John Masefield ‘s The Box of Delights is a fantasy published in the 1930’s which draws on the hopes and fears of people after the first war, and set in the English landscape. We meet not only characters from the earlier work The Midnight Folk but the story deepens as the protagonist, Kay, battles forces of witchcraft intent on destroying the traditional English Christmas by ruining the thousandth midnight Christmas celebrations at the Cathedral. The Box of Delights is a sequel that in many ways surpasses the nightmarish first book (pace Rob Maslen, who praises the Midnight Folk here) and its narrative strength means it has also made a radio play, a classic BBC TV adaptation and more recently a well received stage representation. All this is summed up very neatly here in the Guardian, and explored by Jake Hayes with his usual depth and perspicacity in his Tygertale blog for this Advent, and it is the language when we come to the denouement that I find striking – I’m coming to this.
Throughout it is Kay’s relationship with Cole Hawlings that sustains the narrative. Cole is a travelling Punch and Judy Showman, but so much more than just an itinerant busker: like his successor, Susan Cooper’s Merriman Lyon, he is at the centre of a struggle against evil, represented (as in the previous book) by the murderously wicked Abner Brown. As with Merriman, we are allowed to see only snatches of the battles the adults are fighting; there are more than symbolic “wolves running,” allies we do not always recognise, dangers for the adults as well as for the children… But there is an important set of differences: while Merriman/Merlin openly entrusts the Matter of a New Britain to the children in Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, Cole Hawlings, having helped Kay restore the rightful place of Midnight Mass in the embattled Cathedral, is still looking back: the nostalgia for Old England is strong in the final pages of The Box of Delights as, speeding towards the Cathedral, we hear the bells start up in all the little churches, and meet the monastic community of the Cathedral’s past. And while we are flying along in Herne the Hunter’s unicorn-pulled sleigh, to move the recently freed Bishop and Dean and choir (&c., &c.) from some kind of sub-Trollope or All-Gas-and-Gaiters imagery, we have a Christmas hymn in a folk idiom, which Masefield calls a carol: here is the text. What surprised me on my first reading as a child, and still surprises me, is that Masefield gives the singing of it to the ambiguous dating-from-Pagan-times Cole Hawlings.
[Incidentally, the first time I heard this song, Móirín Na hEaglaise, sung by Nóirín Ní Riain, I thought of this carol, with the higher sections or answering melody being used in verses 4 and 7. I have tried it, although unsuccessfully: it may need something more robust, where maybe the last line of each verse is the “chorus after each stanza” Masefield notes].
The carol is a remarkable piece. I’d like to look at a few details to see what they tell us about The Box of Delights:
Let’s start, like Masefield, with George. His very name seems to set the lyric in England, maybe even rural England, and it occurs in four of the verses. He is the figure of compassion, a carefulness that twice calls him to the byre (a beautifully localising word: again we are in rural England), where he first lets in a poor couple and then comes back because of the trouble and sees the Christ Child and then the kings.
Lantern, byre, hay, stable – even inn and snow – put the Nativity in the same landscape as The Box of Delights. The “-a” at the end of the shorter lines moves this further into the folk-song idiom, although what is and isn’t a folk song (a bit like what is and isn’t a carol) is disputable. Perhaps the most truly rural – or maybe best attempt – at a “country tone” is the line George heard a trouble in the beasts. It sounds like my Father in Law. It is snowy and dark, George has a lantern to go to the stable/byre – and England receives its revelation.
And there within the manger bars
A little child new born-a,
All bright below a cross of stars
And in his brow a thorn-a.
The Mother, the Child, tenderness – but never too far from the cross and the Pieta: we are in Durer’s bleak theology, with those cross-like structures present in the nativity scene in his Madonna on a Grassy Bank. George’s vision is mystical; we are with Durer, with Chesterton and Gill, in seeing a Gloria in Profundis, although what Masefield presents is a transcendent Child, a submarine vision of humanity divinised not “the height of the fall of God.”
What happens next is interesting from the point of view of a rural poem. The visitors are not shepherds but Kings. I am unsure whether to read anything into two great kings and Melchoir but will assume we needed Melchoir for scansion and rhyme. They bring Eucharistic gifts, too – and at a practical level welcome ones for the poor Family – bread and wine. The ecclesiastical imagery is extended with the mention of robes. We have, by now, a crib scene – but where are the shepherds?
They – and we – are there in the person of George. The plain people of England (to misappropriate a phrase from Myles nagCopaleen) kneel down with the farm worker in homage of
that dear Babe today
That bears the Cross and Crown-a.
In looking back to a rural, more innocent time, we are at the heart of the nostalgia project that occupied so much thinking in the post-War period; we are also in that hankering for a countryside of freedom and adventure and risk that is at the heart of Masefield’s two books, and which informs Lewis, Garner and Cooper — and… and …
And when Cole Hawlings – the theologian Ramon Lull – the pagan countryman and the lost medieval mystic – sings of this past time when George knelt down and prayed-a we are invited to a personal piety that is itself nostalgic, a recreation after The War to End Wars, of a pious peasantry, a dedicated episcopacy and (and here we are into a whole new set of thoughts about the villains in this story) the defeat of corrupt and self-serving greed. Not a bad wish for Christmas in the inter-war period; not a bad wish for this Christmas, either, but I am mindful of how Masefield’s vision played out in the following years: Masefield knows it is a “nice dream,” as Kay admits at the end of the book.