No doubt as the advent comes, many people will be reading or re-reading Charles Dickens’ seasonal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the first, or umpteenth, time. Those 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, each reading bringing the same degree of emotions as the times before.
The visits of the three ghosts upon Scrooge are well known, being reinvented constantly to create new interpretations with the same familiar elements of story. The next time you pick up a copy to read, or sit down to watch another film interpretation, try looking at the story beyond the well-known and into the possibility of a Victorian shamanistic transformative initiation myth. (Ha! See who swallowed a dictionary …)
The paradoxical core of all Initiation is the dying in oneself in order to be reborn, and Scrooge’s story occurs, entirely appropriately, at the emblematic time of birth and rebirth, the Winter Solstice. His guide and escort to the Underworld, the Prime Initiator, is Jacob Marley, the visitation which warns his of his three impending visits:
The transcendence of time and space is 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 ritual descent into the underworld is also an ascent into an “Air filled with phantoms, wondering hither and thither in restless haste”. The Dionisian 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 come from Scrooge’s own room. The room itself has undergone a complete transformation into a festive greenery-decked arbour illuminated by “a mighty blaze… roaring up the chimney”, the centrepiece of which is a heaped-up throne of Yule fare on top of which sits the Ghost of Christmas Present, like a “jolly green giant bearing a glowing torch in shape not unlike plenty’s horn.” This spirit accompanies him from the urban haunts of man to “a place where miners live who labour in the bowels of the earth”.
Scrooge barely has time to take in his surroundings, before he is sped to sea “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 are many more parallels to draw, which give further initiation and mythological connections in this compact tale, but ultimately the most important part of the initiation is the most terrible. The Ghost of Christmas Future gives Scrooge the final breakthrough, his insight shows that he is ready for it when it comes: “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good… I am prepared to bear your company and to do it with a thankful heart.”
And so, with prompting of this last spirit, Scrooge undergoes his literal and metaphorical death in seeing his own neglected grave. In this way Scrooge wins through to Christmas morning saying “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!”
And so the day begins…