Search This Blog

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Of Books And Christmas

Everyone is doing Christmas blog posts and this is a book blog, after all. So, a few books with Christmas in them won't go amiss.

To tell the truth, it started in my head on Twitter, with a proposal to discuss Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising, from December 21, when the story starts, with the hashtag #TheDarkIsRising. Some folk read it every year at this time, because of the mood it evokes in a northern hemisphere country where this time of year is cold and dark. In my case, of course, it's bright, sunny and hot, which doesn't mean I can't get into the mood. I can read it lying on the beach and be swept into rural Buckinghamshire in winter, with the snow falling and Herne riding with the Wild Hunt...

But more of this presently. Let's think of other books first. A Christmas Carol, of course, Charles Dickens's novella about a grumpy old man whose soul is saved by the visits of three spirits and the ghost of his former business partner, Marley who is dragging along a chain he forged himself through his lifetime and wants to save his old friend from that. When you think about it, there must have been something Scrooge was doing right that someone cared about him enough to come back from the afterlife to help him. I have read that in some ways Dickens created our vision of the Victorian era Christmas and you can see it, really.

I recently re-viewed the Dr Who episode about Charles Dickens - the third of New Who, with Christopher Eccleston in the role. It's Christmas in Victorian era Cardiff and Dickens is doing his one-man show reciting A Christmas Carol. The dead are rising, running around Cardiff, their bodies occupied by beings from another universe.

Seeing the Dickens performance bit reminded me that an old school friend of mine is doing just that - I saw him perform in the Spiegeltent in Melbourne one year at Christmas - the poor man was wearing heavy Victorian costume in the heat of Aussie summer. But he did a very good Charles Dickend.

A Christmas Carol has spawned an entire industry in films and themed stories, but I'm just going to mention one novel, Christopher Priestley's The Last Of The Spirits, in which the story of Scrooge is seen from the viewpoint of two homeless children who encounter the ghost of Marley on his way to save Scrooge, while they are trying to sleep in a cemetery. They later turn up as propaganda when the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge that they are Ignorance and Want. The kids are not impressed at being used in this way, but it all works out. There is a suggestion that the boy's anger with the world may send him in the same direction as Scrooge if he doesn't watch out. Interesting, though really, Scrooge has no excuse that Dickens tells us about. He did spend a bit of his childhood with a father issue, but that ended okay, and he had a loving sister, a terrific master during his apprenticeship and a beautiful girlfriend who only dumped him because he was  already turning unpleasant.

If you haven't read Little Women, you have missed one of the great Christmas scenes in 19th century literature. Four sisters living in America during the Civil War celebrate as best they can in their genteel poverty. They spend what little money they have on their mother and give up their breakfast to a family suffering real poverty. The older girls do have to work for a living, but in those days genteel poverty meant you were a middle class family which could only afford one servant - in this case, Hannah the housekeeper, who is not a slave as this is a family living in the North.

Who can forget the Christmas night play, performed in a small room by the girls? It's written by Jo, the would-be writer, who plays the villain in this melodrama. In some ways, I think Little Women does for 19th century American Christmas what A Christmas Carol does for British. it even begins with the complaint that Christmas won't be Christmas without presents.

I wrote about Harry Potter in last year's Christmas book post, so I won't go into any detail here. Go look it up under "Compulsory pre-Christmas Post." Let's just say that something dramatic happens every Christmas in the Potter books. In The Deathly Hallows, Harry and Hermione are in Godric's Hollow when they realise it's Christmas and we get our first mention of a church, with the Christmas service which they don't attend. I do often wonder about wizards and religion. They do celebrate holidays, but only in the secular sense. Funerals and weddings seem to be performed by a celebrant, at least when we see them in the books. Perhaps there's something on Pottermore. 

So, back to The Dark Is Rising. In case you've missed it, this is a children's book by a British writer now living in the US and writing beautiful books like Shadow Hawk, set in early colonial America, seen from the viewpoints of both a Native American lad and an English boy who sympathises with the Native Americans. 

Susan Cooper writes beautiful stuff, and The Dark Is Rising is a classic. It's no wonder so many people want to do an on-line reread. Long before Harry Potter, a boy discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is - well, not a wizard, exactly. Will Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and he is the last of the Old Ones, a group of magical people who fight for the Light against the Dark. They are led by Merlin, who is still around and even has a job in this time - he is a university professor and archaeologist and calls himself Merriman Lyon. I guess the university must give him a very flexible timetable because he always seems to be around in this series of books. 

Yes, it's a series of five, but this book, the title of the series, is, in my opinion, the best, and the one people want to reread, over and over. It has not only story, but atmosphere. There's snow and darkness and a flood when the snow melts. There is a sinister Rider, menacing Will and his family, and an old tramp who was once something else, till he was tempted to the Dark(or is that the Dark Side?). Christmas here is celebrated in the home of an Old One, the sort of lady of the manor - well, she lives in the big house, anyway, and shelters the whole village when it looks like being flooded out. 

There are references to traditions such as the hunting of the wren, woven into the storyline. Christmas is woven through it, a European Christmas not unlike the mediaeval kind when the whole idea was to keep warm and kindie light so that the sun would come back. 

If you haven't read Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, by the way, you need to, and especially the scene where Death and his servant Albert are discussing the true meaning of Hogswatch, the Discworld Christmas. Albert doesn't think it's about a fat man giving gifts or family celebrating. It's about bringing back the sun and a lot of nasty things happen to make that go. Mind you, Death's granddaughter Susan thinks it's about "jolly...and other things ending in olly."

And here I will leave you to enjoy your holiday, whatever the true meaning is. May the new year bring you lots of books! 


Pamela said...

Argh, I still need to read The Dark is Rising sequence! In fact, I'm not even sure if we have them here at my new job. I must check.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What! You've never read The Dark Is Rising? Ever? It's one of the great classics of 20th century children's writing. Still in print, so kids must still be enjoying it. It has one thing in common with Harry Potter, apart from the eleventh birthday discovery: it starts with a children's book and eventually moves into YA. I would be very surprised if your library doesn't have the series. Go get it right away or buy the ebook - now!

Be warned, though: if you ever see the film lying around on DVD or whatever, absolutely DON'T pick it up! It has to be one of the worst films I've ever seen, and is what the Potter movies might have been like if JKR hadn't stood firm. Will Stanton and his family are American! In such a beautiful, so very BRITISH story! The dignified Old Ones are idiots. There is a missing brother to make up the seventh son thing. The only interest in it for me was Christopher Eccleston, the first Doctor in New Who, as the villain. Not enough to make me ever see it again.

Tamara Narayan said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I do love Little Women. I think my dad has a copy from the early 1900s. When I think of Christmas books, I remember fondly the kids story: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. These days I don't get many books for presents because no one can keep up with all the things I've already read. But gift cards work just fine. Have a wonderful Christmas!

Sue Bursztynski said...

I love gift cards! These days I'd rather have an iTunes card than one for a bookshop, because I've run out of bookshelf space! But there's no pleasure like browsing among brand new books and knowing you can have one with your card...