Box of Delights

June 4, 2006

A thread on Ship of Fools on children’s television reminded me of the wonderful BBC series Box of Delights, based on John Masefield’s novel. The novel is one of those products of the human imagination that are often derided as being mere meaningless fantasy; but when I read it as a child it was something closer to religion – a sense that there is an Outside; something Deeper. I knew it wasn’t true; that it was fiction; but within the fiction was joy and awe and fear (incidently, it is only through works of fiction like these that my modernist worldview can approach an understanding of the feelings of modern day pagans).

I found a quote from an interview with another great writer for children and adults, Alan Garner:

‘The Box of Delights’, subtitled ‘or When the Wolves were Running’, was the first novel I read where the children bearing the role of protagonist were engaged in a modern England (1932) and were caught up involuntarily in a battle outside Time between two archetypal figures, not Good and Evil but Evil and Not-Good, who interacted with the world of Now and another dimension, drawing on English myth and medieval alchemy and mysticism. The children were seen as tools to be used and disposed of in the battle. John Masefield showed children what others would not allow: that adults could be dangerous (two of the worst were dressed as clergymen; another was a female teacher); that bullies did not always run when confronted; that death was likely at any age; that terror was real and could be creative and constructive (which horror can’t be); and that happy endings were not automatic. In this last instance, the text of the novel shows interference, or capitulation. The end, as Masefield wrote it, has the inevitable and positive resolution of a symphony. Then there is tacked on a clumsy paragraph, where the main child protagonist wakes up in the railway carriage where the story begins, and it has all been a dream. Oh no it has not. I was seven years old when I first read it, and I KNEW. I don’t have the facts, but the received literary opinion is that the publisher got cold feet and insisted on the addition. Others, more interestingly, say that it was Masefield’s wife who added the paragraph. But I knew it was no dream and that everything in it was possible — indeed, likely.

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One Response to “Box of Delights”

  1. hatless Says:

    I’m a big Alan Garner fan. He’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic man, and somehow this works better in ‘children’ literature than adult stuff. Children, or adults reading in ‘child’ mode, seem to be more willing to play make believe.


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