He had not slept for long before a shrill crying sounded in his ears. When he woke, the room had something in it that was fluttering and battering against the ceiling and the walls. When his eyes grew accustomed to the light he saw that there was a bat in the room. He had always loved bats, because of their bright eyes, cocked ears, and nice leathery umbrellary wings and the little hooks to them. He had always longed to be a bat, so that he could fly in the twilight and hook himself up head downwards somewhere high up in a steeple when he was tired. Now here was a bat actually crawling along his bed to him.
‘Good evening, Kay,’ the Bat said. ‘I’ve come from my friend Tom Otter; we thought what fun it would be if we could persuade you to spend an evening with us. We live in an interesting old place wich you might like to see, and I’ve brought you a suit of wings, in case you care to come.’
‘I’d love to come,’ Kay said, ‘it is most frightfully kind of you to think of me.’
‘Hurray, he’s coming,’ the Bat said. ‘We hoped you would. Now I’ll help you to put on the wings.’
Kay found that it was really quite easy after the first attempt. ‘Come on, then,’ the Bat said. ‘You keep by me. It isn’t far, really, to our place. I generally go this way.’
Kay put on his pair of fox-eye spectacles and followed him. It was amusing to see his friends, the grocer and the carpenter, walking in their gardens, and to fly just over their heads. It was eerie to hear them say: ‘The bats are very bold this year; that one nearly knocked my glasses off.’
I write this when I should be planning the term’s lessons for a new course I’m teaching, business English for people who left school without a qualification and are re-training. This course is killing me, and may in fact be killing my students, going by the expressions on some of their faces last week. Since I have been worrying that this may be a challenge too far for my teaching skillz, I have plunged back into reading children’s books to sustain me when I’m not contemplating, for instance, the use of the present perfect in place of the past simple, or where I am going to find a recording of people discussing accounting in simple English. I have just finished The Midnight Folk by John Masefield, a novel I never read as a child, the greater the pity because it is, quite simply, one of the best children’s books ever written.
The plot is this: young Kay Harker lives in a large house which is crumbling a bit round the edges; his existence is somewhat blighted by an unsympathetic governess who flies into conniptions at any signs of dirt, lateness or laxity where Latin conjugations are concerned. During one of his infrequent visits to Kay, his guardian, Sir Theopompus, wonders why Kay does not find the treasure of Santa Barbara, reputed to have been brought back to England and concealed somewhere nearby by Kay’s great-great grandfather. That very night, Kay is woken by one of the cats, Nibbins...
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 before him 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.
Nibbins is one of the Midnight Folk, usually encountered after dark, who are really the alter egos of their daytime personae. They take Kay on a series of adventures, flying on stolen broomsticks, diving with mermaids, fighting black knights. Seven-league boots, potions of invisibility and magic cloaks abound. Kay’s quest is complicated by Abner Brown and seven witches, led by Mrs Pouncer, who are also seeking the treasure. Throughout, he has the greatest fun. How could he not?
The story is really the consciousness of Kay, I think: it’s written in the language of an imaginative boy of the 1920s, albeit a little heightened, and with a poet’s sense of rhythm and elegance. (Using Kay’s consciousness also allows a fair amount of humour, as the first quote in this post delightfully shows.) Kay is the moral centre, those who ally themselves with him, including Rollicum Bitem the fox, a far from salubrious character, are good, whereas those whom he dislikes (the governess!) are revealed to be bad and rightfully opposed. The Midnight Folk all naturally recognise Kay as being an important person, and Kay swims through the novel never doubting or expressing wonder or disbelief at what he encounters, I suppose because at some level he is creating it.
There is darkness here too. Exactly what has happened to Kay’s parents is never spelled out, but it is clear that they are dead, and he is being brought up by two people, Sir Theopompus and the governess, who do not understand or like him. Many of his adventures involve parental substitutes, good and bad. His childhood toys have been removed because they will ‘remind him of the past’, presumably his parents; Kay misses them. The spooky tales of pirates, murders and highwaymen which Ellen cheerily relates to him contribute to his bedtime anxieties – what is under the bed? What is under the hearthstone? The countryside around him seethes with violence as hunters pursue foxes, poachers trap rabbits and foxes kill whatever they can lay their paws on.
Day, night, dreams, visions, stories and songs are woven together into a narrative where fantasy and reality are equal and inform each other, where your wishes (for instance, to be a bat) are fulfilled. You might think at first that the Midnight Folk are figments of Kay’s fancy, suggested by what happens during his waking hours, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not and that in fact they represent a facet of reality which is both more wonderful and more truthful – ‘more real’, as Kay experienced when Nibbins woke him – than the more readily perceived mundane world in which we seem to move. Imagination isn’t an adjunct to ‘reality’: it triumphs over it. If you have a child or if you have ever been a child, you really must get a copy of this book.
(The pictures in this post are all covers of different editions of The Midnight Folk with the exception of the last, the illustration of Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, which is by Sara Ogilvie for the Folio Society edition)