Martin’s Notes

These are notes to questions people often ask me about art, literature and other things. Use them if they are useful to you, and not if they are not.

For writers: do your characters have a philosophy?

As Nanowrimo approaches, lots of budding writers are hastily scanning their notebooks for something to write about. Something literary? Or something more ‘genre’? Or what about something which is actually fun to read (so ‘genre’) but also worth reading (so ‘literary’, in as much as the term means anything).

I love Dickens and I love George Eliot, but for different reasons. Dickens is an exciting chase of plot twists, enormous personalities, intricate descriptions of humungous proportion, and reality stretched to its breaking point without actually becoming fantasy. You could never actually visit a Dickensian world. Many of our notions of the Victorians (squalor, hypocrisy, cruelty) are Dickensian rather than real. Eliot, on the other hand, comes to literature from philosophy 1. Her characters are realistically painted, even in Adam Bede which has more of an adventure ending than Dickens ever contrived.

If your characters are in danger of becoming caricature (and this troubles you), it might be worth taking a leaf out of Eliot’s books, rather than Dickens. Although we know more about even the most minor characters in Dickens than we know about any character in, say, Camus, they are often drawn without any particular psychological insight. Why is Uriah Heep so obsequious? We don’t know. Dickens is thrilled by (and thrills us with) the surface of Heep, and his impact on the other characters, but he doesn’t particularly want to delve into him. Eliot, on the other hand, is fascinated by the inner mind of everyone she draws to our attention. Her characters represent genuinely different outlooks on life. Dickens’s characters live in the ear and the visual imagination, but Eliot’s live in our minds.

So, do your characters have a philosophy, and should they?

It’s a truism that a villain is merely a hero in the wrong story. Every character makes sense to themselves, even if they are doing things which are nonsensical, self-destructive, or, simply, evil.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs makes for a depressing analysis of the human condition. Until our basic hungers and thirsts are met, we care little for future safety and security. While these are threatened, love and belonging seem unimportant. Only when love and belonging are satisfied do we seek esteem, and only after that self-actualisation. Maslow’s hierarchy is accepted as a psychological base point, though, in fact, experimental evidence is really rather lacking. It is popular because it is popular, rather than because it is proven.

Nonetheless, for a character in a story, it is entirely plausible that they are acting purely selfishly (Maslow’s hierarchy is a hierarchy of selfishness, ultimately). Even so, their actions still make sense to themselves, which is to say, they can still explain them in ways which are socially acceptable. Although all of us are blessed with a conscience, in many cases what we mistake for conscience is merely doing what society finds acceptable — as Lawrence Kohlberg maintains in this stages which are almost as popular as Maslow’s.

The way characters make sense of their actions in terms of their socialisation (or, in English, how they keep thinking well of themselves even when doing bad things) is their philosophy. All characters in adult novels have them. One of the peculiar delights of children’s fiction is that characters don’t have to have philosophies, and can be genuinely mortified when they have done something they shouldn’t.

By philosophy I don’t mean that they should be reading Quine or Plato. They don’t need to justify themselves in terms that Ayer would understand, or even to Aquinas. Their philosophy, often expressed in just one or two maxims, is the rationalisation of what they do. If they are particularly pompous, they may call it their ‘principles’, but even the most (apparently) unprincipled characters have their maxims.

At the moment the most overused one for villains is ‘I did it for the greater good’. This we know from JK Rowling, but she didn’t invent it. Now it seems to be a ubiquitous villain philosophy. That alone should make it suspect. In real life, I have yet to meet anyone pompous enough to claim that their actions are really ‘for the greater good’, which is merely a way of saying ‘the end justifies the means’.

There are plenty of others to choose from. Even the much maligned ‘because it was there’ is probably a better choice than ‘for the greater good’.

If you want to uncover the philosophy of your characters (or create it), simply pose them this question (or have an angry person who they like and want to be respected by in the story pose it): “What gives you the right to do that?” or, from a slightly colder, more mafia-like stance “What business of yours was it to do that?”

This is not just for villains, and it is not just for bad things. One of the classic dilemmas facing a hero is when duty conflicts with what is right. A soldier is sworn to obey the king, the king orders him to kill his prisoners. A Fluellen replies in Henry V: “Kill the poys and the luggage! ’tis expressly against the law of arms…” Fluellen’s philosophy is one part duty to the king, one part duty to the law. Shakespeare contrives a situation where the two are tested against each other.

Very few books will test all of their characters (Middlemarch is amazing because it really does do this), but even the most one dimensional bit-part character can benefit from a personal philosophy. A thief steals your protagonist’s watch. Why? Because they are a thief? That is probably a satisfactory explanation for a piece of scenery or a prop (why did the gun go off? because that’s what guns do when you pull the trigger), but no real thief is so one-dimensional. Because they were hungry? They might be more inclined to steal a sandwich than a watch. What gives them the right to do it, in their eyes? Possibly they think that nothing gives them the right, and they are the lowest of the low in their own eyes. This can lead to a rich denouement later on, when the thief finally turns on himself (or looks like he will, but does not).

A man once came to my door who had stolen some money. In the two hour conversation that followed, he repeated again and again ‘I am not a thief’. Being a thief was not part of who he saw himself. In that conversation I gleaned enough rationalisations and justifications for a hundred minor characters. A man may steal your watch simply because he wanted it, but when he justifies it to himself later, his justifications might be ‘He should have taken more care of it’ (i.e., I’m doing everyone a favour); ‘that watch was too expensive’ (i.e., all property is theft); ‘he thinks too highly of himself’, and so on. It is the in-brackets bits which are the philosophy. Very few people are fast enough on their intellectual feet to come up with an endless string of rationalisations, and they quickly turn to repeating the same ones—especially if their fellows seem to accept them.

Stealing a watch is an easy and obvious one. What about other unconscionable things that otherwise nice enough people do? A woman stamps on another woman’s hand in a frenzied rush at the start of the January sales. Later, how does she explain this to herself? A man regularly orders ten pens at work and takes nine home, even though his house is already full of pens. How does he justify this?

Simply knowing a minor character’s justification for what they are doing is enough to lift them from a Dickensian surface-character to a George Eliot deep-character. We hugely enjoy Dickens’s minor characters but, ultimately, they are circus performers with their catch phrases and odd appearances. We no longer go to literature for such people: we have television for that. If you are NanoWrimoing this year, it’s something worth thinking about.

Show 1 footnote

  1. I read that somewhere thirty years ago and can’t place the reference

Three puzzle plots: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Alchemist

Puzzle plots and what they can mean for new writers

We tend to associate puzzle plots with the mystery stories. Indeed, the main difference between a mystery and a crime thriller is that we expect the clues to be presented to us in a mystery, but in such a way that we do not guess the end before the detective does. In a crime thriller, we expect the course of events to reveal the culprit at the climax: we do not feel cheated if, in retrospect, there was not enough information to work out the answer beforehand.

However, I would argue that an element of the puzzle plot can be a powerful element in other kinds of writing. There are a number of examples we could take, but I want to focus here on the medieval verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anon, approx 1390, Ursula K Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea, and Paolo Coelho’s the Alchemist.

Puzzle plots are extended riddles, where the answer is implicit or deducible from the question. By this I do not mean to compare them with the 1980s ‘blank’ riddles, where a scenario is proposed, and the respondent has to ask questions of the questioner to come to the right answer.

What weighs many tonnes, but falls to the ground without making a sound?

Answer: snow.

The snow riddle is a true riddle because everything in the question is literally true, and it points to a unique answer: trees, falling rocks and other large objects make a bang. Rain drums as it falls. Planes do not ‘fall’, except when they crash. Falling leaves rustle. Only snow falls.

However, it is not merely a question, because the way it is presented is elliptical. By emphasising the sound it doesn’t make, the hearer is sent on the path of thinking about all the things that do make a sound. If the question had been: “What is white and falls to the ground?” then the answer would be easy.

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is challenged to a ‘return blow’ game by an enormous green knight. The supernatural uncanniness of the knight makes his uncle King Arthur advise him to strike well so that there will be no return blow. Gawain duly beheads the knight, but, after the head has rolled among the trestle tables, the knight’s body walks over, picks it up, and tells him to be at the Green Chapel a year hence. Having done his best to kill the eery knight, Gawain can expect no mercy.

When the time comes, he sets off on a long journey, despairing that he will ever find the place. As Christmas arrives, he finds a castle where the lord, Sir Bercilak, puts him for the knight, and tells him that the Green Chapel is quite nearby, and he can take him there on the appointed day, three days hence. In the meantime, he proposes a game: an exchange of winnings.

On day one, Bercilak goes out hunting. In the mean time, his wife comes into Gawain’s bedroom and flirts with him. In the end, he allows her to kiss him but no more. Bercilak, on his return, presents him with the game he has hunted, and Gawain kisses him in return.

On day two, the same thing happens. The wife presses him harder, but, in the end, all he has to do is kiss Bercilak to receive in return the huntsman’s trophy.

On day three, the wife goes all out to seduce Gawain, but he resists, accepting only more kisses. In the end, she persuades him to accept her girdle, in green and gold, which she says prevents a man from being killed, no matter what an enemy does to him. However, he must not pass this gift on. At the end of the day, Gawain receives a fox skin, gives Sir Bercilak the kisses, but conceals the girdle.

The following day, being the day appointed, he goes to the Green Chapel, where the giant green knight appears with his axe. Gawain puts his head on the block, but when the knight swings the axe, he flinches. The knight chides him, and Gawain complains that ‘when my head comes off my shoulders, I cannot put it back again’. The knight makes two false blows, but on the third, he strikes, nicking Gawain’s neck. Gawain springs up, ready to defend himself, now that the return blow has been given, but the knight laughs.

The Green Knight then reveals himself to be the same Sir Bercilak, and the first two blows did not land because on the first two days Sir Gawain faithfully delivered his gifts in accordance with his promise. The third blow was a nick, because although Gawain broke his promise, it was in accepting the girdle, not in allowing the wife to seduce him.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight remains one of my favourite stories. It appears to be an epic tale of marvels. It is only at the end that we discover this was a puzzle plot, where the answer to the first test depends on the answer to the second test.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, the story is premised on the Rule of Names—knowing a ‘true’ name gives a wizard the power to cast spells over another wizard, so wizards keep their names carefully concealed. However, the titular wizard Ged, casting a spell beyond his abilities, summons up a spirit, and with it comes a nameless creature from the underworld, which then, for the rest of the book, seeks to take Ged over. Because the creature knows Ged’s own name, it defeats him at each encounter. The puzzle is: how can a creature without a name be defeated, since names are needed to cast magic. After many adventures, Ged finally turns to face the creature, and names it with his own name, thus completing the puzzle.


In the Alchemist, the protagonist dreams of treasure, and goes out following his dream. This takes him through many remarkable adventures, but when he finally finds the place he is looking for, he learns that the real treasure is buried in the place he first had the dream. He returns, and obtains it. Although the treasure was close at hand, he could not have obtained it without going on the remarkable adventures, and these adventures give meaning to the quest.

All three of these adventures are magical. I am not suggesting that puzzle plots must either be mysteries or magic. Rather, I’ve selected them because, in each case, the reader cannot bring extrinsic knowledge to the question. A Wizard of Earthsea presents us with a logical system, the Rule of Names, where the solution is an extrapolation of the problem. Sir Gawain relies on the intellectual code of chivalry, but it gives its own definition to it. Its original readers would have been familiar with the code, but not with specifically what one is supposed to do in a magical adventure: magic takes us out of the rules of the ordinary, except, of course, that the tale reveals that the rules should be followed in exactly the same way as in ordinary life. The Alchemist has its own simple rule: the universe conspires to help if you pursue your dream. It is only after the protagonist, Santiago, has pursued it extensively that the universe gives up its secret.

These puzzle plots differ from mysteries in the sense that the reader could not actually solve the puzzle. Nonetheless, the reader, along with the protagonist, is challenged to solve the puzzle, or, at the least, the intellectual appeal is that we are facing an intractable situation for which we require a solution.

They differ from mere tales of wonder in that the solutions are genuine solutions within the world of the book. They are not in any sense dei ex machinis: extraneous elements from the cosmology introduced to solve the problem.

The response the author is looking for in a puzzle plot is “Oh, that is clever”, rather than “I saw that coming”. However, it is a cleverness of appropriateness. In a world full of wonders and adventures, things worked out in exactly the way they logically would have worked out, which happens to be the way that, in plot terms, they should have worked out.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a big fan of plot. Whenever I make a list of favourite books, they are always books with strong plots. I like the Odyssey, but no so much the Iliad, Great Expectations but not so much Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Fahrenheit 451 but not Nineteen-eighty-four. 20th century (and 21st century) anti-plot literary fiction leaves me entirely cold.

To return to Great Expectations for a moment, this is an excellent example of a literary, character-driven puzzle plot. Pip faces a mystery for most of the story: who is his unknown benefactor. He assumes it is Miss Havisham, but everything that we, the reader, know about Miss Havisham and her protegée suggests that this is highly unlikely. In the event, it is the convict Magwitch who is Pip’s secret benefactor—something which completely overturns his view of himself, but which we, the reader, could probably have worked out if only we had not been so engrossed in the storytelling.

There is a particular satisfaction in the ‘answer in the question’ nature of the Great Expectations plot. Much as I enjoyed Dombey and Son, it does not have the same sense of completion. By the end of Dombey, we are essentially concluding with the happiness of everyone who is left.

We are now in an era of new writing. Up to seven hundred years ago, books survived because people copied them by hand. Sir Gawain survives only in one manuscript. It is quite possible that, until its re-discover and popularisation in the 20th century, only a handful of people had ever read it. Six hundred years ago, books survived because a printer printed them. In the voracious climate of the Reformation, many books were printed simply because a printer could get hold of them. A hundred years ago, books survived because a publisher took them on. Twenty years ago, books only survived if an agent took them on. The now-famous story of JK Rowling’s multiple rejections show just how fragile that process is.

Today, anyone can write a book and get it onto the web as Kindle or eBook, and onto the shelves as a physical book at no cost to themselves via Amazon’s CreateSpace. Print-on-demand has finally come of age: it is possible to make a profit, even when you only sell one copy.

More fiction is written today than even before. The success of social programmes such as NaNoWriMo and writers’ sites such as Figment and Wattpad mean that authors who would never have had access to publication and the encouragement that comes from it are writing, receiving constructive criticism from their peers, improving, refining, and publishing.

Unlike the self-publishing (where you paid for printing a lot of books which then filled your garage) or vanity publishing (where you paid someone to publish it and they then did nothing with it) of the 20th century, the potential distribution of self-penned books is the whole wired-world, carries no capital costs, and carries no risk. Find an online tribe of people who like what you write about, and start to like your particular writing, and you could find that your readership is greater than any book—except the Qu’ran and the Bible—in the world up to the year 1200. You may never get paid for it, but neither did most of the people writing up to the invention of printing.

The explosion in numbers of writers also explains why it has been getting ever harder to get published, in the traditional sense. At one point, a printer would have taken a chance on anything that looked plausible and manageable. Later, a publisher would read the manuscripts sent to them. Later, most publishers would only accept manuscripts sent by a recognised literary agent. Twenty years ago, agents were reading full manuscripts, unsolicited. Ten years ago, they wanted fifty pages and a synopsis. Now, many ask for thirty pages, and a growing proportion is asking for ten pages. It’s not that agents have lost interest in fiction, or that their readers have short attention spans, it’s that an ever growing number of authors, many supported by professional, paid editors, are submitting stuff.

What this means is that if your book doesn’t completely grab someone in the first ten pages, it is not going to survive the traditional process. Many of the great books of the past do not do this. Some would argue that this pressure pushes writers to ever better writing. Actually, it pushes writers to a format where the first ten pages is essentially a short story of its own.

Clearly, the puzzle plot is not going to fare well with this kind of reading regime. A book can be enormously satisfying, and yet come across as the very genre it is about to subvert.

As a new writer, writing for the new media, these rules don’t apply to you. You don’t have to satisfy an agent, or a publisher, or the reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want to write entirely in upper case, and your online tribe likes that, then you can succeed. 1

I’m not advocating tearing up all the rules. Rather, I’m suggesting that breaking out of the agent-publisher-distributer model means you no longer have to write things which satisfy the format that bookshops work to. Want to write a ten page novel? Currently, anything under 50,000 words doesn’t qualify, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t write something of the scope and depth of a novel, quite different from a short story, and confine it to ten pages. Or would you prefer to write about 300,000 words a time? Research suggests that people who buy eBooks prefer longer books. Actually, many people buying print books want longer books, it’s just that first-time authors are always told to keep it between 70,000 and 80,000 words because that’s what publishers are comfortable taking a chance on. A publisher who decided to print your 800,000 word tome and distribute it to every book shop in the world in sufficient quantities to make it economically viable would, quite literary, be betting the publishing house on it. As an eBook, or a print on demand, there is no risk.

Lest anyone think that this is something that only authors ‘not good enough’ for agent-publisher-distributor publication should be interested, Paolo Coelho, he of the Alchemist (above) is a big fan of distributing his work online, for free. And then there was that author who wrote a book (as far as I’ve been able to tell without reading it or watching the film) about different kinds of monochrome. That did very  well too.

If all that is the case, may I make a plea for plot, and especially for the resurgence of the puzzle-plot. If you’re a mystery writer, naturally you know all about puzzle-plots. However, for romance, fantasy, general fiction, Westerns, or any genre you care to consider, adding intellectual satisfaction to your story can (I believe) genuinely make it better.

As we approach NaNoWriMo 2015, unshackle your pen.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Before anyone shouts that ‘THAT’S SHOUTING’, let us remind ourselves that all writing was upper case until about the 3rd century CE.

For writers: nine ways conflict is resolved in books

Stories ultimately are about conflict. At the most fundamental level, a story-teller must take the hearer through conflicting hopes and fears. The story cannot finish until conflict is resolved, and this is one of the things that distinguishes the stories that are worth hearing from the ones that are not. This can be a problem for writers who have an eye on a sequel or series, and it’s also a problem for writers who only have a limited number of methods of resolving conflict.

Considering literature from the Gilgamesh epic to the new fantasy novel I was sent to review six weeks ago, there are fundamentally nine ways in which conflict can be resolved in books. Note that I am not trying to say that ‘you must use one of these ways or else your conflict resolution will fail’. If you find a tenth way, I would be very interested to hear about it. Rather, I am grouping the kinds of resolution I have been able to identify.

These are the nine kinds:

  1. Time. An old saying goes ‘if you sit on the banks of the Nile (or the Seine) for long enough, the bodies of all your enemies will come floating past’. Time is not so much a healer as a destroyer. The death of one or both of the parties to a conflict often means the end of that conflict.
  2. War, famine, plague and migration. Population-level disasters sweep across stories as great as War and Peace and as slight as Gildas’s tantalisingly brief summary of the coming of the Saxons. All these things, of course, can be premise as well as resolution. If you are looking for a finale which throws the rest of the story into fore-shortened perspective, this is one of the best.
  3. Marriage. The traditional ending for romances, marriage is the ultimate fairy-tale ending. However, as a plot device, Shakespeare uses it to great effect as the proximate cause of the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet—even though the secret marriage itself occurs earlier in the play. Marriage can end well, but marrying the wrong person (as in the end of the film Shakespeare in Love) is the ultimate non-fatal tragedy.
  4. Economics. For a hackneyed ending, someone coming into a vast amount of money can plausibly conclude the tensions that have played right through the story. Of course, lottery wins, inheritances and buried treasure are deus ex-machina of the very worst kind. At the other end of the scale, many stories have been ended by the era-defining events of the Wall Street Crash.
  5. Law. What is it about court cases that make such compelling fiction? There is implicit drama, of course, but there is also something hugely thematic. The kind of stories which typically end in a court case are generally stories in which crime and misdeed reigns during the body of the story. The court case restores order. Justice is done, reward and punishment dispensed. If the idea of finishing the mystery with a court case doesn’t appeal, there are other ways for justice to be done: witness Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, or, indeed, not done. When I was at school, I wondered why To Kill a Mockingbird was regarded by many as the greatest novel of the 20th century (still not by me, I’m afraid). It is a marvellous evocation of childhood, and a stinging rebuke to American racism. Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t resonate for me: I have never been to the States. Structurally, though, it absolutely reverses the crime-detection-justice structure of detective novels. To Kill a Mockingbird describes an idyllic world where justice is destroyed by the concluding trial. Perhaps, after all, I ought to read it again…
  6. Science, Arts and Crafts. Classic science-fiction, by definition, concludes with a science-bit. When the science is something that the reader understands, and is still surprised by, the result is deeply satisfying. However, this is not confined to science-fiction. While the denouement of Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff is a bit far-fetched, the International Date Line denouement of Around the World in Eighty Days is purest genius.
  7. The divine and the supernatural. While a Deus ex Machina — a god on a machine not previously introduced in the plot — is the most appalling and hackneyed of all endings, at least according to Aristotle, the action of the divine and the supernatural, when prepared for properly, can lift a story to a higher level. The unforgettable endings of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade depend entirely on it, though the altogether less successful endings of the other two films in the franchise should be a reminder that it doesn’t necessarily work. The nature of the ending does not have to be declared. Many chillers leave questions unanswered. Equally, a philosophical ending, as in Rutger Hauer’s soliloquy at the end of Blade Runner, or the entirely different Mercer ending of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, can also provide effective resolutions.
  8. Language, reason and negotiation. Shakespeare’s comedies often end with the matter being talked out. Orsino recognises what an idiot he has been, Prospero comes to a realisation of what he has become. Greek comedy often ends in a bit of fast talking which almost brushes the plot under the carpet. The Oresteia achieves this at an entirely serious level, providing a mythological basis for transfer from ritual to forensic law.
  9. Fire, death, escape. The oldest ending in the book, quite literally, is life, death or fire. Beowulf ends with the death of the hero by violence in the story. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ends with the hero’s escape from certain death. The Name of the Rose ends with the destruction of the monastery by fire.

I offer these nine categories—and I am entirely prepared to negotiate them—not as ‘good endings’, but as methods by which the inherent conflicts of a story are resolved. Some of them lend themselves particularly to certain genres: the supernatural to horror, law to the detective story, death or escape to the Western, science to science-fiction, war, time or economics to the historical novel, marriage to the romance.

Where things become, to me, really interesting, is when typical resolutions are moved out of their favoured genres and into something else. I mentioned the unconvincing medical ending to Michael Strogoff, and the altogether more successful end to Around the World in Eighty Days. Verne is particularly remember as a precursor of science-fiction, but Michael Strogoff and, in a certain sense, Around the World, are historical adventures. The Name of the Rose—which, to my mind, is the finest novel of the 20th century—combines a court case, fire, science (at least, the science of poisoning) and time.

I am not here talking about the construction of new genres, such as Steampunk being a kind of historical science-fiction. I am also not talking about a kind of ‘nine basic plots’—these resolutions are, I think, intrinsic to human life, rather than to literature.

Are there other categories? I should be very interested to hear your thoughts.

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.


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.

Back to Top