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Literature / The Box of Delights

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The Box of Delights is a children's fantasy novel by John Masefield, first published in 1935.

Kay Harker, the protagonist of The Midnight Folk, is on his way home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays when a mysterious encounter leads him on a series of adventures.

Better known to many people through the 1984 TV adaptation.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Abridged for Children: The version printed at the time of the 1984 TV series was cut down from the original text.
  • Action Girl: Maria apparently got a load of revolvers off a robbber and practices with them. She also stole and crashed the Bishop's car. When she gets kidnapped, her siblings are incredibly unconcerned, saying she'll probably end up running the gang. (She doesn't, but she's pretty cool about the whole thing, and said she'd have dealt with it better if she'd been allowed to take a pistol.)
  • All Just a Dream: At the end of the novel, there's an outbreak of weirdness and then Kay wakes up and finds himself still on the train from school, having dreamed the entire adventure.
  • And I Must Scream: Abner threatens to flood Cole's dungeon, leaving him underwater. Abner is doubtful whether even the Elixir of Life would keep him alive in those conditions; but if it did, he'd be chained up underwater, with crayfish gnawing on him, forever.
  • Animal Motifs: The antagonists are identified with wolves.
  • Arc Words: "The wolves are running."
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The historical Ramon Llull was not, as far as we know, an immortal magician.
  • Bigger on the Inside: The Box is small enough to hold in your hands, but contains historical tableaux into which the user can travel. There's also an oak tree which contains a full-sized room on the inside.
  • Casts No Shadow: Kay casts no shadow when travelling into the past in search of Arnold of Todi.
  • Characterization Marches On: In The Midnight Folk Abner spoke in American English. Here he is posing as a British clergyman, and speaks British English consistently.
  • Complete Immortality: Discussed by Abner and Joe, when the latter wonders just what the Elixir of Life might be capable of — would it work if you were run over by a lorry, for example?
  • De-power: It appears that once Caroline Louisa, who in the previous book was some kind of powerful guardian angel figure, became Kay's official guardian in the mundane world, she also became an ordinary adult with no connection to the supernatural world.
  • Elixir of Life: Cole knows how to make it, which is how he's lived since the 14th century.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Abner's henchman Joe objects to keeping clergymen and choirboys prisoner at Christmas, partly because he hopes it would "tell in our favour, if ever we come to be tried", but also because it's "not Christmas dealing".
  • Exposition of Immortality: Ramon Lully, aka Cole Hawlings, 14th century philosopher posing as a 1930s children's entertainer. His reveal comes courtesy of the villain, Abner Brown, who's been in pursuit of him for some time and shows his henchmen a book with pictures of Lully when he was alive which look remarkably like Hawlings.
  • The Fair Folk: The fairies Kay summons are actually polite and helpful, but the Field Mouse is clearly terrified that they might be this trope.
    “Oh, don’t, don’t!” the Mouse said. “You don’t know what they are. Of course, they’re awfully Good People; very beautiful and very good and very, very clever and wise, but that’s why I wouldn’t like to hurt their feelings.”
    “Oh, if they’re beautiful and good and clever and wise,” Kay said, “their feelings wouldn’t be hurt.”
    “Oh, but you don’t know,” the Field-mouse said. “Remember I’m not saying anything against them.”
  • Flawed Prototype: Arnold of Todi considers the Box to be one, because it can only take you into European history. He claims to have built a better Box so he could visit Asian history, but we never hear what happened to it.
  • Flying Car: Abner's gang have several cars which can not only fly, but take off and land vertically in complete silence.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: In The Midnight Folk, it's a big plot twist when Sylvia Daisy is revealed to be a member of Abner Brown's gang. In The Box of Delights, she's openly working with them.
  • Living Drawing: On Cole's urging, Kay draws various things into existence. To undo the chains holding Cole, he wants Kay to draw two men with hammers and chisels. Kay argues he's only reasonably able to draw horses and Cole is just fine with him drawing two hell horses to bite the chains to pieces and serve as mounts for the duo to escape. Kay does a masterful job, but too slowly to escape before the tide comes in and the hell horses refuse to go near the water. As such, Kay forces himself to draw a boat and ferryman to continue their escape.
  • Magitek: Apart from the flying cars, Abner also has magically-animated guardians in the shapes of little cars and aeroplanes with wolves' heads.
  • Meaningful Name: The Bishop is called Dr Chasuble (A chasuble is part of a clergyman's vestments). The other churchmen tend to have similarly descriptive names.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Abner Brown's henchman Joe turns on him after Abner locks him in a cell and leaves him to die.
  • Mundane Utility: On hearing about the Elixir of Life, Abner's henchman Joe immediately thinks of the profits that could be made from selling it in bulk.
  • Oracular Head: Abner Brown attempts to get a useful answer out of a Brazen Head, without notable success.
  • Pike Peril: On Kays' first trip into the box, he is shown the natural world by Herne the Hunter, transforming into different animals each time they encounter a threat. When they are swimming in a stream as fish, the threat is a pike.
  • Portal Picture: At one point Cole escapes from Abner and his gang by transforming a painting of Switzerland into a portal that he can enter.
  • Schmuck Bait: Written underneath a horn in letters of flame.
    He that dares blow must blow me thrice,
    Or feed th’ outrageous cockatrice.
Kay wastes no time in blowing it.
  • Shakespeare in Fiction: According to Abner, the Box passed through Shakespeare's hands.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: Using the Box to travel into the past takes you to a version of history where everything is happening at once. Kay arrives at the Fall of Troy, where an old woman says that she saw Arnold of Todi five hundred years before. Following his tracks, Kay leaves the city to find that the Greek encampment where he arrived has disappeared, and is promptly taken on board an eighteenth-century pirate galleon. The crew of the ship also remember meeting Arnold, who'd be from several hundred years in their past.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Kay's friend Maria, who is really into guns, and her sister Susan, who prefers butterflies.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: While Kay and his friends, reduced in size, are hiding from Abner's men, Kay blows a horn that wakens a group of fairies. They reward him for awakening them, help him to escape from his pursuers and then vanish from the story.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: The first time Kay uses the Box to visit Herne in the forest, it takes only two minutes of time in the real world.
  • Your Size May Vary: Rum-Chops and his crew of pirates seem to vary between rat size (when chasing Kay and his mouse friend) and human size (when they encounter the Bishop and his party escaping from captivity).