I bought a copy of L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus with illustrations by Eric Shanower back in July, and I might as well take a closer look at it now. I re-read the story, which I’ve read several times, but it’s a quick and pleasant read. It’s a fairly quiet story by Baum’s standards, set in an unspecified past rather than in contemporary times like the Oz books. The main character doesn’t even participate in the one action sequence, the battle between good and evil. I remember not being all that interested in it when I first received it as a present as a child, but I liked it more once I became a fan of Baum’s other stuff. It includes origins for many parts of the Santa legend, including the sleigh and reindeer, going down chimneys, stockings on the mantle, and Christmas trees; and even answers such questions as what he does when a house doesn’t have a chimney (his fairy assistants can walk through walls) and his opinion of toy stores (he’s fine with them). There are some aspects that are different from what came to be basically canonical, sometimes on purpose like Santa not basing his present-giving on whether a child is good or bad and the name Nicholas being a corruption of his full name Neclaus; and other times because they hadn’t been codified yet at the time Baum wrote. Santa lives in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho instead of at the North Pole, he’s not married, and the reindeer have different names from the ones in “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (although they do seem to be inspired by the names from the poem). It’s also been observed how Baum’s work comes across as rather pagan, with a lot of nature spirits hanging around and no mention of Jesus. Indeed, Santa is said to only make his deliveries on Christmas Eve because it’s what a cranky Knook agreed to. Its definition of a saint is also pretty non-denominational: “It is possible for any man, by good deeds, to enshrine himself as a Saint in the hearts of the people.” But then, a lot of religious saints really weren’t particularly nice people, while Baum’s Santa is kindly to everyone and appreciates all living things. Baum uses some of the immortals he introduces here in later works, eventually bringing Santa to Oz with a retinue of Ryls and Knooks in The Road to Oz. He had already worked another one of his fantasies into the story of Santa with a mention of Phunnyland, “where delicious candies and bonbons grow thickly on the bushes,” which was the setting of A New Wonderland and would eventually have its name changed to Mo.
For the IDW edition of the book, Shanower contributed twelve color plates, including some pretty busy scenes. You can see two of them here. He provides interesting takes on some of the characters, like his Awgwas, which are totally bizarre and disturbing creatures. He’s said before that he thinks of the Gnomes from this book as different from the Nomes in the Oz books, and while I prefer to think they’re the same, his take on them with potato-shaped bodies and candles on their heads is charming. His picture of the rulers of the immortals is fascinating, with each member of the council rendered in a distinctive style. (I still wonder why the Frost King wasn’t included at this meeting. Does he fall under the jurisdiction of the Queen of the Water Sprites, because frost is made of water?) “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” a story very much in the same vein as Life and Adventures but released separately, is here included, stuck in the Old Age section before the final chapter. It works, although it is strange that the chapter before it begins by mentioning the decline in fireplaces as “the last trial he was forced to undergo,” then having Santa kidnapped immediately after that. Since Santa remains fairly calm throughout the ideal and gets out unscathed, however, maybe he wouldn’t consider the experience much of a trial. Eric’s plate shows all five of the Daemons, with the Daemon of Repentance in particular showing influence from Dr. Seuss. I would have liked to have seen the Awgwas’ monstrous allies, but you can’t have everything.