Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Box of Delights

Last December we were reading The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield, at my house, and Harriet was reading Masefield's The Box of Delights at hers, so this December I wanted to read The Box of Delights. Both stories have the same hero, a boy named Kay Harker, but in The Box of Delights (published 1935) he is older than he was in The Midnight Folk (published 1927). The Box of Delights is available as a lovely red and green re-issued volume.

The story begins as Kay takes the train home from school for the Christmas holidays and is kind to a little old man who carries a Punch and Judy show upon his back. As in any fairy tale, his kindness reaps its reward--first in his being entrusted to carry a message--"the wolves are running"--and then in seeing the old man's show, which is not a typical puppet show, but one in which toy soldiers come to life, butterflies fly around the room, and then two dice turn into "a little red shark, snapping after a little white skate; he swam round and round the room after it, always just missing it, and at last, when he had almost caught it, the skate turned into a skylark and went up singing to the ceiling. Instantly the shark turned into a hawk and went after her." There are dangers in Kay's world, and none of them are softened just because he is still only 11 or 12 years old.

The little old man, whose name is Cole Hawlings, needs to escape from his pursuers, the "wolves", so he goes into a picture on the wall in Kay's house. He gives Kay the box of delights so the pursuers won't get it, and Kay uses it to have adventures. Kay is old enough to have considerable freedom around his neighborhood, especially once his guardian, Caroline Louisa, has been called away, but he is still young enough to trust his feelings without too much questioning:
"Kay could not have been long asleep when he woke up feeling certan that there was something very important to be done at King Arthur's Camp. He rolled over, thinking 'Well, it isn't likely that anything is to be done there at this time of night,' and was very soon asleep again. However, his dreams turned to King Arthur's Camp. He saw the place, half woke, then slept and saw it again At this, he woke up wide awake, convinced that he must go there at once."

As Harriet also observes, Kay takes the fantastic things that happen to him in stride. The games he plays at home aren't markedly different from the adventures he has with The Box of Delights, where he meets Herne the Hunter and one of Alexander the Great's biggest fans. When one of his adventures delays his arrival home, he is told "we're not going to wait any longer. We've been waiting simply hours as it is. You've had your chance of being a pirate and you haven't taken it, and now you'll be a merchantman, and you'll be captured and tortured, and then you'll have to walk the plank, and Peter and I are going to be the sharks that will eat you." Later, when the box of delights has taken him to Troy, he ends up on "a merchant ship which has been captured by pirates" and is marooned by the pirates.

Kay is rescued by Herne in a chariot drawn by dolphins: "Kay loved it more than anything that had ever happened to him. It was exquisite to feel the dolphins quivering to the leap, and to surge upwards into the bright light with flying fish sparkling on each side; then to surge down into the water, scattering the spray like bright fire, full of rainbows, then to leap on and on, wave after wave, mile after mile. In the thrill and delight of this leaping journey Kay fell asleep."

In the end, the people taken by the "wolves" are rescued, and just in time for the Christmas Eve service. Although the Bishop initially thinks they won't get there in time, Cole and Kay know that "we needn't give up hope yet," and sure enough, the Lady of the Oak tree arrives in a sleigh drawn by lions and Herne the Hunter arrives in one drawn by unicorns, and everyone gets to church in time to light it up and sing carols.

This is a cozy little fantasy/adventure story for dark December evenings. The shifts between dreaming and waking make it a good bedtime story too, as Harriet attests. What are your favorite December bedtime stories? Here at non-Necromancy headquarters, we've always been fond of The Grinch who Stole Christmas, a William Joyce picture book entitled Santa Calls, and David Sedaris' essay "Six to Eight Black Men."


Alison said...

Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus was bedtime reading in my family for years and years. My dad would start the night after Thanksgiving, read a chapter or two each night, and finish on Christmas Eve. I have large chunks of the book memorized. We tried introducing Calvin to it this year, but he doesn't seem to quite have the patience for it, so I'm back to reading it to myself. Next year I'll try again.

FreshHell said...

Dusty will be getting both Midnight Folk and Box of Delights for Christmas. We don't have any Christmas-related reading traditions. I read whatever she wants to hear. I tried A Christmas Carol recently, but Dusty found it difficult to understand and my translation of things circa-1830 bogged us down. I do have a wonderful book by JRR Tolkein. The title escapes me. They were his Santa letters to his children. One each year with gorgeous illustrations. Maybe I can read that to Dusty this year.

Jeanne said...

Alison, That's one I haven't read; now I know what I'll be reading next December!

FreshHell, yes, the Letters to Father Christmas. I think we have two editions of those, because different pictures are reproduced in each.

Harriet said...

I'm going to be doing my own post on this, because my list is lengthy and we never seem to get it all in. But I did want to say that I just discovered Santa Claus last week when I was working in the library and thought it was wonderful. I love Joyce. Our favorite Joyce book, though, is Dinosaur Bob. We sing Bob's theme song every New Year's Eve, in lieu of Auld Lang Syne, which has the same tune:

He's Bob, the best old Bob
the biggest Bob you've ever seen!
He's Mesozoic and heroic
and he's really green.

Joe said...

As you know, I'm not much of a re-reader... but I need to crack A Christmas Carol this time each year, and make it at least to Christmas Present.

New to the list is Tomie DePaola's "Christmas Remembered," a simply beautiful memoir of Christmases from the 30s/40s to the nearly present day from the children's author/illustrator. I haven't put my finger on why - because Tomie was part of my childhood, because he's always been nice to my mother at library events, because the pictures are beautiful, because he's an expert storyteller - but they touch me.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, Our favorite Joyce besides Santa Calls is The Leaf Men, but we've always had a soft spot for baseball-playing Dinosaur Bob, and we always sang the song at the end of the book. Hadn't thought of singing it at New Year's!

Joe, We've never read any DePaola yet, although I know I saw his picture books when the kids were little. Guess I'll have to look for Christmas Remembered.

Jodie said...

Everyone seems to have favourite Christmas stories but I must confess I don't. I think I've probably read about four books that take place at Christmas in my life, much more of a Christmas movie girl.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, what Christmas movies do you like? My favorites are Elf and Love, Actually. I will happily watch It's a Wonderful Life and The Miracle on 34th Street, too.

lemming said...

I've probably raved about this already, but Madeline L'Engle's _The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas_ is a must read every year. Dare I say it, so is St. Luke.

Jeanne said...

Lemming, I've never read L'Engle for Christmas, so I guess it's time I started. I get a dose of Luke from watching Charlie Brown's Christmas!

Jodie said...

Love Actually is so sweet, one of my favourites too and it wouldn't be Christmas without It's a Wonderful Life! I quite like the cheesiness of I'll be Home for Christmas (where some guy has to make it back to his family in order to get a car they're bribing him with). Polar Express is also a lot of fun, although almost just too sweet for me. The Muppet's Christmas Carol of course, Santa Clause The Movie and because I'm a puppy lover I'd add the real life remake of 101 Dalmations. But my favourite thing to watch at Christmas are these little stop go animations about Robby the Reindeer who competes to join Santa's elite team, very British humour and tons of fun :)