An appreciation for Tom – By Alan Mason
Recently, I was asked a deceptively simple question by my friend Tom. “Was there a favourite book I had re-read several times?” I answered truthfully that there was. It was a children’s book by John Masefield, called “The Box of Delights”.
It was difficult, at the time, to explain exactly why this book appeals to me, but on reflection I thought it worth recording some thoughts on the subject. Clearly, favourite books resonate with the personality of the reader and their life experiences.
The book has three aspects worth exploring. Firstly, it is a Christmas story, and secondly, it is a poetic creation, which like all the best children’s books can be understood on more than one level. It gives some interesting glimpses into past history, (1) and finally it is an evocation of the English countryside in the poet’s imagination.
1. The Christmas Holidays
The hero, Kay Harker, is a boy of about nine or ten, returning home from his boarding school for the Christmas holidays. Like all the best child heroes, he is an orphan of a well-to-do family living in an old manor house in a small market town in the country. He seems to have no close relatives, but his guardian, Sir Theopompous, a city magnate, employs a governess, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer to supervise the boy and teach him during the holidays.
We meet these characters in an earlier book, “The Midnight Folk”. Both books can be seen as wish-fulfilment, whereby a lonely child projects his fantasies on to those around him. Thus, Sylvia Daisy is really a witch, and his close friends are his toys and the black cat, Nibbins, given engaging human personalities.
Long before I read the book, I had heard it read to me on the radio programme, “Children’s Hour”. It was often broadcast in the weeks before Christmas, and it was introduced by tinkling celeste music, which I discovered much later was the celeste solo, leading into “The First Noel”, from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s “Carol Symphony” (2).
The music was for, me, evocative of an icy winter night, and the snow lightly falling.
The impact of the music was best described for me by a speaker on some quite different radio programme, who said, “I never hear that tinkling of the celeste, but the hairs on the back of my neck rise up, and I am a boy again with Kay Harker and his many adventures.”
We all have our own Christmas stories and I briefly mention just two of them. I worked in Kent but my home was in Buckinghamshire, and daily commuting was not sensible. The term had ended, the Christmas vacation had begun, and I boarded the train for London, settling down, and opening my copy of “The Box of Delights”, I read, “As Kay was coming home for the Christmas holidays… the train stopped at Musborough Station”. (3)
On another occasion I had chosen to make a winter tour of the north of England and the Scottish Borders, a couple of weeks before Christmas.
Arriving in Hexham, Northumberland I went to the Tourist Board to book bed and breakfast. They offered me a room at a place with a curious name like “Cockfarthings”. I agreed at once, because I remembered a quote from “The Box of Delights”, when Kay Harker is told, in response to a question, “He’s gone up to Cockfarthings in the Bear Ward,” (This was a pub in a particular quarter of the small town in which Kay lived.)
Although I knew Hexham quite well, having visited the town often in the past, I found, to my surprise, that my booking was in a corner of the old town that was quite unfamiliar to me.
Once I had met my hosts and unpacked I was ready to go out for an evening meal in the town. Hexham is described as being, “on the banks of the River Tyne,” which is not quite true because most of it is built on a hill, well above the floodplain.
When I came out of the house I could see the Tyne, wide and deep, flat and dark, several hundred yards away. At the end of the street, a small river rushed, white and tumbling, over rocks on its way to join the silent Tyne. I was in the lower part of the old town and needed to climb a long set of stone stairs to reach the centre. Along the side of the street ran a mall stream channelled in an open stone conduit. To reach the stairs I crossed the stream by a small stone bridge. As I climbed the stairs a magical view appeared.
The town had been lightly dusted with snow, and it was a cold night so the street lights picked out all the old buildings in a tinsel glitter. High above me, near the top of the stairs, I could see the great bulk of Hexham Abbey (4, 5) gloriously floodlit. The Abbey is a magnificent building, and parts of the interior date back to Saxon times. At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the 1530s, the citizens of Hexham took over the Abbey themselves as their parish church, so that it was never damaged or turned into a ruin like so many similar abbeys.
When I reached the top of the stone stairs, the magic was over as I found myself in the square just to the north of the Abbey, and I was now in wholly familiar territory again.
2. Two Levels of Meaning
On one level, this is a children’s story about the conflict between the forces of good and evil, where right triumphs in the end, and the children, both boys and girls, are the heroes and heroines.
The author, (6) John Masefield, (1878-1967) was principally a poet, some of whose poems are the best known in the English language, (“Sea Fever”, “Cargoes”). He had a strong poetic imagination and he interweaves a host of historical and mythological characters within the simple narrative. (King Arthur, Herne the Hunter)
At a deeper level, the book has a significance going beyond a relatively simple children’s story. Towards the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was a growing European interest in eastern philosophies, and also the esoteric or hidden knowledge associated with alchemy, and Hermetic traditions (7). I do not want to enter into detailed explanations of these terms here, and the reader is invited to look them up on wikipedia or other similar sites. Although I do not suggest that Masefield was a participant in any of these early 20 C movements, his books do appear to be influenced by their ideas and the struggle between good and evil is a fundamental aspect of Gnosticism.
Masefield has such a way with words that certain sentences leap out of the book with force of an electric shock. Early on Kay’s railway journey home, he meets with two villains in the disguise of student clergymen from a local seminary or training school. Eventually, one of them asks, “And do you have dogs at Seekings House, Mr Harker?” Kay jumped, for how did the man know his name and home? “Magic, no doubt,” said the man. As adults we realise that the crook had simply read the labels tied to Kay’s luggage.
Punch and Judy Man
On the railway station Kay has befriended a travelling Punch and Judy man named Cole Hawlings, and his Irish terrier dog, Barney. It appears that when Cole boarded the train the two disguised clergymen scrambled on at the last minute and were in pursuit of him, for reasons not apparent to Kay. It emerges that Cole Hawlings has The Box of Delights and the men are trying to take it from him.
Eventually, the Box is passed to Kay and he begins to learn something of its properties. “Press it to the left and go swift. Press to the right and go small.” He is able to go into the Past to visit the Celtic peoples in their hillfort, see the Roman legions, watch the siege of Troy and join King Arthur and his knights.
Lully and Arnold
As is often the case, Masefield’s highly intelligent arch-villain, Abner Brown, employs a remarkably stupid subordinate, Joe, which enables him to explain everything for the benefit of the reader. Abner outlines the history of the Box, starting with the medieval philosophers, Ramon Lully and Arnold of Todi. Lully was trying to produce an Elixir of Life, while Arnold was credited with creating “a Box, by means of which he could enter the Past at will.”
Abner goes on, “Like many students of magic, I believed the Box must have fallen into the hands of Inquisitors or Puritans and been burned.” He relates how the Box arrived in England, and was eventually buried, and its whereabouts given by an encoded message. When Abner broke the cipher he rushed immediately to the burial site, only to discover that someone had beaten him to it. He made enquiries, and realised that his successful rival was Cole Hawlings, the travelling Punch and Judy man.
Abner’s explanation ended in another of those electric sentences, “Cole Hawlings is Ramon Lully”, upon which Joe’s face “assumed a look of pity, contempt, and tolerance for a man plainly gone mad.”
3. The English Countryside of Masefield’s Imagination
The idea of the “roman fleuve” (literally, “river novel”) has become widely known and imitated. Here a series of separate books have the same cast of characters. In the case of Masefield, he has created a precise but purely imaginary landscape which he uses in several of his books, notably, “The Midnight Folk”, “The Box of Delights”, and his long poem, “Reynard the Fox”.
Although Masefield never says in which county, or even which part of the country his landscape is set, he is lavish in providing place names, and topographical descriptions. The county capital appears to be Tatchester, with its cathedral and bishop. The railway porter announces on the first page of the book, “All for Condicote and Tatchester… all for Yockwardine and Newminster go to Number Five Platform.”
He describes how “the train passed out of the meadows into a hilly land beautiful with woodlands and glens. In spite of the bitter cold Kay was much interested in this new country. Some of the hills had old camps on them. On the headlands there were old castles; in the glens there were churches which looked like forts.
By a cycling map, he picked out the hills, castles and churches as the train went past them. Soon all the land to the left of the railway was a range of low wooded hills of the most strange shapes, the Chester Hills. ‘What a wonderful place,’ he said to himself. ‘I do wish that I could come here to explore.'”
Later, “the train drew up at a station. ‘Hope-under-Cliesters,’ he read. ‘Then that little river is the Yock. And that is Chesters camp. It must be a Roman camp, from the name. And that is Hope Cross. There must have been a battle there, for it’s marked with crossed swords.”
The landscape described by Masefield is not the flatter, rolling country of much of southern England, but neither is it the rugged moorland and mountain of the north and far west of England. Nor does he describe a coastal landscape.
We are looking for an inland region of fields and pastoral activity, with a pattern of distinct escarpments and hills (9). A final clue is provided by some of his place names.
The name Yockwardine is curious. I only know one region in which this kind of name is found. Leintwardine is near Ludlow, Shropshire, and Bredwardine, is near Hay on Wye, Worcestershire. In both names the “-wardine” element comes from the Saxon word, “worth”, meaning an enclosure around a homestead. Hope is a widely distributed place name, from Cumberland, and Northumberland down to Derbyshire, but there is a concentration of them in Shropshire (10).
Clearly, Masefield’s landscape is set somewhere in the Welsh border counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire or Worcestershire. Masefield himself was born in Ledbury, Herefordshire.
Kay Harker’s home is in the market town of Condicote. This is a fascinating choice as England is richly populated with villages bearing closely related names, like Codicote, Condicote, Coldicote, Caldecott, Caldecote, and Caldicott. In most cases the name derives from a common meaning, “cold cottage”, a shelter for animals, or more often for wayfarers, in exposed, cold locations. The name “Cold Harbour” has an identical origin. Given that these shelters were in isolated or exposed places, they may have now expanded into villages, but never into large towns.
The two nearest such villages to me are, Caldecote, just north of Towcester, Northamptonshire, and Condicote, near Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
1 A Glimpse into the Past (“August” from “Les Très Riches Heures de Duc du Berry” a fifteenth century manuscript published in facsimile by Liber 1983.)
2 A Tinkling Celeste Solo (from the vinyl record sleeve, HMV Greensleeve)
3 Going Home for the Christmas Holidays (A heavily edited version of “Christmas Knight” by Robin Pinnock, showing the locomotive, “Sir Galahad” which ran on the Waterloo Bournemouth line. Rothbury Publishing, 2013)
4 Hexham Abbey in the Snow (google images)
5 Floodlit Tower of Hexham Abbey (google images)
6. John Masefield (google images)
7 Hermes Trismegistos (google images)
8 Ramon Lully (google images)
9 Church Stretton Valley and Caer Caradog (“Geology of Shropshire” by Peter Toghill, Swan Hill, 1990)
10 Hope Valley, Shropshire (google images)
11 Houses in Condicote (This is an imaginary recreation of Condicote, showing Seekings as a large and rather grand town house. The houses were in Burford, Oxfordshire, and Cirencester, Gloucestershire, from “Village Buildings of Britain”by Matthew Rice,Little, Brown, 1991)
12 The Box of Delights (Author)