The Pardon of Christmas

Here is a Christmas poem by G. K. Chesterton. Comments at the end.

The Pardon of Christmas

Roofed in with the snows of December

It returns, it is left to us yet

    A day: with one day to remember.

    A day: with long days to forget.

Undeterred, recurring, soft-footed

It comes down o’er the world, as today,

To the work, unfulfilled, uncompleted,

The house where the builders delay.

It sinks from the stars and sits throned

On the roofs, as the angel of snow,

Watching pale, as the prophets are stoned

With the stones that were red long ago.

Though our evangel hedges and palters,

Though the earth-land be rooted in hate,

Though Caiaphas stand at our altar

And Lazarus gasp at our gate.

Though the gold still clings for our cursing,

It returns: it remains to us yet

    A day, with one day to remember,

    A day with dark days to forget.

To forget eighteen centuries wasted

Thick squandered in madness and guilt,

With the wine of love standing half-tasted,

The city of promise half-built.

Join hands. Still we surely may gain it.

The King does redeem and renew.

O kings ye have lauded and slain it!

Ye have failed Him: and have we been true?

Ye have shackled and guarded the door,

Ye have hoarded the key in your grips.

Ye have taken the hope from the poor

And the word of God from his lips.

Ye have spat on and stricken the meek,

Ye have fenced in and rented his way.

Ye are red with the blood of the weak—

Join hands; join hands for today.

Though church councils betray and out-vote Him;

Though His little ones gasp for our gain;

Though the rich, that cried “traitor” and smote Him

Cry “Holy”, and smite Him again.

We have all done the sin: we have spoiled Him,

Thorn-crowned Him, and mocked and defiled,

Join hands, join hands—do it softly,

To-night He is glad, and a child.

I know this is a somber poem for a merry season. Yet I think that Christmas is both more serious and more joyful than we usually remember. It is the terribleness of the world, of our own sin, that makes Jesus’ coming so inexpressibly wonderful. The first Christmas is far away, but its promise, and our need, could not be closer. Christmas doesn’t come in spite of our failures and sins; it comes because of them. That our Savior is born is old news, but it is as good and joyful as on the day the angel proclaimed it.

Giants and Newsies

Years ago my siblings and I listened to a collection of Disney songs we rented from the library. There was one song I always liked – “Seize the Day”. I had no idea where the song came from, what story it belonged to, but it sounded like a fairytale. A man sang about opening the gates, raising up torches and leading the way, slaying the giant. He ended with a rousing call: “Neighbor to neighbor – father to son – one for all and all for one!”

I could see it in my mind: the brave villagers gathering in the night, lighting their torches, throwing open the gates, and marching out to slay the giant. Neighbors, fathers, sons – everyone, saving themselves and each other.

We rented that tape again and again. Eventually we couldn’t find it anymore. Years passed without hearing that song, and then a few months ago someone found it on YouTube. There was no video, just the music and a picture that said “Newsies”. Recently, though, I did see video with it – the video, clipped from the movie.

So I discovered that rather than villagers singing about killing a giant, it was really newsboys singing about going on strike. It was New York City rather than a village, 1899 rather than the elusive fairytale era, daytime rather than night. There were no torches, let alone an honest-to-goodness, I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman giant.

And I loved it, I really did. The dancing was terrific stuff. I saw a couple other songs on YouTube and, curious about the movie, began looking for reviews. I found one that made this criticism:

Then there are the lively production numbers, which are among the best in any recent live-action musical. Sure, they’re over-amped and filled with anachronistic dance moves (break-dancing in 1899?), but the enthusiasm and energy are hard to deny.

I have so little familiarity with break-dancing I had to look it up. It doesn’t raise any distracting associations for me. For some – probably this author among them – it does. Still, if you can accept newsies spontaneously bursting into highly choreographed song-and-dance numbers, it seems to me you shouldn’t be worried about the historicity of break-dancing in 1899,

CSFF Blog Tour: The science, the scam, the history of Phrenology

Phrenology is the study of the structure of the skull to determine a person’s character and mental capacity. This pseudoscience is based on the false assumption that mental faculties are located in brain “organs” on the surface of the brain and can be detected by visible inspection of the skull. The Viennese physician Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828) claimed there are some 26 “organs” on the surface of the brain which affect the contour of the skull, including a “murder organ” present in murderers. Gall was an advocate of the “use it or lose it” school of thought. Brain organs which were used got bigger and those which were not used shrunk, causing the skull to rise and fall with organ development. These bumps and indentations on the skull, according to Gall, reflect specific areas of the brain that determine a person’s emotional and intellectual functions. The Skeptics Dictionary,

“Fool and Phrenologist are terms nearly synonymous” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1823.

Phrenology: “The science of picking the pocket through the scalp. It consists in locating and exploiting the organ that one is a dupe with.” Ambrose Bierce

Ten-Finger is a phrenologist. That’s a showman that “reads” a feller’s character by feeling around for bumps and dents on his skullbone. A bump here means you got a short temper. A dent there means you got a generous heart. It’s real scientific sounding, but I reckon it’s all folderol and moonshine. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

During The Charlatan’s Boy, Floyd and Grady take up phrenology in between scams. I had seen phrenology in two other books, and I was tickled by its inclusion in The Charlatan’s Boy.

In Godless Ann Coulter wrote that “evolution fetishists” are turning themselves into “modern-day phrenologists”. This is the modern view of phrenology: a pseudoscience, a fanciful fraud. Helen’s Babies, published in 1876, is dated by many things, and not least that the book takes Helen seriously when she asks her brother to do a phrenological examination of her babies. Phrenology was widely accepted in the 1800s, in America and Britain. The intellectual and well-to-do often embraced it.

I enjoyed the use of phrenology in The Charlatan’s Boy, and I decided to poke around the Internet a bit. Here are some interesting things I turned up:

– Back in the day some employers would ask job candidates to undergo phrenology tests. In The Charlatan’s Boy a man asks Grady to examine his prospective son-in-law, ushering in one of my favorite sequences. Something like this may well have happened once.

– Henry Lavery spent 26 years building the psychograph, a phrenology machine. It had 1,954 parts.

– Sherlock Holmes, paragon of logic and intellection, once deduced a man’s intelligence from his hat size.

– In Huckleberry Finn, the charlatan called The Duke lectured on phrenology and provided “charts of character”. (I found these last two here, along with other examples of phrenology in popular culture.)

– Phrenology and physiognomy were in the 19th century mixed with Darwinism to assert that those with jutting jaws are mentally inferior. This was used against the Irish and the lower classes.

– Maps and charts were part of Ten-Finger’s phrenology kit. Jonathan Rogers described them much like these.

Here you read can the evaluation a phrenologist gave after examining a little girl.

Here is a man’s account (circa 1870) of his brush with phrenology.

– Phrenology always had its critics. One wrote in 1838, “Phrenology is a mass of untruth! Its physics are false and presumptuous, its metaphysics nonsensical, its ethics a gross idiotic blunder! And yet this system has numerous admirers, and its lecturers often appear in public, exhibiting the ignorance and audacity of the charlatan, in every sentence they utter, and they are generally surrounded by a gaping multitude, of bump-feeling people, eager to gain knowledge of the so-called ‘science’.”

CSFF Blog Tour: Building Corenwald

Every fantasy world is a mixing and changing of real-world elements. Corenwald, the setting of The Charlatan’s Boy, is different in which elements are chosen. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval.

A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book I’ve read mentioned watermelons, I don’t remember it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a firm place in the American imagination, and the good old boy coon-hunting with his dogs has a firm place in the American South. More shadowy is the mountain man, but we’ve heard of him, too. He used to roam the Rocky Mountains.

And then there are the drovers, one of my favorite parts of Corenwald. They tend herds of cattle, and regularly drive those herds long distances to sell them for beef at market. In our own day we called them cowboys. In the book itself the drovers are called “cowmen” a few times. Not that they stand to be the brothers of America’s cowboys so much as their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. And if you think that was a little strange to read, I found it a little strange to write.

The drovers are awash in the roughness and lawlessness of the Wild West (mythical and historical). I saw another archetype of the Old West blended into them: the rustler. I will say that the blend was done with a fine and unexpected touch.

There are other elements that also give The Charlatan’s Boy a pre-Industrial feel. Schoolmarms teach in one-room schoolhouses, blacksmiths labor at the bellows, horses and wagons dominate the roads. There are miners, farmers, and shopkeepers – but no factory workers. The constables, with their blue uniforms, nightsticks, and stations, look more modern yet.

But there are two things that break the pre-Industrial mien. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing.

Another thing Jonathan Rogers did to build Corenwald – one of the best things, in my opinion – was to create a Corenwald dialect. Great writers have demonstrated to us that a distinctive speaking style can make a character (“Thief! Baggins! We hates it forever!”). Rogers demonstrates that it can also go a long way to making a culture, and a world, and an atmosphere.

Other reviewers have noted the southern style of the dialogue. I would note the set of unique words and expressions. (When the drovers made a bulge for the field, Grady ran like all nation.) Discombobulate is thrown around a few times. I knew this word beforehand: It was my example of words that should no longer be used. Most people don’t know what it means, and so you’ll discombobulate a lot of your audience if you use it. But even more than that, the word sounds a little ridiculous. Discombobulate discombobulate discombobulate …

But in The Charlatan’s Boy, it really does work. (The Dictionary informs me that discombobulate is “probably a whimsical alteration of discompose or discomfit”. This may be why it works.) There were a number of other unusual words whose meaning could be understood from the context – which is a good thing, because you couldn’t find them in the Dictionary. They appeared to be alterations of real words: jobbed (jabbed), jubous (dubious), caterwampus (catawampus), haint (taint, an old Scottish word for a spirit or ghost).

The Charlatan’s Boy made little mention of religion, and on that count Corenwald is hard to judge. Someone remarked on a boy’s “God-given ugliness”, a huckster sold a praying machine, and sincere, earnest prayer was mentioned. One could, I think, read a general monotheism from all this, but nothing more.

All things taken together, Corenwald is foreign but awfully familiar, and the reader slips in comfortably. Corenwald feels complete, genuine. It doesn’t dazzle like other fantasy worlds, but it does charm. Corenwald is one of the accomplishments of The Charlatan’s Boy.

Now for an addendum, placed last for reasons of efficiency, not importance: Jonathan Rogers graciously offered to answer a question or two from the reviewers on the CSFF Blog Tour. I had already been thinking about the resemblance between Corenwald and parts of our own world, so I asked him about his inspiration for the feechies, and whether there were any real-world legends behind them. Here is his answer:

You asked about feechiefolks. They’re really just a personification of wildness. They’re sort of an exaggerated version of some of the wild old boys I knew growing up in Middle Georgia. There was one guy in particular, named Jake, who used to go out in the swamp with some dogs and catch wild boars and carry them out on a pole. (I’ve told his story on my blog here: I never knew anybody who was so blissfully unaffected by civilization. It occurred to me that people like Jake were running around all over the place. I began to imagine Jake and them as if they were a tribe of swamp-dwellers living in parallel with the civilized world…which they kind of are anyway.

As for real-world legends, there are all kinds of stories of elusive forest people who are there but never seen–sprites, elves, gnomes, Sasquatches. But a better parallel is probably the North American Indians who could be very skilled at hiding. I remember hearing stories about settlers who never knew if they were being watched by Indians who were hiding in the forests just beyond the clearing. I’ve always thought that was a great setup for narrative tension.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Charlatan’s Boy

(Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.)

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore. Specifically, it’s a sad day for Floyd Wendellson and his boy, Grady. The paying crowds pay them no longer. After making a living for years by pretending to be a feechie expert and genuine feechie boy, they may have to get legitimate jobs.

Ha ha! I’m kidding, of course. What they do next is put up the Ugliest Boy in the World act. As the bad new days run on into years, they make a daring bid to bring back the good old days. Their scheme is unethical and there has to be some sort of law against it, but what do you expect from the charlatan and his boy?

A huckster and his assistant are unlikely stars for a fantasy novel. Their duplicity – so consistent and central – puts them out of any category of noble heroes. Yet they can hardly be inducted into the Hall of Villains. They’re certainly underhanded, but after a long line of necromancers, usurpers, evil kings and evil knights … Well, two showmen trying to turn a pretty penny with a fake feechie show simply don’t fit in. Both Floyd and Grady are in their way good characters, even deep characters. In what way that is – well, the reader will spend the book discovering.

Jonathan Rogers delivers his story in appropriate style. The book is filled with humor, much of it the sort that is seen by the readers and not the characters. It’s written in first-person, and as you can imagine, a charlatan’s boy will not have the most educated voice. Though to be fair, almost no one in the book does. The editor either had a hard or wonderfully easy time of it, depending on whether she tried to distinguish real grammar errors from style or simply decided it was all one.

The Charlatan’s Boy reminds me of the old-school episodic novel – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Penrod, Mark Twain. The main issues of the book are set up at the beginning and steadily – if not urgently – addressed. Yet, lingering over drovers’ fires and doing the phrenology routine, even parts that advance the plot often feel anecdotal. The anecdotes were entertaining, well-told, and even charming. But as they followed one on another I began wondering when the next shoe would finally fall on somebody.

I would, however, do a disservice to this book if I made it sound as if it went nowhere. It did go somewhere, and the climax and conclusion were marvelous. I appreciated the humor and the lightheartedness of the story, and I appreciated the prickles of sadness that suddenly pierced through. Jonathan Rogers handled this expertly: The moments were brief, scattered, and went straight to my heart. It’s a strange thing, but stories and characters need just a little sadness to be deep. Rogers put that sadness in.

I enjoyed The Charlatan’s Boy. Since finishing it I have picked it up to enjoy it again. And I don’t think I’m done, either.

I will be posting again about The Charlatan’s Boy tomorrow. If you want to learn more about the book, check out these links:

The Charlatan’s Boy on Amazon:
Jonathan Rogers’ web site:

And see what the other participants in the blog tour have to say about The Charlatan’s Boy:

Sally Apokedak
Amy Bissell
Red Bissell
Jennifer Bogart
Thomas Clayton Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Christian Fiction Book Reviews
Valerie Comer
CSFF Blog Tour
D. G. D. Davidson
April Erwin
Andrea Graham
Tori Greene
Katie Hart
Bruce Hennigan
Christopher Hopper
Becky Jesse
Cris Jesse
Jason Joyner

Jeff Chapman

Carol Keen
Allen McGraw
Matt Mikalatos
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Donita K. Paul
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Tammy Shelnut
Kathleen Smith
James Somers
Donna Swanson
Robert Treskillard
Fred Warren
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White
Elizabeth Williams
Dave Wilson

In Defense of a Commercial Racket

Recently, I’ve been having a recurring thought: Christmas is coming. This is followed by another recurring thought: I have to start Christmas shopping.

Here I am, victim of the commercial racket they’ve made of Christmas.

Every year we hear about the commercialization of Christmas. It’s practically a Yuletide tradition. The sentiment is entrenched in the sixty-year-old classic Miracle on 34th Street: “Make a buck, make a buck…”

This is one Yuletide tradition I don’t join. I can’t get behind the “commercial racket” chorus. For one thing, it’s never been clear to me exactly what the problem is. What is “commercialization”? Material things trumping the spiritual (but wouldn’t that be materialism)? Is it people spending too much money? People making too much money? People making and spending money, period? As C. S. Lewis’ old teacher used to say, “Please clarify your terms.”

Sometimes it seems there’s a subterranean feeling that the junction between commerce and Christmas dirties up the holiday. This is one idea I am ready to completely deny. If we are going to celebrate Christmas, we are going to spend money on it. Someone is going to have to sell us the ham and eggnog and tree and gifts. I see no reason to be unhappy that businesses are angling to provide that service and make that buck. Sure, they’re making a profit on Christmas. And doctors make a profit on sick people, and dentists make a profit on people with toothaches, and grocery stores make a profit on hungry people.

Of course, trying to convince people to buy things they don’t want or can’t afford – the old sins of business – are always with us. And there is no doubt that some marketers can use Christmas rather cheaply. But once we get to specific criticisms, we’ve put down the broad brush of commercialization to please clarify our terms.

What’s even worse than the broad brush of commercialization is the hammer of the “commercial racket”. Rackets are, after all, the province of con men, frauds, and the Mafia. Are people who use the term simply overstating the case? Or do they really mean that the public is bribed, intimidated, or tricked into Christmas shopping by commercial interests? Are they saying that our traditions of gift-giving, feasting, and decorating were invented by capitalists looking for a profit?

There have been people who think the whole holiday is more or less a capitalistic scheme – people besides Lucy van Pelt. And so I end with a quotation:

If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkeness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by Poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings. G. K. Chesterton