To celebrate the release of our second Self Made Hero book of M. R. James adaptations – Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Vol 2 – we’re going to be counting down to Christmas in true Jamesian style, with a new haunting image and nugget of info every day.
On top of that, we’ll be giving away a copy of the book via Twitter every Sunday in the lead up to Christmas. Check the #MRJ2GIVEAWAY hashtag for details of how to take part.
Maura McHugh lives in the Irish countryside, in a house guarded by rooks, and visited by hares. Her short fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in publications in America and Europe. She’s written several comic book series, and is also a screenwriter, playwright, a critic, and has served on the juries of international literary, comic book, and film awards. Her latest book is a monograph on David Lynch’s iconic film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, published by Electric Dreamhouse Press/PS Publishing. Her web site is http://splinister.com and she tweets as @splinister.
Many of our fondest childhood memories are created during special events. Christmas, overlaid as it is with expectations of sumptuous feasts and cheery families, is a time of heightened emotions. Even if you swear to avoid the crowds by only buying gifts online, you end up at some point desperately battling through puffy coats in a crowded aisle trying to secure that last pot of artisan lemon curd so your dessert will be perfect.
But when you’re a child such problems don’t exist. You revel in the trappings of Christmas, the marvel of presents delivered by a magical being, and the licence it gives you. And being creatures of habit, who love simple repetitive melodies, Christmas carols are easy to learn and can be repeated endlessly (much to your parents’ anguish).
When I was a girl with a big imagination I already adored fantastic stories, fairy tales, and bold epics. Many of the Christmas carols I loved sounded old, and had antiquated language. I played recorder, and at Christmas there were a number of traditionals I had to learn.
One of my favourites was ‘Good King Wenceslas’. It has a memorable, simple melody, and tells a story of the benevolence of a sainted monarch. It didn’t have stern angels, or boring baby Jesus, but told a human story of being generous to others, with a dash of folk magic. I loved the strangeness of the name Wenceslas, and the wintery scene the song conjures. I imagined it from the page’s perspective: the small shivering boy struggling to help his King on an urgent mission to bring alms to the poor.
I enjoyed its final act of sympathetic magic:
Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod which the saint had printed.
The story ends with a last couplet endorsing being kind to others (rather unnecessarily), but it doesn’t tell us if the sovereign and his sidekick successfully endured the storm, if the peasant family got delivery of the supplies, or how the duo returned to the castle.
That was for me to ponder as I ate too many After Eights, and ignored the argument over which of the six TV channels we would watch…
(Much later I discovered the lyrics were Victorian faux medieval, courtesy of John Mason Neale in collaboration with Thomas Helmore from 1853, but the melody was the genuine article: a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum – ‘The time is near for flowering’.)