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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Dickens of a Tale...

A favorite question in trivia games this time of year is to challenge a contestant to name all the spirits who visit Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve, a fairly easy question if one is familiar with the most seasonal of Christmas stories in the English Language, A Christmas Carol (the answer is "4"; can you name them?). A more challenging question, however, might be: "What Dickens' novel hints at or includes a story that is without a doubt the prototype for the most beloved Christmas story in the English Language?" This question is on a much higher plane of difficulty and unless you have read the entire collection of Dickens' novels, the answer is certain to elude you.

Though The Ripple is not one to boast, I'll share the fact I have read all eighteen Dickens' novels, plus A Christmas Carol and the shorter stories "The Cricket on the Hearth" and "The Chimes." Though I've always enjoyed Dickens' stories, I was a casual fan until years ago a colleague suffered a career-ending brain aneurysm. Out of respect for a friend and talented educator, I promised myself I'd pick up the torch and fulfill his goal to read the entire body of Dickens' works. So, concerning the question of which of Dickens' eighteen novels contains the fabric for A Christmas Carol, I've done all the legwork for you, and now for the answer which will have trivia players believing you're a scholar of Victorian lit.

The tale that morphed into the Christmas story as familiar and beloved as that favorite ornament you hang on the tree each year appears in Dickens' very first novel, the book that launched his literary career and secured his finances to the point he could devote the rest of his life to writing. If one were looking for the question and answer that are the subjects of this post and set out to read Dickens' entire body of literature, he need only to have read The Pickwick Papers halfway through to discover a narrative told by one Mr. Warble, "The Goblins that Stole a Sexton."

It is Christmas Eve and Gabriel Grub, confirmed misanthrope (Ebenezer Scrooge) and sexton for the village church, grumbles his way through festive streets, each house alight with Christmas cheer from which issue aromas of Christmas feasts in the making. Caroling children throng the doorsteps, their excited voices resounding the Christmas spirit. Gabriel, described as "a sullen, morose," fellow, has little time for such gaiety ("Christmas! Bah, Humbug!") and is en route to the churchyard to dig a grave to lift his spirits. As Grub trudges along, he sings a different carol:

                                Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
                               A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;
                               A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
                               A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat.
                               Rank grass above,and damp clay around,
                               Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground.

His night's work finished, Gabriel seats himself on his favorite tombstone and takes a long pull on the bottle he has brought along. Just then the old curmudgeon hears a "Ho! Ho! Ho! and turns to see a goblin sitting on an adjacent grave marker. The goblin inquires after Gabriel's business in the churchyard and when he learns the sexton has been digging a grave, he wants to know what manner of man it is who visits graveyards and digs graves on the merriest night of the year. Before Grub can answer, a host of goblins choruses his name: "Gabriel Grub, Gabriel Grub!" The King of the Goblins chides Grub for being so mean-spirited: "You miserable man!" King Goblin and his unearthly host snatch Gabriel away to their underground lair where at the very end of a cavern the goblins conjure up a cloud upon which their captive is shown a number of visions.The first projects a poor family before a warm fire in their small, but clean, apartment. The children welcome their father home from work. Though he's tired, he attends to his children who flock to his knee. The scene is one of love, happiness, and comfort.

Then the scene shifts to a small bedroom in which the family stands vigil over a dying child.The child dies before Gabriel's eyes and the family grieves (sounds familiar, doesn't it?). The cloud shifts to another scene which portrays the world of nature, its beauty and the wonderful creatures that live in it. Between scenes the goblin king calls Grub a "miserable man" and he and his followers kick Gabriel unmercifully. Another scene: poor folk going about their daily lives, cheerful and optimistic in spite of the hardships life throws their way. Vision after vision until the sexton has a change of heart and remarks at his revelation: "...that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all." No sooner had Gabriel reached his conclusion than the goblins disappeared one by one and he slipped into a deep sleep. He awoke in the churchyard on the same slab of stone, an empty bottle at his feet, "but he was an altered man." ["I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The spirits of all Three shall live within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach." Ebenezer Scrooge]

The Pickwick Papers was written and serialized 1836-7, but A Christmas Carol did not appear until 1843, six years later. During those six years the tale of Gabriel Grub and the goblins gestated in the creative mind of Charles Dickens, shifted like the visions shown the sexton in Goblin Cave and six years later emerged as the wonderful Christmas story known the world over. And there's your trivia question ripe for the asking.

The Ripple wishes one and all the very merriest of Christmases.