Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Folk tales, fairy stories and nursery rhymes are perhaps the most powerful narratives that we have, because they have been subjected to the strongest and most stringent editorial processes possible. Over hundreds, in some cases perhaps thousands, of years, they have been polished clean and smooth in the telling and the retelling, as one generation hands them on to the next.

All the rough edges are gone, only plots and characters that are the most engaging and affecting remain. The collective popular consciousness is a fine judge of when a story works and when it does not, which is why the narratives formed in this way have stood the test of time, and why these tales first heard in childhood are often the ones that stay strongest in the memory.

It takes a special talent, then – perhaps a unique one – to consciously and single-handedly create a story so organic, so natural and so powerful that it feels like a folk tale.

And yet, A Christmas Carol did indeed spring from the mind of Charles Dickens. He was influenced of course by the world and the society around him, of attitudes and realities of the early Victorian age; and he had, after a fashion, piloted the story before, in the The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton. No piece of writing is created entirely in isolation, but when Dickens sat down in the autumn of 1843 and formed the plot to convey his message, he hit upon something so utterly perfect in every way that he initiated one of the few folk tales – the only one, perhaps? – with a very definite date of publication and a single author. Characters who are familiar touchstones in popular culture to this day, and will remain so for generations to come – Scrooge, the three spirits, even Tiny Tim; he came up with them all.

Like all folk tales, A Christmas Carol is a story that is told and re-told again and again, its form and format changing for the age, but Dickens’s central narrative always remaining at its heart. There is not a year that goes by without some new adaptation or pastiche appearing either in the cinemas, on the television, on the radio or online. The Hallmark Channel in the United States alone seems to manage to turn out a new version each year, usually an overly-saccharine modern-day adaptation, featuring the Scrooge character as a heartless female celebrity or executive of some sort.

These adaptations vary from the sublime to the ridiculous, but whatever the heights some of them can reach, there is nothing that can match the joy and the sheer excellence of the prose in the original. If you’ve never read it, I beseech you to try it – you may have some idea of Dickens as being overly long and ‘difficult’, but A Christmas Carol remains perhaps his most readable work. You can polish it off in an afternoon, it has a lightness of touch that comes perhaps from his driving sense of purpose and message, and from not being weighed down by having to be published in serial form. A Christmas Carol, unlike his longer works, first appeared all of a piece; a perfect whole, ideal for consumption in a single sitting.

In an early entry on this blog, I played with an analogy of writers as footballers, musing that I was more of a Steve Claridge than a Maradona or a Pele. A Christmas Carol shows why Dickens was clearly Maradona, Pele, Best, Messi and anyone else you may care to mention all rolled into one. Take, just as an example, the initial description of Scrooge’s house:

“They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.”

The text is fairly littered with gems such as this, scattered so frequently through the story that each page is turned with the delight of a walk in the woods where you continually find diamonds underfoot. It actually feels a disservice to lower A Christmas Carol to the level of being a mere “text”, but there we go; I am an English Literature graduate, after all.

The very first page alone must surely be one of the greatest single pages of any piece of prose fiction in the English literary canon. In the pantheon of great opening lines, Dickens is perhaps better known for “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” but that doesn’t set up the mystery and wonder of the story anywhere near as well as the Carol’s “Marley was dead, to begin with.

The very first sentence – this chap Marley is dead, but only to begin with? How can there be any further story to come after that...?

Further down the page we have Dickens’s clarification of Marley’s status: “There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” In between, we’ve had Dickens’s playful musings on the nature of one of the great English similes; he compares Marley to being “as dead as a door-nail,” and then points out that:

“Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

To use another footballing analogy, Dickens is – as my colleague Rob Butler would perhaps put it – “unplayable.”

If Charles Dickens had never written another word after A Christmas Carol – or indeed, another word except for it – then such is its quality, he would still be famous. Such is the power of the book that it has even been credited with inventing, or at least helping to invent, the modern celebration of Christmas as we know it in the English-speaking world. It is a high watermark, not simply for Dickens, but for all of literature – and even the man himself was never again to match it. What perhaps makes this all the more amazing is that Dickens wrote the Carol quickly, and because he needed the money. Having said that, he clearly had some idea he was on to a good thing, as he later related how he would pace the streets of London at night, forming the storyline in his head, laughing and crying at the wonder of what he was concocting.

After the instant success of the Carol, Dickens did his best to capture the lightning in a bottle. For each of the following three Christmases, and again in 1848, he produced another Christmas book. None of them come anywhere close to the Carol, however, and even had they not been overshadowed by it, they would probably still have been pretty much forgotten among his lesser works.

The Chimes feels too much like an artist doing a cover version of his own hit record; The Cricket on the Hearth verges too far into the territory of the twee fairytale, although the construction of its title did inspire a much lesser scribbler in the titling of one of his own works many years later; The Battle of Life was poorly-regarded by even Dickens himself, although the first two or three pages are worth a look, as Dickens rather startlingly seems to invent First World War literature about 70 years early; and The Haunted Man is a stodgy and confusing read.

None of Dickens’s attempts to replicate the success of A Christmas Carol can ever cheapen the impact of the original, however. It is a story for the ages, and in these more secular times it has perhaps in some quarters become the Christmas story. After all, it is just as believable, and a much more satisfying read, than the tale to which Christians cling.

Indeed, it would not surprise me if, in the future, there are children who understand Christmas to be the season when we celebrate the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge. And why not? If the genius and sentiment of A Christmas Carol isn’t worth a day of praise and commemoration, then I don’t know what is.


  1. Ah, if you like the door-nail bit so much, that explains some of your own stuff. You like those musing asides... I think that one's a little much, myself! It is a great story, though.

    1. I'd never really considered whether musing asides were a particular facet of my work... Perhaps you're right! Maybe cutting them out would help my novels be a bit sharper.

      I love the nail one, though. Dickens gets away with it, I think, whereas lesser authors may not have.

  2. Ha! Cricket on the Heath eh? I knew I'd seen that title forumaltion somewhere before!

    Nice piece and I've got to agree about the sainted Charles's turn of phrase. I'd also second your exhortation to read the thing. For years I didn't thinking it would be twee nonsense, but when I finally succumbed found it delightful, funny and moving

    1. It's "Hearth", but before I read it I'd always misread it as "Heath", and that did indeed eventually lead to Wicket's title.

  3. Shame that it's not 'Heath', really. But you can see why the natural mistake is made. In my experience you're much more likely to find a cricket on a heath than a hearth

    1. Indeed. Sadly, it's not one of his best all-round, although if I were ranking the Christmas books it would probably take third place out of the five. They'd go in chronological order, basically!

  4. Aha, so even in the olden days, fandoms were saying 'It's not as good as the last one...'

    1. In the case of Dickens's later Christmas Books, though, they'd be right!