Childhood favourites and Christmas Classics are often inextricably linked, and may have more in common than we realise, until we hear the stories behind them…
“The Wolves are running…” is the mysterious message Kay Harker is given by the old Punch and Judy man in The Box of Delights, and it was a potent image from her childhood reading, mixed up with snow and all kinds of Christmas traditions that remained with Joan Aiken until she was able to write the wolves as she put it: ‘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, from the early 1900’s and the first Masefield novel she came across was lent to her by an old sailor in the village where she lived. Joan was utterly gripped by the mysterious and terrifying Bird of Dawning but Masefield’s own books for children The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights didn’t appear until years later.
So although readers may associate the two ‘Wolves’ books with their stories of desperate snowy chases across wooded landscapes, it was the first of these books, The Midnight Folk, that was to have the most lasting influence on Joan Aiken’s writing. 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 to tell to her small brother called The Kingdom and The Cave. It was a pure homage to the books the two of them knew and loved, and Joan Aiken fully recognising her debt, never imagined that one day it would be published.
But years later 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, and found a publisher who agreed to take it after a complete revision which finally made the story her own. As she said: ‘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.
Another review by Piers Torday who has adapted The Box of Delights for a Christmas production at Wilton’s Music Hall, describes the influence John Masefield has had on many other writers for children, including Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis. We can all share their enthusiasm for his skill in crafting an exciting fantasy, and their wish to create books like the ones that as children so delighted them….
The Virago edition of The Kingdom and The Cave can be found here
and you can read more about it here
Joan Aiken originally wrote this article for
The Journal of the John Masefield Society