Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.
No snow in central Maine for Christmas this year; we are getting tomorrow the winter storm that’s plagued the rest of the continent all week. I like to joke that Mainers are so cheap we even get our weather secondhand, after everyone else is done with it.
Christmas itself was blissfully quiet, though by the time I got home late Monday night I was utterly confused as to what day of the week it was. A half day at the office, followed by three hours of errands and three and a half hours of church and four hours of extended family gathering makes for a very long day. We did nothing more exciting on the holiday itself than lounge around recovering from the flurry of activity.
The Christmas Eve services went well enough; the music was very well received and I am looking forward to the next chance to play with the ensemble we call our Occasional Orchestra. It is, hm, eclectic. We may have an accordion player next time. The service this year was wrapped around the story in the old carol about Good King Wenceslas.
It’s not one of my favorites. Musically, I like the traditional harmony, and that’s about it. It’s supposed to be heartwarming, but for me it falls into the same category as the stories about sick kids and patriotic heroes that get passed around on Facebook. Glurge. Pure syrupy glurge.
So I spent entirely too much time thinking about the scene in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather where he’s riffing on that old story. I’m a long-time Pratchett fan, and Hogfather is one I re-read every couple of years around Christmastime. I find the passage in its entirety on pp 251-252 and 261-268, Corgi UK paperback edition (1997) – your pagination may vary. An excerpt, p. 263 and following:
(In this scene, the anthropomorphization of Death, accompanied by his faithful but grumpy servant Albert, is standing in for a Father-Christmas figure called The Hogfather. They have just witnessed a familiar story playing out, and intervene… For the reader unfamiliar with Pratchett’s conventions, Death speaks in all-caps.)
WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?
The page started to stand up, drawing his sword. He never worked out how the other figure could have got behind him, but there it was, pressing him gently down again.
‘Hello, son, my name is Albert,’ said a voice by his ear. ‘Why don’t you put that sword back very slowly? People might get hurt.’
A finger prodded the king, who had been too shocked to move.
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING, SIRE?
The king tried to focus on the figure. There was an impression of red and white, but black, too.
To Albert’s secret amazement, the man managed to get to his feet and draw himself up as regally as he could.
‘What is going on here, whoever you are, is some fine old Hogswatch charity! And who –‘
NO, IT'S NOT.
‘What? How dare you –‘
WERE YOU HERE LAST MONTH? WILL YOU BE HERE NEXT WEEK? NO. BUT TONIGHT YOU WANTED TO FEEL ALL WARM INSIDE. TONIGHT YOU WILL WANT THEM TO SAY: WHAT A GOOD KING HE IS.
‘Oh, no, he’s going too far again –‘ muttered Albert under his breath. He pushed the page down again. ‘No, you stay still, sonny. Else you’ll just be a paragraph.’
‘Whatever it is, it’s more than he’s got!’ snapped the king. ‘And all we’ve had from him is ingratitude–‘
YES, THAT DOES SPOIL IT, DOESN'T IT?Death leaned forward.
To the king’s own surprise his body took over and marched him out of the door.
HALF-EATEN LEAVINGS,said Death.
WE COULD CERTAINLY DO BETTER THAN THIS.He reached into the sack.
Albert grabbed his arm before he could withdraw his hand.
‘Mind taking a bit of advice, master? I was brung up in a place like this.’
DOES IT BRING TEARS TO YOUR EYES?
‘A box of matches to me hand, more like. Listen. . .’
The old man was only dimly aware of some whispering. He sat hunched up, staring at nothing.
WELL, IF YOU ARE SURE. . .
‘Been there, done that, chewed the bones,’ said Albert. ‘Charity ain’t giving people what you wants to give, it’s giving people what they need to get.’
Theology is everywhere. Whoever it was that taught me the priesthood of the believer so many decades ago neglected to specify that ‘scripture,’ at least in the tradition of my upbringing, meant the Bible and a particularly narrow reading of a specific translation, at that. I was the kind of kid that read dictionaries for entertainment. I knew how to take words apart to see what they meant. And it seemed to me that ‘scripture’ was just a word that meant ‘writing’ in the same way that ‘Bible’ meant ‘the book.’
So given what amounted to a holy order to read the written word and figure out for myself what God was telling me through it, it did not occur to me to stop at the Bible, or indeed at sacred texts of any sort. And viewing fiction through the lens of theology has given me some really good stories. Sir Pterry is probably one of my favorite 20th-century theologians, whether he claims the field or not.