Sifting Through the Ashes:

Analyzing Hellblazer, Part 39

Author’s note: Up to this point in my analysis I’ve tried to remain as objective as possible in the analysis of the content within the series,  but the subject matter of the following issue, combined with the fact that it’s my favorite of the 300 issue series, will undoubtedly bring out more of my own personal feelings.

Issue #49 “The Lord of the Dance”
Writer: Garth Ennis;

Guest Artist: Steve Dillon;

Colors: Tom Ziuko;

Letters: Gaspar Saladino;

Cover: Tom Canty;

As most comics are released as monthly publications it is only natural that a Christmas1 themed issue is released. Often these issues happen in between storylines and have no real effect on the overall storyline of the comic. They exist to be thematic material that one can visit at the holidays that touch upon the overall positivity that the holiday season is meant to invoke in people. While holiday issues of comics that generally have an upbeat tone such as the Geoff John’s run on Justice Society of America mesh perfectly with the “meanings” of Christmas, kindness and generosity with a focus on familial love (yes I know that’s what Christmas isn’t really about, more on that in a second), it’s nice when otherwise more serious books lighten up for the holiday such as Batman’s occasional holiday themed issues. If The Dark Knight and Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem can partake in holiday cheer, then why can’t John Constantine?

“The Lord of the Dance” takes place entirely on Christmas Eve and opens with John Constantine on the ever relatable quest to find the perfect Christmas gift for Kit. Also to note is that the issue features Steve Dillon on pencils and inks who will become the series regular artist from issue #62 until the end of Ennis’ run, and Dillon would accompany Ennis on his follow up series Preacher. As anyone who has shopped for a loved one, or someone they want to be their loved one, this can be a very stressful ordeal. We’ve seen Constantine beat the devil at his own game, confront the spirit of his unborn twin brother, and confront a Lovecraftian embodiment of fear, so the idea of this working class magician getting flustered over something as simple as a Christmas present is all too amusing without Ennis even having to make it a great effort. The issue never delves into Constantine’s shopping experience other than him leaving an antique shop in Camden but the mental image of Constantine running abouts to find the “perfect gift” delivers a smooth setup for the issue.

As Constantine can’t not avoid the supernatural, even on Christmas Eve, he has noticed that a ghost is following him. Deciding that finding out what exactly this ghost is takes precedent over finding the perfect gift (sorry Kit), Constantine confronts the miserable looking giant of a man and gives him a once over. Responding to Constantine’s jest about being sad at Christmas with that he doesn’t like Christmas at all, the pair share a cup of tea while the “ghost” tells John his story, with John biting the line out of his ever present curiosity. The spirit asks if Constantine has ever heard of the song “The Lord of the Dance” a hymn written in 1963 by English songwriter Sydney Carter that was inspired by the American Shaker song “Simple Gifts” written by Elder Samuel Beckett in 1848. As the spirit describes it, Carter’s song focuses on Jesus Christ “as a lover of revelry and celebration…whose activities could be seen as a dance.” While few could argue that Christ was not a lover of celebration, revelry is another matter, and the spirit claims that the song was changed to be solely about Christ, instead of being about him, the Lord of the Dance. There is some historical truth to this, as Carter based his song not only on Christ but on a statue of Nataraja,2 a depiction of the Hindu deity Shiva as a cosmic dancer sometimes referred to as “The Lord (or King) of the Dance.” However the historical facts of the matter end there, with the rest of the issue being a creation of Ennis, but one that still manages to entice to the reader.

The Lord of the Dance tells the story of how in ages past there was a feast at Winter’s time when there was a great feast to celebrate life despite the dead cold world around them. The feast was described as orgiastic and filled with dancing, as The Lord of the Dance puts it humanity’s way of saying “I Live!” and pleased by this celebration and display of life, The Lord of the Dance would come to join in, not in spirit as would be invoked by phrases such as “the Lord i with us” but as an actual figure. As The Lord of the Dance is depicted as large broad-shouldered man/god haunting the streets of London, who at one time wore an antlered head-dress it is easy to determine that he is not an aspect of Shiva, most notable given that he only possess two arms as opposed to Nataraja’s four. Determining The Lord of the Dance’s actual identity is a bit more difficult, as many polytheistic pantheons contain a largely built god associated with drink and revelry. However given that this is the writing of Garth Ennis it can be assumed that The Lord of the Dance is either a Celtic or Irish figure. A possible identity would be The Dagda,3 Irish God of the Earth and All Father, but the Lord of the Dance is missing many of the signifiers of the deity, and his downtrodden demeanor from being forgotten would not fit with the deity whose harp is part of the logo for Guinness.4 Given the rest of The Lord of Dance’s tale it is more likely that he is infact Cernunnos, a little mentioned Celtic antlered God of Nature and Fertility.5

The second half of The Lord of the Dance’s story is much more tragic in compared to the joyous celebration of life previously mentioned. At some point “the shaven head monks” arrived and seeing that the revelry the people partook in “wasn’t written in that gigantic rulebook of theirs, they hated and condemned and outlawed everything the saw.” These monks decreed that the birth of Christ had occurred long ago and that is what the world was supposed to celebrate, not the celebration of life (Interestingly enough this event probably coincides with the life of king Kon-Sten-Tyn as displayed in Hellblazer Annual #1). From there christianization occurred, particularly the practice of Interpretatio christiana (Latin for Christian interpretation) in which native beliefs were coopted to match the Christian viewpoint, the cultural traditions and practices still existed, but their meaning was drastically changed. The most common example would be from focus on “The Sun” to “The Son” given that several cultures placed great importance on the Sun as the provider of light, warmth, and the force in which plants and crops grow (life), all of which are commonly attributed to Christ. The Lord of the Dance stood by helpless as his people were forced into step and he was forgotten given that “history is written by the victorious” or in this case, rewritten so that there never was a Lord of the Dance who led the revellers. Given the few historical mentions of Cernunnos that exist, it is a feasible notion that Christianity could have very well nearly erased presence of a pagan god despite Hellblazer a work of fiction.

The Lord of the Dance finishes his conversation with Constantine with an observation of the role of the organized Christian faith in those dark times:

“Though the people were downhearted, the lawmakers and churchmen were happy…for the people’s delight was something they were jealous of–simple because they had no say in it./We had taken their power from them, just by dancing, and that was our crime./They hated ‘I Live!’ for one reason alone./Nobody asked them if it was all right first.”

This is another strong statement of Ennis problem with Authority, the minority enforcing itself on the majority for control over them with this instance using organized religion. It is an inarguable fact that organized religion has done terrible things in the name of their God over the course of human history and not just those of the Christian faith, and there are groups and people that still do so today. The mood descending into an obvious somber state, Constantine seeks to comfort an individual who is more pessimistic than himself by taking him to the most common  display of revelry known to man, a pub. Now based on each your upbringing, a packed pub on Christmas eve can be a bit of a head scratcher, as Christmas Eve is to some a very Holy evening. However as Constantine puts it, “after a few pints no one gives a shit about what Christmas means anyway. It’s just pure, primal bloody good laugh stuff,” and he’s right, although to some that may be a blasphemous statement (but to be completely honest fuck that) people will celebrate their holidays how they want as they should.

Realizing that the the joy was always there and that his despair had clouded his vision, a revitalized and drunk Lord of the Dance and equally drunk Constantine, guide an extremely drunk Chas home, before fleeing from the wrath of Chas’ still unseen wife. The teasing of Chas wife as some unseen but oft mentioned force across both Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis; run is spectacular and elevates this character to a mythic figure despite her being an otherwise modest conventional woman. Bidding farewell to his new friend, the Lord of the Dance takes on his horned and bearded appearance that he bore during his tale and departs. John goes to see Kit and realizes that he never completed his quest for The Perfect Gift and confesses it to Kit. Proclaiming the idea of giving John a present never crossed her mind, she decides to instead give John a deep passionate kiss instead, after threatening to “beat the shite” out of him should he ever leave her alone on Christmas. It’s a touching moment that didn’t go the way that John was planning, but makes the kiss all the more satisfying to both John and the reader. The scene shifts to outside of Kit’s apartment where in the background, she and John can be seen disrobing, while in the foreground two figures that bear a resemblance to be Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon drunkenly stumble down the street. The pair drunkenly expressing their affection for one another in the way that men only can, with “Dillon” expressing how the kid (Ennis turns 22 in January of 1992) will do alright if he sticks with him. It’s a touching end to the issue, that’s somewhat prophetic given the reception to Ennis’ run that will lead to the popular and critical of success that Dillon will be directly involved with.

More often than not Christmas is what you make of it, if you want to spend it in church on your knees, go right ahead. If you want to spend it with good friends, family, food, and drink, that’s fine as well. Both or neither, something else of your choosing, more power to you. You don’t have to be religious this time of year to celebrate something, the birth of a savior, life, or something else entirely, just have a good time. Just don’t let someone tell you or you tell someone else there’s a right or wrong way to celebrate your holiday season. Don’t you fucking dare. On that note Happy Holidays readers of Sequart, may you have a joyous time doing what gives you the joie de vivre!

Notes:

  1. I use Christmas here as to my account I can’t recall a Chanukah or Kwanzaa themed issue of any book, but would be more than happy if you know of one.
  2. Sydney Carter Obituary in ‘The Telegraph’, 2004
  3. “Dagda, God of Earth & fearsome warrior”http://www.read-legends-and-myths.com/dagda.html
  4. “Irish Harp – World Cultures” http://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/AEmblem/Harp.html
  5. “Cernunnos” http://www.pantheon.org/articles/c/cernunnos.html
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Max Nestorowich is a Michigan Technological University graduate with a degree in Chemical Engineering. To keep his sanity in the perpetual winter of Houghton, in his free time he dove head first into exploring all that comics had to offer, which worked to a certain extent. He eventually started writing about them at every opportunity, settling on a blog at some point. When not reading, watching, or writing something, Max can be found in the Analytical Chemistry Lab in which he finds employment, doing science.

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Also by Max Nestorowich:

The Mignolaverse: Hellboy and the Comics Art of Mike Mignola

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