John Masefield was the UK Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967 the second longest period of time of any of the holders of this office since its creation in 1668, he is only exceeded by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. However this book is not a collection of poems, but is instead a wonderfully imaginative work for children written in 1927 and still in print to this day. My copy was published in this Puffin edition in March 1963 and is beautifully illustrated by Rowland Hilder with not only large pictures but smaller images within the text. Masefield packs in the characters in this story from pirates, witches and wizards, talking animals, mermaids, King Arthur and his knights, moving and talking paintings, hidden treasure, a flying horse and even a crooked gamekeeper and his henchmen to name just a few. But so to our hero, nine year old Kay Harker who is trying to solve the mystery of the lost treasure with the help of some and the major hindrance of the others in this huge cast. He is apparently an orphan, no parents are mentioned except his mother in passing right at the end, and the large house he is living in is equally not very clear, did it belong to his parents or is it the property of his guardian who doesn’t live there? The only residents of the house other than Kay are the servants and his unpleasant governess, who turns out to be one of the coven of witches casting spells and causing mischief as they also search for the treasure.
The story positively races on as we alternate from Kay’s dreary schoolwork set by the governess and tedious meetings with her friends and his guardian to exciting overnight chases both on the ground and in the air on broomsticks or the flying horse which always find him fast asleep back in his bed just before the maid comes round to wake him up; but the mud on his slippers or other traces of the previous nights activities prove that this is not dreams. In many ways this reminded me of ‘The Cuckoo Clock’ which I included a few months ago as part of my look at the early days of Puffin Books, but the stories are far more fantastical than those by Mrs Moleworth in her Victorian adventure. The choice of words and the wide vocabulary used betray this book as the work of a significant poet who was to receive the highest honour for poetry in the country just three years later and the hunt for Kay’s great grandfather’s wrecked ship and the lost treasure he was trying to protect from a South American uprising is carried on in beautifully crafted adventure stories. Will Kay work out where it is before the wizard Abner Brown and the witches get to it and what will happen to the evil governess once Kay has worked out that she is one of the witches and therefore his enemy? Maybe a peek into the past will give the final clues.
Masefield wrote a sequel to this book in 1935 entitled ‘The Box of Delights’ which if anything is better known than this original story and has been adapted for radio, television, theatre and even as an opera by Robert Steadman with a libretto by Masefield. It was also available in Puffin Books in the 1960’s so I may see if I can track down a copy to match this edition, it’s been a really fun read.