Being the first in a series of guest posts by Daniel Gabelman
Advent is once again upon us. The long dullness of November has finally ended, perhaps with the vestiges of turkey still lingering in our bellies. Colour has fallen leaving the trees to stand about like shivering skeletons. The darkness has dimmed our senses and closed us in with our shadows. It is as if the death of nature draws our phantoms out of their psychic caves. It is an uncertain time, a shadowy time, an unsettling time.
But it is also a time of wonder. Advent lights a candle against the encroaching night. This audacious act of hope prepares the way for Christmas and banishes the blackest demons back into their caverns. Meanwhile, the other shades begin to gather round the candle, begin to play in its flickering light, begin to dance in our imaginations.
No age was perhaps more aware of the unsettling wonder of advent than the nineteenth-century. As Jerome K. Jerome observed in the 1890s, ‘Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories.’ No time of the year is more charged with the supernatural, and in Victorian times this otherworldly presence manifested itself not just through ghost stories but also through fairy tales.
Six years before he wrote the famous Christmas story, A Christmas Carol(1843), Charles Dickens wrote a tale with a similar plot and moral but used goblins instead of ghosts. In ‘The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton’ (1837), Dickens narrates the adventures of the Scrooge-like Gabriel Grubb. Grubb is ‘an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself.’ In addition to this Grubb is also a bit of a drunkard and the town undertaker.
Just before twilight on Christmas Eve, Grubb goes to the graveyard to finish digging a grave. Hearing a young man singing a Christmas song along the way, Grubb ambushes him and hits him over the head with a lantern. He laughs at the young man’s misfortune, but his laughter fades when he finds a goblin seated on a tombstone grinning at him. The goblin chieftain has Grubb taken to a cavern where the goblins alternate between showing him visions of other people suffering and beating him for his cruelty to others. When he awakes the next morning he is a changed man, and he leaves the town to live a more contented life.
This is a somewhat odd and coarse fairy tale, but with it Dickens seems to have tapped into that spirit of unsettling wonder that is so prominent at advent. It was his first Christmas story and his first fairy tale, but it initiated a Victorian tradition that has shaped both Christmas and fairy tales irrevocably.
Daniel Gabelman holds a PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, University of St Andrews. He teaches English literature, and his book on George MacDonald’s fairy tales is forthcoming from Baylor University Press. He and his wife live in East Sussex.