The Box of Delights
I’ve just finished reading John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935). I had picked it up at random in a tourist-trap gift shop several months ago, knowing only that it appeared vaguely Christmassy — not knowing at the time that it is (apparently) a giant of British Christmas pop culture, on par with The Nutcracker.
The version I got was the NYRB Children’s Collection edition, which ends with a “Note on the Text” from the Archivist of the John Masefield Society pointing out some of the editorial choices made in this particular edition. (Apparently Masefield’s manuscript included several scenes that were removed or altered in some printed versions, and vice versa.) I had already been thinking, “I wish there were The Annotated Box of Delights with footnotes on some of this stuff!”
Some of the footnotes have been covered by Jake Hayes at “Tygertale”:
- “The Box of Delights — A Glossary” (Jakes Hayes, December 2018)
And some of the footnotes I could write myself:
Who are Punch and Judy? what is a Christmas cracker? what are Hundreds and Thousands (p. 119)? what is the difference between the nave and the transept? who was Miss Garbo (p. 246)?
What did gorging Jack say to guzzling Jimmy (p. 204)?
What are the Chorasmian Wastes and the Gedrosian Wastes (p. 212), and did Masefield invent the Acheronian Wastes the same way he seems to have invented Saint Cosric?
Why do Herne’s unicorns “hate being beaten by the lions” (p. 284), and how does this relate to the “sideways crosses” on Herne’s ring and on the Lady’s?
How do twelve chimes indicate that it’s a quarter to midnight (p. 288)?
What other excellent children’s books feature people who are very small; phoenixes (p. 76); a boy turned by his mentor into a fish and then into a bird (p. 78); children taking pemmican on sea-voyages (p. 120); and beautiful Ladies driving sledges (p. 281)?
Many of the footnotes require more specific research; such as, at least, reading The Midnight Folk to find out what’s the deal with Abner Brown and Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; or computing how much snow you’d need to achieve “drifts eight feet deep” (p. 235).
And many require more knowledge of English and specifically Anglican history; such as, at least, knowing what Cole Hawlings is getting at with “Christian times, then another in-between time, then Oliver’s time, and then pudding time” (p. 31), or how a dean outranks an archdeacon (p. 246).
If Martin Gardner were still alive, I think The Annotated Box of Delights would be a perfect project for him. You may know that Gardner wrote The Annotated Alice (1959) and The Annotated Snark (1962); but I recently learned via Dana Richards’ 2018 lightning talk “Martin Gardner: Annotator” that Gardner effectively invented the “Annotated X” art form!
Gardner also produced The Annotated Ancient Mariner (1965) (archive.org), The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (1987) (archive.org), and many others.
(I personally grew up with a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (1988), which is unrelated except in that it’s annotated and I enjoy it immensely.)
In December 2005, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post perceptively wrote:
The Box of Delights appeared in 1935; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit came out in 1937 and T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone in 1938. For all their wit, these children’s classics are nonetheless suffused with the quiet melancholy common to 20th-century fantasy, the sense that the great days are over, the gods have departed, and we have come too late upon the scene. One feels that same sense of twilight in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the Mist (1926).
[…] Symbolically, the hunger for connectedness with nature and for a renewal of our own passional selves led to an obsession with the great god Pan. Earthy, sensual and pagan, he lurks in the Edwardian supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen and Oliver Onions, in E.M. Forster’s “The Story of a Panic,” in novels like James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold […] and, of course, behind the hero of Barrie’s masterpiece, “Peter Pan.”