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The Box of Delights: Or When the Wolves Were Running (Kay Harker)

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In fact, the whole book is shot through with a folklorish, mythological flavour, and even the "real" world that Kay inhabits is peopled by a cast of often eerie, mysterious, enigmatic and sometimes downright scary figures. Masefield then, at the drop of a hat, switches between his poetic descriptions and episodes that are downright fairytale-ish or Narnia-esque, with talking animals and mice armed with sewing-needle rapiers. John Masefield (June 1, 1878—May 12, 1967) was an English poet, writer and the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1930 until 1967. What I admire most in other writers is originality of vision—books that work on different levels and hold something for any reader, child or adult. A book like John Masefield's Box of Delights, for example, published in the 1930s but startlingly innovative and subtly influential. And when little Maria shows up again, and tells her story, how she was detained and imprisoned and questioned by an evil gang, everyone takes it in stride. Oh sure, people get kidnapped all the time. No big deal. How can you just go to dinner and play with your toys and take a posset and go to bed when your own sister is kidnapped and thrown in a dungeon somewhere? What is wrong with you?!? These characters make no sense. So little Maria gets kidnapped, and for days and days no one minds. No one is out looking for her. The police are informed, but they don't care either. "Oh, she'll turn up somewhere," they say. "Maria always lands on her feet. She'll probably join the gang, and teach them a thing or two."

Design will come from RSC Associate and Olivier award-winning Tom Piper, who most recently created the sets for the RSC’s productions of Hamnet in the Swan Theatre and The Tempest in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Spring 2023. As an ending, that is; the book itself has plenty of faults along the way. It is a grab bag of early 20th century children’s book tropes, and some just don’t quite work, not at this remove. But some very much do, particularly the snowy, wintry, Christmassy bits. Richard Lynch (Abner Brown) and Stephen Boxer (Cole Hawlings) in The Box of Delights. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian At once a thriller, a romp, and a spellbinding fantasy, The Box of Delights is a great English children’s book and a perfect Christmas treat.

The current owner of the box is an old Punch and Judy man called Cole Hawlings whom Harker meets at the railway station. They develop an instant rapport, which leads Hawlings to confide that he is being chased by a magician called Abner Brown and his gang, which includes Harker's former governess. For safety, Hawlings (who turns out to be the medieval philosopher and alleged magician Ramon Llull) entrusts the box to Harker. The schoolboy then goes on to have many adventures as he protects the box from those who wish to use it for bad deeds. Dreamy and poetic … those descriptions are rather important in The Box of Delights. The novel was first published in 1935, and the author, John Masefield, was poet laureate from 1930 until he died in 1967. His prose trips along like a hallucinogenic daydream at times, especially when Kay takes advantage of the box's powers – he can use it to go swift, to go small, and to fall into the past, where he meets a succession of characters including Herne the Hunter of English folklore. I don’t know how I feel about this one, and it may be too soon to tell, as I literally just finished it. Started this as a Christmas Read-Aloud with my kids - I thought it had so much potential - and they DNF’d it. To them it was confusing, and they couldn’t tell what was real and what was not. It seemed like characters went from A to C without telling how they got there or what happened to B. And because they couldn’t tell where it was going and get that invested in the characters, they just weren’t interested. Plus the chapters were long and it didn’t seem Christmas-y at all. The dream cliche' makes me feel like I've wasted my time somehow, ESPECIALLY because 'The Midnight Folk' was JUST as magical and hard-to-believe (if you don't use imagination), yet it was all proclaimed true. There was NO reason whatsoever to write this off as a dream. None. I'm disappointed. It was also ‘classic’ in the sense that it was period, cosy and wilfully old-fashioned. This sort of thing - the ceaseless round of unthreatening adventures with starchy Edwardian prigs - earned the BBC a reputation for well-mannered bourgeois stuffiness,. A parade of Pevensies and Bastables; poppets in pinafores befriending talking ponies, gaggles of Fauntleroys discovering they were princes of a nation of animatronic otters.

My kids and I were eager to finish, not because they cared at all about the ending, but because they wanted it to be over with. My daughter (age 8) was also convinced that the epilogue would tie it all together and it would suddenly make sense. When we got to the final line, she yelled out, "Are you kidding me?" Adventures include getting tiny to tour a mouse tribe's amazing multi-level tree home, riding magical horses, and dodging sinister silent airplanes. Guest appearances by strong-minded girl cousins, Herne the Hunter, cathedral bell-ringers, and Reverend Stalwart, a former heavyweight boxer.

Afterword

He told the Guardian: “It is absolutely the case that the first words spoken on the stage of the newly rebuilt Shakespeare Memorial theatre were by Masefield rather than Shakespeare as he was poet laureate. He also had an association with Stratford. He had written a book on Shakespeare in 1911 and was forever going to see productions.” Stylistically it's dated - with Enid Blyton-y dialogue. The magic seems barely thought out and apart from a few good moments at the start is pretty mundane. The writing of the action ending is really bad and you barely get any sense of real geography or concrete quality to it. The deus ex machina has nothing to do with the main story or plot and the boy hero is basically a witness to events that do not require any action on his part. Also, The way the police and grown ups behave in response to the children going missing is totally unbelievable and though you might get away with it once - afterall grownups in kids books are always a little clueless - The fact everyone reacts this way as multiple characters are kidnapped in suspicious circumstances starts to stretch my credulity to the limit. So far, so fairly traditional children's fantasy. But its Christmas setting in a snowbound corner of England (with particular resonances for this very festive season - all the grown-ups conspire to be snowed in elsewhere, leaving the children pretty much alone to enjoy their travails) and the dreamy, poetic language of author John Masefield come together to make it something of a seasonal classic that certainly bears repeat readings year after year. The inclusion of lots of Christmas carols does give the show a festive air and there are some excellent moments of puppetry with Toby, the travelling showman’s dog, a marvellous Phoenix, and a delightful shadow puppet show. However, this production (directed by Justin Audibert, which was so acclaimed in its 2017 and 2018 productions at Wilton Music Hall) has lost something in its transfer into the grander modern setting of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where scale and theatricality has replaced intimacy and atmospherics, and the result feels a long show for a young child to sit through and for this reviewer at least, it fell a little short of the high expectations of a magical evening.

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