December’s magick: when the wolves are running…

It’s heartening to see that at least some of the debt British fantasists of children’s literature owe to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is being repaid. Perhaps it was not the first work of this type to weave ancient strands of British folklore into childhood imaginations – you might say it grew from Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies – but surely it is one of the most influential on successive writers.

Its lasting legacy is also due to the BBC TV adaptation from 1985. Nothing seems to dim the appeal of this series: google anywhere and you’ll find the deep affection with which it is held. There’s the perfect casting of Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, and the mesmerising use of Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony: III Andante quasi lento e contabile (yes, I did copy and paste that). There are running wolves, a lurid Punch, and magickal phrases such as…

The wolf pack hunts him through the snow, where shall the ‘nighted showman go?

Box of Delights Folio edition 2012

The latest edition from the Folio Society is perfectly, beautifully designed. And it even features the Punch dog on the spine (trust me, I didn’t know it was there yesterday, not owning a copy – but it will have to be mine…). Whoever designed this book is completely, shiningly brilliant.

Midnight Folk Folio edition 2012

There is a similarly great cover for the less absorbing prequel The Midnight Folk.

Box of Delights Folio illustration

Here’s Herne the Hunter by Sara Ogilvie from the Folio edition. The original illustrations by Pauline Masefield were used in the New York Book Review edition from 2007. I must have been about nine when I first found The Box of Delights in the school library. I remember the librarian (or perhaps someone’s parent ‘without much idea’) saying ‘That’s an old-fashioned looking book, what do you want that for?’. I should have unfolded the brief Bic-penned school report that said of me ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ but clearly I was too keen to get home and look at the trails of strangely wild animals…

Pauline Masefield

Box of Delights New York Book Review 2008

Box of Delights endpaper

The 1965 edition reminds of the 1960s series The Prisoner for some reason.

Box of Delights 1965

The 1982 edition could be at home with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

Box of Delights 1982

And finally, I found the first episode of the series on YouTube. Loyal grown-up fans have no trouble suspending disbelief at the crude special effects – think of the power of a mummers’ play, despite the hobby horses, tinsel and balsa wood swords. And if you don’t have time, the opening titles at least should open the portal to Solstice magick.


  1. dianajhale · December 13, 2012

    Great stuff again! I have just quoted The Dark is Rising in my latest post – it must be the time of year! I was also going to mention Herne the Hunter but he got edited out. I too would love that Folio edition – the design looks so appropriate and yet contemporary.

  2. Freaky Folk Tales · December 13, 2012

    An enchanting world of riddles and intriguing characters that I have not come across in my travels, neither book nor eighties television adaptation. Thank you for enlightening me! Paul

    • whistlesinthewind · December 13, 2012

      Hope you enjoy it – December will be magic if you’ve never read it.

  3. Sian Lacey Taylder · December 13, 2012

    I remember watching the TV adaptation this in 1985; I was twenty at the time but it still mesmerised me. I managed to download it in its entirety from You Tube a couple of years ago – it might still be on there; well worth having a look. Yes, some of the special effects might look a little clumsy now but it probably the most magical thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

    Thanks for reminding me of it!

    • whistlesinthewind · December 13, 2012

      I think it’s the atmosphere of it which makes us forgive the less effective bits – and like you say, most magical… the book is well worth reading.

  4. neil skinner · December 13, 2012

    I had wonderful childhood memories of the TV series (almost hauntingly so) and finally tracked it down on DVD last Xmas and sprang it on my kids then aged 4 and 8. The first couple of episodes had me all misty eyed but , then – well it went a bit rubbish quite frankly…creaky acting , dated SFX..a rubbish ending. I do not think we will be watching it again this year..

    • whistlesinthewind · December 13, 2012

      That’s still 60 minutes of being a misty-eyed adult – and it’s probably those 60 minutes everyone remembers anyway. The scenes on the island are a low point I admit! Thanks for passing by.

  5. George Collingwood · January 14, 2013

    The Box of Delights is a bit more polished than the Midnight Folk, but I always feel that the first book is in a way more interesting, if only for a few really excellent scenes and ideas. I love the idea that the toys that Kay thought he’d lost are all still alive and well and looking after his interests. I also love the chapter when his cat appears in his bedroom and takes him off through the walls of the house by way of various mazy secret passages. I think you’re right to associate these books with Puck of Pook’s Hill, and I love that book too, more than these two by Masefield. But I think Masefield is more inutuitive than Kipling and that’s a rare thing to be.

    • whistlesinthewind · January 15, 2013

      Thanks for comment – you’re right, those scenes from Midnight Folk do stay around in the memory: especially the cat and the journeys around and in between the house. It has a different atmosphere, almost surreal I think. I’d recommend John Masefield’s ‘Grace Before Ploughing’ if you haven’t read it already – the collection of short essays about his experiences of the landscape and people where he grew up is fascinating, such as witnessing a deer being hounded out of the village and various other bits and pieces that brewed in his imagination.

      • George Collingwood · January 15, 2013

        I haven’t read ‘Grace before ploughing’ but I’m going to check it out. I haven’t read too much Masefield, if truth be told, but on the other hand I’ve never spoken to anyone who was seemed able to recommend anything that I haven’t read. It’s really nice to talk to someone who can suggest something interesting-sounding like this

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