be no more than ‘once upon a time’, or it may be as elaborate as the multi-narrator frame of Wuthering Heights. Great Expectations is framed as a first person narrative told many years later, as is Heart of Darkness. Nostromo shares the narrator of Heart of Darkness, but it is now told second hand, as tale of sea-faring folk well worth telling (which it is).

By its very nature, a story must have a frame, if only because it cannot be about everything, cannot begin with the beginning of the world and end with its ending, unless it is so diffuse that it is really not about anything. Even the Bible has to put the beginning of the world and its end into two separate narratives, Genesis and Revelation, an arrangement wisely followed by CS Lewis when he separated The Magician’s Nephew from The Last Battle.

In Aristotelian terms, the beginning is the place where we lay out the premise which depends on nothing else in the story, and from which everything in the story logically follows. The end is the place where the story finishes, and beyond which nothing in the story continues to be narrated (though we assume that it continues to happen). The middle is where the things caused by the beginning and which cause the end take place.

As well as the start and finish framing, a story also has a world in which it operates. Few worlds are as enormous as the multi-universes of Narnia, the expanse of Middle-Earth or the archipelago of Earthsea, but even these major creations have limits. We know that there are uncounted worlds from the Wood Between the Worlds in The Magician’s Nephew, but in all of the Narnia books, we only visit England, the Narnian world, and Charn, as well as the Wood itself and Aslan’s country. There are no quick trips to France from England, which is itself made up only of a country house, a boarding school, a few London streets, a railway platform and a house in Cambridge.

The world must also be framed in terms of its own rules. For example, a few machine-guns would have made a big difference in Prince Caspian, but would have totally changed the world of the story. In Harry Potter, the train is a perfectly legitimate way to get to Hogwarts, whereas if Bilbo had managed to get a train to the Lonely Mountain, almost all of the story would have been avoided.

One thing the frame doesn’t need to do is to connect the world of the book back to the ‘real’ world. The cover of the book and the publisher’s imprint is enough for that. Nobody needs to be told that the words in the book are fictional. If there really is a need for more, then the publisher’s disclaimer about any resemblance to persons living or dead should be enough.

However, this creates its own problems. What happens if the book overflows its frame and starts trying to interfere in the real world? I enjoyed Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, but I had deep misgivings about how it portrayed the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic myself, and I would have felt the same way if it had been Islam, or Hinduism, or the Labour Party. Of course, The Da Vinci Code does the same thing, but everyone knows that The Da Vinci Code is a conspiracy theory book. More importantly, Northern Lights is a formative book for children, whereas adults reading The Da Vinci Code will already have made their minds up.

Some books, of course, are designed to impact on the real world, and all books surely do this. To Kill a Mockingbird had a significant impact on many people’s understanding of inter-racial justice in the USA. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is strongly grounded in fact, and the story does not introduce us to fictional ideas to make its point — rather, it fictionalises real world things.

I struggle in the same way with the small-print sections in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. As my English teacher at school told me, they were no more than political tracts, and if he wanted to read political tracts, he would have gone out and done so, rather than reading them as inserts in a novel.

This is the same separation which we require in television. It’s alright for Vanish or Toyota to advertise in the commercial breaks, but we would start complaining pretty quickly if it turned out that an entire episode of Broadchurch had been scripted so as to promote them — or, even more so, if an episode had been scripted to show how dangerous non-Toyota vehicles were, or other brands of soap.

Returning to the beginning, it’s not possible to read The Box of Delights without either reading the ending, or deliberately ignoring it, and knowing that one is ignoring it. This is a flaw, and a catastrophic one. In some part of me, I know that Bilbo Baggins is pottering round the Shire, Ged is sailing the seas of Earthsea, Shasta and Aravis are living happily in Archenland, but Kay Harker is just waking up from a dream on a train to a Christmas holiday which, no matter how good it is, can’t possibly be as good as the dream which never happened.

If you are an author, please, please think twice before ever perpetrating such a thing on children.

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