‘Zat You, Santy Claus?, by Elayne Riggs
"Childhood is the time of man’s greatest content," said Ak, following the youth’s thoughts. "’Tis during these years of innocent pleasure that the little ones are most free from care."
One of the promises I made to myself during my temporary unemployment period was to finally read and reread all of the Oz books that I own. It’s a pleasurable if somewhat daunting goal, as L. Frank Baum wrote 14 volumes in all, then Ruth Plumly Thompson carried on with 19 more, and although I had my period of fanatic Oz collecting and I did make it through all of Baum’s volumes I believe I stopped somewhere after the third or fourth Thompson book.
[As you might be able to discern from the photo above, my last four Thompson volumes aren’t even out of shrink-wrapping yet (hence the glare from the flash), and that out of many, many other "official" Oz books I also own tomes by Eric Shanower (Giant Garden, Salt Sorcerer and all his Oz graphic novels which are shelved elsewhere), Eloise and Lynn McGraw (Rundlestone), Edward Einhorn (Paradox) and Rachel Cosgrove Payes (Wicked Witch). Of those I’ve only read Eric’s comics, so I have a lot of great reading still to come!]
But I digress; for now I’m still working my way through Baum, and I’ve just started his seventh book. Despite the fact that he was hardly what you’d call ahead of his time (he advocated the extermination of American Indians, his work contains a fair amount of assumptions about gender roles), I’m finding his Oz books a real comfort, not only because he wrote of a time and place with which I have absolutely no first- or even second-hand experience (my grandparents were all immigrants and I’ve never lived in the middle of the country), but because he understood what it meant to write for children.
Baum wrote in the introductions to his books how he incorporated his young fans’ plot and character suggestions, and seemed to delight in their enthusiasm even though one can also read an undercurrent (particularly in his epilogues) of being tired of writing the series; it appears he tried to stop at two or three books, then was persuaded to write more, and after six he again tried to give it up altogether, citing the plot point of Glinda making Oz invisible to all outsiders as the reason he could no longer serve as Historian. (This was resolved in Book 7’s intro via his decision to employ the wireless telegraph, which apparently functioned to and from that magical land.) But whatever his frustration may have been at getting stuck as "the author of the Oz books," Baum never took it out on the books themselves.
The overwhelming feeling I got from reading the first six books was the wonderful overarcing projection of happiness and, above all, safety. I imagine the world of the early 20th century was anything but safe, particularly for poor rural folk, so it was important to Baum to establish a place where everything was unimaginably beautiful, where real-life concerns like monetary inequality didn’t exist, where characters could be hungry but would never starve to death, be brave and ready to fight but would go to great lengths to avoid war.
And the characters! Definitely Baum’s strongest suit. We all know about the baseline companions of the first book, the Scarecrow and Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, as well as the humbug Wizard, Glinda, the Munchkins and Winkies and Gillikens and Hammerheads and Kalidahs and — well, the list is just too long, particularly for those whose knowledge stops after "Munchkins" because they’ve only seen the movie and not read the originals. But the cast just keeps widening after that, until you practically need a scorecard to tell who’s who. Except that almost everything you need to know about each character is contained in their name and/or a sentence or two referring to their past adventures with which Baum’s fans were more than familiar.
In fact, Baum’s "Oziverse" bears more than a little resemblance to self-contained comics universes. It even has a crossover. The fifth book, The Road to Oz, features a birthday celebration for the land’s ruler, the princess Ozma. During the processional of invited honored guests, guess who leads the pack? "First was Santa Claus, who, because he was fat and not used to walking, rode the wonderful Saw-Horse. The merry old gentleman had a basket of small toys with him, and he tossed the toys one by one to the children as he passed by. His Ryls and Knooks marched close behind him."
Hang on. Ryls and Knooks? At which point I suddenly remembered, that’s right, Baum was also the author who brought Santa Claus to life.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, published 105 years ago, wasn’t the first depiction of the character but, as Wikipedia notes, it "further popularized Santa Claus. Much of Santa Claus’s mythos was not set in stone at the time, leaving Baum to give his ‘Neclaus’ (‘Necile’s Little One’) a wide variety of immortal support, a home in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, and ten reindeer which could not fly, but leapt in enormous, flight-like bounds. Claus’ immortality was earned, much like his title (‘Santa’), decided by a vote of those naturally immortal. This work also established Claus’s motives: a happy childhood among immortals. When Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, exposes him to the misery and poverty of children in the outside world, Santa strives to find a way to bring joy into the lives of all children, and eventually invents toys as a principal means."
As with much of Baum’s stuff, this book is available in its entirety online, so (as we only own the version illustrated by Mike Ploog) I decided to take a break from the Oz books on Christmas Eve and read Baum’s other major work. The above quoted paragraph is a good synopsis but, as with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one really needs to read the language to fully appreciate how the story’s woven. Hence the extensive quotations, for which I hope readers will forgive me.
Many of the same themes appear here as in the Oz books. Ak, the Master Woodsman of the world, notes of children that "their joy is in being alive, and they do not stop to think. In after years the doom of mankind overtakes them, and they find they must struggle and worry, work and fret, to gain the wealth that is so dear to the hearts of men." However, a kind heart is deemed paramount, worth more than anything of monetary value: "While life lasts everything on earth has its use. The wise seek ways to be helpful to the world, for the helpful ones are sure to live again." The imaginative innocence of youth and the idea that "every man has his mission, which is to leave the world better, in some way, than he found it" are often tricky concepts to impart to children, but Baum did so with such gentle deftness that one hardly notices, one is so caught up in the storytelling itself. It’s no wonder that his work has stood the test of time. (Even Life and Adventures was seized upon by Rankin/Bass, who must have realized that their own over-explained stop-motion version of Santa Claus’ life, while beloved by many for its incomparably kitschy quality and wince-worthy songs, didn’t hold a candle to the master; their 1985 version of Baum’s book was their last holiday special.)
Neither does Baum neglect the idea of carefree safety. When Claus strikes out on his own, he retains the protection of the immortals, as well as the valley he chooses for his home: "And while he slumbered and breathed in the perfume of the wondrous Valley the Spirit of Happiness crept into his heart and drove out all terror and care and misgivings. Never more would the face of Claus be clouded with anxieties; never more would the trials of life weigh him down as with a burden. The Laughing Valley had claimed him for its own. Would that we all might live in that delightful place!" Thus does Baum continually appeal not only to children but to the longing child in us all, that part of us which desires simplicity and to always be cared for ("Thereafter, when hungry, he had but to look into the cupboard to find goodly supplies brought by the kindly Ryls. And the Knooks cut and stacked much wood for his fireplace. And the Fairies brought him warm blankets and clothing. So began his life in the Laughing Valley, with the favor and friendship of the immortals to minister to his every want.") and to enjoy freedom from strife and conflict.
Yes, conflict is an important element in drama, but it needn’t be the main element. Baum uses conflict to move his story along; like Dickens, he shows us poverty and sadness at something of a distance. The hardships of Ebenezer Scrooge’s life lie in his past and the downtrodden life of his clerk is glimpsed through windows; likewise, Claus notes that inequality and other burdens are endemic, and rescues the child Weekum as he’s about to freeze to death, but these dangers never touch his person the way they touch his heart (yes, Tiny Tim got better!). He’s as firmly grounded in the fairy-world of immortals as Scrooge is in the spirit world. And this makes readers yearn to be in his shoes even more.
When Baum presents antagonists, they’re certainly portrayed as fearsome, but there is usually no doubt that they’ll be vanquished in the end; it’s simply a matter of how. So conflict exists but is easily manageable. In the first Oz book, Dorothy vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West and escapes her slavery; in the sixth book, Ozma and the Scarecrow figure out how to peaceably defeat the rather frightening (yet comical in their own way) outside forces who would conquer them. In the latter, readers can see the solution before it’s actually employed, affording an additional layer of fictional comfort. In Life and Adventures, the Awgwas are introduced about halfway into the tale as creatures who hated mankind "and had the power of influencing the minds of human beings to do their wicked will." But Baum’s layer here is to assure his readers "that these vile creatures have long since perished and passed from earth; but in the days when Claus was making his first toys they were a numerous and powerful tribe." Too many modern storytellers believe that conflict, even in children’s books, should be as in-your-face and revved up as possible to elicit the maximum scare quotient. While many of these stories are well-crafted, I wonder how many of them will be as fondly remembered in the years and decades to come.
As expected, Claus defeats the Awgwas’ evil designs upon him fairly easily and effectually, and when the battle between the Awgwas and the immortals is finally fought, Baum has the goodguys dispatch the badguys in five crisp, one-sentence descriptions. Although care is taken in describing the warring parties and their weapons, the author feels no similar need to linger on the gruesome details. The war takes place in the chapter after the antagonists are introduced, and is wrapped up in a few paragraphs. It’s not at all the focal point of the book; it exists to move the plot along and explain the evolution of Claus and his toymaking. At chapter’s end Baum even offers an apology: "Now I will gladly have done with wicked spirits and with fighting and bloodshed. It was not from choice that I told of the Awgwas and their allies, and of their great battle with the immortals. They were part of this history, and could not be avoided."
And this above all is why I have such a problem with many "reimaginings" of Baum’s world. Yes, forms of violence exist therein, but they’re not to be dwelt upon or glorified or wallowed in. Dorothy and her friends don’t tote guns; most go well out of their way to find nonviolent solutions to their problems. War is always a last resort, and it’s always dispatched quickly. It’s incidental to the story, never the apex. It is treated as the horrid, disgusting, barbaric matter there is, an evil trait that is antithetical to the enjoyment of our protagonists’ adventures.
There’s a bit towards the end of Life and Adventures that I really liked, which flies in the face of the modern Santa Claus myth. Baum writes, "when a child was naughty or disobedient, its mother would say: ‘You must pray to the good Santa Claus for forgiveness. He does not like naughty children, and, unless you repent, he will bring you no more pretty toys.’ But Santa Claus himself would not have approved this speech. He brought toys to the children because they were little and helpless, and because he loved them. He knew that the best of children were sometimes naughty, and that the naughty ones were often good. It is the way with children, the world over, and he would not have changed their natures had he possessed the power to do so." He adds, "And that is how our Claus became Santa Claus. It is possible for any man, by good deeds, to enshrine himself as a Saint in the hearts of the people."
I must say, I like this Santa Claus a heck of a lot better than the one who keeps lists and spies on kids. With Baum, the emphasis is always on the character’s giving nature, " For a generous deed lives longer than a great battle or a king’s decree of a scholar’s essay, because it spreads and leaves its mark on all nature and endures through many generations." (It’s also worth noting that Baum chose to feature a female Spirit of Death a century before Neil Gaiman’s Sandman came along. And I mean, come on, don’t you prefer the reindeer names Racer and Pacer, Reckless and Speckless, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady, and Glossie and Flossie over Dancer or Vixen or Rudolph? You know you do.) And yes, Virginia, Santa doesn’t miss a trick, as Baum brings his adventures into the then-modern age: "’I will make all loving parents my deputies!’ cried the jolly old fellow, ‘and they shall help me do my work. For in this way I shall save many precious minutes and few children need be neglected for lack of time to visit them.’" (He also winds up supplying toy shops, so parents can go buy the things in his place and with his blessing.) I highly recommend an annual reading of this delightful story, right alongside A Christmas Carol, preferably aloud and to any children who might be within earshot.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor, and wishes everyone a happy Boxing Day. She looks forward to her husband preparing a wonderful lunch of bubble and squeak, after which they plan to watch proper British football matches.