Monday, March 10, 2008

John Masefield

The Midnight Folk
by John Masefield
Recommended Age: 10+

The setting itself is the stuff of fantasy magic, especially for American readers whose reality contains nothing like the 19th-century English tradition of boys being raised by household servants and educated by governesses while their parents or guardians were God knows where. That's the situation in which an adorable little boy named Kay Harker finds himself. And what makes it tons worse is that his governess is a witch.

She is, in fact, the queen witch of a seven-witch coven, which in turn is part of a seven-coven circle of evil in search of a long-lost treasure. Kay's great-grandfather was a merchant captain entrusted with the silver, gold, and jewels of Santa Barbara, back in the days of Napoleon. But mutiny, shipwreck, and other intrigues got in the way, and now it falls to Kay to clear his family name of the mysterious and suspicious disappearance of the Santa Barbara treasure. Only the witches are hoping to get to it first.

Kay isn't all on his own, though. He has a lot of help from talking animals, including the black cat Nibbins, the fox Bitem, the owl Blinky, a "cellarman" rat, an otter, a water rat, a bat, and an army of living toys. Not to mention portraits that come alive and that you can go inside of, a network of secret passages, a flying horse, and the weird and wonderful midnight meanderings that always seem to be more than dreams.

Together with his friends, Kay steadily unravels the twisty mystery of what happened to the Santa Barbara treasure, and all the nefarious people who tried to get it for themselves. Also he hunts for buried treasure, eludes enemies that want to turn him into a tomtit, teaches a lesson to a couple of sneaking cats, learns to fly like a bat and swim like an otter, becomes invisible, and makes a frightful mess of his pajamas. And his adventures explain why some boys never seem to be on time for meals.

This classic tale of magic, penned by a sometime poet laureate of England, comes highly recommended - by Madeleine L'Engle, Edward Eager, and Diana Wynne Jones, to name a few authors who have praised this book or its companion, The Box of Delights, as a "must read" for the young and young at heart. And I second their recommendation. Sadly, it is out of print at this writing, but take heart. It is abundantly available in libraries and from used book dealers, so if you try to find it, you shouldn't have much difficulty.

The Box of Delights
by John Masefield
Recommended Age: 10+

The Box of Delights, or When the Wolves Were Running, is the sequel to The Midnight Folk by this sometime Poet-Laureate. So again we enjoy a charming young hero named Kay Harker, home from school for the Christmas holidays and experiencing another round of adventures involving wicked witches, talking beasts, ancient philosophers (of the Nicolas Flamel variety), mythical figures, and an appalling crime wave which can only be stopped by a boy with a magical box. And sometimes it seems as if it all might be a dream...

It’s hard not to love young Kay, who accepts magic and perilous adventures as a matter of course, and who labors heart-and-soul to save good folks from the seminarians-cum-burglars who have scrobbled them. Leading the forces of evil are a couple of witches we are familiar with from The Midnight Folk: Abner Brown and Kay’s own former governess, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. This time Kay is aided by a box that, depending on what you do with it, can take you back into the past, make you very small, or transport you instantly to any place you wish to go.

Abner wants this box desperately. He wants it to exchange for the Elixir of Life, whose discoverer he has scrobbled (Masefield does like that word) along with Kay’s guardian, his friend Peter, and the entire staff of the Tatchester Cathedral. As the cathedral’s 1000th Christmas draws near, and Abner draws a web of really dark wizardry around the whole area, it looks as if something drastic must happen to prevent the millennial Christmas midnight service from being scuttled.

This book is truly a fine magical adventure in the same tradition as E. Nesbit’s Psammead tales and Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. Judging by the number of excellent children’s authors who have done homage to it, it is a veritable classic. I am therefore outraged to find it out of print, and the first used copy I was able to obtain turns out to be an abridged version!

Dear publishers: when sales of the latest Flavor-of-the-Month begin to slow down, won’t you consider reprinting a beloved classic like this? Dear readers and parents who want a shelf-ful of quality books to read to and be read by your children: won’t you trouble yourself to make it worth the publishers’ while? Buy it, borrow it, share it around, tell people about it! That’s what you can do to help revive a worthy book. Sermon ended.

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