I collect editions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s one of my favorite stories. I collect film versions and print versions and even have the audio cds of Patrick Stewart’s one-man version in my car. I love it. And by this time in the season, I’ve usually seen or read it a couple times already.
I love how awful Scrooge is at the beginning, and how some of the clear, crisp images Dickens uses to describe him stick with me and ring in the back of my head when I meet people who bear him a resemblance. “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it” could be good or bad, really, but in Scrooge’s case, it’s bad and associates him with dark-heartedness and meanness, not just frugality. He was “solitary as an oyster.” He was closed off from the world, utterly alone, and practically hermetically sealed against companionship. Poor Scrooge. His greed supplanted his humanity. His need to amass wealth cut him off from all his friends and family. I can’t imagine a life more wasted.
I love that there are three spirits who visit after Marley—it’s such a lovely, fairy-tale truism that we have to think about the past, the present, and the future, that it takes three times to work the charm. The fact that the past is sad and the future is completely wretched if he stays this course is broken up by some of the most wonderful scenes of joy and contentment. The present is beautiful—it’s more than enough to make up for the past—but he’s missing it.
Most productions and abridgments choose to cut here. Dickens really lays it on thick, though. Scrooge sees the Cratchits, of course, and their small but satisfying feast. He sees Bob’s eldest daughter, Martha, come home and begin to play a trick (that she can’t make it home for Christmas) that she cuts short because she can’t bear to see her father sad, even for a joke. The middle children are described as being “up to their eyeballs in sage and onion,” and the Christmas pudding is described with such detail, I’ve kind of always wished I were British. He watches the family sing together and pass around the proverbial cup of cheer. It is a vividly depicted, sentimental, and I find, utterly charming scene.
But it doesn’t stop there. Scrooge gets a tour of London, stops at his nephew’s, flies out to sea and finds sailors and near solitary lighthouse workers sharing meals and stories and being variously contented on what feels like a cellular level. All of this is happening all around Scrooge, every single year, and with his scope tightly trained on making more and more money, he has not seen any of it.
When medieval priests described the Seven Deadly Sins, they offered contrasting virtues that one could practice to overcome, or “cure,” a sin. Practicing humility is the answer to pride; diligence cures sloth, etc. But for greed, there is no cure, only a “relief.” One can practice mercy and generosity, but they will only relieve the symptoms; nothing really gets at the root of the sin. The medieval implication is that greed is the one sin that will not be overcome.
But here is Dickens, and Scrooge, proving them wrong. I think it’s not just the fear of dying unloved and unmourned that gets him. By the time he gets to the third ghost, he’s mostly cured. The real action is with the second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, who reveals to him the warmth and love all around him, that he’d been sealing himself off from, like his little oystery self. All he has to do is peel open that shell. And he does. The spirits pull back the veil and give him a glimpse of what he’s missing, and he is so stirred by the sight, he wants it badly enough to change. His first, stuttering attempt at singing a Christmas carol is a delight. He literally finds his voice and learns how to use it. (This may be my favorite moment in Patrick Stewart’s version!) It’s a beautiful thing.
Here’s wishing all you lovely readers find some holiday miracle that makes you want to sing and share and love. (That’s Lucie, my cat, by the way, named for an entirely different Dickens hero.)
Given these skeletal characters, we are invited to project our own ideas on to the characters. Red can be any little girl—just like your little sister or your neighbor—and we begin the process of identifying with the narrative, concretizing the words in to images in our heads, building up a character we know, who will be unique from anyone else’s. The mother is any harried but well-meaning parent. She puts Red on the path and then lets her go. We know kids who are let loose too young, who don’t have enough guidance or tools to deal with the world, and we know what happened to them! So keeping the characters spare encourages us to build them up in our heads, to clothe them in what we know of the world, and to make the tale seem personal. It speaks directly to us.
With so little time spent developing character, the bulk of a folktale consists of plot. What does Red do? What does the wolf do? The actions define the tale. Is this a questing tale or a rags to riches tale? A coming of age, or a tale of retribution? The plots are often simple and focused on one problem or stage in life, because that’s the way we experience things. Human life is formulaic: we are born, we grow, we thrive as adults (often by means of choosing an occupation and starting a family), we age, and we die. But we deal with one phase at a time, as folktales allow us to.
That is the magic and the allure of folktales, and why even in an age of digital effects and science fiction, we can’t get away from them. We just keep retelling them. The television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time first aired the same season, for goodness’ sake. We’re not just not done with fairy tales; we seem not to be able to get enough of them. The wolf is as terrifying today as ever he was, and we all have to face him. May we all see him for what he is, as Red does, when we do.