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The Victorian Shaman

Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' continues to enchant audiences even today - but why?

The Victorian shaman

No doubt as this Advent comm­ences, I, and many others, will be re-reading Charles Dickens’s 1843 seasonal classic “A Christmas Carol” for the umpteenth time. Those of us who have fallen under its spell will doubtless continue to do so every year, even if we live to be as old as the oldest Biblical patriarch, and each time with the same degree of emotion – whether it be delight, wonder or sadness – as the times before. 

In any other context, such behaviour might be interpreted as borderline obsessive, but that simply doesn’t apply here. Ponder this for a moment: there are few other works in Western literat­ure that have enjoyed such a breadth and variety of adaptations across all media. The tale continually reinvents itself, the same and yet different; yet by any reasonable measure the work is slim, compact – by Dickens’s own expans­ive standards positively Lilliput­ian. So what is its secret? 

It was only a short while ago, after completing and contemplating Patrick Harpur’s alchemical masterpiece The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, [1] that I grasped consciously what my unconscious (or higher self; call it what you will), had presumably known all along – that Dickens, an unwitting Victorian shaman, had created a ‘hermetically’ compact yet multifaceted transformative initiation myth for our times. All other cultures and periods, from the Eleusinian Greeks to the Dreamtime Aborigines, needed and originated such myths, and Dickens has done the same for us. 

The creation of the story was a cathartic reaction to a mounting crisis – gruell­ing financial problems and the relative flop of the ongoing Martin Chuzzlewhit (“I don’t think I can write,” bemoaned Dickens) – that gave way to the thrall of imaginative ecstasy as Dickens created his tale: “He wept at it, and laughed, and wept again; it so excited him that, in the small hours, ‘when all sober folks had gone to bed’, he walked London’s black streets for 15 and 20 miles, poss­essed by it." [2]

The paradoxical core of all Initiation is the dying to oneself in order to be reborn, and Scrooge’s story occurs, entirely appropriately, at that ancient and emblematic time of death and rebirth, the Winter Solstice. His psychopomp, that escort and guide to the Underworld, the necessary Prime Initiator, is of course old Jacob Marley himself, Scrooge’s own dear departed. 

The transcendence of time and space is likewise an intrinsic part of all transformative initiations, and Scrooge experiences not merely three nights in one, but all Christmases past, present and future, in a journey that takes him through all four Elements; his initial descent into the Underworld is also an ascent into an “air filled with phantoms, wondering hither and thither in restless haste”. 

The Dionysian aspect of Scrooge’s init­iation commences as he lies frightened in bed “the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light”, which transpires to emanate from Scrooge’s “own room”, which has itself undergone a complete transform­ation into a festive, greenery-bedecked arbour illuminated by “a mighty blaze… roaring up the chimney”, the centrepiece of which is a heaped-up throne of Yuletide fare, on top of which the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present (below) sits like “a jolly giant bearing a glowing torch, in shape not unlike plenty’s horn”. This spirit accompanies him from the urban haunts of man “to a bleak and desert moor where monstrous masses of stone were cast about…  A place where miners live who labour in the bowels of the earth”. 

Scrooge barely has time to assimilate this earthly element before he is sped “To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled, and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.” 

There is a great deal more that I could write, but which you can work out for yourself, concerning the initiatory and mythological resonances of this tale, but ultimately, the most terrible part of Initiation is always the most important – and the most terrible of all the Ghosts, that of Christmas Future, facilitates the final breakthrough for Scrooge. Ebenezer’s newfound insight indicates that he has finally merited this: “‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.’” 

And so, at the prompting of this last awful spirit, Scrooge undergoes his own literal and metaphorical death: “Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.” 

In this way, Scrooge wins through to Christmas Morning, exclaiming: “I don’t know what day of the month it is… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here.” And so the Day begins…

1 Patrick Harpur: The Philosopher's Secret Fire. A History of the Imagination, Penguin, 2002.
2 Eleanor Farjeon: Introduction, Christmas Books (New Oxford Illustrated Dickens), Oxford University Press, reissue edition 1954. All subsequent quotations are from 'A Christmas Carol.'

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Author Biography
Guy Reid-Brown is probably the only Kent-based Reiki Master and Healer who resides in a Victorian Churchyard intersected by leys. www.greidbrown.me.uk.


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