In the bleak midwinter – towards an understanding of John Masefield’s children’s fantasy novels

Driving to work in these frosty mornings has been a thoughtful process. The icing thin white layer is a reminder of the idea of renewal at this time of year, set amidst the shortening days (now thankfully lengthening again).

In Constance Babbington Smith’s biography of John Masefield, she argues that he began reading Dante’s Divine Comedy fairly obsessively trying to find what he called the Old Religion. These ideas filter into the Kay Harker novels, Midnight Folk and the Box of Delights, in which Kay is plunged into a dream world which he needs to restore the world from the animalistic and criminal tendencies.

Midnight Folk, if you read it carefully, is a long unbroken sequence without any chapter breaks and Kay enters the fantastic world in his sleep. Set in the late Victorian period (presumably when Masefield as young), Harker must recover the treasure and defeat the evil Pouncer (his nurse – a throwback to the nurse character in Nesbit’s Magic City?). As he does so, he encounters and begins to itagliate himself into the natural land rather than the artificial world of the manor house.

The Box of Delights is an absolute classic novel (though it does have its problems) but it goes in and out of favour. Kay is on his way back home for the Christmas holidays and becomes entangled with Abner and the Pouncer again from Midnight Folk. Both want the box of delights, a way of travelling through time, and fairly soon the Tatchester choir starts to disappear (it is the millenial celebrations of the cathedral). At night time, though not entirely in a dream, he goes to the Roman fort which acts as a polder in time.

During these excursions, he learns that the Wolves have been running for many years about this time of the year and that the Light must be restored to the world. Susan Cooper does something similar but far more deeply than this in the Dark is Rising where Will unknowingly comes into his own power and helps the Light defeat the Dark in the quite literally the darkest period of winter. I also wonder if this also relates the Wolves in Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase (must re-read it soon in this light).

In the midst of planes and automobiles (the novel is set in the 1920s and 30s unlike its predecesor), Kay enacts the Purgatorio wherein he descends into the sewer system to release the choir from its imprisonment and is able to escape via the river (a reverse Styx?). As a reward for his journey, Kay is able to get the choir to church for midnight mass on Christmas Eve wherein the ghostly monks and knights help them gain entry to the cathedral and fill it with joy. At this Kay wakes from his dream and finds that he is on the train coming to the station for his Christmas holidays.

Susan Cooper has a valid criticism in her attack on the ending of the Box of Delights but I question whether this may be a point. By using the medieval dream sequence, Masefield is able to put together his vision for a renewal of the land through faith. Like Tolkien he had served in the First World War and he apears to have a seen a fundamentally shattered land in terms of lack of faith. Unlike Cooper, he does not delved deeply into the nature of the mythology that he is using of the Matter of Britain. For him the dream episodes are  a reminder that this war is continuing and that it is part of the natural world.

In part it is like the icing layer of frost that I have been driving past in the last few days. The world is temporarily renewed and cleaned; the dark temporarily overwhelms the light in the natural order but ultimately we know it will be defeated. Of this, we can be confident.

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