It might just be my favorite carol and I love to sing it—but I’ve decided that I’ve got issues with Good King Wenceslas.
Wenceslas (or, in the original Czech, Vaclav) turns out not to have been a king at all; he was a duke, in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). And he was wandering about on snowy nights before the year had four digits; he died in 935 at the ripe old age of 24.
(Incidentally—he was bumped off by his brother, known thrillingly as Boleslaus the Cruel, and isn’t THAT a choice detail? Boley apparently wanted the dukedom for himself. But because he wasn’t as Christian as Vaclav was, Vaclav was considered a martyr. And then a saint.)
So, good King Vaclav is standing in his palace or castle or whatever. Probably an early form of Hradcany in Prague, this very cool castle compound on a wicked steep hill overlooking Prague. So he’s standing there, surveying his dukedom like a young buck, warmed by the fire that the servants laid and quick with all the protein he’s been getting since he can hunt in the royal forest, or whatever.
And he looks out and sees a guy. This happens on the Feast of Stephen, which is the day after Christmas, so the weather outside is frightful. (It’s 36 degrees in Prague right now, but—global warming. We can assume it was well below freezing and windy back in 935-ish.) Vaclac can tell the guy is poor (maybe no Gortex windbreaker) because the guy is “gathering winter’s fuel.”
The fuel part is tricky because we quickly learn that the guy lives up against the forest fence, so what’s he doing all the way in town gathering wood for a fire? Seems like there would be plenty of fuel right by his home, unless Vaclav has declared that no peasant can take firewood from the forest, in which case let’s rethink the “good” part of Good King Wenceslas. Perhaps this is poetic license; maybe the “fuel” he’s gathering is a nice dish of pierogis, and it’s fuel for the body he’s after rather than fuel for the fire.
Vaclav sees this guy, bent against the wind and shuffling through snow that is deep and crisp and even, and Vaclav waves over a page. (Wikipedia tells me the page’s name was Otto, which is the kind of story-telling detail I appreciate; I donated to Wikipedia in thanks.)
“Otto,” says Vaclav, “What’s the deal with that guy out there? Do you know him.”
“I got you,” says Otto. “He lives a league from here.” (Google is confusing on the subject of “a league.” Could have been 7500 feet; could have been three miles. Any way you look at it, it’s a long way to go in the snow for some pirogis.) “He lives in the foothills, up against the forest fence by St. Agnes Fountain.”
(Now, here’s some sloppy storytelling on the part of the Victorian-era lyricist for this carol, because there WAS a St. Agnes of Bohemia, but she wasn’t born until three centuries after Vaclav succumbed to his brother’s cruel ambitions, so square THAT circle if you have a mind to. The lyricist (John Mason Neale) CLEARLY did not have access to or pay attention to Google in 1853, and that’s just lazy.)
Vaclav hears Otto share the (surprisingly detailed) location of some random poor guy’s home and gets all fired up. “Bring me flesh and bring me wine,” he says. “Bring me pine logs hither.” (I have to wonder, again: Why bring the pine logs with you? Wasn’t the poor man’s hovel up against the forest fence? Could we NOT carry pine logs with us through the snow? I could bring a little hatchet, sire, and we could cut him a length of stove wood on the spot, what do you say?)
“Thou and I shall see him dine,” Vaclav says grandly, “when we bear them thither.”
“I was just going to have my own dinner, sire,” Otto said, or maybe just thought. But being a willing sort, Otto gathered up some of the boar that Vaclav had shot that day, and tucked in a flacon of wine, and strapped it to several pine logs, and hoisted it all onto his back and announced that he was ready.
Vaclav, dressed in bear robes and deerskin and the good woolen clothing stitched painfully together for him by sacred women in chilly priories, strode off. Otto, less richly and warmly dressed (and rather more burdened) shrugged and followed; it was better than staying back at the castle with Boleslaus the Cruel.
But eventually Otto thinks to voice an objection. Vaclav is young, buff, well-dressed. He’s been living on duke-ish food all his life. He is filled with princely vigor. On the other hand, Otto is one lucky employment record away from his own hovel by St. Agnes Fountain, and he gets tired. He gets cold. The snow is laying round about, deep and crisp and even, and we’ve moved beyond the circle of lanternlight from the castle, and it’s COLD.
So Otto says (usually in the voice of every soprano at the party), “Sire, I’m wiped out. I just can’t go any farther.”
Vaclav is a decent guy; he’s out there in the black of night to take food and wine and some fancy imported pine logs to a guy in the foothills. His instincts are kindly even if he’s dragged a servant after him into the storm. So he says to Otto, “I’ll break the path through the snow. Walk in my footsteps, and my big, manly body will break the wind. Come on—there’s no sense stopping here. You’ll just freeze to death. Only half a league, half a league, half a league onward.”
So Otto does. It helps to have someone else break the path. “This is better,” he thinks.
And this is where John Mason Neale makes a HUGE left turn. The lyricist likes the metaphor of walking in the footsteps of a kind master; it’s very Jesus on the beach, that is when I carried you. But John Mason leaves a mighty long footprint himself when he steps WAY over the metaphor and heads straight to the moral. We go from Otto figuring following in Vaclav’s great big footsteps is like walking on a heated sidewalk…
…to this preaching finale: “Therefore, Christian men, be sure—wealth or rank possessing: Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”
Wait a minute. Hold on there, Neale. I think you’ve skipped a few steps there. Who found the blessing here? The couplet implies that despite his wealth and rank, Vaclav’s kindness to the poor conferred on him blessings. There are some texts that say that Vaclav’s goodness was so profound that he melted the snow so Otto could walk on dry, warm earth. This is NOT a super-power yet exploited in the Marvel Comic Universe, and they’re pretty good at finding the most lust-inducing super-powers.
No, it seems that if the blessings were conferred on Vaclav, then that blessing took the form of the urge to head out on snowy nights to help one guy when the whole city was shivering. That and an untimely end at the hands of a brother with a REALLY obvious name. I mean, spoiler alert. Who named THAT baby??
If the blessings were conferred on Otto, then his blessing was to have a path-breaker in front of him while he was out doing his master’s peculiar bidding in the middle of a blizzard with logs strapped to his back, and that doesn’t seem like much of a blessing.
And if the blessing was for the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el, we never actually get to see that guy say “Hey! Nice pine logs! Thank you for bearing them hither!”
I love the message; I really do. Be nice to people around you—especially people who, for whatever reason, don’t have your advantages. Thumbs up. But no bonus points to the songwriter. Besides, he stole the tune from a 13th century Finnish song about the coming of spring called “Tempus adest floridam” (the time is near for flowering), making the tune younger than Vaclav AND St. Agnes.
I still love to sing the carol, though!