20th December, The Box of Delights
“The Box of Delights” is a children’s fantasy novel by the former Poet Laureate John Masefield, his sequel to “The Midnight Folk.” First published in 1935 and set around Christmas-time, culminating on Christmas Day, I always find myself reading it at this time.
The protagonist is a boy of ten, Kay Harker, who on returning home to Seekings House from boarding school finds himself mixed up in a battle to possess a magical “Box of Delights,” which permits the owner to go small (to shrink), to go swift (to fly), to experience wonders contained within the box and to go into the past.
The owner of the box is an old Punch & Judy man man called Cole Hawlings whom Kay meets at the railway station on his way home. “And now, Master Harker, now that the Wolves are Running, perhaps you could do something to stop their Bite?” entreats the old man. He asks Kay to protect the magic box which brings Kay and his friends many adventures. But Kay is in danger – Abner Brown will stop at nothing to get his hands on it. Yet the police don’t believe Kay, so when his guardian, friends and the Bishop are “scrobbled” just before Christmas, he knows he must act alone…
It is a great book peopled with mysterious bright-eyed immortals, Romans, Druids, fairies, Herne the Hunter, gangsters dressed as curates, talking rats, witches and much more besides. It is quite dated but all the more charming for that – characters in the book use expressions like “it’s the Purple Pim” and “queer coughdrops”! The story also features a Brazen Head used by the evil wizard Abner Brown (assisted by his wife and Kay’s former governess, the sly witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer) for divination – it is a motif that has long fascinated me and after which Dublin’s oldest pub is named.
Above, I have shown Cole Hawlings, the Punch & Judy man, with his booth wrapped in green baize upon his back, walking near the Drop of Dew Inn in the Bear Ward of old Condicote, accompanied by his dog Barney. Note his exceptionally bright eyes and his ring, a “longways cross” of gold and garnets. Although not immediately apparent, he is very old indeed, living into the modern day from pagan times and is none other than the medieval Spanish philosopher and alchemist Ramon Llull.
If you have not read “The Box of Delights,” I recommend you do.
Illustration copyright © Paul Bommer