(Essential Studies in Young Adult Literature, Revised Edition)

The Midnight Folk shares the best features of the fantasy of the period 1865-1945, considered to be the “golden age” of children’s literature in English. Author John Masefield does actually set the story around 1900, the central year of this golden age, and it expresses a strong sense of nostalgia, typical of much of Masefield’s work. The fantasy type of the primary or real world existing side by side with the secondary world is difficult to maintain convincingly in itself, let alone in combination with an adventure story of smugglers and treasure seeking, which is usually told in the realistic mode. In fact, Masefield has combined toy and animal fantasy, dream fantasy, and historical fantasy with adventure tale in one of the most unified examples of children’s fantasy literature that has ever been attempted. His sense of timing and control and the sheer complexity and originality of his inventiveness (for example, concerning points of entry into the secondary world) show him working at his best both as a storyteller and as a poet (he was later to become Great Britain’s poet laureate). His attempt to repeat the feat in The Box of Delights (1935) is not usually considered quite as successful.

As a poet, Masefield seems able to recapture the magic world of a boy’s imagination, with its midnight adventures, pirates, smugglers, and talking animals, and to make certain episodes into very powerful images, especially of underground or underwater travels and places of concealment, such as holes, caves, and tunnels. He also conveys a deep sense of the tradition of the English countryside and can combine his own sea travels and adventures with his love of the countryside to produce an evocative prose that works for children as much as for adults, tied as it is to a fast-moving plot. Masefield’s richly imaginative prose is close to the poetry of his contemporary, Walter de la Mare, especially as seen in Peacock Pie (1913). The passage that describes Kay swimming with the mermaids through the sunken city is wonderfully lyrical and has the sense of amazing beauty and magic of de la Mare at his best.