Nine Lessons and Carols: The Seventh Lesson: Spies, Skinflints and Spice

Image via wikipedia

Image via wikipedia

They were coming for him in ten minutes.

That was what James Bond ascertained, there at the top of the mountain, during his mission  to rumble Blofeldt and his flamboyant yet dastardly plan to brainwash young women with allergies into transporting biological warfare back to Britain.

So of course he jumped on the skis and hared down the slopes with technical bravura. It took him more than a chapter in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to get down that hill. I can only surmise that his creator must have adored skiing, if the razor-sharp description of his descent is anything to go by.

And his enemies had the perfect rejoinder: loud fireworks and flares, loud enough to start an avalanche.

Incongruously, there was a party going on at the top of the mountain.  Fleming writes: “And then Bond remembered. But of course! It was Christmas Eve! God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay!

“Bond’s skis hissed an accompaniment as he zigzagged fast down the beautiful snow slope. White Christmas! Well, he’d certainly got himself that!”

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. An institution, piping there at the seventh lesson of Nine Lessons and Carols. A song which sounds mediaeval, because it begins in what might have been construed as one of the old modes, the precursors to scales. And yet the first time it is seen in print is not until around 1760, in a broadsheet of the time, in which it is introduced as ‘a new Christmas Carol.’

But its popularity has endured ever since. Not only does Fleming choose it to throw the plight of his  dashing spy into stark relief, but Dickens has his anti-hero hurl an implement at it:  “…at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

It is a caroller’s carol. A tune which apes a folk carol, yet has a monumental structure. Which is as much christmas as mulled wine.

Let nothing you dismay.

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28 thoughts on “Nine Lessons and Carols: The Seventh Lesson: Spies, Skinflints and Spice

  1. Aeolian mode, I see, and consistently that despite the harmonies we’re all used to now. There’s an obscure major version of this with a different ending I seem to remember, an ending similar to a Wassail song with which it had become assimilated.

    Despite the “new” label, it may just be that independent words and tune may have been married for convenience. That’s my guess anyway!

    With your academic qualifications you may already know this process. There’s a Welsh hymn tune which is just God Save the King with mode and metre changed, and the Gower Wassail starts like the National Anthem before going its own sweet way.

    In fact that scalic feature that so characterises God Rest Ye, like Twinkle and Baa Baa Black Sheep, must be common throughout European traditional music, surely.

    But I too will now associate it with James Bond. For this, much thanks…!

      1. We did a harder version of this Steeleye Span arrangement when I was with an electric folk band in the 70s, but we changed to words so it could be sung by Old Nick in our musical version of a mummers play. Fol-de-dol etc stayed put though!

  2. Why isn’t there a God rest you merry ladies? Because they are the ones in the kitchen stewing swans and larks’ tongues and pasties and whatever all that stuff is I read about in Tudor historical fiction. Work, work, work. That’s all they do.
    Merry Christmas to one and all.

    1. And to you, Gale. Your comment is enough to send me scuttling off to compose a God Rest Ye Merry Ladies. There are manymanymany of them out there tonight, tired but happy after a day of cooking Christmas dinner….

  3. I had forgotten those references, but the song is freshly in my mind as I have come across a version with honky-tonk and hip-hop which I have recently wasted a lot of time trying to embed – without success. Do not shudder; it is fun!

  4. I love the song, and your post. I just learned about the storm and hope there’s nothing to dismay where you are. I suppose you’re well into Christmas Eve there, so I’ll say, Christmas Gift! and get ready for the day to dawn here.

    1. Kathy, thank you. We did have rather a dramatic storm as it happens, but we’re all fine. Phil was drafted in to help at Heathrow with all the cancellations, and I had to drive through the storm to go an collect him from departures at 10pm….a dicey old trip, that. But as I say, all’s well that ends well. Thank you for asking! Hope you have had a great Christmas day.

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