Advent Windows of Story – Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come

Wintry reads and curl-up-by-the-fireside-words have a special hold during this season of retreat and dreaming…

They push through into magic lands of imagination, treading patterns of memory which – like the ghosts of Christmas – explore story past, present, future through the long nights and snowy paths of winter.

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Back cover design of The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Before the minutes began to run like loose glitter through school concerts, Christmas letter writing, billows of washing to prepare the house for the gathering of the clan, I was working on a couple of long, exploratory posts – which now don’t seem appropriate for this time of heading-for-bolt-holes and home; and of nuggets of thought to toast by the fire.

Now, words spill into the festive season and come out in the shape of carols and family conversation and plans, and daft paper crowns, and pulled crackers spilling laughter…

So, here are some nuggets of winter reading to aid the dreaming and the journeys through snow-filled imaginings. Nuggets that speak for themselves; marsh-mallow pieces of story-delight to stick on the end of your toasting fork of dreams, and gently melt and savour into Christmas…

(The long, winding posts of literary investigation can wait for the long, winding paths beyond New Year’s soon-to-open doors…)

In the meantime, happy dreaming – and happy reading. Hope you enjoy peeking through these advent windows into the worlds of various books – where Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come all become one, blended like a warm festive drink in the magic punch bowl that is memory and imagination:

(There are more story advent windows here than there are days left until Christmas – but I couldn’t resist adding in some extra!)

It was late afternoon before they finished the Christmas tree, and it was growing dark. They lit the old red Chinese lantern and many candles so that they could see to work. There were no glaring electric bulbs on this tree. Mrs Oldknow had boxes of coloured glass ornaments, each wrapped separately in tissue paper and put carefully away from year to year. Some were very old and precious indeed. There were glass balls, stars, fir-cones, acorns and bells in all colours and all sizes. There were also silver medallions of angels. Of course the most beautiful star was fixed at the very top, with gold and silver suns and stars beneath and around it. Each glass treasure, as light as an eggshell and as brittle, was hung on a loop of black cotton that had to be coaxed over the prickly fingers of the tree. Tolly took them carefully out of their tissue paper and Mrs Oldknow hung them up. The tiny glass bell-clappers tinkled when a branch was touched. When it was all finished, there were no lights on the tree itself, but the candles in the room were reflected in each glass bauble on it, and seemed in those soft deep colours to be shining from an immense distance away, as if the tree were a cloudy night sky full of stars. They sat down together to look at their work. Tolly thought it so beautiful he could say nothing, he could hardly believe his eyes.’

From The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

Front cover - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

Front cover – The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, published by Faber & Faber

‘Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Christmas Eve) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition, illustration by Laura Carlin

‘He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before. Now and forever, he knew, he inhabited a different time-scale from that of everyone he had ever known or loved… But he managed to turn his thoughts away from all these things, even from the two invading, threatening figures of the Dark. For this was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and to all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was on the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside.

Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down. Will lay on his back on the hearth-rug staring into the smoke wreathing up the chimney, and was suddenly very sleepy indeed.’

From The Dark is Rising (Part Two, The Learning – Betrayal) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition - title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, Folio Society edition – title page and illustration by Laura Carlin

There they go, Moss and Blister, hurrying up Blackfriar’s Stairs and on through the dark streets, under a sky fairly peppered with stars as cold as frozen sparks. Up Coalman’s Alley, across Bristol Street…

“ ‘Appy Christmas, marm – and a nappy Christmas to you, miss!” bellowed a bellman, coming out of an alehouse and wagging his bell like a swollen brass finger.

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given!” He hiccupped, and drew out a little Christmas poem of his own composing, while Moss and Blister stood stock-still and listened. Then he held out his hand, and Moss put a sixpence in it, for it was Christmas Eve, and Moss, who was a midwife, felt holy and important.

Ordinarily, Moss was brisk and businesslike to a degree, but on this one night of the year she was as soft as butter and gave her services for nothing. She lived in hopes of being summoned to a stable and delivering the Son of God.

“It’s written down, Blister,” she said to her apprentice after the bellman had weaved away. “It’s all written down. Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time.”

Blister, a tall, thin girl with sticking-out ears and saucer eyes, who flapped and stalked after stubby Moss like a loose umbrella, said “Yus’m!” and looked frightened to death. Blister also had her dream of Christmas Eve and a stable, but it was not quite the same as Moss’s. She dreamed that Moss would be delivering her of the marvelous Child.

Naturally, she kept her ambition a deep secret from Moss, so that the dreamy frown that sometimes settled on her face led Moss to surmise that her apprentice was a deep one…..

…..At the end of every March, she’d lie in her bed, waiting with ghostly urgency for Moss to appear beside her, for Moss had a gift like the angel of the annunciation. She could tell, long before it showed, if any female had a bun in the oven, a cargo in the hold, or a deposit in the vault – depending on the trade concerned…..

…..But she never looked at Blister in that certain way, and every Christmas Eve Blister would grow frightened that someone else had been chosen to bear the glory of the world.’

From The Apprentices – Moss and Blister, by Leon Garfield

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

The Apprentices by Leon Garfield, published by William Heinemann, 1982 edition. Jacket painting by Stefen Bernath

It was dusk – winter dusk. Snow lay white and shining over the pleated hills, and icicles hung from the forest trees. Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold, but from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold, and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger.

Snow lay thick, too, upon the roof of Willoughby Chase, the great house that stood on an open eminence in the heart of the wold. But for all that, the Chase looked an inviting home – a warm and welcoming stronghold. Its rosy herring-bone brick was bright and well-cared for, its numerous turrets and battlements stood up sharp against the sky, and the crenellated balconies, corniced with snow, each held a golden square of window. The house was all alight within, and the joyous hubbub of its activity contrasted with the sombre sighing of the wind and the hideous howling of the wolves without.’

From The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Chapter One) by Joan Aiken

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children's Books.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, Red Fox Books 2004 edition, published by Random House Children’s Books.

“I am going mad.” Aunt Valentina fell into a chair, shot up as a cat yowled and escaped, sank down again with her doeskin boots stuck out. “It’s too much. I am going mad.”

Poor Val. She did have bad luck. When she and Rudolf came to World’s End, which was only just often enough to remind everybody whose house it was, she was either chased by the ram, butted by the goat, tipped off the donkey, or had her foot trodden on by a horse. Today when she arrived loaded with Christmas spirit and parcels, with miniature golden angels dangling from her ears, she ran full tilt into Tom carrying a dead dog, Carrie and Em and Michael behind him with candles, chanting.

Val’s Christmas spirit left her in a flash. “I am going mad.”

The procession went on out of the side door to the place under the weeping willow where dead animals rested, and where Michael had asked to be buried, ‘when my time comes’. He had already made his own gravestone, the blade of a broken oar stuck into the ground and painted with the message, ‘Micel Fidling. At Rest With His Frends’.

At Dusty’s graveside, Carrie recited a short poem she had quickly run up when he died at noon:

‘Here the good old friend of Liza Jones,
A wanderer dog lays down his weary bones.
He mustn’t be forgotten, must he?
For all his name, he was not so dusty.’

When they went back in, Valentina had recovered from the shock of having a dead body carried out as she came in, but she started up again when Dad lit the candles on the tree. The other lights were out, and it looked heavenly, the small pure flames like stars.

But Val screamed, “Fire! It will catch fire!”

She lunged forward to blow out the candles, and knocked one off the tree. It set light to a piece of tissue paper on the floor.

“Leave it alone, Val.” Jerome Fielding put out the small fire with his foot. “We’ll blow them out when they get lower.”

“Go ahead, Jerry.” Uncle Rudolf was genial enough today, though his marble head and stiff back were not made for it. “The insurance money is worth more to me than the house.”

From World’s End in Winter (Chapter 18) by Monica Dickens

World's End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

World’s End in Winter by Monica Dickens, 1972 edition, published by William Heinemann

For a beautiful winter solstice-time post about Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – slip through this portal to the Whistles in the Wind blog.

And for another The Dark is Rising related treat – and lots of winter woods enchantment – find your way through the back of the magic wardrobe to this post by Diana J Hale.

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Story, Legend and Mordred’s Lullaby

The power of story – and its importance in our lives and endeavours – is an abiding theme here on Bookish Nature. Myth and legend are at the beating heart of a deep human need; the storyteller by the fire an essential part of any culture.

The Arthurian legends linger in Britain’s mists like memories rising from the land. They are an essence of something felt, but not articulated directly – something that is released in language only in the form of poem, symbol and tale; darting through an alchemy of words, lithe as a fox.

Susan Cooper says of the fourth in her The Dark is Rising sequence of children’s novels, so steeped in ‘the mythic history of the land’ and the legends of King Arthur:

‘….Above all, I owe ‘The Grey King’ to the power that’s been singing for centuries out of the land itself; the ancient, haunted mountains and valleys of Cymru, Wales.’

Both timeless and mutable, myths are passed on and inherited; blended, shaped and reshaped by many tellings, many hands. Time past, present and future, they address our deepest concerns about human nature and contain the elemental moods of the land, the spirit of place; who we feel we are in relationship to it, and how it shapes us…

My daughter and I stumbled upon Heather Dale’s music on the internet, and instantly felt we had found something wonderful. Many of Heather’s songs are inspired by myth and folklore, and are infused with storytelling and explorations of Arthurian legend.

In her album The Trial of Lancelot, Heather Dale crafts her telling of the tale through various voices. This song, Mordred’s Lullaby, is from the first person perspective of Morgan le Fay. Haunting and dark, it tangles its fingers in the themes of betrayal, hatred and corruption, the toxic nature of vengeance, the turning from the light – and keeps sight of the complexities inherent to the ways in which light and darkness glimmer…