Name a book that takes place at Christmas. Its protagonist is a child, just turned eleven, who finds himself in possession of an important secret object with a long and magical history. There are wizards in this book, spells, Herne the Hunter, a Lady, oddly-shaped crosses, fox-faced, red-haired villains, Arthurian legends, and a catchphrase for the child’s danger.
Did you guess Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising? I would have, too. Instead, it’s John Masefield’s enchanting The Box of Delights, which clearly influenced not only Cooper, but Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and many others.
The Box of Delights plunges you immediately into excitement, with Kay Harker returning from boarding school on the train. He meets some menacing clergymen (who are not what they appear to be) and a friendly Punch-and-Judy man (who is not what he appears to be), and he learns, for the first, but not the last time, that “the Wolves are Running.” Not long after, real clergymen begin disappearing, and only Kay can help them, since he has been given the Box of Delights for safekeeping. And the Box is truly full of Delights: tiny wonderlands, historical battles, flying horses, transformations, armies, everything you could want to eat, magical friends, fairy powers.
I won’t reveal how the book ends, or how (or if) Kay manages to defeat the villainous Abner Brown and his wife, Sylvia Pouncer. But every moment of this book is delicious fun. The final scene in Tatchester Cathedral is powerful, frightening, and joyful all at once. And for those of you who are fond of Susan Cooper, you will find echo after echo here of the things you’ve loved in her work. What a joy — another classic discovered!