I Saw Three Ships

“In the mid winter gloom Christmas comes up over the horizon like a lighted ship homeward bound. The arrival has been prepared for and expected, yet as the archaic shape draws slowly nearer and nearer, the lights of the lanterns reflected in the black water like moons and stars, the sails luminous as huge moth’s wings in the dark, we feel profound relief. The great ship has not been wrecked. We in its absence, have escaped destruction. It is to happen again……..”
( Goudge page 7 1967)

This is one of Elizabeth’s loveliest visions of Christmas, drawing on an ancient Celtic symbol, The Ship. A wonderful, calming picture to hold onto in the chaos of a modern Christmas, with all its expectations and hard work.

I saw Three Ships is a Christmas carol of a tale set in an idealized Napoleonic Torbay, the setting used for her novel Gentian Hill. Indeed some of the characters from this book are reused too, an economy that doesn’t offend. The orphan girl is the most obvious transfer who though young is wiser than the elderly aunts she has been sent to live with. Then there is the French “migrant” fleeing the terror and his own terrible secret short comings, and finally the mysterious beautiful woman, standing serenely in the bow of a ship who features in more than one of Elizabeth’s works.

This is a tale of home coming, not only of a long absent brother, but of those rescued from danger, and the ultimate home coming of death.
“When he put his fingers on the table Balthazar left myrrh” said the Frenchman. His death, you understand, to enrich their life.” (Goudge p 38 1967 )

“And what was in those Ships all three?”

All our hopes, dreams and wishes for the future, bright, untarnished and full of possibilities.

The Ship

Christmas and the New Year was a very special time for Elizabeth and she celebrates it in many of her books. In fact the story of the Three Wise Men is a tale for Epiphany, 6th January, and tells of a revelation that changes the lives of all those in this story, as the end of their journey changed the lives of the Magi forever.

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,”
(Journey of the Magi T .S. Eliot.)

This is a small tale like an advent window into her imagination. In it a young girl wants to honour the legend of the three wise men that she had observed with her parents, she wants to leave the front door of their home unlocked on Christmas Eve to let them in. A prospect that the two maiden aunts take great exception to, as it leaves them vulnerable, who know whom or what might get in?

What gets in through the open parlour window with the help of Polly, will change the lives of all who live there.

The book is filled with the simple effective line drawings of Richard Kennedy, an illustrator who started work at the Hogarth Press for the Bloomsbury set, most notably Leonard and Virginia Woolf. They make a strong frame for the simple style the story is told in, giving us glimpses of the action. He also illustrated books for Rosemary Sutcliffe a contemporary and friend of Elizabeth’s, they worked for the same agent and publisher. Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote a poem called The Feast Of Lights which starts like this

This is The Feast Of Lights.
We have put the holly and the ivy up, a sprig or two
Behind each picture, three behind the largest,
As it was in my father’s time, and his father’s before him, world without
end.
The scented candle, gift of a friend far off, is lit before the crib.
Spicy, aromatic, warm and faintly bitter, censing the whole house
As though three kings had just walked through it.

(Rosemary Sutcliffe p 147 1986.)

Maybe the gift was given by her friend Elizabeth, to celebrate the birth of Light.

” And so Christmas is still the Feast of Lights. So many of them. Once it was the Yule-log, the burning brandy of the snap dragon game, and the flames round the Christmas pudding. Then it was the twinkling wax candles on the Christmas tree. Now the candles are mostly electric, and if safer are not so beautiful, and the blazing lights of Regent Street are rather garnish. But it does not matter, for whatever they are they continue to be reflections from the light that at the beginning of all things moved upon the face of the waters. ”     ( Goudge p 8 1967)

For me Elizabeth seems to lean a little closer at this time of year, a pleasant ritual to read one or more of her books, deepening my understanding of her writing, getting to know her a little more, and enhancing my love for the true meaning of the season.

May the New Year be a Peaceful and Prosperous time for you all.

Deborah Gaudin

Elizabeth Goudge 1967 A Christmas Book  Hodder & Stoughton
Elizabeth Goudge 1969 I Saw Three Ships Brockhampton Press
Richard Adams 1986 Occasional Poets An Anthology. Viking

 

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