Fact or faction
I HAVE been writing a script for George Frederick Handel. Mr Handel will be acting as compère between the choruses of his famous Messiah, explaining to children how he composed it, for a Messy Messiah performance. As a storyteller, I don’t often write for other performers, but, in this case, I am glad that I don’t have to wear the wig.
I already knew — or thought I knew — the story of the writing of Messiah: how Handel, at a low ebb of inspiration, received the libretto, and at once began to write in a religious fervour, refusing meals and sleep, and completing the masterpiece in only 24 days. I also remembered the tale of how King George II was so moved by the “Hallelujah Chorus” that he stood up, giving rise to a lasting tradition.
Eagerly, I turned to Google to flesh out these basic points into a script, only to find, to my disappointment, that it was all a myth. There was nothing unusual about the speed at which Handel composed the famous oratorio: he wrote his next one, Samson, in a month as well. Bafflingly, there is no evidence that King George II ever attended a performance of Messiah, let alone rose to his feet at that point.
This left me with a familiar storyteller’s conundrum: whether to create a version more rooted in the truth, or to perpetuate the accepted myth. Against today’s background of Snopes, fake news, and fact-checking, knowingly telling a fabrication — however traditional — can feel rather precarious.
MY SON is not an Infant any more, having attained the heady heights of Key Stage 2 in September. This means that he no longer has to take part in a nativity play: the Juniors put on a much more sophisticated Christmas concert. I’m torn between nostalgia for the days of tiny shepherds and stars, and relief that I have no unpredictable costumes to provide this year. On one memorable occasion, the same son brought home a letter saying that he had been given the part of a dinosaur in his nativity play, leaving me with some serious questions about the school’s expectations of me as a seamstress — and, more especially, its RE syllabus.
Instead, he hopes to play his trombone as part of the school concert, and to that end he has been learning “I saw three ships” — the only carol we could find in the book for which he can reach all the notes (it’s tricky to play a trombone when your instrument is taller than you are). He was not familiar with the carol; so I sang it to him, resulting in his utter confusion (“There are no boats in the Christmas story, Mum. This is just a song about Random Stuff.”) I had to concede that quite a lot of Random Stuff has made its way into our telling and singing of the Christmas story over the years.
Nil nisi bonum
HERE, in the rectory, as the nights lengthen, we have been settling down of an evening to watch the third series of The Crown. This has taught me two things: first, that I know woefully little about the recent history of this country; and, second, that a television drama may not be the best place to find it out. Every episode is followed by a scramble for the history books (well, all right, Wikipedia) in an attempt to find out how much of it really took place.
We have exclaimed with surprise over some of the liberties taken, especially when the events depicted are still sensitive ones today: Prince Philip appearing at the funeral of the children in Aberfan, for example, seems to cross the line from artistic licence into rewriting history, particularly as the episode deals with the Queen’s regret over not having visited sooner herself. A historical drama with so many characters still living must have been extremely challenging to write; on the other hand, it gives me pause when telling the stories of those long dead, as being unable to argue back should not prevent their being treated with the same respect.
Heart of the matter
A WISE storyteller once told me that every story is a river, constantly flowing and changing, never containing the same water from one moment to the next, yet always the same river. A true traditional tale looks very different at its source from the way it looks in a modern telling. The original Cinderella, for example, may have really existed: a Greek slave in Egypt. Not a glass slipper or a fairy godmother in sight, and yet the essential kernel of her improbable rise to royalty — the thing that makes the story worth telling at all — can be traced through every version since.
The truth is that we surround remarkable events with remarkable stories. Handel’s Messiah is such an extraordinary piece of music that we want its composition and history to be extraordinary as well; as a result, we not only embellish its story, but we believe the embellishments, too.
The many iterations of the Christmas story we hear will be full of all manner of things that are not strictly biblical — whether dinosaurs and ships, or a stable, three kings, and a donkey. History is important when we claim to have a God who has entered it, but perhaps the adoration and wonder of tiny children wearing tea-towels is worth more than their knowledge that the birth of Jesus may not have been quite like that. I hope that, as long as the root and purpose of the whole exercise remains the Messiah, the truth will shine through the tale.
Amy Scott Robinson is the author of this year’s Advent book for the Bible Reading Fellowship, Image of the Invisible, and of the Gladstone the Gargoyle trilogy (Palm Tree Press, Kevin Mayhew).