‘So now the new messiah’s ours to take’,
thought Joseph as he paid out with delight
two turtle doves for Mary’s cleansing rite.
He joins his waiting wife and son; they make
a rough line for the gate but have to brake,
an old man blocks the path, his eyes alight.
‘Oh Lord let me depart now I’ve had sight
of your salvation, let the world awake.’
The old man studies Mary, then he sighs.
‘This child,’ he said, ‘is going to be a sign,
to mark the fall of many and the rise
of many others but you must resign
yourself to take a sword thrust through your heart.’
The only answer was ‘I’ll play my part.’
And like the angels they have hope of glory,
however dimly glory’s understood:
the hope the child will live for Israel’s good,
and living bring completion to the story,
(that’s only half-believed, so old and hoary),
begun when God and Abraham both stood
outside his leathern house by Mamre’s wood
and gazed at countless stars in heaven’s storey.
Since then the promise found itself compressed
by heavy circumstance, until at last
it seemed that only Israel could be blessed.
But with the Bethlehem birth it’s all recast:
Salvation spreads like ripples on a lake,
So now the new messiah’s ours to take.
With happy prospect of a holy night
the shepherds watch the glistening angels glide
away then slither down the mountainside
and through the sleeping streets to get a sight
of their true ruler and the world’s new light.
Yet in their minds two different thoughts collide;
the infant and messiah must elide
and merge to form the ever-living wight.
The angels’ music swirls within their ears
and coils around the song Isaiah sang,
the promise Israel pondered through the years.
They dimly sense that somehow they belong
within the song, within the royal story,
and, like the angels, they have hope of glory.
If she had known the outcome of submission
and acted on that knowledge and withdrawn
consent, what would have happened to that dawn
of glory and to Gabriel’s commission?
Was all contingent on the angel’s mission?
Was there a chance no saviour would be born
and humankind left hopeless and forlorn,
in unredeemed and separate condition?
But she did not reject the proffered gift:
she grasped the long-prepared belief
and by her acquiescence made a shift
from condemnation to our sin’s relief;
a move, a step, a stride towards the light
with happy prospect of a holy night.
She took the gift of world-redeeming boy
and sought Elizabeth and Zechariah
(now six months dumb because of angels ire).
Her cousin’s infant prophet leapt for joy,
within her womb his gift had found employ
as ripples of the spirit stirred his fire.
The quickening made Elizabeth enquire:
what was this that her baby could enjoy?
How much did Mary understand that day,
the rending implications of her part?
Had she a hint of her messiah’s way,
of how the spirit’s gift would hurt her heart?
Would she have made the identical decision
if she had known the outcome of submission?
The proclamation of the incarnate word,
if it had been for me to organise,
I would have had a myriad angels rise
on wings out-glowing every gaudy bird.
In temple, fort and palace they’d be heard.
They’d hover over Caesar and advise
the worship of the one, the true, the wise.
My plan as foolish as it is absurd.
There was an angel sudden in the room
and Mary was astonished, but believed.
Her hands clenched on the shuttle of the loom
as Gabriel announced who was conceived.
She loosed her grip and, held by wondering joy,
she took the gift of world-redeeming boy.
Were there reporters clumped, but each alone,
pronouncing felted fragments as the news,
each nagging passing staff for interviews
then standing solemn with the microphone;
who knew that on the hour they had to hone
their flakes of dull to crisply-angled news
(that need not be correct but must amuse)
on when there’d be a child born for the throne?
The stones gave up the day-light’s stolen heat,
the air grew chill, the shepherds huddled tight,
spread cloaks to cover up their sandalled feet,
but fell, half-stunned, by flares of sudden light.
Then, chilled once more by fear, the shepherds heard
the proclamation of the incarnate word.
So. Back from a couple of Carol Services and time for a few reflections on Christmas carols. I’m a little worried this might come across as unseasonal and grumpy (Scrooge rather than Grinch), but as I’m standing there singing I can’t help paying attention to the words.
And what words there are.
Let’s start with O come all ye faithful, a carol whose words and tune are not so much married as only sporadically cohabiting. The most notable line:
lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb
We don’t get to sing womb very often, so I wouldn’t want to miss that. But, really, abhors not? I think that must be one of the wondrous results of translation. The original latin phrase is:
Gestant puellæ viscera
which is probably (the phrase was beyond Google Translate) more like carried in a maiden’s bowels (with bowels as a more general ‘insides’ rather than a specific intestines).
Next up, O little town of Bethlehem. Now, this may be an issue with the commonly used tune in the UK, but:
We hear the Christmas angels
Yup, one big fat mis-stress. Anyone want to write a tune which puts the AN into ANgel?
My third carol makes it for, what? Laziness, or pedestrianism. I’m not sure which. God rest ye merry gentlemen:
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same.
Certain shepherds I can live with, but describing the birth of the Messiah in the same terms a nineteenth century clerk might have used for a cargo of umbrellas doesn’t cut it.
So, do I like any carols? Yes. It came upon the midnight clear descends into druidic madness in the last verse, but I still enjoy it (working occasionally on a re-write of the last verse), and The Coventry Carol; in particular:
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
It turns out I can forgive sixteenth century tailors quite a lot, including mis-stress (ra-GING) and fanciful word order (chargèd he hath this day). Perhaps I should cut the other carol writers some slack: in the spirit of Christmas.
Hmm. That’s asking a lot. I’ll see what I can do.
So. Still with Stephen Sondheim (at least as a jumping off point). The story of A Little Night Music (p282 of the UK edition of Finishing the Hat) was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. After the success of the musical Sondheim was approached by Bergman who wanted to collaborate on an adaption of The Merry Widow. Sondheim suggested Bergman see A Little Night Music before agreeing.
After Bergman has seen the musical Sondheim asked, with some trepidation, how he had found it (given it was based on Bergman’s own story). Bergman replied:
‘No, no, Mr Sondheim, please. I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story … after all, we all eat from the same cake.’
Which brings me to discussing a film I haven’t seen yet: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Ep III: The Lord of the Rings – Revenge of the Sith) and the question some of us come back to wrestle with ‘who’s story is it?’
Why does anyone wrestle with that question? Because ‘dwarves and elves don’t fall in love’ and ‘Why did they miss out Tom Bombadil’ and ‘Faramir doesn’t behave like that’ and countless other statements. But are all those questions missing the point? Yes, and (possibly) no.
Yes, because, just as musicals and films are different beasts (and Sondheim will tell you that) so books and the Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster (HSFB). Complaining that a book and an HSFB are different is as pointless as watching Verdi’s Macbeth while reading Shakespeare’s text and being upset when you realise Verdi has cut all the good speeches. But, in fact, the reason for the differences would be very similar, because we have gone from a comparatively-subtle, interiorising medium to one where all passions and conflicts are heightened.
The HSFB is not a vehicle for finely observed feelings, nuance or ambivalence. Everything has to be flagged up and clear, and everything, absolutely everything, has to be wagered on the last roll of the dice. Which is why the Master of Lake Town – a greedy, selfish, plotting fellow in the book – becomes the little dictator in order to be a proper antagonist for Bard, who in turn has to have a family history of failure against the dragon. With all that in place, downing the dragon with a very specific, last-of-its-kind, black arrow in a very specific, last-of-its-kind, dwarf windlass becomes an suitably charged act.
The whole Azog business in the first film (burning trees and that) was driven by the need to have an antagonist for Thorin (Bolg-Legolas have the same pairing): that is exactly the same structural requirement which gave us Lurtz at the end of Ep IV (The Lord of the Rings – A new hope). Once we accept the genre we have to accept all that sort of stuff: like putting up with ten-minute death songs in operas.
We’ve seen this sort of transformation before. Watch The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967), then read The Jungle Book (Kipling, 1894). Not as different as they could be (Sher Khan is a tiger in both), but one is ‘inspired by’, not ‘enslaved to’ the other.
That’s the ‘yes’: we are eating from the same cake and it just doesn’t matter that The Hobbit has given rise to Eps I-III.
What about the (possibly) ’no’. What case is there to be made for requiring a closer adherence to the seminal (in the seed-sense) book? I find it difficult to think where such a case might start. Perhaps it might start with the breath of the book, the pneuma or spirit. It is a little adventure. A perilous little adventure, certainly, but one which only becomes important because Someone (naming no names) found That Ring. Is that same breath in the film? Probably not. (Perhaps we could make something which was closer to that breath by making a cut of the three films which never leaves Bilbo. It would be weird, baffling and less bombastic.)
But in the end the book is the book and the films is the films. And we all eat from the same cake.