DeFlip Side #96: Santa—Orc-Slaughtering Badass

DS96.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I’ve often spent this time of year regaling you with tales of my favorite quazi-historical Christmas figure, old Claus himself, St. Nick, who, in churchy circles, has been nicknamed the fighting saint for his demon stomping ass-kickery. Despite multiple legends of his miraculous feats, the historical St. Nicholas has been subsumed by the folklore of Santa Claus, his fiercer aspects all but forgotten.

But I’m not the only one fascinated by these grisly details. Actually, I’m in pretty good company in my mania to explore the darker side of Santa, joined by no less than the two authors who could arguably be considered the fathers of modern Fantasy.

Let’s start with C.S. Lewis, who uses Santa as a pivotal character in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first volume of his Narnia series. Shortly after they stumble into Narnia’s frozen landscape, the Pevensie children learn that the land is gripped in a spell cast by the White Witch that makes it always winter but never Christmas. Which is just a less overt way of saying that God is missing, presumed dead—trapped in the Phantom Zone maybe. But the arrival of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve—as the Narnian natives call the Pevensie children—weakens the spell enough to permit the entrance of a certain familiar figure: Father Christmas.

Santa’s cameo in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is, of course, in service to Lewis’s messianic parable, heralding the return of Aslan, which is Narnia-speak for God. In so doing, the stately Father Christmas is acting almost as the angel of the Lord, like the one appearing in the Gospel of Luke. I know this because Linus has been telling me about it for years on the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Linus: “And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them. The glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy.'”

Santa is indeed bringing the Pevensie children tidings of great joy, and they certainly seem sore afraid when confronted with the sheer gravity of his presence. As the books states:

“He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as holly berries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest… Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him, they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad and so real, that they became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn. ‘I’ve come at last,’ said he. ‘She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.’”

Santa is a terrific choice to herald of the arrival of Christ, given his Christmas connection. But considering the bleak ending to the Chronicles of Narnia, you might also read the series as the Children’s Guide to the Book of Revelation, in which case Santa becomes one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, heralding the second-coming and the final battle with the Anti-Christ. More specifically, he’s War, as evidenced by the fact that his main function in the story is to gift the children with the weapons they’ll need to do battle with the White Witch. Peter gets a sword and shield, Susan gets a bow and arrows, and Lucy gets her healing potion. Having completed his military supply run and debriefing, Santa proceeds to favor them all with a jolly spot of hot tea and then gets into his sled and drives off, maybe to review troop maneuvers or something.

This might seem like an incongruous use of Santa, but it’s perfect if you consider him in his historical aspect as St. Nicholas, the fighting saint. Lewis deftly capitalizes on the dual aspects of Nicholas the man and Santa the myth to imbue his story with layers of meaning. Pretty cool, huh?

But Narnia isn’t the only Fantasy realm in which a beefed-up Santa appears.

J.R.R. Tolkien also dabbled in Santa lore. Only in this case, Santa didn’t visit Middle Earth. Instead, Middle Earth came to Santa’s workshop, prompting Father Christmas to engage in some very un-Santa-like behavior.

From 1920 to 1943, Tolkien carried on a yearly tradition of sending his children letters from Father Christmas, detailing Santa’s life at the North Pole and featuring a regular cast of characters, including a Polar Bear, an Elf secretary named Ilbereth, and various wild and otherworldly creatures like snow people and gnomes.

The North Pole was also frequently besieged by orcs, though in the letters Tolkien called them goblins, as he did in The Hobbit. In his final missive to the kiddies, Father Christmas relates the tale of an orc attack that rivals the battle of Helm’s Deep. He writes:

“I expect you remember that some years ago we had trouble with the Goblins, and we thought we had settled it. Well, it broke out again this autumn, worse than it has been in centuries. We have had several battles, and for a while my house was besieged. In November, it began to look likely that it would be captured…

“I expect the Goblins thought with so much war going on this was a fine chance to recapture the North. They must have been preparing for some years, and they made a huge new tunnel which had an outlet many miles away. It was early in October that they suddenly came out in the thousands.

“Luckily, Goblins cannot help yelling and beating on drums when they mean to fight; so we all woke up in time and got the gates and doors barred and the windows shuttered. Polar Bear got onto the roof and fired rockets into the Goblin hosts as they poured up the long reindeer-drive; but that did not stop them for long. We were soon surrounded… I had to blow three blasts on the great Horn (Windbeam). Its sound carries as far as the North Wind blows. All the same, it was three whole days until help came: Snow-boys, Polar Bears and hundreds and hundreds of Elves. They came up behind the Goblins; and Polar Bear rushed out with a blazing branch off the fire in each paw. He must have killed dozens of Goblins.

“But there was a big battle down in the plain near the North Pole in November, in which the Goblins brought hundreds of new companies out of their tunnels. We were driven back to the Cliff, and it was not until Polar Bear and a party of his younger relatives crept out by night and blew up the entrance to the new tunnels with nearly 100 lbs. of gunpowder, that we got the better of them—for the present. The North Pole cracked and fell over (for the second time) and we have not yet had time to mend it.”

Wow. Who knew Santa had the jolly old equivalent of the Horn of Gondor to rally Elves to bloody battle? And just where the hell were those orcs tunneling in from? Santa Claus: defender of children, patron of sailors, and orc-slaughtering badass–the true fighting saint in all his formidable glory.

Also, consider this: these letters predate or were written concurrently with the Elven mythos that Tolkien used as a basis for The Lord of the Rings. Some of the ideas clearly overlapped. Ilbereth the elf secretary became Elbereth the Elf Queen. Without a doubt, the Father Christmas letters helped Tolkien flesh out his magical world.

So when you look at it in that context, Santa is responsible, at least obliquely, for the birth of the modern Fantasy novel and all the hours and hours of reading that many of us have enjoyed since—just another of the countless gifts delivered by Nicholas, the fighting saint.

Merry Christmas!

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