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.

Folk art and Clarke Hutton, 1945

Illustrations by Clarke Hutton from Popular English Art, published in 1945 by Penguin, as a ‘King Penguin’ format (which looks and feels like an early Ladybird book).

The colours are really vibrant and un-natural – it may be to do with the printing processes rather than intentional, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, that seems perfect for these images of a more rough-hewn past. I’ve a feeling that we’re so used to seeing tastefully-hued recreations of Victorian life in film and TV that it gets forgotten that the colours they used were in reality not that different from the 1960s/1970s favourites: strong voices, not polite chatter.

If there’s something these pictures evoke for me, it’s the children’s TV series Bagpuss. There was an odd, warmly melancholic air about that programme, like sun on a rainy afternoon. And of course the shop was full of washed-up bric-a-brac…

The Punch and Judy man gets me thinking of Cole Hawlins from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights.

All these images seem to swim around in the headspace of children’s literature from 30 or 40 years ago: they’re all about a particular type of adventure, unstuffiness and freedom…