In Part 1, we had a short look at L. Frank Baum’s background and touched upon his role as America’s first big children’s book author. Baum also seems to have played an early and perhaps major role in the reformation of the fey. Of course his hallmark work, The Wizard of Oz, featured a good witch – a notable subversion of most folk tales and children’s stories up to that time. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus carries on in that vein.
I’ve not been able to find any record of C. S. Lewis having commented on Baum or Oz or his work, but given that Oz and The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus were written nearly 50 years before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I’d be a little surprised if Lewis hadn’t read or been somewhat inspired by his American predecessor.
Lewis was a big advocate of fairy tales and children’s stories, as evidenced by the nature of his Narnia series.
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”
– C. S. Lewis
I’m not the first to notice a resemblance between the worlds of Baum and Lewis, but my internet trawling has mostly turned up comparisons between Oz and Narnia, and there are a lot of similarities – both tales aimed at children, filled with magic, strange, fantastical creatures, and talking animals. This extends beyond Oz, however.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus also features an extensive roster of magical and mythological beings, some of whom wield magic, and who wage a great battle to determine the fate of a man (Santa Claus here). I can’t help but think of the First Battle of Beruna in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Of the course the battle against the White Witch is fought to determine the fate of Narnia, not just the Pevensie children, and the fighting is a lot less one-sided than the Battle of the Laughing Valley. Still, there’s a little more than a passing likeness here.
Despite Baum’s determination not to moralize to children, he knew that a good (children’s) story must be built upon a certain framework, and the triumph of good against evil, in this case illustrated by a literal battle, is fundamental.
Spirit of Christmas
Incidentally, Christmas and Santa (or Father Christmas) do make appearances in Lewis’ tale. But unlike the Narnia stories, which are built upon a “suppositional” Christian framework (what might Christ look like in another world), Baum took an inherently Christian character in Santa Claus and treated him with a pagan-style mythologization.
The words “God” and “Christ” are glaringly absent from The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, with one contextually negligible exception.
Claus was so wearied with his night’s work that he threw himself upon his bed and fell into a deep slumber, and while he slept the Christmas sun appeared in the sky and shone upon hundreds of happy homes where the sound of childish laughter proclaimed that Santa Claus had made them a visit.
God bless him! It was his first Christmas Eve, and for hundreds of years since then he has nobly fulfilled his mission to bring happiness to the hearts of little children.
Interestingly there are passing references to “Heaven” and to the “Supreme Master,” which makes me think that despite his own drifting from Christianity, he had some difficulty completely abandoning the Christian cosmology.
“I know all this,” answered Ak, quietly. “But the Mantle exists, and if it was created, as you say, in the Beginning, it was because the Supreme Master knew that some day it would be required. Until now no mortal has deserved it, but who among you dares deny that the good Claus deserves it? Will you not all vote to bestow it upon him?”
Baum also includes in his story some assertions and elements that argue he didn’t quite understand the role of saints, at least in the traditional Catholic sense. Of Claus he narrates at one point:
It is possible for any man, by good deeds, to enshrine himself as a Saint in the hearts of the people.
And in the words of mothers to children:
“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.”
This is completely divorced from the idea of a saint as a man or woman who lives a holy life in obedience to God’s will. Yes, it’s good to be good, but there’s more to sainthood. And one does not pray to saints; one prays for the intercession of saints, as their closeness to God can make them valuable and powerful advocates.
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a Christmas story in much the same way that A Christmas Carol is a Christmas story. Baum’s work is about the Christmas spirit – compassion and generosity, and of course the fantastic character of Santa Claus.
Good and Evil
My favorite part of the story has to be the battle between the Immortals, the mostly benevolent keepers of the world, and the evil Awgwas and their allies. One of the most interestingly elements of Baum’s cosmology here, I thought, was the nature of the Awgwas. While the Immortals are pretty standard small “g” gods and spirits who cannot die of old age or be killed, the Awgwas are different. Writes Baum:
They were neither mortals nor immortals, but stood midway between those classes of beings[…]Sometimes these creatures lived to become a hundred years old, but usually they fought so fiercely among themselves that many were destroyed in combat, and when they died that was the end of them. Mortals were powerless to harm them and the immortals shuddered when the Awgwas were mentioned, and always avoided them. So they flourished for many years unopposed and accomplished much evil.
The idea of creatures neither mortal nor immortal captures the imagination, though I suppose this is a class that could easily apply to many of the unnatural beasts and wonders of fantasy, including the Elves and Dwarves of Tolkien’s creation.
An excellent line about the doomed nature of the Awgwas once they determine to war upon the Immortals:
But it is the Law that while Evil, unopposed, may accomplish terrible deeds, the powers of Good can never be overthrown when opposed to Evil. Well had it been for the King Awgwa had he known the Law!
I think this, perhaps, does a better job encapsulating the Christian Gospel than the whole rest of this “Christmas” story! Going back to Lewis, this definitely makes me think of Narnia’s Deep Magic – once again a hint that Lewis may have read and been inspired by Baum. This quote also reminds me of St. Augustine’s writing on evil – that it is correct to say that there cannot be evil without good, but mistaken to say there cannot be good without evil.
Think of the Children
Reading this story and thinking back upon watching the animation, now as a parent, I am somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, the de-Christifying of Christmas has begun to bother me more and more. I don’t want my children to grow up associating Christmas solely with the trimmings – gift-giving and cheesy music and warm feelings. But I suppose my job will be tying all that stuff into the true meaning of the holiday – welcoming the incarnate Christ.
Fantasy can be a wonderful thing – it allows our imaginations to roam and grow, and I’m a believer in the idea that Truth can be gleaned in all manner of places. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a creative origin story for the character of Santa Claus, though I’d share it in the same way I’d share any other fairy tale. The battle of good versus evil (and the inevitable triumph of good), the merit of generosity, the dominion of all of creation under the once-named Supreme Master – these are all good focus points for the story.
It’s been an interesting ChristmaSFF, and after some reflection, all-in-all, I’m ready to give Baum’s story a thumbs up.