Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 11, 2005

As the song says, it's the most wonderful time of the year. It's also the most magical.

Just this weekend, kids have been lining up for the epic film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , while the screen version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is still shooting out sparks or whatever it is that wands do. I suspect that most of the moviegoers will have previously devoured J.K. Rowling's novel, and a good many already revere the first, and best known, of C.S. Lewis's Chro nicles of Narnia . Both books are obviously fine, imaginative adventures, and yet, as different as they are, they only hint at the richness of children's fantasy. Just consider two English Yuletide classics, John Masefield's The Box of Delights and J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy .

Though underappreciated in the United States, The Box of Delights (1935) is a much-loved favorite in Britain. It's actually a follow-up to The Midnight Folk (1927), but you don't need to know that summer book to enjoy its wintry sequel. A day or two before Christmas, English schoolboy Kay Harker, who must be about 12 or 13, is traveling by train back to his home in the country just outside the cathedral town of Tatchester. An orphan, he lives in a big house called Seekings with his guardian, the beautiful Caroline Louisa. This year the four Jones children will be visiting, and so the holidays should be especially festive, despite the threat of heavy snow. But as Kay approaches home, strange things begin to happen.

On the platform at Musborough Junction, where he must change trains, an old Punch-and-Judy showman helps the boy locate his mysteriously lost ticket. Back in his compartment, Kay then finds himself in the company of two distinctly sinister men in clerical garb, who address each other first as Tristan and Lancelot, then as Gawaine and Dagonet, and who warn him about playing card games with strangers. They nonetheless trick him out of half a crown, and probably steal his purse as well. Feeling more than somewhat discombobulated, Kay descends at Tatchester, and there finds the Punch-and-Judy man again. This time the wandering puppeteer asks the boy to perform a small service for him.

"Master Harker, there is something that no other soul can do for me but you alone. As you go down toward Seekings, if you would stop at Bob's shop, as it were to buy muffins now. . . . Near the door you will see a woman plaided from the cold, wearing a ring of a very strange shape, Master Harker, being like my ring here, of the longways cross of gold and garnets. And she has bright eyes, Master Harker, as bright as mine, which is what few have. If you will step into Bob's shop to buy muffins now, saying nothing, not even to your good friend, and say to this Lady 'The Wolves are Running' then she will know and Others will know; and none will get bit."

Kay agrees and thereafter begins to notice, in the fields or at crossroads, what look like Alsatian dogs "trying to catch a difficult scent." In due course, the Punch and Judy man visits Seekings. Very dark forces, he explains to Kay, are after him. Indeed, the enemy is closing in on Seekings, for shadowy shapes seem to be darting through the snowy darkness. Hoping to throw his pursuers off the scent, the old man asks Kay to take and safeguard a little box.

I won't tell any more of the story, except to say that the Box of Delights possesses three magical powers, one of which allows its possessor to transport himself to wherever he wishes. Before Masefield's grand finale -- at Tatchester Cathedral's 1,000th Christmas Eve service -- the reader will meet the devilish criminal mastermind Abner Brown, the alchemist Ramon Lully, the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, the stag-like Herne the Hunter, a mysterious Lady of the Woods and talking rats. There will be kidnappings and escapes, a visit to ancient Troy, a voyage with pirates and marooning on a desert island. At stake, though, is not only the ability to travel through time but also the Elixir of Life. Not to mention the millennial midnight service at Tatchester Cathedral.

Every chapter in this book is marvelous, but the real delight derives from Masefield's style and the idiosyncratic, colorful speech of his various characters. Here is Sylvia Pouncer describing a distasteful former pupil: "He is a child for whom I had the utmost detestation and contempt; a thoroughly morbid, dreamy, idle muff with a low instinct for the turf, which will be his undoing in later life." And here's the gun-toting tomboy Maria Jones: "School! They know better than to try that game on me. I've been expelled from three and the headmistresses still swoon when they hear my name breathed. I'm Maria Jones, I am: somewhat talked of in school circles, if you take the trouble to enquire." Here even Roman legionnaires speak crisply in that timeless self-congratulatory military manner: "We're the smartest squad in the finest cohort in the star wing of the crack Legion of the whole Imperial Roman Army, search it where you will; you'll not find anything anywhere to touch or come near the Blue and White Stripers of the Tatchester Toms."

Lovely stuff. Masefield is equally delicious at capturing a policeman's never-ending flow of trite catchphrases or the tone of a small-town newspaper: The dean of Tatchester, we are solemnly told by the latter, "is the well-known author of 'Possible Oriental Influences on Ancient Philosophies' as well as the famous handbook: 'Cheerfulness: The Christian's Duty.' " Even Masefield's inconsequential details charm, for instance, "the Shrine of the great Saint Cosric, Saxon King and Martyr, who had worked such famous miracles in the cure of Leprosy, and Broken Hearts."

The Box of Delights appeared in 1935; J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit came out in 1937 and T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone in 1938. For all their wit, these children's classics are nonetheless suffused with the quiet melancholy common to 20th-century fantasy, the sense that the great days are over, the gods have departed, and we have come too late upon the scene. One feels that same sense of twilight in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the Mist (1926). Such belatedness is well expressed by Puck in Kipling's story collection Puck of Pook's Hill (1906):

"The People of the Hills have all left. I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mount, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest -- gone, all gone. I came into England with Oak, Ash, and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash, and Thorn are gone I shall go too."

At least since the time of Wordsworth, this feeling of loss had been growing ever stronger in English literature, but it became a dominant theme of turn-of-the-century writing, partly as a response to the explosion of modern technology and city life. Symbolically, the hunger for connectedness with nature and for a renewal of our own passional selves led to an obsession with the great god Pan. Earthy, sensual and pagan, he lurks in the Edwardian supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen and Oliver Onions, in E.M. Forster's "The Story of a Panic," in novels like James Stephens's The Crock of Gold and Lord Dunsany's (slightly later) The Blessing of Pan , in the most dithyrambic chapter of The Wind in the Willows ("The Piper at the Gates of Dawn") and, of course, behind the hero of Barrie's masterpiece, "Peter Pan." There the loss of natural impulse clearly modulates into the loss of childhood itself.

Most people know Peter Pan from the theatrical version of 1904, but in 1911 Barrie turned the play into a somewhat brittle but nonetheless unsettling novel he called Peter and Wendy . It opens with the famous sentence: "All children, except one, grow up." Now the price, perhaps the prerequisite, for remaining a child is that one must live in an eternal present. Early in the novel, Wendy notices that Peter tends to forget people if he hasn't seen them for a while. The never-aging boy even tells the young Darling girl, "Always if you see me forgetting you, just keep on saying 'I'm Wendy,' and then I'll remember." By the final pages of the book Peter has apparently lost all recollection of even his late, great enemy, Captain Hook.

But, of course, adults do remember, and the novel -- like the play -- consequently ends with a scene of heartbreaking poignancy. Peter comes back to London and this time takes Wendy's daughter Jane off to Never-land (which, by the way, we have been told looks just like the map of a child's mind). As Jane flies off, she explains, "He does so need a mother." And Wendy cries out forlornly, "Yes, I know. . . . No one knows it so well as I." The end of "Peter Pan" always makes me weep.

In this melancholy sweetness lies the reason why children's fantasies are so powerful at Christmas. Each year we read or watch the same seasonal classics -- A Christmas Carol , "The Nutcracker" ballet, "Peter Pan" -- and gradually each grows more and more nostalgia-laden. For they remain ever youthful, ever fresh, even as we ourselves inexorably age, our souls more and more worn by the world. While children gaze wide-eyed at their magic and marvels, parents can't help but feel wistful at being reminded of how much has been given up by growing up.

Still, this is precisely why these classics never stale: As kids we read or watch them on one level, and as adults on quite another. Which also means, of course, that such stories work at their very best when generations share them together. For if you can't be a child at Christmas, the next best thing is being around one -- or two or three. So read some holiday stories to or with your sons and daughters, and I'd particularly suggest opening The Box of Delights as well as the more familiar holiday favorites. Remember that, setting aside that one notable exception, all children grow up -- and all too soon.

Michael Dirda is a critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com, and his online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company