A Christmas Carol unwrapped
An occult appreciation of Charles Dickens' perennial allegorical ghost story
Guest article by John Temple
Introduction by Occult Mysteries
As our regular readers know it is our custom to publish something at Christmas in keeping with the spirit of the season. No, we don't mean 'spend, spend, spend' or 'eat yourself sick', although Gabrielle Annunziato has satirized these messages in her humorous contributions. What we mean is the message of goodwill to all men, and above all, of Charity to those in need. So we were delighted when, without warning, John Temple sprung a new article on us at the end of November, for truth to tell, we hadn't the heart (or cheek!) to ask Gabrielle Annunziato for another funny seasonal story.
Our pleasure and gratitude increased when we learnt that John had written about Charity, for this is the true spirit of Christmas and forms the heart of the Victorian ghost story we all know so well. If anyone doesn't know A Christmas Carol they are in for an additional treat as John Temple analyses Dickens' allegory in his inimitable way. In his afterword he discusses Dickens' fascination with the occult which consumed him from an early age. So, make up the fire, pour yourself a glass of sherry and sit back and enjoy this numinous appreciation of a truly magical book. . .
A story for all seasons
The full title of this perennial allegory is A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. First published by Chapman & Hall on 19 December 1843, the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve—an astonishing success even for Dickens. Barely a year later, no less than thirteen editions had been released. Sadly, this prodigious volume of sales did not bring the author the financial rewards he was expecting. Dickens had hoped the book would clear his debts with his publisher but the lavish production, including four woodcuts and four colour plates, meant he only made £230 from the first printing. Worse was to follow when a plagiarized version of the book appeared in January 1844. Dickens took the miscreant to court but, even though he won the case, he had to pay costs of around £700, over £60,000 today, when the guilty party was declared bankrupt. His bitterness and disgust at the whole affair was immortalised nine years later in the labyrinthine and corrupt workings of the Court of Chancery exposed in Bleak House (1853). Those readers who have mercifully never had to deal with the law may be assured that nothing has changed in 2019, expect that nowadays lawyers charge even more for their dubious services and the courts are even more corrupt. But I'm supposed to be telling you about the novella, not Dickens' financial woes or the parlous state of the legal system in this benighted island, so had better get on with it before I drive you to eat more mince pies than is good for you!
A Christmas Carol has never been out of print since it was published nearly 180 years ago. It has been translated into over 40 languages including Welsh and Zulu; one does wonder quite how the two versions compare! It has also been made into over 20 films and spawned more than 50 TV and Radio adaptations, not to mention, countless theatre productions and four operas. My own favourite TV adaptation and the one I believe is closest to the spirit of the book, is the 1999 Anglo-American co-production starring Patrick Stewart as Ebenezer Scrooge and Richard E. Grant as Bob Cratchit. Do watch it this Christmas if it's on television. Some critics lambasted the film for being gloomy and depressing—well bah humbug to them. Poverty, filth, disease and deprivation are depressing! No one knew this better than Dickens who intended this tale, like many of his longer books, to be a wake-up call to those who were in a position to do something about the social conditions of the time under which millions of the poor suffered the most appalling privations.
Early on in the tale, Scrooge taunts the two gentlemen who appeal to his (non-existent) charitable impulses with the words: "Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons. . ."
"And the Union workhouses," demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir. . ."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
Has anything much changed since these words were written? Some might say they have. I would say we've simply swapped Dickens' impoverished poor for the mentally ill—to cite just one example of modern collective cruelty. These poor unfortunates have been driven from the institutions which once cared for them—albeit not very well—onto the streets in their thousands. There they are subjected to 'care in the community'—an ironic euphemism if ever there was one for a callous act of inhumanity clearly designed to save a few pounds of taxpayers' money, which could be better spent teaching 9-year-olds all about 'Gender Identity' and catastrophic 'Global Warming'. Would Scrooge approve? Probably not, but he'd be all for 'Global Warming' if only it stopped Bob Cratchit sneaking one more tiny piece of coal on to the office fire!
One social ill Dickens never encountered is the present epidemic of so-called 'knife crime'—a term I find extremely irritating and misleading. No knife has ever committed a single crime. Human beings commit crime, not knives, hammers, or even candlesticks. People have been stabbed with all manner of things, including pens, pencils and screwdrivers. Who ever heard of 'screwdriver crime'? That's a tool for tightening screws not the popular American cocktail, though I suppose emptying a glass of vodka and orange juice over someone's head isn't exactly a nice thing to do. The major cause of 'knife crime' is drug trafficking. Dealers and drug abusers, especially teenagers, found in possession of illegal drugs, are now routinely let off with just a caution. Meanwhile, MPs are despatched on 'fact finding missions' at the taxpayers' expense to countries mad enough to legalise cannabis. Back they trot wreathed in smug smiles brandishing the 'evidence' that cannabis is no more harmful than wine gums. Their masters—with a naïveté that beggars belief, or perhaps sheer stupidity and greed—embrace the 'research' with undisguised glee, and inform the public that legalisation is 'the only sensible way forward'. I have news for these odious Mephistophelean ministers of misery, if they get their way (and it seems increasingly likely they will) their children and grandchildren can look forward to an increase in crime, mental illness and suicide such as this sorry world has never known before.
This digression is not without some purpose. Not only are the 'poor always with us' as the saying has it, but so too are the indifferent, the lazy and the selfish. "The Government should do something!" is no less an excuse for doing nothing and abrogating any responsibility for one's fellowmen and women than Scrooge's caustic retort 'are there no prisons?' Incidentally, in 1850 there were 56 prisons in England and Wales housing some 17,000 men, women and children out of a total population of 27 million. So roughly 1 in every 1,600, or 0.06% of the population was a prisoner a decade after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. By 2010, the number of prisons had increased to 137, since reduced to 122. By 2018, the number of prisoners had soared to over 92,000 out of a total population of 67 million. So today 1 in every 728 men, women and children or 0.13% of the population are in prison, roughly double the number in Dickens' time. If we take into account that most of those in prison in the 1850's were short-term offenders, the actual increase in the prison population is probably much higher than these figures suggest. Yes. . .the Government should DO something. Build more prisons perhaps? Or ban knives. After all, our distant ancestors managed perfectly well with sharp sticks and bits of flint. On the other hand, would 'flint crime' be any improvement? Better to ban teenagers I should say, but I can't see that getting many votes!
I've said enough to show that although times may change and we now have our faces buried in iPhones rather than mufflers against the choking London smog, the same abuses, inequalities and injustices that are the central theme of Dickens' novella prevail today. London—and by extension, the whole world—still has its Scrooges, its Bob Cratchits, its Tiny Tims and its Freds (Scrooge's kind-hearted but feckless nephew) and above all. . .it's ghosts. . .which whisper both good and evil counsel into the ears of mankind. Hence this is a story for all seasons, not just Christmas, and for all times and places, for there is never a time or a place when Charity should be absent from our hearts and minds. For Charity is the message of this tale; the golden thread which runs through it and the essence of all the lessons it has to teach us. Had Dickens written nothing else but this novella the world would still be forever in his debt. So let us see what occult truths the book holds for us. But before we dive in, it is worth mentioning that Dickens was no stranger to the occult. He was fascinated by spooks and spirits all his life and a close friend of the occultist Bulwer-Lytton—more of which in my afterword.
The first modern ghost story
Spirits had appeared in literature long before the 19th century, but the ghost story as a distinct genre was the invention of the Victorians, which Charles Dickens did more than any other writer to popularise, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe. Dickens' journals Household Words (1850-59) and All the Year Round (1859-1895) specialised in ghost stories, spawning a host of imitators. But they were preceded by A Christmas Carol which many regard as the first modern ghost story. It was certainly the first time any writer had employed the device of the supernatural to convey a moral message in the form of a multi-layered allegory. The Gothic spectres of such writers as Sheridan Le Fanu and Horace Walpole were intended to tingle spines and freeze blood not arouse a social conscience and inspire moral indignation.
The public's perennial appetite for the supernatural and Dickens' concern for the poor together with his fascination with the occult undoubtedly encouraged him to write A Christmas Carol. Another, equally powerful ingredient was the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, a custom that went back centuries. In The Winter's Tale, published over 200 years before Dickens wrote his ghost story, Shakespeare has Mamillius proclaim: "A sad tale's best for winter: I have one of sprites and goblins." To which Hermione replies: ". . .do your best to fright me with your sprites; you're powerful at it." In The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, written in 1590, Barnabus muses: "Now I remember those old women's words, who in my wealth would tell me winter's tales, and speak of spirits and ghosts by night."
What a pity this tradition appears to have died out. In my schooldays, longer ago than I care to remember, the English Master, at all other times a ferocious disciplinarian whose piercing look was enough to quell the mischief in even the bravest boy's heart, used to tell us a ghost story on the last day of Michaelmas Term. He would draw the heavy, brocade curtains, place lighted candles around the classroom and light a small bowl of frankincense incense on his desk, the spicy aroma of which I remember to this day. Then he would take his seat at the front of the class and read to us in his quiet but powerful voice, sometimes from M. R. James, at others from Poe or Stevenson and occasionally from Dickens, The Signalman being a personal favourite of mine. Not a boy or girl so much as breathed during these spell-binding recitals, and even the class bully (there is always one!) sat open-mouthed, on the edge of his seat. The Health and Safety thought police would never allow such readings today; the lighted candles alone would drive them into a frenzy of anxiety about 'fire hazards'. With the exception of A Christmas Carol, even the venerable BBC have stopped broadcasting ghost stories at Christmas, an annual treat my children used to look forward to on Christmas Eve. But I am supposed to be telling you about Charles Dickens' ghost story, not reminiscing about my misspent schooldays.
The first ghostly episode in the story which gives the reader a hint of things to come is when the door knocker of Scrooge's chambers is magically transformed into the face of his former partner, Jacob Marley. This not only gives the callous miser a nasty turn but pricks what little remains of his conscience. Marley, you will recall, is 'as dead as a door nail' so Scrooge's reaction is not to be wondered at. When Marley's ghost finally appears it is carrying a chain of cash-boxes, keys and padlocks. He tells Scrooge: "How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day." After Marley's spectre leaves him, Scrooge looks out of his window and sees the air filled with phantoms, "wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went." Now there is more in this ghostly device than a convenient hook upon which to hang a moral lesson. It is the first of the many occult truths in this remarkable book. We are all 'haunted', some by good 'spirits', some by bad, every moment of every waking day and more so at night when we are asleep, though I doubt whether Dickens was consciously aware of this. I will come back to this later. Meanwhile, let us have a closer look at the three ghosts Marley tells Scrooge are to come. "You will be haunted," he is told, "by Three Spirits."
Although A Christmas Carol has often been called a Christian morality tale and is viewed as such by many even today, there is nothing remotely Christian in the symbolism that characterises the three spirits who haunt Scrooge. They are Pagan through and through, borrowing elements from British folklore, as well as British religion (the holly and mistletoe—sacred to the Druids—which adorn the room in which the Ghost of Christmas Present appears). The first—the Ghost of Christmas Past—is full of contradictions. Part child and part old man it clutches a branch of winter holly in its hand yet summer flowers adorn its snowy white tunic. Stranger still, as Dickens tells us, "from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm." Is this a concealed reference to the Crown Chakram into which inspiration is said to flow from the higher realms of Light? If so, Dickens concealed far more than occult posterity has given him credit for.
Personally I think this is one of those instances when the mind of a great writer is inspired from the higher realms of Light as we may read in Vision Six of The Golden Star. In that chapter the Divine Messenger—Neteru-Hem—describes the ocean of spiritual fire in the higher realms whence inspiration flows into the minds of men: "An ocean of Inspiration this. And if but one such tiny spark you see descends into a Poet's Mind, Lo! An immortal work will be created. His pen drips honey and ambrosia, and with a careless gesture he scatters jewelled thoughts, like stars, upon the Universe of other minds." J. R. R. Tolkien is another writer who gives evidence of profound occult knowledge in his writings that he was not consciously aware of.
The second spirit is "a jolly Giant, glorious to see: who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door." The avuncular Ghost of Christmas Present is surrounded by such a cornucopia of festive food and drink that one is tempted to think Dickens is indulging in a bit of wordplay, especially as the second spirit bears more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, albeit dressed in green and not red! In stark contrast, there is nothing remotely festive about the third and last spirit. I can do no better than quote Dickens' own description. "The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand."
John Leech — Marley's Ghost — illustration from the first edition of A Christmas Carol 1843
Analysing the allegory
Let us begin at the beginning, or almost, with the arrival of Marley's ghost. "You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?" Marley replies that he wears the chain he forged in life. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." We each carry such a chain. Some may call it 'bad Karma', others 'cause and effect', yet others 'evil attunement' as the authors of this website do, but however we designate it, occult science affirms that our thoughts and deeds—both good and bad—follow us from life to life, 'link by link', each link a separate life. Did Dickens know of the doctrine of reincarnation? It seems most unlikely. We must remember that until H. P. Blavatsky mentioned the doctrine in 1877 in Isis Unveiled (over 30 years after Dickens wrote his ghost story) the West knew nothing about reincarnation, the teaching having been lost for thousands of years. The ghost next tells Scrooge: ". . .not to know, that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed."
This is interesting from several points of view. The 'incessant' labour of 'immortal creatures' reminds us of the work of those whom Christians think of as 'angels' and Plato called 'immortal mortals', the dwellers in the higher realms of Light who whisper good counsel into the ears of men and women on earth. Although Dickens does not say so, these beings have their counterpart in the demons of the lower realms of darkness, which also influence men and women on earth, pouring evil counsel into their minds and inciting them to all manner of crimes and wickedness. You will recall I mentioned this in the previous section when I said that we are all 'haunted' by good and evil spirits at all times, especially at night. Why at night? Because at night, during sleep, the mind is more receptive to the thoughts of good and evil beings of all kinds which, during waking hours are largely blocked out by increased mental activity. The words of Marley's Ghost also hint at the occult scientific doctrine of the cyclic scales of evolution. These immense time periods are called Yugas in Eastern occultism, each of which lasts from a few hundred thousand years to several millions. Just as man evolves, so too does the Earth upon which he dwells, becoming more and more perfect as the great cycles succeed one another. In saying the earth must 'pass into eternity' (become wholly spiritualised) before its inherent 'good' (positive qualities) are fully perfected, Dickens seems to be reprising this doctrine. Again, I think this is another instance of inspiration calling forth occult knowledge Dickens was not consciously aware of.
Scrooge, as we saw earlier, is haunted by three spirits on three successive nights: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. It is impossible in this short article to mention all the incidents the ghosts draw forth from the old miser's memories, so I will focus on those I think hold the most important lessons for us. The first is when Scrooge seizes the extinguisher-cap of the Ghost of Christmas Past and tries to force it down upon the spirit's head to shut out its hateful light. Despite his efforts "he could not hide the light, which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground." No more can any man extinguish the Light, however hard he may try, for it is the lamp of God that burns within the heart of every living thing from an amoeba to an angel, imbuing it with both light and life. The second spirit has a very different lesson to teach Scrooge—and us—though few will comprehend it and fewer still profit by it. But let Dickens speak through his characters.
"Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask," said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, "but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw?"
"It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it," was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. "Look here." From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment. Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
"Spirit, are they yours?" Scrooge could say no more.
"They are Man's," said the Spirit, looking down upon them. "And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
I have quoted the whole of this conversation, not only because it is one of the finest pleas for charity ever written, but also because it reveals in just a few powerful words the root of all evil. You thought the root of all evil was money? I'm sorry to disappoint you, but it is not. Neither is it greed or selfishness, although both are evil and lead to evil. It isn't poverty either, which Dickens here calls 'Want'. No, the root of all evil is none of these things. I will tell you what it is in one word: IGNORANCE. A word most people do not give a second thought to, for it has none of the power of Hate or Anger or even Poverty. To be called 'ignorant' is considered unkind, probably judgemental, and certainly rude, but it is nothing like as bad as being called a racist. Yet ignorance has done more harm, and is doing more harm in the world than all the other evils man is heir to put together. It is for this reason that Ignorance is the only 'sin' Occult Science acknowledges, all the rest being the offspring of it. If you have never thought of ignorance in this light before much that puzzled you about human behaviour may now become clearer.
If Pride is "the first peer and president of hell" according to Daniel Defoe, and if good intentions pave the way to that pestilential pit, then Ignorance is its Credo. The fact that Dickens places ignorance above poverty in the mouth of the Spirit of Christmas Present suggests that even if he was unaware of its occult significance, he was in no doubt of its capacity for evil. And what are we to make of the concluding words of the spirit...'on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased'? Could Dickens behold the future? Or was he simply deducing what the inevitable results of man's individual and collective ignorance would be, thousands, perhaps millions of years, hence? I would not like to say. What I will say is to repeat that Ignorance is the root of all evil. It is the only real evil and the only sin because it prevents the acquisition of the smallest particle of truth, depending instead on opinion, convention, speculation and theory. Of these degrees of ignorance, opinion is by far the most dangerous. It is terrible power, carrying with it an enormous responsibility. It can manifest in hatred and anger, bigotry and hypocrisy, bloodshed and carnage, furious argument and arrogant disdain. Or it can be displayed in love and tolerance, mercy and goodness. And as the power of opinion is used, so it will draw—by attunement—good or evil towards those who wield it and all whom it touches.
The final lesson, delivered by the final spirit—The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come—is perhaps the most important. This is the only spirit that does not speak to Scrooge, all is conveyed by gesture, sometimes by a seeming look, though of its face we never catch a glimpse, for it is shrouded at all times. The essence of this lesson brings us full circle, for its name is CHARITY. It is the lack of this virtue that has blighted the life of Scrooge—if we can call his miserable, penny-pinching existence living—and brought him close to death and an hereafter worse than death, as Marley's Ghost warns him at the beginning of the story. Most decent people hope to leave this world a better place for their having been in it. As seekers after Truth we may hope to do more. The future revealed to Scrooge by the third spirit is rather different. In that scenario (which never comes to pass) he only succeeds in making people happier because he has left the world! The first to profit from Scrooge's death are his erstwhile business associates, each of whom hopes to get their hands on his money, or if not his cash, at least benefit from the removal of a competitor.
Next, are a group of penurious ladies of dubious age and questionable probity, who sell off the dead miser's meagre belongings to Joe—a 'fence' as such middlemen are known in criminal circles, or so I'm told! Among Scrooge's effects are 'a pencil-case, a pair of sleeve-buttons, and a brooch of no great value. . .' To which are later added the curtains of his death bed and a silk shirt. The final beneficiaries are an impoverished young couple who have borrowed heavily from Scrooge. Their hearts are immeasurably lightened by the knowledge that their debt will pass to another moneylender, giving them time to repay it, for as we read: ". . .it would be a bad fortune indeed to find so merciless a creditor in his successor." Indeed it would!
Finally the phantom confronts Scrooge with his own grave. "No, Spirit! Oh no, no!" he pleads, now a very different man to the hard-hearted miser we encountered crying 'bah humbug!' when his nephew wished him 'Merry Christmas!' "Spirit!" says Scrooge, clutching tightly at the ghost's robe. "I am not the man I was. . .Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life." The Spirit answers not a word, but as Dickens tells us "For the first time the hand appeared to shake." The rest you may read for yourself. The book ends by telling us: "He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!"
I will end as I began. Just as A Christmas Carol is a story for all seasons, not just Christmas, so too is Goodwill to All a practise for all seasons. The essence of Goodwill is Charity, so let that be my Christmas present to my readers. There is never a time or a place when Charity should be absent from our hearts and minds. The man or woman who thinks of others before themselves, who gives freely of their substance, without thought of reward, but because they must, will be repaid a thousandfold in ways they cannot begin to imagine. This is not an impractical wish-fulfilling theory of mine, but an occult law which anyone can prove for themselves. Let me explain.
To give is to receive. No one can ever give anything away without receiving something back that is of still greater value. Ebenezer Scrooge learnt this lesson late in life, but not too late to make amends for his previous errors. You see, you simply cannot give things away, no matter how hard you may try. This will sound ridiculous to the worldly wise, but there is an occult law which governs Charity that acts in a seemingly strange manner. If you act as a giver, you place yourself in contact with giving, in other words: you penetrate into the realms of generosity, kindliness and goodwill. Having entered into these realms you cannot help receiving generosity from others. You have become the Principle of generosity and the more you give the more you will receive. If, on the other hand, you act in a mean-spirited, miserly way like poor Scrooge, you will earn the fate he so narrowly avoided in one way or another.
I have known people in the past, and know far too many of them today, who, when asked to subscribe to this or that good cause, or help out some poor soul down on their luck through no fault of their own, have pleaded poverty and refused to give a single penny, while actually they were very well off at the time. But they invariably lost all they had in the end and become what they claimed to be . . . . dirt poor! This is an unalterable, universal law which never fails in the end. It may take time, it may even work out in another incarnation or several—but it works. So this Christmas, and throughout the coming years, don't be afraid to give freely of your substance and God will provide.
© Copyright John Temple & occult-mysteries.org. Article published 1 December 2019.