Good King Wenceslas: Christmas Carol and Mythic Adventure
John Mason Neale first published the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas in 1853. The character in the song is based on Duke Wenceslaus I of Bohemia. The duke had a reputation for goodness and Christian piety. He was renowned for bravery, stalwart action, and courage in battle.
He died quite young, at the age of twenty-eight. His brother, Boleslav, ran him through with a lance as the Duke fended off Boleslav’s co-conspirators. According to legend, the page of Good King Wenceslas, a boy named Podevin, avenged his master by killing one of the conspirators, for which Boleslav executed him, also.
A Mythical Setting
As with everything about the Christmas holiday and Winter Solstice, there are layers of meaning in the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. Whether intentional in the writing of the song, these layers are there because they are part of a lager mythology.
Here, the word mythology refers to the language and symbols used to communicate the ideas of a belief system. It makes no statement at all regarding the trueness of the story. Christianity is very much a mythology. That some believe the story true is not at odds with this idea. As a mythology, Good King Wenceslas holds open the door to everyone.
An Invitation to Adventure
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel
Good King Wenceslas is looking for adventure, for purpose, for a place to put his energy. He stands, we can assume, on a high place looking out to see what he can see.
In the Christian mythos there is adventure to be found literally everywhere, in every task, every human encounter. Life presents resistance on a daily basis. This can be lost amid the piety and ritual. The path of Christ is in fact a vigorous, adventurous approach to life. It is a call to always do the right thing of the moment. It presents a constant challenge to the mind, heart, and body.
The moon is bright, the night is bitterly cold with a cruel frost. These are the conditions of the quest. As we begin, we can see clearly. The way is open. The path is lit and clear. The only question is whether to take it. And it’s a huge question.
Good King Wenceslas and the God's Eye View
Christian clarity is always a two edged sword. To see with the eyes of Christ is to scry without illusion, without the distracting influence of craving, and to be aware of the answer. Or, failing that, is tis to have unclouded awareness of the darkness.
On the path of adventure, you either know exactly what to do, and face the struggle of choosing it, or you have no idea what to do, and face the struggle of knowing that you must do something. Both are a form of vision, without which, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). In the distractions of modern life, a person can lose sight of the fact that they have no sight at all.
At the start of the song, we see what God sees, from the High Place: reality waiting to be shaped into experience. Deep and crisp and even. There is an unbroken trail to be found, to be made. The world is a clean, moon-lit slate. There is pure potential here. Anything can happen, and Wenceslas, as the maker of events, the shaper of history, a metaphor for God, eyes it all with adventurous intent.
The Darkest Passage
It is St. Stephen’s Day. The first Christian martyr, Stephen is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles as having been condemned and executed as a blasphemer by the local Jewish establishment, possibly in Tarsus. St. Paul himself witnesses the event, who is himself a Jewish authority, and in fact a hunter of Christians. There is deep symbolism here: a lone figure staying true to the guiding power in his heart, even to death.
In Greek, Stephanos means wreath or crown, reward or honor, and is used as a title as well as a name.
Within the song, the quest to come takes place against a backdrop of sacrifice, a remembrance of the most costly of adventures. That same spirit, the spirit of ultimate adventure, permeates the air Wenceslas is breathing. It is a time of commitment, of unflinching readiness for challenge.
Good King Wenceslas and The Calling
"Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes' fountain.”
The adventure of this song belongs not to Good King Wenceslas, but to his page, a boy named Podevin according to the historical sources. Wenceslas spots a man in need and turns to his page with a question. (For a fictional version of the Good King and his page, see my novel: Walter and the Winter Goblin.)
A slightly deeper look at this question reveals its true nature. Wenceslas is asking as a teacher would ask. He wants his page to consider the situation. As it happens, the page actually knows quite a lot about the laboring peasant including the landmarks of the man’s dwelling place.
The Mountain and the Fountain
And those landmarks are highly significant from a mythical point of view. The mountain symbolizes challenge, vastness of perspective, and is everywhere in myth one of the most likely places to encounter divinity. The fountain or spring represents the source of life, spirit bubbling up from the deep places, and the promise of refreshment after toil or hardship.
That the wood-gathering peasant should be associated with both of these symbols makes him and his situation a calling. A calling to adventure, to purpose. It is the hero’s journey waiting to be undertaken. A door stands open before the page and the king points it out. It’s as if the king is saying, “You see the situation. What do you intend to do about it?” With this leading question, Good King Wenceslas represents the impulse toward right action.
"Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament
And the bitter weather.
It’s important to note that Good King Wenceslas does not undertake to provide a handout. There is a man hard at work gathering firewood. There’s no reason to think the man is downtrodden or in trouble. He’s just out doing what he always does: gathering firewood to stay warm in winter. He is himself engaged in a mythical task, that of daily life.
Good King Wenceslas sets out to provide this man with a celebration. A respite of plenty. We might see this as the God’s eye view of the quest. The reward moment from the perspective of the bestower for labor virtuously undertaken. Here, again, Good King Wenceslas is a metaphor for God.
The peasant is himself a beacon. A call to true poverty. He is a man in the world meeting the demands of his life with determination. He goes resolutely about the basics, the simplest, most necessary things. The fact that he is poor does not mean his is destitute. Destitution is antithetical to true Christian poverty, which means instead receptivity, emptiness waiting for divine plenty of all kinds.
The Adventure Begins
In response to this vision of life, the quest is undertaken. Podevin, the real adventurer, sets forth with his Monarch, who is the calling in his heart. More will be needed before the night is out, but at the start of the quest, this sense of calling is all the winter fuel required.
Notice, too, that the weather has changed. As with all adventures in the mythic realm, no idea of what lies ahead can fully describe the truth of it. It is inevitable: not until the first steps of the mythical journey are taken does the real challenge reveals itself. The light of the moon, the crisp evenness of the landscape, are replaced with bitter weather and wild, lamenting winds.
A Hero's Journey
"Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly."
In the space of a song, an important concept must be conveyed in a short span of words. As with poetry, those words must be carefully chosen. The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas achieves this with this verse. The two key elements essential to the hero’s journey are noted: darkness, and discouragement beyond reckoning.
The page has reached the turning point of his adventure. The goal recedes out of reach. Darkness here is darkness of the mind as well as external darkness. The wind has increased in strength. Physical conditions have deteriorated to a state for which the page is not prepared. And he says the words that every hero making the dark passage must say: I can’t go on.
It is the mythical moment.
Good King Wenceslas
Here the character of Good King Wenceslas is lifted to the level of a spiritual ideal. Good King Wenceslas is the inspiration for young Podevin. The calling personified. In this stanza we see the full spiritual depth of the mythical adventure. Our hero can’t go on. His mind has gone dark. The world has gone dark and sets itself against him. It is not his imagination. He can’t continue. His heart has failed. It is at this moment when new depths of inspiration are needed.
Wenceslas here is not merely the calling, the purpose, or the idea of adventure. He is the way, the means of its achievement. The page must still choose and act, but that which calls must provide a bridge across the divide, must itself be that bridge. It is a mysterious admixture of divine assistance mingled with human perseverance. In every mythical adventure, the circumstances of the quest must somehow contain the bare essential requirements for success.
This is the case with life itself, when undertaken as an adventure, a transformation occurs: the thing becomes a journey with a goal, a high and noble thing emerges from the raw potential of simple existence. And the keys to all the locks are to be found on the path. We will find them if only our adventurous spirit persists in seeking them.
“The path itself will guide you,” as one of the characters says to the young hero of my novel, Silverlance.
The Footsteps of the King
For Podevin, as for every adventurer, the assistance is minimal, but it is enough. And it is the minute difference that enables the page, who finds himself on the crux of ruin, achieves the critical foothold-at-the-edge needed to continue.
In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
In the final stanza, the corner has been turned. Podevin is strengthened with new hope at the appearance of a new way forward. The way is opened, just a little, but he must take the step, and he does.
On the level of religion, a miracle has occurred. On the level of myth, a mysterious process of reality has taken place. In this process, surrender to the calling is allowed to elevate the human vessel beyond the limits of his mental and physical capabilities. It is a spiritual process. The the living universe expands and extends its own being through a human life.
The hero’s journey, the mythical path is a voluntary participation in the expansion of all things toward the good. It is a reaching further, a lifting up. It guides the human being to a level of awakening unique to the individual. The details of the process, how it unfolds reflect the limits of the individual. The process is available to all individuals, all societies and to the human species as a whole. It is always present, always calling, always to be found in the details of right now.