Every year around this time I reread something related to the season, and this is it for 2020. I first knew about Frank L. Baum’s Oz from the 1939 MGM film, but came to love his Oz books when my grade school librarian lent me her own childhood editions of many of them in the early 1960s when I was about 12. Granted, Baum’s first Oz book was not as good as the movie, in my opinion then and now, but the second one of the series, “The Marvelous Land of Oz,” was even better, and many later titles were equally fun to read. Baum wrote many other fantasy novels for young readers, but I didn’t know about most of them until later when I began to find them at used book sales and stores in my twenties. This one remained unknown to me until I was able to buy this 1976 reprint from Dover Books. Martin Gardner’s excellent introduction explains the complex history and development of the character from diverse European origins that were brought to America and gradually developed a new life and new stories here. Washington Irving of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame was the first American author to write about St. Nicholas in 1809, but it was Dr. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” of 1823 that brought many of our ideas about Santa Claus to the public through continued newspaper printings. More attention and details were added by illustrator Thomas Nast in many pictures of the character he now called Santa Claus beginning in 1863. In the 1800s, little was known in America about the European origins of the character, and it was in this light that Baum decided to create for him a new origin and story that was first printed in 1902.
In Baum’s version, an entirely new mythology is created for the northern forest of Burzee with a hierarchy of many races of magical beings, drawing on European ideas but with Baum’s new abilities and societies and sometimes new names. A young boy baby is found at the edge of the forest and rescued by a wood-nymph named Necile, and the ruler of the forest, the Master Woodsman Ak, is persuaded to let her and the other forest immortals raise the child. The boy is named Claus, and as he grows, he comes to understand the ways of all the forest spirits, the Nymphs, the Knooks, the Ryls, and the Fairies, each with their own duties and responsibilities. When he is a young man, Claus is shown his own human people in the rest of the world by Ak, and he comes to particularly love human children, many of whom are sad and poor. Claus takes up residence in the Laughing Valley outside the forest of Burzee and hits on the idea of making toys to amuse the sad children he has seen. Gradually his career as a toy maker and toy deliverer develops, but not without opposition. Evil creatures led by the invisible Awgwas object to Claus’s plans, as they delight in bringing sadness and pain to humans, and eventually there’s a war between the immortals of Burzee and the evil forces led by the King of the Awgwas.
This story is quite different from others about Santa Claus, and some elements of it are a bit hard to believe in, but at least it has an imaginative mythology to add depth, and the life of Claus is well told. Rankin-Bass did a simplified animated version in the 1980s, and there was a graphic novel version by writer/artist Mike Ploog in 1992. The original book is a fun read, and recommended.