A review of L Frank Baum’s The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus (1902)
In 1902, just two years after writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but 2 years before the first Oz sequel, L Frank Baum wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. It was illustrated by Mary Cowles Clark.
This was Baum’s attempt to tell the origin of Santa Claus and explain the beginnings and reasons for all of our different beliefs and practices around Christmas time. It was a very ambitious undertaking. But Baum does it in his usual dreamy, fairy tale-like manner and, for the most part, it works.
Baum sets up the world by describing all the magical immortal creatures that oversee various aspects of Nature. We see creatures such as Fairies who watch over humans, Wood Nymphs who watch over forests, Gnomes who watch over the rocks and Ryls and Knooks who watch over the flowers and animals, respectively (along with many other creatures I’ll not name). All of these creatures are presided over by the Great Woodsman, Ak.
One day Ak stumbles upon a lost child and allows a Wood Nymph, Necile, to adopt him. Necile names him Neclaus (Nicolas). Santa is raised by these magical, immortal creatures in the forest until Ak decided Claus must learn more about his own people and takes him on a trip into the human world. Santa is shocked and frustrated by the wars, greed, child neglect and child abuse he witnesses. Ak encourages him to not forsake the mortals as he is one of them. Santa decides to do something about what he’s seen.
Santa moves to the nearby Laughing Valley where all the magical creatures help him build a workshop and get him started making toys. The idea Baum posits here is that toys don’t currently exist. Santa invents them when he makes his first toy which then transfixes the children. So he continues to do it and his operation becomes bigger and bigger as he tries to help more and more children.
We get a lot of scenes with Santa meeting children and setting up his workshop. We see him deciding to venture out and deliver toys and also building a sludge (sleigh) and getting deer to help him pull it when the load becomes to large for him to carry on foot. We also see Santa having to get permission from the immortal creatures to use the deer overnight. In fact, Baum actually changes a few rules here. Santa gets permission to use 10 reindeer for his travels, not the usually depicted 9 (including Rudolph). While Rudolph wouldn’t be created until the late 1930s, the other eight reindeer were first immortalized in the 1823 Clement Moore poem The Night Before Christmas. However, I don’t think Clement Moore’s poem really took hold or gained mainstream popularity until the 1930s. And while that poem famously named Santa’s eight reindeer (Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen), Baum had 10 completely different reindeer names; Glossie, Flossie, Racer, Pacer, Reckless, Speckless, Fearless, Peerless, Ready and Steady. Sounds weird to hear Baum’s reindeer names today.
Later on, we see the rise of evil cave dwelling creatures who hate Santa called Awgwa. They want to stop Santa’s nightly deliveries. Ak the Woodsman gathers all the immortal creatures into an army to fight the Awgwas in order to get them to stop. Here’s an illustration from the book of Ak the Woodsman during that battle.
It’s all pretty awesome. Baum handles it in his usual style. After the battle, Santa makes deliveries a few more years and we see that he is aging. He becomes very sick. The immortals convene a meeting to see if they can help Claus and we get to see a LOT more of the magical creatures that inhabit this world. We even see a familiar face; the Gnome King, who would make an Oz appearance in the third book Ozma of Oz. There are subtle differences in the two characters though. In this book the word Gnome is spelled normally, while in the Oz books it’s changed to Nome. Also, the character isn’t evil or an antagonist in this book like he is in Oz. The Gnome King is clearly a title that is used by different Gnomes, so the Gnome King in this book is not necessarily the same character as the one from Oz. But it’s interesting to see this concept here five years before it would be used in Oz.
The story is good and fun. I like how Baum tried to work in how different traditions like the chimney and stockings were begun. It’s a fairly layered and detailed story. Much more so than I was expecting with a lot of typical Baum magical flourishes. It’s definitely a light, fun read that I enjoyed. And the illustrations are pretty great, too. Check out the website for the University of Minnesota UMedia archives which have scanned a copy of this book including all the illustrations. They also have about 30 other L Frank Baum books scanned and up for your browsing pleasure.
Two years after writing this Santa Claus adventure, Baum would write a “semi-sequel”. It was a 1904 short story called A Kidnapped Santa Claus. It was a short 15 pages or so and featured Santa Claus and his magical helpers; the Knooks, Ryls, Fairies and Nymphs. On his way out to deliver toys Santa is stolen off the sleigh and held captive by several daemons who live in nearby caves and represent selfishness, greed, envy, hatred and repentance. The daemons want to stop Santa because none of the children are acting selfish, greedy or envious now that they are receiving toys every year. So they are holding Santa hostage for one night so kids won’t receive gifts and they’ll once again cause children to act naughty.
It’s a short story. Literally. And it’s pretty thin. If it had been included in the original book, it would have barely been a chapter. It’s not bad, but it’s too short to really be anything other than meh. Read it for completeness, but you’ll barely get a full story out of it.