We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

The Carnival of Shadows

Being the third in a series of guest posts by Daniel Gabelman

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Christmas Eve. Yesterday was the final Sunday of Advent; tomorrow is Christmas, but today we are caught between.

Fairies, of course, love all things liminal. In The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1815), Robert Kirk says that fairies consist ‘of a middle nature betwixt man and angel’ and that they have ‘light, changeable bodies (like those called astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud and best seen in twilight’. Neither this nor that, fairies most often reveal themselves in the time betwixt times, when time himself yawns and falls into a reverie.

According to Jerome K. Jerome, ‘Christmas Eve is the ghosts’ great gala night.’ On this night ‘everybody in Ghostland who IS anybody—or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who IS any nobody—comes out to show himself or herself.’ Like fairies ghosts are also creatures caught between—between worlds, between times, between bodies. While Jerome seems confused as to why ghosts appear on this night of all nights (‘there must be something ghostly in the air at Christmas’), George MacDonald’s fairy-tale ‘The Shadows’ (1864) suggests a few answers as to why spectral creatures proliferate on this occasion.

‘The Shadows’ tells the tale of old Ralph Rinkelmann who, while lying ill ‘hovering between life and death’ is abducted by fairies and made king of fairyland. Fairies, says MacDonald, only have power over grown-up mortals in this liminal moment. We are not explicitly told why the fairies choose Rinkelmann as their sovereign, but perhaps it has to do with how Ralph himself seems somewhat caught between different modes of being as we learn that he ‘made his living by comic sketches, and all but lost it again by tragic poems’.

After his coronation in fairyland, Ralph finds himself back in his sickbed in his cramped dingy London flat. Here he finds another sort of creature gambolling about in the light of the fire—the Shadows. These tragicomic beings assume wild and diverse forms, now amusing, now shocking the bemused Rinkelmann and claiming that when they jest they ‘always jest in earnest’. Offering to show him ‘the Church of the Shadows’, the Shadows carry Ralph to a frozen mountain lake in Iceland where ‘the aurora borealis was shivering and flashing like a battle of ten thousand spears.’ Here he learns that ‘it is only in the twilight of the fire, or when one man or woman is alone with a single candle … that [they] show [themselves] and the truth of things.’ As mixed creations, the Shadows require both light and darkness, specifically the play of light and dark produced by natural flames.

The next night is their ‘grand annual assembly’, and the Shadows once again conduct Ralph across the North Sea. It is also Christmas Eve. On this night the Shadows have a narrative carnival, a festival of story-telling. But where humans on Christmas Eve tell stories of ghosts and fairies, the Shadows tell stories about humans on Christmas day. Somewhat like Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Rinkelmann hears the Shadows tell tales of how they frighten, mock, encourage and play with men and women, girls and boys on Christmas in order break them out of selfish reveries or lift drooping spirits.

After listening to several of their stories, the moon rises above the mountains; the Shadows vanish, and Rinkelmann finds himself back in his room with only a shadowy poem left echoing in his brain:

Shadows, Shadows, Shadows all!
Shadow birth and funeral!
Shadow moons gleam overhead;
Over shadow-graves we tread.
Shadow-hope lives, grows, and dies.
Shadow-love from shadow-eyes
Shadow-ward entices on
To shadow-words on shadow-stone,
Closing up the shadow-tale
With a shadow-shadow-wail.

Shadow-man, thou art a gloom
Cast upon a shadow-tomb
Through the endless shadow air,
From the shadow sitting there,
On a moveless shadow-throne,
Glooming through the ages gone;
North and south, and in and out,
East and west, and all about,
Flinging Shadows everywhere
On the shadow-painted air
Shadow-man, thou hast no story;
Nothing but a shadow-glory.

What the Shadows playfully suggest is that we are all liminal creatures caught between different moments, different worlds, different modes of being. Christmas Eve of all the days of the year has the potential to unsettle our ideas about ourselves and to reawaken the possibility of wonder. This is why ghosts and shadows cavort so brazenly today of all days.

So this evening find a candle and watch its whispered stories—if you dare.

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.

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