Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas reading: John Masefield

In my last #reverb10 post, I vowed to start the day off right, rather than with the Internet, in bed. It felt very good to allow myself to wake up by reading for half an hour; and I realized, as I read, that I was freeing myself of some of the pressure to keep tabs on everything else going on, and allowing myself to start the day more gently. I didn't really realize that I felt such pressure -- but perhaps I do.

And I had a good book to read. When I was about 8, I stumbled on a PBS Christmas special, made the year before for the BBC. I'm quite certain that I was no more than 8, because I remember how careful I was to remember when the second part would air, a week later than the first -- because we had no VCR. (By the time the Lord Peter Wimsey adaptations that I loved so much came on in 1987, we did.) Here is the opening that I loved on sight:

You can actually find the whole series on YouTube, if you are patient about watching it in 10-minute increments.

I understood that it was based on a book, though I thought it surprising that the book was by John Masefield, whose poem "Sea Fever" I already knew and loved. (I cannot remember whether Star Trek introduced me to that poem, or whether "The Ultimate Computer," the episode in which it's first mentioned, was one of the first I saw, and which confirmed with no more doubt that Star Trek was the Best Thing Ever, to quote a poem about the sea.)

But it took me a long time to find the book that The Box of Delights was based on. None of my library systems seemed to have it, nor did anyone suggest anything like interlibrary loan to a 10-year-old elementary school student. I knew it must be a good book, because even the alternate title, When the Wolves Were Running, felt strange and wonderful -- how clever, I thought, to make the title of a book about a when, instead of a what. It wasn't until grad school that I found a copy in the library here, at the university, and read it through. I wanted my own copy, but had a terrible time finding one that wasn't horrendously expensive. Then the New York Review of Books published an edition, and my heart leapt, only to learn that it had been abridged. It was only on my recent trip to London that I was able to get hold of the unabridged version, published by Egmont, along with The Midnight Folk. And both illustrated by Quentin Blake! It couldn't get much better. I thought the latter was a sequel, but realized differently, this morning, as I read, that Kay Harker recognizes the name Abner Brown:

'So it's Abner Brown and his gang again,' Kay muttered. 'I am up against Magic, then, as well as Crime.'

I reprint this sentence purely because the casual recognition of fighting foes on two levels is part of what makes the atmosphere of Masefield's novel so lovely. But this morning when I stumbled over it, I frowned, and got out of bed to check the publication date of The Midnight Folk. Sure enough, it's the first of the two, so I shall put down The Box of Delights, but only to read Kay Harker's adventures in their proper order. There will still be time to reach the second (and watch the BBC series) before Christmas.

Note: The Guardian is featuring The Box of Delights as part of its Season's readings series -- if you, like me, are a fan of Christmas stories, take note!

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