Joy undimmed: John Masefield and The Midnight Folk

John Masefield was in his last year as Poet Laureate when I was born in 1966. I remember copying out his poem ‘Cargoes’ in primary school – “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir . . .” – and wondering what all these strange, beautiful-sounding words meant as I laboured over my ascenders and descenders. That John Masefield, stiff and distant, seemed already to be from a long-dead past.

So it came as a shock to discover that he was the same John Masefield who wrote The Midnight Folk, which seemed to burst from its pages in a torrent of surprises and delights. It was – and is – one of my favourite books, but, while the sheer joy of it is undimmed, I can now see that it stayed in the memory because it is full of deep feelings, and the ultimate resolution of its plot has an emotional satisfaction that I felt as a child but did not then understand.

First published in 1927, The Midnight Folk is still in print; but it is less well known than its sequel, The Box of Delights, which many remember from a successful BBC TV adaptation in the 1980s. Set in the 1890s, its premise is the staple of much children’s literature: a lonely young child, in this case a boy named Kay Harker, has lost his parents and is being brought up by an indifferent guardian and a cruel governess.

Kay’s great-grandfather, Captain Harker, in whose house Kay lives, lost some treasure – ‘church ornaments, images, lamps, candlesticks, reliquaries, chalices and crosses of gold, silver and precious stones’ – entrusted to his care by the archbishop of a South American port during the revolutions and uprisings of 1811. The loss haunted the captain until his death, a haunting that also ruined the happiness of his wife and son. Now others more avaricious than Kay are on the treasure’s trail. Can he find it before they do? It is only at the end that you realize the book is about the restoration of more than one kind of treasure.

Masefield takes this scenario and stuffs it with every imaginable device of children’s literature – talking animals, pirates, hidden passages, invisibility potions, mermaids, King Arthur and more. But he also stuffs it with story itself. Kay hears – or overhears – pieces of the treasure’s history from multiple storytellers. You might say the pieces of story are, in their own way, pieces of treasure too. He hears – or remembers hearing – countless stories of local folklore and history from the indefatigable maid, Ellen.

These range from rick burners and smugglers to the highwayman Benjamin, who lived in the stables long ago; from the murder victim surely buried under the hearth in Kay’s bedroom to the man, known only as The Tailor, found killed in one of the outhouses, “stabbed right through the skull,” Ellen says with relish, “which shows you the force that must have been used”. He also hears about other hidden things through his animal friends, the black cat Nibbins, Bitem the fox, Blinky the owl: the secret passageways of the house, the secret ways of a coven of witches, the secret lives of the animals themselves. Kay soaks up every last word. Not for nothing is the Harker crest three oreilles couped.

But if The Midnight Folk is a book about story, it is also a book about time. It is steeped in the past, layer after layer of it. There are the layers of the treasure story, folded around three generations, but other histories are interleaved everywhere: great floods and storms, the druids, the Wars of the Roses, the reign of Henry VIII, the Battle of Naseby, the plague and so on.

The book is also concerned with the passage of time itself: with the cuckoo clock striking in the night, with church bells and dinner bells, with a repeater watch, which Benjamin hid and Kay now finds, with the decayed clock in the harness room. When two of the book’s villains were last seen alive, during the Great Flood of February 1850, they were at the Ring of Bells Inn. When we meet Bert the sexton, he is winding the clock. To what end is all this?

One of Masefield’s many narrative tricks is to bring a painting to life. While Kay is talking to the first of these, of Captain Harker, “A black cat with white throat and paws, which had been ashes for forty years, rubbed up against great grandpapa Harker’s legs, and then, springing on the arm of his chair, watched the long dead sparrows in the plum tree, which had been firewood a quarter of a century ago.” Even as Kay is enveloped in the past, he must understand that it is gone.

“Time’s lost, done with, but must be paid for,” one of Kay’s grandmothers, another of the dead woken from the sleep of portraiture, tells him. Which is another way of saying that the burdens of the past can only be redeemed by the life of the present. The loss of Kay’s parents is barely alluded to, but his situation is reinforced on almost every page: adrift without family, he is trapped in every kind of past, in everyone else’s stories, with an unreachable future ahead of him. He is in dire need of a ‘now’ to live in.

Many of the stories within The Midnight Folk range freely over the past, but its essential narrative runs over five days and nights that are alike interwoven with action, both natural and supernatural, realized with a dream-like fluidity and brilliance. You quickly lose track of what is day and what is night, what might be dream and what is real. The effect is mesmerizing; it captures better than anything I know the strange, hypnogogic state between sleep and waking when the world itself feels woozily pliant to the near-conscious mind. It is the prose equivalent of a painting by Marc Chagall; remarkably, it even does away with chapters, the narrative slipping like water through the fingers of convention.

It’s a surprise, then, to discover that the book contains deep elements of autobiography. The Midnight Folk’s premise may be un-original, but it’s nevertheless one that was deeply real to Masefield himself. His Herefordshire childhood was idyllic; he delighted in the landscape, its sense of place and history, its folklore and its myths. He seems to have been highly attuned to wonder – and to its corollary, terror – sensitivities which were further heightened when he discovered the power of storytelling, both as teller and receiver.

“It is difficult for me to describe the ecstatic bliss of my earliest childhood,” he wrote in a late memoir, So Long to Learn:

“All that I looked upon was beautiful, and known by me to be beautiful, but also known by me to be, as it were, only the shadow of something much more beautiful, very, very near, and almost to be reached, where there was nothing but beauty itself in ecstasy, undying, inexhaustible . . .

“I was sure that a greater life was near us: in dreams I sometimes seemed to enter a part of it, and woke with rapture and longing. Then, on one wonderful day, when I was a little more than five years old . . . I entered that greater life; and that life entered into me with a delight that I can never forget. I found that I could imagine imaginary beings complete in every detail . . . with an incredible perfection, in a brightness not of this world.”

Then, when Masefield was six, his mother died. He was sent to live with an aunt and uncle who didn’t understand him and don’t seem to have liked him much either. The Midnight Folk, then, is written out of these, Masefield’s own remembered desolations, and its gorgeous delight in the power of story to make sense of the world reflects his own experiences of grief and consolation. It is as if a lost boy had conjured his longed-for childhood back to life through sheer force of imagination. The book is not merely a fantasy for children, but an embodiment of a child’s capacity to dream – and, ultimately, an argument for the emotional importance of fantasy, of story, itself. You could say it’s Masefield’s love letter to story; but perhaps it is a letter of thanks too.

At its core, The Midnight Folk is about restitution: stolen treasure returned to the church from which it was taken; the watch Benjamin stole restored to its owner’s family; restless souls allowed to sleep in peace. And one of the book’s most striking characteristics is its empathy. We are invited to empathize with almost everyone. With Captain Harker, his last years swallowed in grief. With the two men who stole the treasure from him, one of whom drank himself to death out of guilt, and the other who set out to undo the wrong he had done and lost his life in the process.

We are invited to empathize with Benjamin the highwayman – “a slight, quick man, with a nice face,” Ellen has heard, “nothing bad in it, only bold” – and the horse shot from beneath him in the final desperate chase, and with Bitem the fox, who also knows a thing or two about being hunted. We are even invited to empathize with the book’s chief villains, the three generations of Americans all known as Abner Brown. One, the grandfather, disappeared in the flood of 1850. “I’ve often thought of his people, far away, never knowing,” the sexton tells Kay. “Though they’ll have done sorrowing by now, poor souls.” Among the church treasures Kay helps to restore are the statues of “Four… lovely, calm women, Forgiveness, Mercy, Peace and Pity”.

As a child, Masefield believed deeply in the existence of hell and, in particular, his inevitable fall into it – a certainty that was encouraged by those charged with his care. In later life, his faith seems to have been a somewhat ramshackle, if sometimes deeply felt, thing. Biographer Constance Babington Smith describes it as “theistic [but] utterly eclectic”. At times he seems to have yearned for what he called ‘the old religion’, and there are hints of that yearning in The Midnight Folk.

Captain Harker’s treasure is itself Catholic, of course, and the very beauty of it seems to carry a spiritual charge, itself expressing something lost and unreachable. One church statue lies on the sea floor in the Caribbean. It’s St George, “the lovely golden lad” as the mermaids call him. “We used to sing to him at first,” one of them says, “hoping that he would wake. The [shipwreck] was full of golden and silver people at one time. We loved them, they were so very beautiful; but they never answered when we spoke to them… Indian divers came down here and carried them all away to a yacht, all except this one.” The idea that there might be something unchristian about adoration of such images is, I think, explicitly mocked by Masefield in the form of Old Man John, who regards them as no more than “sin-and-heathen idols” and so buries them in his cellar for twenty years.

But perhaps the most interesting indicator of Masefield’s faith is the local hermit from centuries past, St Alpig. He never appears at all, and is only really mentioned three times, but there is an extraordinary moment when Kay is riding through the village at night with a messenger from King Arthur’s court and he can see into everyone’s houses, including where they lay sleeping. “There they all were,” Masefield writes, “and floating about them as they slept were… people of light and rainbows, and with exquisite faces and hands. They were soothing the sleep of all there.”

Who are they? Kay asks his companion. “An Old Man called St Alpig, down by the river, always sends those,” comes the reply. And then, lest there should be any doubt: “They are quite real. They go about the world and help people.” It is ultimately through the cave where St Alpig lived and prayed that the treasure is reached. I think what moves Masefield here is what you might call a Catholic aesthetic, a feeling for what he called in a poem “The ghostless bones of what had been divine”, a transcendent sense of beauty lost, forgiveness found.

I wrote earlier that The Midnight Folk is about varieties of restitution, but its most powerful redemption is quietly told, hidden in the final folds of the action. Poignantly, the agents of it – the heroes who return to restore the world to order – are Kay’s childhood toys, long banished by the governess. (“They will only remind him of the past,” Kay overhears her tell Ellen.) How much private sadness did Masefield weave into that idea? Redemption wrapped inside a memory wrapped inside a loss.

And what form does the redemption finally take? A woman steps out of one of Kay’s dreams at the book’s close to take care of him. “I am Carolina Louise, who loved your Mother,” Masefield has her tell him. It was, of course, his own mother’s name.

This is a slightly extended version of an essay that first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 73, Spring 2022.

Slightly Foxed is an independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £12; annual subscriptions from £48. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

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