We were raised by Puffins. With three TV channels and no internet, for long stretches of our lives reading was the best (and sometimes, the only) way to pass the time. In X Libris we return to the books that made us
The Box of Delights (John Masefield, Heinemann 1935)
Riding the train home for the Christmas holidays, prep school boy Kay Harker meets Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings. Gnomically warning him that “the wolves are running”, Hawlings entrusts Kay with the eponymous Box of Delights. Kay must guard the Box from the gangster wizard Abner Brown and his gang (who are all disguised as vicars). Fortunately the Box allows him to “go small’ and “go swift” as well as travel in time, enabling Kay to enlist the help of figures from history and folklore, fairies, and a host of talking fauna.
“Hold on,” I hear you cry, “What is this doing in the X Libris section and not Friend in the Corner with all the other TV shows?” To which I say: I’m genuinely surprised (and a little gratified) that anyone’s been paying attention to The Metropolitan’s various format strands, but also, yes, I know, the first thing that sprang to your mind when you read the words The Box of Delights was the ringing, haunting, magically Christmassy theme music of the ‘80s BBC TV adaptation (which was actually an abridged version of the Andante movement from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s ‘A Carol Symphony’.) Who knew ‘The First Noel’ played on the harp could be so spine-tingling?
With The Box of Delights we pretty much reached the peak of televised adaptations of classic children’s books. At the time it was the BBC’s most expensive children’s drama ever, with groundbreaking (for TV) special effects and a lot of snow.
It was also ‘classic’ in the sense that it was period, cosy and wilfully old-fashioned. This sort of thing - the ceaseless round of unthreatening adventures with starchy Edwardian prigs - earned the BBC a reputation for well-mannered bourgeois stuffiness,. A parade of Pevensies and Bastables; poppets in pinafores befriending talking ponies, gaggles of Fauntleroys discovering they were princes of a nation of animatronic otters.
To be fair to the BBC, there was an audience for this stuff. I was a well-mannered bourgeois prep-school boy and I had grown up reading these books: Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit, Richmal Crompton and A. A. Milne. As children we didn’t understand that these things might be out of date or jar with contemporary mores. These were the kind of stories we were given, so these were the kind of stories we wanted.
Which is to say, this piece is about the book, which I read long before it was adapted for TV.
The book itself is a Box of Delights, in that it is the contents of a prep school boy’s imagination shaken up and dumped out on the nursery carpet in a heap: Romans and pirates, talking rats and Herne the Hunter, mysterious Punch and Judy men and gangsters in flying cars.
The Box of Delights is very seasonal indeed. A major plot point hinges on the villains kidnapping the staff of the cathedral to stop them celebrating the thousandth Midnight Mass to be held there. They do this by summoning down a tremendous snow storm that blocks all the roads, forcing our heroes to travel by sleighs drawn by lions and unicorns.
Rather like a box of Christmas decorations, the plot knots itself into a solid tangled mess. It advances from event to event seemingly at random, from pirate rats living in a wine cellar to the fall of Troy to a fairy ball inside an oak tree. And it has one fundamental structural element that is in many ways, the most Christmassy of all. A twist that made me gasp out loud and put the book down in outrage because it turns out, on the last page, that…
*** SPOILER WARNING ***
…it was all a dream.
Yes, the ultimate creative solecism; the grimiest, most amateur trick a writer can play. The first trope a child writing a story will deploy and the first cliché they will be told off for resorting to.
For it is a cliché. We can probably let Lewis Carroll get away with it in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as it’s a foundational example in children’s literature (and it becomes positively admirable in Through the Looking Glass when Carroll inverts it and Alice is told that she’s nothing but a thing in the Red King’s dream), but even there it’s an unsatisfactory rug-pull.
It’s not just that it’s a lazy way to excuse away whatever flights of fancy have preceded it, but also that in doing so it subverts them too. It tells the reader that the world is not as full of wonder and surprise as it appeared to be; indeed it repudiates the act of storytelling itself, making the suspension of disbelief not an investment of time and imagination, but a waste. It is a cruel, cheap con trick, all the more cruel for its cheapness.
Many classic children’s books use the ‘portal fantasy’ sleight of hand instead, having the characters pass through some enchanted doorway or process into another, stranger world: the Pevensie children enter Narnia through the wardrobe, Milo travels through The Phantom Tollbooth, Dorothy is whirled away to Oz in a storm (and back again in the book, it’s the film that almost stoops to having been a dream all along, although you were in it, and you were in it, and Toto was in it…). This way the magic of the adventure can be preserved alongside the ‘real’ world.
When The Box of Delights ends with Kay waking up on the train we met him on, realising that he has dreamt the whole story, this bathetic conclusion puts, as J. R. R. Tolkien said, “a good picture in a disfiguring frame”. It is hard to take, hard to credit and hard to forgive.
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And hard to fault.
As an ending, that is; the book itself has plenty of faults along the way. It is a grab bag of early 20th century children’s book tropes, and some just don’t quite work, not at this remove. But some very much do, particularly the snowy, wintry, Christmassy bits.
And Christmas, after all, is just a dream. We spend twenty-four days planning, organising, imagining the perfect day and wake up on the 25th to discover it’s nothing like our vision. What matters, really, is not the day, but the dream that precedes it. The vision of Christmas defines the season. The Box of Delights is the vision of a children’s adventure book, full of fantastical feats and strange magics before revealing them to be airy nothings.
Masefield was Poet Laureate, and he knew what he was doing when he put one word after another. Once you’ve got over the shock of the ending, it becomes apparent that he has played fair, as any schoolboy should. The sense of randomness that attends the book’s events is very oneiric; the story slips from place to place with all the confusing ease of a dream. The reader is constantly unsure whether, for example, the talking rats really are talking rats, or maybe actual humans who somehow live in a drain, or maybe some third kind of tiny creature that has not yet been properly described. Beings are indeterminate and the plot is delirious.
The ending also reframes the prim middle-classness of it all. At first it seems outrageous that Kay Harker is entrusted with the Box of Delights for no other reason than he is a well spoken, privately educated boy and therefore obviously the protagonist. But once you discover that this is all his dream, it makes sense. The way that the great and secret powers of the world rush to his aid, that all animals and supernatural beings adore him, that all of history is his playground, becomes almost satire, almost a sneer at books that do not have the honesty to own themselves as wish-fulfilment.
But that ending is also most deeply Christmassy in being childish. And what is Christmas but childish? For indulging children, of course, but also for putting aside the sterner parts of our adult selves, the officious, regulating, tasteful parts. It is impossible to have a tasteful Christmas and a good one. You have to choose one or the other. Christmas is a time of self indulgence and merry making. It requires a degree of tastelessness.
Just as the book is overstuffed with every ornament of children’s fantasy, so Christmas should be overstuffed with decoration: every gaudy bauble and glittering loop of tinsel. So let us open our seasonal Box of Delights and enjoy the ludicrous Yuletide childishness of it all.
For more on portal fantasies and how they resonate with children, try our piece on Harry Potter and the early internet:
I remember the TV adaptation - I was JUST the right age for it, and it was utterly magical. And now I've read your post, I'm going to find the book to read.....! Thanks, Tobias!