A midsummer tale for winter firesides…
‘A great book.’
Thus nine-year-old Naomi emerging from her encounter with Kay Harker of Seekings House and the friends who helped him to the recovery of the treasures of Santa Barbara: Nibbins the cat, Mr Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot the fox, and many another, including bats, otters, mermaids, and Rat the cellarman who ‘does a bit in the dustbin and comes a bit close to a old bone now and then’.
You will not find Seekings in Pevsner*
although it can’t be far away from the Priory in Ledbury where John Masefield spent idyllic years in his later boyhood. Nor is the local town of Condicote on any map although its setting may owe something to his later love of Cotswold country. And as for Santa Barbara, that is one of the fictional ‘sugar states’ of South America that are the setting for several of Masefield’s novels, beginning with one about an ancestor of Kay’s: Sard Harker (1924). The dust jacket of a successor, Odtaa (1926), provides a chart of those romantic and dangerous places.
Seeking the treasure of Santa Barbara
may provide the central purpose of the adventures chronicled in The Midnight Folk but its fate was a puzzle to all concerned and one of the glories of the book is the unco-ordinated tumble of adventures through which Kay unravels the story of how the treasure was stolen from his great-grandfather’s ship, the Plunderer, so long ago. (And there is a side-serving of events through which he also unearths old Sir Hassle Gassle’s grandfather’s gold repeater, purloined long years before by Benjamin the highwayman.)
First hints of nefarious goings-on
are disclosed to Kay when he and Nibbins venture out to a witches’ coven on broomsticks (a besom and a broom broom). Thereafter bits and pieces of the story come to be fitted together by equally unlikely means: a night-flight on a horse to Yorkshire to interview the centenarian Miss Susan Pricker, sitting up in bed, ‘reading a sprightly story’ and drinking champagne; a swift voyage to the Caribbean on a mimic Plunderer crewed by water-mice; an involuntary journey on a black stick with a crooky handle to hear the revelations of a Talking Head; vital help from liege-men from King Arthur’s Camp…
Phantasmagoria rather than fantasy
it may be. You climb into the book rather as Kay climbed into the portrait of his great-grandfather and find what might be the imaginings of a child all strung promiscuously together. But the seemingly casual succession of scenes and the arrival on cue of requisite magic (a phial of Invisible Mixture, a pair of one-league shoes) are held together and controlled by a painterly precision of detail and a perfection of discourse. Whether he deals in ‘real’ things: the countryside setting – flowers, birds, buildings – for instance, or the accoutrements of magic – those brooms – Masefield makes them live on the page, while phrase after phrase and conversation after conversation flies free of the dead weight of conventional children’s-book-storytelling. Exempli gratia: ‘What I’m for’ [said Pimply Whatto] ‘is to bang them black and blue with my knoppy blackthorn’ or ‘Ellen’s uncle had fallen at the Tuttocks and broken his huckle-bone.’
In truth, when it first appeared in 1927,
The Midnight Folk did not look much like a book for children: 328 pages of solid type, no illustrations, and a jacket of fetching dark green and blue, where might blackly be discerned Nibbins the cat. Within four years however illustrations were called for and Rowland Hilder supplied both line drawings and colour plates for a handsome gift-book edition, the black-and-whites subsequently being incorporated into what became the standard trade edition (1957). (Curiously, the one concession to graphic statement in the first edition – a reproduction of Sir Piney Trigger’s last words, scratched on the metal casing of a lantern – got accidentally omitted from the gift-book edition and thus also from most subsequent trade printings.) Since that time Faith Jaques has illustrated an unforgivably abridged edition, and Quentin Blake – commissioned by Messrs Mondadori to provide colour plates for an Italian translation – has had his work incorporated into a (sloppily proofed) English edition (1990).
the waywardness of fashion. If that unsatisfactory, not to say perverse, publishing history betokens anything it is surely a neglectful carelessness on the part of our publishers and our arbiters of taste. For The Midnight Folk is indeed ‘a great book’ – to my mind, one of the greatest of all children’s books – and yet for much of its life its virtues have been buried as obscurely as Sir Hassle Gassle’s repeater. It does not stand alone however and of its successor we shall have to see what Miss Naomi says in our next.
*Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘The Buildings of England’ is a catalogue of and perambulation around the architecture of England. (Ed)
The cover by Liz Pyle and illustrations by Rowland Hilder are from the 2000 Egmont edition (0 7497 1285 6, £4.99 pbk).
A 906-page bibliography: John Masefield; the ‘great auk’ of English literature by Philip W Errington has just been published by the British Library at £60.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.