Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

Box & Wolves

Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise – there are many more stories behind them…

“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in Masefield’s The Box of Delights; it was a potent image from Joan’s childhood reading, complete with snow, and became one of the Christmas story traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the ‘wolves’, as she said: ‘out of her  subconscious’ and into her own story many years later.

The poet John Masefield with his wandering seafaring life had been a powerful influence on Joan’s father, the poet Conrad Aiken, who was writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived; as a small girl she was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until  years later, and she first discovered them in 1936.

Joan wrote:

Box ist readingBox ist reading 2

So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of his Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken.  And rather than her ‘Wolves’, it is another story of Joan’s that owes most to John Masefield – the one she made up at age 17, at the height of the Second World war, to comfort and distract her small brother. Aiken’s real first novel, first published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the Masefield books she and her brother knew and loved, and Joan Aiken, fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would actually be published.

But years later, at a time when when she desperately needed to support a sick husband and two small children, she took out the old exercise book where she had written it down, typed it out and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story  her own. As she said later: ‘All young writers learn by imitation…and certainly I could not have chosen a better model.’

It seemed absolutely fitting that Virago Modern Classics should agree to republish this book,  Joan Aiken’s real first novel – written many years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – and that it should get one of its best reviews from a young reader who found as much delight in her story as she and her young brother had found in Masefield’s, so many years before.

He wrote:

Young Guardian review

The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall. He describes the influence that John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis; and we can all share their enthusiasm for Masefield’s wild imagination and skill in crafting an enduring fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….

Here is Joan Aiken’s own tribute to the master:


The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here

and you can read more about it here

Excerpts above are taken from an article Joan Aiken originally wrote for

The Journal of the John Masefield Society


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3 thoughts on “Books of Delight: Joan Aiken & John Masefield

  1. I too was disappointed by the ‘horrid’ revelation that it was all a dream, but can forgive Masefield for all the glorious storytelling that precedes this letting down to earth. And ‘The Wolves are running!’ cry still has the same effect on me as when I first came across it in, I think, the tv adaptation with Patrick Troughton!

    I hadn’t made the connection with ‘The Kingdom and the Cave’ however; time for a revisit for this, but first must be ‘The Midnight Folk’ which I reacquired only recently. Thanks for making the links between the two authors so clear!

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