Domestic fantasy or urban fantasy for children is characterised by the passage between the mundane everyday world and the fantastic or supernatural. The transition may be aided by a magical talisman or creature but is surprisingly often a physical door, opening or portal, the most famous of course being the wardrobe door in C.S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but also the rabbit hole in Alice
and the invisible window cut between worlds by The Subtle Knife in the second of Pullman's trilogy.
My favourite book of magical transitions is John Masefield's The Midnight Folk. The transition between the 'real world' and the 'magic world' is a tricky thing for the writer. Having established the characters and grounded us in their reality, to maintain the reader's belief through to the magical is a delicate operation. The surreal, dream-like 'fade' between the real and supernatural in The Midnight Folk is one of the best. Kay Harker, an orphan living in an old house with only a governess and housekeeper to care for him is falling asleep in his bed listening to the sound of music from the drawing-room below.
After a time, he did not think it was a guitar, but a voice calling to him, ‘Kay, Kay, wake up.’ Waking up, he rubbed his eyes: it was broad daylight; but no one was there. Someone was scraping and calling, inside the wainscot, just below where the pistols hung. There was something odd about the daylight; it was brighter than usual; all things looked more real than usual. ‘Can’t you open the door, Kay?’ the voice asked. There never had been a door there; but now that Kay looked, there was a little door, all studded with knops of iron. Just as he got down to it, it opened towards him; there was Nibbins, the black cat. ‘Come along, Kay,’ Nibbins said, ‘we can just do it while they’re at the banquet; but don’t make more noise than you must.’ Kay peeped through the door. It opened from a little narrow passage in the thickness of the wall. ‘Where does it lead to?’ he asked. ‘Come and see,’ Nibbins said.
Kay ends up with Nibbins, a reformed witch's cat, at a coven led by his very own governess, the genuinely terrifying Miss Sylvia Daisy Pouncer.
There are not only witches, but also mermaids, pirates and the knights of King Arthur. Secret doors open, portraits come to life and roll up their shirt to show us their tattoos, talking owls, otters, cats and a fox with the memorable name of Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot come to Kay’s aid.
We are flung headlong into the story (ostensibly of Kay’s search for the lost treasure of Santa Barbara to avenge his great-grandfather’s name) and swept along (there are no chapters), now riding a witch’s besom with Nibbins, now on a winged black mare with a mysterious grey-eyed lady visiting Miss Susan Trigger (the daughter of the man who stole the treasure) a sprightly centenarian smoking in bed and sipping champagne. We sail out from Kay’s bedroom on a perfectly ship-shape model of the Plunderer, Kay’s great-grandfather’s ship, manned by water-rats, into the Caribbean seas to consult with mermaids. In between these adventures Kay must learn his Latin verbs, go to church and eat his supper much like any other boy. And Kay is a real, very believable boy. He likes real boy things, fossils and horses and boats and guns, tales of pirates, smugglers and buried treasure. The book veers between wild adventure and fantasy as the whereabouts of the missing treasure is (almost incidentally) revealed.
Brian Alderson in Books for Keeps says of The Midnight Folk
'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. '
I think this is the secret of its appeal-you climb into the book and find it impossible to leave. I now own three editions including this lovely Folio Society edition, but still hanker after a first edition, with its beautiful, rather minimal 1927 cover.
John Masefield (1878-1967) was Poet Laureate from 1930 till his death and author of twenty or so novels.
The Midnight Folk and the Box of Delights are the best known of his books for children. Orphaned at six, sent to sea at seventeen by the Aunt who was his guardian, he worked in bars, in a carpet factory and was a vagrant in America for some time before coming back to England and becoming a successful poet.
The sequel, The Box of Delights is equally wonderful and takes place just before midwinter, 'when the wolves are running' rather than the witchy midsummer of The Midnight Folk, where the natural world and its creatures are beautifully described. Both the Midnight Folk and sequel owe as much to Masefield's sea-faring adventures as his poetry, the language is direct, inventive and funny rather than flowery and the pages are overrun with lovable and not-so-lovable rogues including Rat the cellarman who 'does a bit in the dustbin and comes a bit close to a old bone now and then'.