Greetings, wretched wetlanders and pathetic cowards of the gluttonous south. It is I, Vrokthar, returned from a long absence to make his demands of you, the fat indolent swine that feed his mighty tribe. When last we spoke, I was pleased with the misery and chaos that was brewing in your decadent civilization. Indeed, this year has been even more glorious than the last! Vrokthar’s invincible raiding parties have been so busy pillaging the ignorant, defenseless villages of your horrid nation that I hath had scant opportunity to taunt thee via my magical word-slate (also, I lost the charger for some time and it was difficult to find a replacement – art thee aware that not all of thy power cords are equivalent? RESOLVE THIS AT ONCE!).
Yes, the mighty warband of I, Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, waxes daily. My warriors are well-fed upon heaps of man-bacon and entertained daily by the many wretched slaves dragged back to my longhouse. Truly, Vrokthar lives in a golden age.
But Vrokthar’s mighty appetites are endless! Though your absence of competent governance has laid the wealth of your impotent nation bare and ripe for the taking, there is still more I desire! No – more I shall have!
I speak, of course, of Santa Claus.
Yes, my wetlander slaves speak of him often. He is some kind of mystical champion, it seems, who travels forth on an enchanted battle-sledge yearly to deliver his spoils to the worthy among thee. Whilst I cannot imagine what you have done to earn his favor, it irks me that such a being – a sorcerer gifted with such great wealth – might be hiding in the arctic vastness of mine own lands! This is an affront! I will find this Claus, I will take his head, I will raze his house, and I shall take his enchanted sledge for my own! So it shall be!
It is for this reason that I have deigned to contact you, denizens of the mystical ether known as “Inter-not.” Heed carefully my words, for failure to do so shall be met with your endless agony:
BRING ME YOUR ELVES UPON SHELVES!
Do not ask how I know of them! Vrokthar’s sight is as mighty as that of the Claus! How clever of him to install spies in your homes – and also a sign of his weakness. Now, all I must do is capture these tiny creatures and torture them until the location of their master is revealed through their broken teeth and blood-caked lips.
There is an obstacle to overcome, however. Thanks to the Claus’s sorcerer’s tricks, all of the Elves on Shelves I have thus far apprehended have been transmuted to mere cloth and plastic before they could be put to the question. Initially I had thought it a mere ruse or, perhaps, the elves were only able to come to life in the light of the moon. Nevertheless, no matter how many of the perfidious creatures I placed upon my own shelf, they remained inert. The Claus, for all his cowardice, is a clever opponent. He cares nothing for the lives of his diminutive slaves (and well he should not!) and will sacrifice them freely to keep his location secret.
Such resolve, however, cannot last forever. The Claus will make a mistake! Mine own shamans have prepared mighty rituals to interfere with his infernal holiday sorcery. And then, oh, then will his fate be sealed! If torture cannot loosen the tongues of these elves (and Vrokthar’s tortures are mighty and varied indeed!), perhaps I might win their loyalty through the many boons I mighty shower upon their stocking-capped heads.
HEAR ME, OH ELVES! You have been abandoned by your infernal master! He shall transmute thee into mere cloth and fuzz rather than let himself come to harm. But Vrokthar is a far more generous master! Reveal to me the secrets of the Claus, and be showered with all the riches your tiny brains can imagine! Candy! Gold! Slaves! Beasts! Meat and mead in plenty! You need only sunder the chains by which the Claus hath bound thee!
Then, with you by my side, we shall raze the fool’s arctic manse. I shall take his beard as a trophy for my belt, and you shall have any number of his reindeer as yours! Truly, Vrokthar is generous to his friends, but his patience is limited. Speak now, or burn forever in a boiling pool of your own fat!
SO IT SHALL BE!
Every year around this time we are bombarded by images and stories of people losing their minds in retail environments. People are trampled, beaten, even pepper sprayed, all in the quest to acquire the newest pair of sneakers, some doll that giggles when you tickle it, or God knows what else. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, it’s disgusting, and it’s contrary to what the Christmas Spirit is really all about.
Or is it?
Remember, now, that these people aren’t busting in faces to buy something for themselves. They’re doing it for somebody else. They want to please someone else, improve their lives, let them know that they are loved. To them, they are beating in that other person’s face because, on some level, they believe that it is the best way to make their children and loved ones happy. Deranged as it might be by materialism and cultural expectations, its genesis is a fundamentally good one. Weird, huh?
This is why, of all the wonderful characters in Tolkien, Boromir often intrigues me the most. Boromir represents the fundamental flaw in the human spirit. Boromir is a brave man, a hero, a good son, a good friend, and a man who wants, beyond all other things, to help his country, his family, and the free peoples of Middle Earth. You can’t help but like him. At the same time, though, he is brash, short-sighted, overly proud, short tempered, and foolish. When he tries to take the Ring from Frodo, he’s doing it because he thinks he can help. He believes he is doing the right thing – bring the Ring to Gondor, use it to defeat Mordor, save the world, etc.. Who wouldn’t want that to be the case? Nobody can say Boromir’s an evil man – weak, perhaps, and certainly unwise, but not evil.
Lots of folks can sit back and shake their head at Boromir basically trying to mug Frodo in the woods and say ‘what a jerk’ or ‘how stupid is that?’ Not that many folks, however, can say they wouldn’t be tempted to do the same in a similar scenario. For example, say this Christmas there is a screw-up at Amazon and they send you a new Ipad that you didn’t order or buy. You know the person who should have received it is going to be bummed out, but they’ll get their Ipad eventually and on Amazon’s dime. You could totally keep the Ipad – just a little lie, or even just a sin of omission, and it’s yours.
Well, do you keep it?
Understand this: no matter how you rationalize the keeping of the Ipad, you are now a thief. You have taken that which does not rightfully belong to you so that you can make either yourself or someone on your list happier. Perhaps this is just what your sick cousin needs as he’s laid up in the hospital and bored. Perhaps your unemployed brother could really use a new computer, but he can’t afford one. By taking this Ipad, you will be doing good. Who are you harming, right? It’s just Amazon – faceless corporation, soulless materialistic monolith – it doesn’t have feelings. They won’t even feel its loss! Doesn’t matter, though – you are still a thief.
Don’t get me wrong – almost everybody would keep the Ipad (well, except my wife, to whom this really happened, but she’s more Aragorn than Boromir, anyway). This is why Boromir’s struggle is so wonderful to watch – it’s the same as all of our struggles. Do small evil to do great good? Yeah, why not? Steal that doll from that other person’s carriage – they’ll be okay. Keep consuming – there won’t be any major repercussions, I’m sure, and everybody will be so happy, right? It’s Christmas, man – lighten up!
It’s just a little thing. Such a little thing…
The list had no end. The yellowed, six-inch wide span of parchment, thin as a Bible page, spooled out of the old man’s hands both above and below, falling on the floor in a tangled, Gordian mess. It filled the room, piling up in great drifts of paper that had to be swept aside so others could pass, obscuring the cupboards and bookshelves that lined the wall in an imitation of the snow that fell endlessly outside the single, circular window. A fire blazed in a great hearth at the opposite end of the room, a heavy iron grating covering its wide mouth so that sparks wouldn’t set the never-ending list alight. That had happened but once, and the repercussions had been terrible to behold.
Spectacles perched on the tip of his large nose, the old man peered through the flickering firelight and woodsmoke at each entry on the list—a name and birthday, written in a neat, efficient elfish script. He would read each name to himself, mouthing the words carefully, as though tasting each syllable. On occasion he might stroke his beard and sit back, puffing on his pipe for a moment, his eyes far away. The name would glitter in his mind, a constellation of memories and feelings, each as sudden and as real as though he were experiencing them himself. Sometimes he would laugh at this, a small smile playing across red lips; other times he would sigh heavily, and his lips would retreat behind the snowy tresses of his beard in a deep frown. When this happened, he would produce a small stick of charcoal and draw a thin, black line through the name in question. His inspection through, he would take a deep breath and move on to the next name.
Every few hours, the parts of the list which had been reviewed were snipped off by silver shears and carted away in a wheelbarrow of gold and deep green. It was from there to the archivists, who would record which names were unmarked and marked for posterity. This was, arguably, the most important part of the process, but the old man paid it no heed. He hadn’t the time anymore. All that concerned him, all that could concern him, was the present—the inexorable, pitiless present which consumed his every waking hour.
Name after name after name paraded before his tired, old eyes—the lives of countless people dancing through his heart. He felt the warm glow of a child’s happiness and the lovely flutter of a youth’s discovery; he felt the trembling excitement of young love and the warm pulse of a love well-worn with age. These things made him happy, yes, but also brought with them his own memories, keen and tinged with grief, of times he would no longer see. More and more, however, he found himself drawing his charcoal across the names. These brought with them other feelings—the sting of bitter resentment, the slow burn of buried anger, the shuddering horror of a cruel act, and sometimes even worse things, things which he could scarcely bear to feel. These things made him weary beyond words; they weighed upon his ancient bones like Marley’s chains, and sometimes he would close his eyes for a while before going back to the list.
Once, a long time ago, there had been an end to the list. He could have done it all in a matter of weeks, sent it off to the archivists, and then seen to other duties. Those days, though, seemed far away. He had been forced to delegate so much of the work upon his elves. They, of course, had readily accepted—they were tireless and so very loyal—but he missed the work just the same. With every name on the list that he spoke, that longing grew, until it felt as though there were some massive, black hole at the center of his great belly, gnawing at the edges of his body with feelings of frustration and doubt.
There was nothing to be done, though. The list was more important than his feelings. The list was more important than him, more important than his workers, more important than anything else he did of had ever done. It was a solemn duty he had undertaken long ages ago, and he would not set it down for the sake of his own comfort.
“A fresh pipe, sir?” A shrill voice asked.
The old man looked down at the elf, dressed in the red livery of a house servant, and shook his head. “It is time for my dinner. Surely you know that, Sörig.”
The elf doffed his pointed cap and bowed. “Yes, of course, but…”
“But? No ‘buts’, Sörig, or I’ll have you back down in Sweets and Candies! I’ve a schedule to keep, and a late meal will throw it all off.”
The elf trembled beneath the man’s gaze. “I…I’m very sorry, sir, but I…”
“Dinner, elf, now!” The man roared, his beard shaking with rage.
“Yes, at once my Claus!” The elf bowed even lower and then vanished in the blink of an eye.
“Nicholas,” the old man grumbled, “My name is Nicholas.” He took a last puff from his dying pipe and then tapped the ashes out on the floor. “Nicholas.” He said again, tasting the name.
This time he felt nothing.
Author’s Note: This is the prologue of yet another project I’ve got simmering. Though I’m not actively working on it now, I’d be interested to hear what you think. Want to read more?