You could guess this installment’s topic with your eyes closed, inside a burlap bag. From the basement room of a neighborhood that has no electric lights. Because it was, like, the Dark Ages. So I don’t do mystery, sue me. What other classic would I be reviewing in the week of Yule except Charles Dickens’ absolutely immortal- A Christmas Carol.
I can feel your impatience from across the internet, so let me give you the summary in two bullet points.
- Yes, this is a fantasy classic.
- And no, you haven’t ever read it. Not really.
A Spiritual Experience
Now I don’t want any sass on that first point– Marley was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt whatever about that. Then this dead guy, he talks for an entire scene, and Scrooge can rave about blobs of mustard all he likes, but even HE says he believes it.
Add three ghosts, trips across time and space, walking through walls and an old man spending the coldest night ever recorded on earth in his nightshirt, and what you have there is a fantasy tale. Light on combat, I’ll grant you, but a ripping good fantasy yarn nonetheless. Horror and the supernatural are strongly allied to fantasy and always have been. The main difference, in my view, is the growth of character across the tale. Eighteen movies where a cabin/car/boatload of teens run screaming from Risen Guy with a weed-whacker, and what has anyone ever come away learning?
But Scrooge– graduate degree in Goodwill and Charity, in one night.
And this is YOUR tale, rather ours. We all tell it, because we all continually live it.
The only real choice you have with A Christmas Carol is to figure out what part of the story you’re in. And decide how long you’ll stay there.
Scrooge and You, Both Misers
Not me, you exclaim? I’m warning you, no chance you’ll escape this one. The popularity of Christmas Carol is a tidal-wave of evidence. Why does every actor on earth want to play him? Why do we all listen to it, on the radio, in 19 major films, in 39 stage
versions (since 1974, half of them running continuously). There have been three Scrooge operas, a graphic novel with Batman as him, over 200 major productions either repeating the story directly or putting a “modern” touch on it. There’s a steampunk version of this tale, one where he’s a TV producer, one where Scrooge is played by just about the hottest woman on the planet, and another where Tiny Tim’s disease is causing the zombie apocalypse.
You think you’ve read this tale? Please, you don’t even know which character you’re playing. Yeah, it’s not good news. But prove your literary worth and pass the quiz first.
Scrooge by the Book- Is it in the Story? (True or False)
1) His clerk asks him for extra coal in the beginning
2) The ghosts come at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock
3) Scrooge sees himself in the future
4) Scrooge visits Crachit’s house on Christmas Day
All false. You’ve been remembering one of the many excellent video versions, which take details of the character arc to heart and amplify the essential meaning Dickens started with. The book’s too short for TV! And that’s fine. But why bother with a 160 year old novella unless everyone– directors, screenplay writers, major actors and you watching at home– responded to something there?
Point: you respond to a tale this powerfully this well this long, because you identify with
a major character. And Christmas Carol has only one.
The chief thing about a miser isn’t that he’s rich, or that it’s only about money. Misers are unhappy. They deny everyone their wealth, starting with themselves. There’s a word for the condition a miser lives in. It’s called misery. Scrooge is quite correctly described as sad, weird, funny; as his nephew points out, the only one hurt by all his crabbing is himself. Our lives reflect this and it’s seldom money- it might be patience, or good humor, or our love, or– ahem– our writing talent, but we hold it back and don’t share it enough.
And we need to change. Your heroes need to change- why else are people reading your novella? Many wise online coaches have written about conflict, but Dickens gives us a more detailed map of the how and when. Here is where the spirits come in. You might call them muses.
A Reader’s Progress- Scrooge’s Character Grows
- Marley comes to warn Scrooge and his principal impact is based on fear. Scrooge needs to be jogged out of his complacent habits, convinced there are consequences to his actions beyond what he can see, and forced to consider that he must change. The fear is important, but alone it’s not enough. As soon as Marley leaves, the miser is trying to settle back into his old ways, muttering “humbug” again. But he is still off-balance and open to-
- The Ghost of Christmas Past whose chief influence is to fill him with regret.
Seeing that he was once happy, and that he used to respond more kindly to people around him, Scrooge becomes truly sad (not miserable, which for a miser is just a form of self-pity). He tells the spirit he can bear it no longer- she has scraped him out like a gourd. Based only on regret for his mistakes, though, Scrooge will not change- he pushes down the cap over the spirit’s light to get rid of it. For more progress in his arc, Scrooge needs-
- The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him happiness and gives him desire. There’s a Chinese proverb that speaks of how sorrow hollows you like a man creating a pot. Now you can contain more joy. Scrooge sees others making merry despite much less wealth than he possesses and comes to desire that happiness again. If left here, he probably wouldn’t be quite so crabby, for a while, but it’s still not enough. Scrooge must be pushed that final step to action by-
- The Ghost of Christmas Future, who doesn’t simply terrify him but gives Scrooge a sense of consequence. Misers like us mortals are not only selfish, or rather we’re selfish in part because we can’t see for sure the best thing to do with our talents. Easy to say how stupid it is for an old man to hoard money- but remember, Scrooge doesn’t think he is a miser. None of us do. By seeing his future, Scrooge realizes his choices matter. He could make the wrong one. He has been so far. His fate and Tiny Tim’s are linked: and in the event of death, the boy has nothing to fear, whereas Scrooge… that’s not just fear, it’s an impetus to act.
If a man gave away all his money but had not changed inside, it would be about as effective as a knight in my tales defeating a dragon without effort. Scrooge on Christmas Day has become “light as a feather, as giddy as a schoolgirl”. He is an imp– speaking in riddles to the boy outside his window, sending the turkey anonymously to Bob Cratchit. He is unafraid to appear a fool; he knows he has already been one. He understands it’s important to use his money, not to be known for doing so. He is exchanging his treasures here for those in heaven. Just one more remarkable feature of Dickens’ writing, that he so clearly points to a moral and religious purpose without using the G-word (even in vain). Scrooge accomplishes a transformation of character that the world has responded to across all media for sixteen decades. We know, deep down, who he’s talking to.
The 19th Century Indie
Dickens did here what all us authors, writers, chroniclers want to do with our work. More than readers liking the story, more than loving it, he changed how people lived. Did you know:
- He wrote Christmas Carol as Plan B? His original idea was to pen a political tract, urging Parliament to do more to help the poor, and children, etc. He decided that a parable about Christmas would be better. I don’t think he was wrong.
- His tale brought us not just Scrooge, but “Merry Christmas” itself! In Dickens’ day there was still some Puritan in England’s make-up, believing that celebration and liberality were wrong. He was out to change that, and he did.
- He finished the work in less than six weeks, with a deadline (Christmas 1842) looming over his head as pressure. The spirits were with him.
- He elected to self-publish! Took a percentage-royalty instead of flat fee. And he didn’t do that well on it- the book’s popularity was almost immediate but his returns weren’t as great as he’d hoped. Public readings (early video!) and reprintings eventually made up the gap (but Dickens was already well-off). He did the slow-burn!
- Dickens also spear-headed the blasphemous idea that you could publish longer tales, like his other novels, in shorter formats released as serials. Hmmm…. and by making each chapter so cheap (just a ha’penny or so) even the masses could afford to buy a copy.
So, the more things change. And if Dickens was prefiguring so many of our publication choices, we might want to take his writing style to heart as well. Check any article about the history of Christmas Carol to see the impact his tale had on the world: other great writers heaping praise and vowing to give generously, factory owners reduced to tears or closing shop for Christmas after seeing the play. Face it, you got to get a piece of this.
Start with yourself. I urge you all to read A Christmas Carol– the verb there was “read”, but see it too if you like. Learn from your fear, desire the happiness that comes with giving, and make good choices to change the world. Scrooge learns it’s never too late. But the flip-side of that maxim is also true- what day better than today?
A Merry Christmas to you all. God bless us indie authors, every one.
Will occasionally pontificates on Classics You’ve Never Read. His earlier reviews can be found here.
BTW: The best of the lot? Albert Finney, the musical version.