Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fantasy Literature Rewind: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.

When it comes to legendary figures, there are few that quite measure up to Santa Claus.  Sure, there are other famous characters out there.  However, how many of them have a legend and tradition that still lives the way that the legend of Santa Claus does?  Interestingly, many parts of the legend we know today were created in the United States, specifically by residents of New York.  Now, I’ve seen my share of Santa Claus origin stories, ranging from Rankin-Bass’s Santa Claus is Coming to Town to William Joyce’s Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King.  However, one other notable attempt at giving Santa Claus a back story comes from America’s premier writer of children’s fantasy.  That would be The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum.   
 While this story may not be as famous as Baum’s Oz stories, it has been adapted a couple of times.  Once as a Rankin-Bass special and once as an animated direct-to-DVD movie.

So, this fictional biography of Santa Claus is split into three parts: Youth, Manhood and Old Age.  The Youth part of Claus’s life starts in the Forest of Burzee, a sylvan woodland filled with immortal nature spirits and ruled over by Ak the Master Woodsman of the World.  A forest that one can only imagine in full bloom, too.  Right from the beginning, this may be the greenest Santa Claus story you’ll ever read.  We’re so used to Santa Claus stories being perpetually covered in a blanket of white snow.  One day, Ak finds an infant abandoned on the edge of Burzee with the lioness Shiegra poised nearby to turn the poor babe into a meal.  Ak then commands the lioness to lie near the infant to keep it warm and feed it her milk.  Thus, the child is saved.  The wood nymph Necile hears of this and moved by the child’s plight goes off to take the child away from Shiegra.  Necile then breaks the law of the Forest by bringing the child into Burzee and pleading with Ak to let her raise it.  After much deliberation, Ak allows it and Necile names the child Neclaus (meaning “Necile’s Little One” in the immortal language, and a convenient sound-alike to “Nicholas”) but calls him “Claus” for short.  Claus grows up in the forest, learning the ways of the Immortals.  However, one day Ak takes Claus out into the world to learn the plight of other mortals like himself.  Claus is particularly struck by the plight of children.

I don’t want to spend the whole rest of this post summarizing.  However, it’s safe to say that Claus is on his way to being the famous gift-giver we know he as today.  In his manhood, he learns to carve toys out of fallen wood (because a man raised by a nymph would never harm a living tree).  He creates his sledge and befriends the reindeer.  He comes up with the idea of putting gifts in stockings and creates the first Christmas tree.  There are even villains.  A group of creatures called Awgwas that drive children to be naughty bedevil Santa Claus until they’re defeated in The Great Battle Between Good and Evil by the Immortals.  It’s actually interesting how much Baum covers his tracks when crafting this story, addressing all the doubters out there among his audience.  Baum has Claus deputizing parents as his helpers.  He also supposedly supplies toy shops with his creations.  Also, for those whose house has no fireplace, he has his helpers Wisk, Peter, Nuter and Kilter who can pass through walls deliver the gifts.  At the same time, Baum isn’t afraid to have his Claus differ from the expected story.  This Santa Claus does not live at the North Pole but in the Laughing Valley outside the Forest of Burzee.  He doesn’t get assisted by elves but by a Fairy, Pixie, Ryl and Knook.  Also, instead of the usual team of reindeer (named in Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”), this Santa Claus has a team of ten reindeer named Racer, Pacer, Reckless, Speckless, Fearless, Peerless, Ready, Steady, Glossie and Flossie.  It’s been argued that a lot of the Santa Claus mythology wasn’t set in stone yet, but a lot of it was at least out there.  Santa Claus was depicted as living at or near the North Pole as early as 1869 in a poem entitled “Santa Claus and his Works” and Clement Moore’s poem with the names of the reindeer was published in 1823.  This book wasn’t published until 1902.  You’ll also notice some of Baum’s attitudes coming through the work, particularly his attitude towards children.  It’s well-known that Baum first created Oz because he wanted a gentler alternative to the old fairy tales.  We see something like that here.  Santa loses some of his more cautionary aspects when it’s made clear that he doesn’t care if children are naughty or nice but will give gifts to any of them.  Also, there’s a scene where he swears to make toys that are only gentle and nonthreatening after a carving of the lion Shiegra scares a little girl (as a boy, I think I would have preferred a badass lioness toy over a gentle kitty cat like the ones Claus usually carves).

As far as Baum books go, it was okay.  When it comes to Baum’s fantasy writing, this book is kind of toned down.  His Oz books as well as other books like The Sea Fairies are so inventive on such a crazy level.  Yet, here there are almost none of the absurdly fantastical touches that we associate with Baum’s work.  Most of the fantasy here goes into creating the various immortal nature spirits that are friends with Santa Claus.  In addition to the Nymphs which guard over trees and the Fairies that guard over people, there are Ryls that guard the flowers and Knooks which guard the animals.  By the end of the tale, we’re also introduced to Wind Demons, Sound Imps, Water Sprites and Light Elves among a few others.  There are even Gnomes which are associated with the earth and seem much friendlier than the Nomes which often plague his Oz books.   These concepts are good, but no match for the fantasy of Oz (Oz has a whole village made up of people made of baked goods, for heaven’s sake).   This Santa did get to be put into the greater L. Frank Baum fictional universe, though.  The Forest of Burzee also appears in another Baum book Queen Zixi of Ix and Santa visits Ozma for her birthday in The Road to Oz (Question: with movie studios trying so desperately to develop interconnected universes for movies, why hasn’t anyone thought to adapt the “Baumiverse” yet?).

As far as Santa Claus origin stories go, it’s not bad.  It’s not my favorite one, though.  That award probably goes to William Joyce’s Nicholas St. North.  Not only because the character got to be in a fun Dreamworks animated movie but because it has a lot of the far-out Baum type of fantasy that this book lacks.  The thing is though, that Santa Claus really doesn’t need an origin story.  The most important thing about him is the magic and generosity he’s associated with in the here and now.  Most kids probably aren’t as interested in where he came from as whether or not he’ll be coming on Christmas Eve.  So, if you (or your kids) want a decent little Santa Claus tale by the USA’s most famous fantasist, give it a try.  It’s good, even if I wouldn’t consider it required reading.
Thomas Nast's Santa Claus.  No relation to this book at all, but still a nice illustration.
In the meanwhile, this little Fairy Tale Geek will try to figure out how to get the Baum Cinematic Universe off the ground.  MGM made The Wizard of Oz, maybe they’re looking for a new multi-franchise endeavor . . .

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