Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Sailing Through Magical Seas: Rinkitink in Oz

What do you do when you’re running short of money again and your publisher is haranguing you for yet another book in a popular series you are beyond tired of writing?  If you’re L. Frank Baum, you take an old unpublished book, throw in a few references to said popular series and squash in an annoying encounter with your series characters, and, voila! An Oz book. Sorta. It’s rather as if George Lucas had interrupted Howard the Duck with Darth Vader, if, that is, Darth Vader turned out to be an annoying little girl armed with eggs and lousy grammar.

Er.

The end result, Rinkitink in Oz, is not exactly an Oz book, and not exactly a complete success. But it provides a glimpse into the other fantasy worlds Baum could create, as well as his ability to rework fairy tale themes into new tales.

Rinkitink opens not in Oz, but in the great expanse of the Nonestic Ocean, on the isle of Pingaree. After some scattered comments meant to reassure us that we really are reading an Oz book, whatever its contents, the story gets off to a roaring start as vicious raiders attack the wealthy island and carry off most of its inhabitants and all of its wealth. Left behind are the young prince Inga, the fat king Rinkitink, on a royal visit without his subjects’ approval or knowledge, and the bad tempered goat Bilbil. Luckily, Inga knows of a royal secret: three magical pearls he can use to save his parents and people from the raiders. One pearl gives extraordinary strength; the second provides protection; and third whispers not always useful magical advice. Less luckily, Rinkitink can sing songs and read from a scroll called How To Be Good. This goes about as well as you might expect.

As in all the best fairy tales, the prince’s rescue attempts to not go at all smoothly. He loses the shoes. His parents are taken to the Nome King.  Chasing them, he must face three terrible perils in the deep caverns of the Nome King, relying on his wits and strength to survive.  And just as the plot climbs to an exciting, dramatic climax—

Dorothy sends it to a screeching halt.

By authorial intervention, she just happens to be watching Inga’s story in the Magic Picture (which by this book has begun to take on the rather ominous aspect of a universal spy), and just happens to decide to go rescue Inga, trotting over to the Nomes, basket of eggs on her arm, accompanied by the Wizard.

I cannot overstate just how unnecessary this rescue is. After all, Inga has a talking magic pearl.  And unlimited strength. And invulnerability. (He got the pearls back.)  And an irritated talking goat.  The only reason he needs Dorothy at all is so that he can be repackaged and sold as an Oz book.

Sigh.

But the Oz interlude, if intrusive and annoying, is at least over quickly, allowing Baum to return to his fairy tale after just a few more chapters.

Other parts of Rinkitink are intriguing as counters to the themes Baum had been developing in previous books.  For instance, in direct contrast to the choosing a ruler by popular acclaim approach just seen in The Scarecrow of Oz, Inga does not hesitate to choose a ruler for the raiders after their king and queen have fled.  And, for the first time in any Oz book, Baum adds an odd paean to the joys of poverty:

“What you call my wisdom,” said Nikobob, “is merely common sense. I have noticed that some men become rich, and are scorned by some and robbed by others. Other men become famous, and are mocked at and derided by their fellows. But the poor and humble man who lives unnoticed and unknown escapes all these troubles and is the only one who can appreciate the joy of living.”

This statement fits well into the 19th century American literary tradition of glorifying poverty. But I do have to wonder just where and how Nikobob, who has spent his entire life in a woodcutter’s cottage on a small island in the middle of nowhere, has had the opportunity to observe these famous and wealthy men.  It’s especially odd given that just chapters before, Baum showed us that poverty has put the lives of both Nikobob and his daughter Zella into very serious risk indeed.  The speech has a strong sense of defensiveness to it, and feels particularly odd in a book that otherwise glows with descriptions of wealth and takes the critical importance of kings for granted, even when the rulers themselves fail greatly.  Everyone from maids to the Nome King scurries about in an attempt to treat rulers “properly,” and even  the citizens of Rinkitink, with every reason to be disgruntled, demand the return of their runaway king.

But if you can get past the annoying use of Dorothy as deux ex machina—not to mention her irritating in the extreme dialogue—Rinkitink in Oz is considerable fun. I always try to salvage the book in my own head by imagining that Inga defeated the Nome King all on his own—well, if we stretch the definition of “all on his own” to include “with the help of magic pearls”—and then headed off to Oz on a sort of combined vacation/celebratory party.

A word of warning, however: Rinkitink also contains the second example of racial fail in the Oz books, with a sentence referring to a tottenhot as a lesser form of man. This entirely unnecessary sentence has been removed from the Books of Wonder edition at no loss to the book.


Mari Ness has occasionally tried to talk to pearls, but never found one willing to talk back.  She lives in central Florida.

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