When the Sky Turns Round
By John Jarvis.
Every religion, every culture, has a special time, a time when magic is in the air, a time when, as C.S. Lewis wrote, the sky turns round. For Christians, such a time is Christmas.
The philosophical reasons for the popularity of this holiday are not hard to find. Christmas has always been devoted to the very young; men and women throughout the years have always worshiped children as the principal earthly vehicle for immortality. That is the reason why most children as they grow older begin to miss the fantasy; the real world, where there is no Santa Claus, intrudes.
My own Christian childhood was blessed with a father and mother who loved the season and made special preparations for it, reminiscent of Tiny Tim’s family in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. For about a week before that magical day, all of us would jump into Dad’s old car to go to “Grandmother’s house.” (Sorry, traditionalists, it wasn’t a sleigh, but after all we are a 20th century family. But at least it was an old car. Doesn’t that count for something?) At any rate, my Grandmother’s farm was only 30 miles away and each Christmas she invited us to come to the many forests surrounding her place to cut down greens.
After about a day there, we turned home, arriving tired. But that didn’t keep us from the rest of the “work”! For my mother hardly rested before beginning decorating, and she didn’t stop till the whole house was transformed into something wonderful. During this time, my father would disappear, but not for long. With a wink he would reappear with a wonderful Christmas tree. Then it was my turn. Decorating the tree was my responsibility, which I regarded as a solemn duty.
On Christmas Eve we sat around the tree, staring in a silence broken only by Christmas carols on the radio. Then, what would over the years become the most important moment for me, would arrive. Then the moment would arrive that, over the years, would be the most important of all: The carols would be turned off, and I would be asked to read the first part of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
I can still remember some of those phrases: “Marley was dead to begin with. . . . ‘Any man who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a leaf of holly though his heart, he should.'” And, of course, the phrase everybody knows: “Bah, humbug!”
Well, I grew up, and have tasted adult sorrows and joys. Yet once a year I can put aside the adulthood and be a child again. But I have already given you my “Why” for the popularity of Christmas above. Now let me try to give you a “Why” for perhaps its most magical story: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In short, let me try to tell you, using the Jarvis Method, the reason this novelette remains popular, and, more, is so special.
First of all, the Dickens work uses the Theme Category. Very few classics don’t use this Category; but as I have explained in the StoryCraft software how important it is to understand yourself as a writer via Category, I will not repeat those reasons here.
The second reason is almost as important, perhaps equally important in this one case: A Christmas Carol uses the Internal Transformation Story Type. Let me demonstrate.
At the beginning of the story Scrooge, the hero, is a villain. The antagonists and shape changers (the ghosts), therefore, become the good guys. This reversal of hero and antagonist happens in very few other Story Types, but it is essential to the Transformation Story Type. The story character arc looked at in this way becomes quite simple and powerful.
Yet Dickens, master of storytelling that he was, adds a number of details to make it clear what kind of hero we are dealing with and what kind of antagonist would be needed to effect the hero’s transformation (more on this in a minute). For Dickens shows how Scrooge became the way he did. Indeed, almost all of the scenes with the ghosts are flashbacks to Scrooge’s past and present life, so that we (along with our main character) begin to see how he became a loveless person. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be gives us an unforgettable flash-forward.
Now, it’s important to realize that in this Story Type we are not dealing with subplots. The Internal Transformation story focusses entirely on the transformation, even if some things happen that may at first seem to be unrelated to it. For this reason, Scrooge is not an active character; that is, the story is told with little reference to any other relationships Scrooge might have. While most stories are enriched by — indeed may even require — different relationships that reveal more and more of the main character, wandering is not permitted an author using this Type. The focus stays on Scrooge.
Another lesson that Dickens brilliantly illustrates is that the antagonist requires even more work than does the main character. Dickens saw to it that his Scrooge would not be an easy person to convert. And he lets us know that fact in so many ways. The master storyteller says it first in the very opening words: “Marley was dead to begin with….” He shows it also with his description of Scrooge’s actions on the day of the funeral. To make the matter crystal clear, he has Scrooge make sour and uncompromising remarks to the nephew, to the Three Gentlemen, and most of all, to Bob Cratchit. So what does all this mean to us? It means that this story can be a great Transformation story only if Scrooge’s antagonist is strong — at least as strong as Scrooge himself. And sure enough, Dickens found such an antagonist.
There aren’t many choices for earthly antagonists: main characters can be transformed only by either pity (as was the main character in Schindler’s List) or love. Now, Dickens had already showed us that Scrooge had no pity, except for himself (Christmas was to him simply a “poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December”). And he was too old for love.
What then, oh what, could the antagonist be? I can almost hear Dickens saying to himself: “Only the supernatural will do for such a man.” So he chose the ghosts. And he made Scrooge believe in those ghosts. Indeed, strong empathy between the main character and the extraordinary world is the hallmark of good science fiction.
In sum, I have come to realize that although there were obviously greater authors throughout history than this little warhorse, there is no better example of the Internal Transformation Story Type than A Christmas Carol. And although stories of this Type are not everyday meat, as they often were for the ancient Greeks, the Internal Transformation story has a definite place in fiction. Yes, and I can think of no better place than at magical moments… Moments when, perhaps only once or twice during the author’s lifetime, the sky turns round.
— John Jarvis