The Box Of Delights by John Masefield

BXD…’The Wolves are Running…’

Kay Harker, on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays, receives this odd warning from a mysterious old Punch and Judy man on the train. But then everything is a little on the peculiar side: slightly sinister curates do card tricks and pick Kay’s pockets, the snow is falling hard, and that pack of Alsatian dogs does look a touch…vulpine. Things get stranger still: the Bishop and all the churchmen of Tatchester Cathedral are kidnapped, and Kay’s beautiful guardian Caroline Louisa has still not returned from London. Kay realises quickly what’s going on; the adults remain vague since the grown-up imagination doesn’t stretch to dungeons in caves under the local manor house, silent aeroplanes which turn into cars or a master criminal who has tired of bank jobs and now desires more ambitious rewards such as eternal life and the chance to travel in time. Kay has been slipped the Box of Delights for safekeeping and goes to Roman Britain, to Troy, to the Tropics and sees wonders. The evil, silky, urbane Abner Brown wants to do the same but doesn’t know who’s got the box, hence the abductions – or ‘scrobblings’ to give them the correct terminology. Appearing a couple of decades after Peter Pan, The Box Of Delights has a few echoes of J.M. Barrie (lots of pirates, for instance) and explicit references to Treasure Island. And you can see its own influence in Narnia, J.K. Rowling, Northern Lights, Diana Wynne Jones and many others. Masefield likes his characters to sing, which frankly no-one needs, but the exchanges between Kay and his friends the Joneses are sharp and funny. A modern author might have included pistol-toting little Maria a bit more and you certainly miss her verve in the narrative’s slightly underpowered final third. But then there is a lot to resolve and Masefield (as you might expect from a poet laureate) knows his business. He also does the reader the courtesy of keeping a great deal up his sleeve, not choosing to explain why Kay has a guardian or where Abner comes from, for instance. Mysteries abound. The whole thing has the exquisite quality of a dream.

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2 thoughts on “The Box Of Delights by John Masefield

  1. Thank you for reminding me of this book, and that I think I have the VHS of the BBC adaptation somewhere in the loft! If only I had something to play it on…I shall need to get the book for the my daughter. A new generation needs to be scared by Abner 😉

    • Thank you very much for this kind comment – and sincere apologies for such a ridiculously tardy reply. I can’t help thinking that a new TV adaptation of The Box of Delights is overdue. I am looking forward to getting lost in Masefield’s sort-of prequel The Midnight Folk this winter. It has that similar roaring log fire feel to it.

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