Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

 codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912

by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m deeply grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]

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4 Responses to Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

  1. Suresh says:

    Where can I find the faculty list for this course in Glasgow?

  2. Katherine Langrish says:

    This is a gorgeous essay on a book I’ve loved since childhood. Thankyou!

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