I love Christmas movies, from the moment when Natalie Wood is stunned by Santa Claus speaking Dutch in Miracle on 34th Street to Rudolph setting off with Hermey the dentist in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. One of my other great loves, medieval manuscripts, also feature memorable stories, and therefore it’s perhaps not surprising that around the holidays, I seem to glimpse my favorite Christmas-movie moments in medieval form.
A Christmas Carol is a perennial holiday favorite, with its heart-lifting story of a grumpy boss guided on midnight journey through the past, present, and future, only to return as a benevolent soul with a new appreciation of the meaning of Christmas. Alistair Sim’s masterful performance in the 1951 film version of Dickens’s classic tale emphasizes one man’s personal salvation based on his awe-inspiring experiences.
For me, the story always calls to mind a manuscript in our collection, The Visions of the Knight Tondal. It too focuses on the personal journey of a man, the nobleman Tondal, who had everything except a generous spirit. His guardian angel takes him on a journey through the various spaces of Hell, where torments await those guilty of particular sins. In one part, Tondal, who had stolen a cow, is forced to walk over a pit of writhing demons on a nail-studded bridge reserved for thieves.
A dark atmosphere with the helpless soul pleading for mercy from his guide permeates both the 1951 film and the 15th-century manuscript (recently released as an iBook). Happy endings prevail both as well, as Scrooge and Tondal repent of their selfish ways and promise to lead better lives in future. (Fun fact: Tondal is so cinematic that we made a movie trailer for it narrated by Kenneth Turan earlier this year.)
Certain characters in stories capture our imagination and sympathy. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch tries to change his unsuspecting dog Max into a reindeer to fool the people of Whoville into thinking Santa Claus has arrived on his sleigh.
The unconvincing but humorous attempt to make Max into Blitzen reminds me forcibly of a similar scene in a medieval history manuscript that attempts to show readers what India might look like.
The creature at center is supposed to be a representation of the then-exotic elephant, but it looks to me like some poor Labrador Retriever has had a horn and some tusks strapped unconvincingly (but humorously) onto his nose. Of course, medieval artists had very little notion of what an elephant looked like, and the Grinch was no doubt hoping for the same type of gullibility on the part of the Whos.
Particular visual moments in film and manuscript can become iconic symbols of the whole. Who can forget the scene when Flick takes a triple-dog dare to stick his tongue on a frozen pole in A Christmas Story?
In a similar vein, a 14th-century manuscript represents an unwary nun who finds her hand unexpectedly stuck to a millstone staff because she had dared to work on a Sunday.
The local saint, Hedwig, takes pity on the woman and unsticks her hand, just as poor Flick was saved by his teacher and the police.
The intent of both modern filmmakers and medieval artists was, in many ways, the same. Through visuals, they made their stories memorable and provided both entertainment and moral messages. Just as we curl up on the couch with anticipation to watch Scrooge celebrate Christmas with his nephew, the Grinch embrace the Whos, and Flick and Ralphie have all their Christmas dreams come true, those in the Middle Ages gathered around the fire to pass cold winter evenings by hearing the redemptive story of Tondal, imagining the wonders of India, or sympathizing with the mistake of a hard-working nun. Throughout all these, viewers then and now could use the opportunity to reflect on the spirit of charity, adventure, and redemption, particularly at Christmastime. Happy holidays!