Philip W. Errington, Opening the Box of Delights (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2020), 128pp.
I cannot have been old enough to watch the BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights when it was first broadcast; I was only three years old in December 1984, but my father had the foresight to realise his children might enjoy the programme and therefore videotaped it. I don’t know when I first viewed it, but I was immediately entranced completely by the adaptation – widely and justly regarded as the finest children’s television drama of all time – and accordingly it became a Christmas tradition for my sister and I to watch it in the days leading up to Christmas, culminating with the final episode on Christmas Eve. To this day, the Bishop of Tatchester’s rush to find his mitre and ensure that Tatchester Cathedral celebrates its 1000th Christmas is my iconic image of Midnight Mass, as the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ fills Tewkesbury Abbey (the real Tatchester). It was not until years later, as a young teenager, that I read the novel by John Masefield on which the adaptation was based, and then I found an even richer source of fantasy and magic.
Phillip W. Errington, the world’s leading expert on John Masefield and The Box of Delights, has written an extraordinarily comprehensive survey of the cultural impact of Masefield’s best-known work (although Errington makes several pleas to his readers to go beyond Box and read some other things Masefield wrote!). In Opening The Box of Delights he provides not only a biography of Masefield and a textual analysis of the editions of the novel, but also surveys every illustrated edition. Errington then deals with each of the major characters in the book before tackling the themes that Masefield chose to include, from his perceptions of Christmas to Punch and Judy and Ramon Llull, the real Catalan philosopher and mystic who inspired the alter ego of Cole Hawlings. The final part of Errington’s survey deals with the adaptations – for radio, for musical theatre, for television, for theatre and for dance.
The Box of Delights is a curious book (and TV adaptation) because it really shouldn’t work. On the face of it, it’s just too ridiculous, and packed with too many plot elements and allusions, to be successful. But somehow it does, perhaps because the usual suspension of disbelief we would apply to any novel featuring magic is heightened by the novel’s Christmas setting. The crescendo of Advent, as preparations for Christmas become ever more intense, bends reality itself – and certainly time. Somehow, for some reason, we are inclined to blithely accept this feature of the story – perhaps because Christmas has always been a mind-bending festival, by its very nature; after all, next to the incomprehensible mystery of God becoming a helpless human infant, a little magic barely registers. And like all mysteries in the true and great sense, the mystery of the Nativity stands outside time – an event in the past, but one that is every bit as real in the present as it was in the past. It is perhaps the gaping hole blasted in normal reality by the Incarnation that makes possible the magic of Christmas – because, after all, anything is possible at Christmas.
Errington eruditely shows what many readers of The Box of Delights have suspected – that the book’s ability to suspend our disbelief lies in the depth and richness of Masefield’s knowledge of the themes and traditions he weaves into the book. The book explores Masefield’s interest in oral tradition, exemplified in Cole Hawlings’s knowledge of earlier versions of the Punch and Judy Show, although I should have liked to see a rather fuller treatment of Masefield’s approach to paganism: “‘That was our old religion, Master Harker,’ Cole said, … ‘It was nothing like so good as the new, of course, but it was good fun in its day though, because it ended in a feast”.’ Errington notes Masefield’s avowed lack of religious belief, which is surely the ‘elephant in the room’ of The Box of Delights, a novel preoccupied with the Church and with Christian tradition. The forest of mythological allusion in The Box of Delights brings to mind that self-conscious revival of ‘merrie England’ that occurred above all during and after the First World War and which is associated above all with Arthur Machen. Whether Masefield read and was inspired by Machen would be an interesting question to explore, but not one dealt with by Errington in this companion.
Re-watching the BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights as an adult, it is clear that its themes had a profound influence on me, albeit unconsciously. As a teenager becoming interested in medieval philosophy, I remember encountering a book by Ramon Llull in Heffer’s Bookshop in Cambridge. I have no doubt that I picked it up and bought it because I recognised the name from The Box of Delights – and reading it led to an interest in Ramon Llull’s philosophy that produced the first academic paper I ever read aloud to a scholarly audience (not, I might add, to universal acclaim…). Although I did not continue my study of Ramon Llull in the long term, reading him led me eventually into the field of medieval occultism and magic – and it is pleasing now to look back on themes in Masefield such as the bronze head and appreciate the allusions the author was making to medieval magic. In fact, compared with many portrayals of magic in fiction, Masefield draws closer to medieval ideas of magic than many other authors, especially in his descriptions of the conjurations practised by Abner Brown.
By now, The Box of Delights feels as much a constituent part of the English Christmas as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – indeed, it might well be seen as the 20th-century equivalent. By revealing the story behind the book and its several adaptations, Philip Errington’s companion only adds to the magic Masefield’s dreamlike classic.
Organ and brass band struck up, full strength: the Vestry door curtains fell back to each side; out came the great Cathedral crosses and blessed banners, with all the Cathedral Choir and Clergy, with all voices lifted aloft in “Come, all ye Faithful”…