Review: The Box Of Delights By John Masefield




Book CoverThe Box Of Delights

John Masefield

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
Publisher: Egmont
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Date: 10st March 2014 (First Published 1935)

ISBN-10: 1405275529
ISBN-13: 978-1405275521

Purchase From: Amazon | Book Depository

Have you ever returned to a book that you loved during your childhood, only to discover that it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, when read in adulthood? Well, that pretty much sums up my experience with John Masefield’s children’s classic, The Box Of Delights. As a child it was one of my favourite books; one which, along with The Chronicles Of Narnia, proved to be very influential in nurturing my early love of fantasy literature. Yet its numerous flaws, that escaped my notice as an eight year old, are glaringly obvious to me now, as an adult.

Originally published in 1935, The Box Of The Delights, owes much of its more recent popularity to the BBC’s television adaptation of the book in 1984, which immortalised the words: “the wolves are running”, for myself and a generation of eighties children. In fact, it was my fondness of this six part mini-series that lead to me receiving the book as a Christmas present that year.

In theory, the books genre bending blend of children’s adventure, English folklore, crime drama and fantasy should have made for a compelling and memorable read; I certainly believed it to be so when I was a kid. Instead, these various elements serve to highlight that Masefield couldn’t make up his mind which genre he wanted to write. This indecision results in a rather schizophrenic book, which starts off strongly, before its narrative becomes more and more incoherent as it progresses.

A part of me suspects that Masefield’s heart wasn’t really into writing this story. That is the only explanation I can come up with for some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot. I’m still at a loss as to how the author and the publisher failed to notice that one of the main characters inexplicably disappears from the story before the end, never to be mentioned again, by either the narrator or any of the characters.

So what is the story actually about? I imagine the eight year old me would have little trouble answering that question. The adult me, however, had a hard time making sense of it all.

But to summarise the plot as succinctly as I can, The Box Of Delights, is about young schoolboy, Kay Harker, who returns home from boarding school to spend the Christmas holidays with family and friends. He encounters, Cole Hawlings, an elderly Punch & Judy performer who possesses a magic box which allows its owner to travel through space and time (and an assortment of other fantastical things). Kay learns that Mr. Hawlings is being pursued by a criminal gang of shape-shifting adversaries, lead by the caricature bad guy, Abner Brown, and his nefarious wife, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, who want to posses the box for their own purposes. Cole entrusts Kay with safeguarding the box from falling into the wrong hands, and so, Kay spends the rest of the book thwarting Abner Brown’s dastardly schemes to acquire the box.

Many people are unaware that The Box Of Delights is a sequel, to the less well known, The Midnight Folk. I myself only learned of this in adulthood. I know a few readers who attribute the confusion that some readers experience while reading this book, to the fact that they had not read its predecessor first. However, I can categorically state that reading The Midnight Folk first does not make The Box Of Delights any more coherent.

In closing, I will refrain from judging The Box Of Delights too harshly. It is a book intended for children, so while I cannot recommend it to adult readers, I am mindful of the fact that I did love the book when I was a child. With that being the case, I see no reason why today’s children can’t enjoy the book as much I did, all those years ago.

2 Orbs Out Of 5



Reviewed & Rated

Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.


2 comments on “Review: The Box Of Delights By John Masefield

  1. A very thoughtful and considered review, I thought. My main problem with this and its predecessor is the impression it gives that all this is rather in the manner of a dream, which seems to be a cheat. It works with the Alice stories, which have the weird logic of dreams, but here, with pure fantasy and the insular folklore and legends interwoven, it feels a betrayal. But I’d have to reread the two again before a firmer judgement.

    • That’s an excellent point you raised. I was really annoyed by the “was it all just a dream” conclusion to the story, although it didn’t bother me at all when I was younger.

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