Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked in readers’ memories, and sometimes have more in common than we realise – and sometimes there are many more stories to discover behind them…this is the story of John Masefield and Joan Aiken.
“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message the boy 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 Aiken’s childhood reading, complete with snow… re-reading the book became one of the Christmas traditions that remained with her until she was able ‘to write the wolves 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 started writing himself from the early 1900’s; the first Masefield novel Joan came across was lent to her in the 1920’s by an old sailor in the village where she lived. As a small girl she was utterly gripped by this mysterious and terrifying tale, The Bird of Dawning, but Masefield’s books for children – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights – didn’t appear until some years later, and she first discovered them in 1936 in her school library.
In a piece for the John Masefield Society about her love of his books Joan wrote:
So although readers may associate these two ‘Wolves’ books, John Masefield’s and Joan Aiken’s, with their stories of heart-stopping chases across snowy 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’ title, 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, which was actually published two years before The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, was called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure, pleasurable 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 and some very substantial cuts, 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.
The ongoing influence of great writing on young readers, and future writers is discussed in a review by Piers Torday who 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 so delighted them as children.
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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