“Christmas ought to be brought up to date, Maria said. It ought to have gangsters, and aeroplanes and a lot of automatic pistols.”
– John Masefield, The Box Of Delights
My Christmas fascination with this particular book may owe more to the BBC adaptation, broadcast in the run up to Christmas in the Sunday teatime slot, than it does to the book. Although I do still have a copy, one I bought with a gift token I’d won at school for trying hard, sometime in the mid 1980s. I read the book after the series aired and was captivated by this strange tale of wolves, clergymen, gangsters and Herne the Hunter. I think it captured my imagination because this was Christmas, but not the Christian version of events. This tale owes more to pagan winter festivals, fairy folk and ancient magic. I have always felt there’s something magical and transformative about Christmas Eve. I’ve never celebrated Halloween, we belonged to a restrictive church that frowned upon any sort of occult meddling, so we had to go to ‘Light Night’ instead. Instead of the magical witching hour, I felt that anything could happen on Christmas Eve. Before our swap to a ‘happy clappy church’ I’d been brought up Catholic. For me there was nothing like the excitement of being woken up late at night, bundled into the car and travelling to Midnight Mass in the frosty cold when others were in bed. I felt like a nocturnal creature, up and about just as rabbits and badgers were popping up from their burrows and sniffing the night air. My brother and I would press our faces up against our windows, looking up into the sky as far up as we could, just in case we saw Father Christmas. Miraculously, he would always have been when we arrived home again. We loved seeing everyone’s Christmas lights on and landscapes turned a glittery white with frost. I had a sense that the veil between this world and others was very thin at this time of year. That there was still magic afoot in the world and I might see something mystical and strange, much like Kay does in this novel as he travels home by train for the holidays.
In fact Kay’s adventure starts as soon as he sets out on his homeward journey by steam train. Kay thinks he hears wolves, but that’s impossible. He does meet an old Punch and Judy man though, who inevitably draws him into an adventure.
“And now, Master Harker, of Seekings,’ the old man said, ‘now that the Wolves are Running, as you will have seen, perhaps you would do something to stop their Bite?”
The wolves he speaks of are not the howling ones outside. The wolves are Abner Brown and his dastardly crew of henchmen. They’re after a magic box that the old man uses to go small (shrink) or go swift (travel), and which he now gives to Kay so he can keep it safe. This box sets Kay off on marvellous adventures and although I don’t remember it all, there are parts that have stuck with me. I remembered a mouse who enters Kay’s room via tiny archway in the skirting board. As Kay shrinks to avoid Brown’s henchmen, he finds himself having to navigate the ‘rapids’ in a paper boat and then disappears for a while after finding a fairy door. He’s welcomed into a fairy gathering, attended by the King and Queen of the fairies. He’s not completely alone in his adventures either and new friend Maria is a plucky little character who wants the exciting Christmas quoted above. She’s incredibly posh, cut from the same cloth as the ‘boy’s own’ heroes and has an excellent line in slang.
‘They know better than to try that game on me. I’ve been expelled from three and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear my name breathed. I’m Maria Jones, I am: somewhat talked of in school circles, if you take the trouble to enquire.’
Such intrepid characters are needed to foil the plans of Abner Brown and his men, who seemed truly evil when I first saw them. What I loved though was that sense of ancient magic – ‘I do date from pagan times’ – mixed with the public school language and sensibility. There’s a sense of Kay’s quest turning him into a man or at least trying it on for size. It’s hilarious when he adopts an important tone and asks the family servant if she knows how to make him a posset. There’s also the wonderful vocabulary that sounds like it’s come from a Roald Dahl novel, with words like splendiferous, scrobbled and purple pim. This truly is a little magic box of a novel, with richly painted scenes of nature and fairies as well as unnerving moments like the boy trapped behind a waterfall. The best thing is that every time I think about this book a huge wave of Christmassy nostalgia washes over me.