I've just been watching the strangely affecting BBC Four Christmas offering The Fir Tree, a Danish drama about the life of a Christmas tree; from birth through his brief, shining glory to a tragic death, it's quite unusually told by the fir itself. The story is based on a rather pessimistic tale by Hans Christian Andersen, one that I suspect Paul Gallico must have had in mind when he wrote Snowflake.
This tale, first published in 1952 is told by the snowflake from the moment she is formed and begins her fluttering descent to earth. It reminded me of the improbable whale from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, who blinks into existence high up in space, and in the few confusing minutes of its existence is filled with philosophical thought, before following pitiless gravity down to earth.
Unlike the whale our snowflake has many more trials ahead of her. Over the course of the year she gets painfully run over by a sledge, turned into a snowman's nose, married to a raindrop and squirted at a raging city fire.
Paul Gallico was a former sports writer, who had launched his career by asking heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey to knock him out, an experience he vividly retold in print. In the late 1930s he bowed out of sport in favour of fiction, and went on to write The Poseidon Adventure and Manxmouse, one of J.K Rowling's childhood favourites.
But as he told New York Magazine this was a risky move, “I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories…. If I had lived 2,000 years ago I'd be going around to caves, and I'd say, 'Can I come in? I'm hungry. I'd like some supper. In exchange, I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time there were two apes.' And I'd tell them a story about two cavemen.”
This unusual self awareness is not mere modesty, Gallico writes like few others. Actually not true – he writes like many bad writers do, taking the 'this happened, then this happened and then it ended this way but this is how it felt and this is what it all meant' approach. But amazingly he gets away with it. His folky, primitive style is at times quite mesmerising and befits the naive worldview of the snowflake.
I particularly love Snowflake's deadpan, ethereal voice. At first the confusion and pain visited on her by the natural world cuts the beautiful snowflake deep. Then as she makes her way down river and out into a beautiful lake she becomes awed by its beauty. But all this is snatched away in a violent encounter in the city, before ending with a slow painful evaporation.
But the Snowflake is not conceited like Hans Andersen's Fir Tree, she remains humble to the end. In fact it puts me in mind of another Andersen tale of suffering at Christmas, The Little Match Girl. Despite all the horrors visited on her, snowflake ultimately accepts her place in the lifecycle, and makes her peace with god. It's hard to think what could be more in the spirit of Christmas than that?