‘That was our old religion, Master Harker,’ Cole said, nodding towards it. ‘It was nothing like so good as the new, of course, but it was good fun in its day though, because it ended in a feast.’
‘You didn’t eat horses,’ Kay said, ‘did you?’
‘Ah, didn’t we,’ Cole said.
John Masefield, The Box of Delights
I’ve just been reading John Masefield’s The Box of Delights with my son. It’s set in a wild English countryside of county towns, villages, railways and Roman camps. Magic and magical technology are everywhere. Motor cars turn into aeroplanes that disappear into caves. Herne the Hunter helps the children battle pirates. Swarms of unsuspecting children and clergy are scrobbled (kidnapped, that is) by the wantonly evil Abner Brown while our hero Kay rummages around Europe’s past.
Earlier this month, we read Watership Down by Richard Adams. Both books have a vision of Christianity at their heart. I am an atheist, but I think the authors’ belief gives something interesting to the stories. Watership Down has sacrifice and redemption and a Christ figure, El-ahrairah. Its Christianity is personal and private. The Box of Delights describes something different, a folk religion made up of traditions that tie communities together. The book’s resolution comes when the townsfolk pour into Tatchester Cathedral to begin the imperiled Christmas service, held there every year for more than a thousand years.
I adore Watership Down, but when it comes to religion I prefer Box of Delights’ blend of paganism with the new world through ritual and history. In Tatchester the old Gods are still there, keeping the wolves away.