Thursday, January 25, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Box of Delights by John Masefield (1935)

At the train station on his way home from school for the Christmas holiday, Kay Harker, the main character of The Box of Delights, encounters a mysterious Punch and Judy man named Cole Hawlings. The two hit if off so well that when Hawlings needs someone to hide and guard his box of delights  he entrusts it to Kay. As Kay enjoys the powers given to him by the box - to move swiftly, to shrink, to travel through time - he also becomes aware of a strange series of disappearances around town. Not only have several local clergyman been "scrobbled" but some of Kay's houseguests, Kay's guardian Caroline Louisa, and Cole Hawlings himself have gone missing as well. Kay realizes all of these kidnappings must be attempts to gain access to the box of delights and in trying to protect it, he has a variety of thrilling adventures.

I had a difficult time reading this book. While I could appreciate the appeal of its atmospheric setting, fanciful use of magic, and adventurous spirit, I spent much of the story feeling like I had no idea what was going on. I found it confusing that the characters never seemed surprised by anything that happened to them, and that they took in stride everything from shrinking to the size of a rodent to witnessing kidnappings. I was also frustrated by the lack of character development. There are quite a few characters, but very little in the way of details about personalities, looks, or interests. It is always hard for me to get into fantasy novels, but it is especially hard without a strong character to latch onto, and I didn't really find Kay to be that strong, well-developed protagonist. I also didn't like that the magic of the box of delights didn't have very many limits and that magic often saved the day in a very deus ex machina kind of way.

Because I was reading them simultaneously, I couldn't resist making numerous comparisons between The Box of Delights and The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. In many ways, the books are similar, right down to the involvement of folk hero Herne the Hunter in both stories, and the midwinter setting. But I felt much more comfortable in the world of The Dark is Rising. Even when I didn't fully understand an allusion, I still knew exactly what was happening and how each event contributed to the overall story arc. There were times in The Box of Delights when I had to re-read passages to be sure I had even a vague sense of what was going on, and in general, it just felt very slow to me, even though lots of things were happening.

The Box of Delights is a sequel to a book I have not read, The Midnight Folk (1927), in which Kay Harker is apparently also the main character. There don't seem to be any direct references in the second book to the events of the first, but I do wonder if Kays's matter-of-factness in the face of supernatural happenings might have made more sense if I'd read the books in order. I'm not sure I personally enjoyed this book enough to want to read the first book any time soon, but I won't rule it out. I do think The Box of Delights is worth reading, however, even if I struggled to enjoy it, and I'll gladly have my girls read it during the Christmas season in some future year.

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