Oct 22 2009 1:00pm

Following Your Inner Chicken: Ozma of Oz

What do you do when you need to write yet another book about a magical fairyland where everyone has already gotten a happy ending?

Take your characters to another country, of course.

Ozma of Oz represents a radical departure and new direction for the Oz series. Despite the title, it is an Oz book in name only.  Most of the book is set outside Oz, in the neighboring lands of Ev and the domains of the Nome King. The final return to Oz has a distinctly anticlimatic tone to it. And despite its title, the book is not really about Ozma either.  Depending upon how you read it, the heroine is either Dorothy or Billina the Yellow Hen or both.  The move gave Baum the freedom he needed for a new plot, while allowing him to continue featuring beloved characters like the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, guaranteeing book sales while opening up dramatic opportunities.

Ozma of Oz begins with a violent storm and moves swiftly through a fast paced quest to save the royal family of Ev from Roquat the Nome King, who has turned them into ornaments for his opulent yet cold palace. (He regards this as an act of kindness, since the family had been sold to him as slaves, and the alternative was to have them worked to near death in his mines.)  Baum peppers the text with his now usual assortment of strange characters: the Wheelers, who have wheels instead of hands and feet; the lovely yet selfish Princess Langwidere, with her 30 beautiful heads and a multitude of mirrors; and the Hungry Tiger, saved by his conscience from eating fat babies.

The book also contains one of the earliest depictions of robots in English literature, the mechanical man Tik-Tok, who must have his brains, speech and action wound up daily in order for him to function.  When he winds down, he becomes nothing more than a copper statue.  Interestingly, given the later disdain for technology in Baum’s books, Tik-Tok is presented as thoroughly benign, often acting as a neutral moral voice. At the same time, while accepting his moral judgments, other characters immediately deem Tik-Tok as inferior because he is not alive. He agrees with this verdict.

This is also our first glimpse of Ozma as a ruler in action, and,’s not overly reassuring.  Ozma decides to enter and invade two neighboring countries without doing her basic due diligence (sound familiar?): she does not know the true story behind the imprisonment of the royal family; she has no idea how vast the Nome King’s armies are, and has no idea how to enter his realms. The heartless Tik-tok not only needs to correct her moral misjudgments, but also advise her on the correct way to approach of fellow monarch.  (You’re a queen, girl. You should start to know these things.)  And she ends all this by falling for the Nome King’s trap and nearly dooming herself and her friends to an eternity as Nome ornaments.

Luckily, she’s saved by a chicken. Really.

Speaking of the chicken—the practical, clucking, clever Billina is really one of Baum’s best creations, partly because she is so clearly a chicken, partly because she is rarely distracted by inconsequentials, partly because she never hesitates to stand up for herself and her right to lay certified fresh morning eggs when and where she needs to.

The book is not without its flaws—the first part depends just a leeeeettle too much on coincidence, and the second part marks the unfortunate introduction of the Magic Belt, which would later be used as an increasingly annoying deux ex machina plot device.  And the introduction of Dorothy’s terrible grammar and little girl talk, after her grammatically correct chatter in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is regrettable.  But after all, magical things, including Magic Belts, are supposed to happen in fairy tale lands, and Billina’s triumph over the Nome King, successful precisely because she obeys her inner chicken, is one of the most satisfying of any Oz book.

Alas, none of Mari Ness’ belts can work magic, although that hasn’t stopped her from trying. She lives in central Florida with two cats who would use the Magic Belt to conjure tuna. 

Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
1. Phiala
And that's why I haven't reread the Oz books. I adored them as a child, even going so far as to dress for Ozma for Halloween one year. I spent the day explaining repeatedly who I was - everyone has heard of the Wizard of Oz, but nobody had heard of Ozma. But I had a suspicion that they wouldn't hold up to adult tastes and critical faculties, and from your review I seem to be right.

Another childhood fantasy that can't stand up to adulthood.
2. ShadeFell
I spent a big chunk of the other day explaining the plot to "Ozma of Oz" to my husband, Nesko. He didn't believe me about parts.

Is it the Oz books that had trees that grew picnic lunches, or was that another series? Little boxes that had sandwiches, fruit, and cookies wrapped in waxed paper?
Daniel Goss
3. Beren
@2 ShadeFell
Yes, in fact the lunchbox trees are in this book. Dorothy and Billina discover them after they land on the beach, and I believe those lunchboxes are actually the initial source of conflict between Dorothy and the wheelers.

This was always one of my favorite of the Oz books. I was overjoyed to find this re-read, and look forward to further posts. For a time I was reading the Oz books, one after the other, to my boys as bedtime stories. However, we stopped partway through 'The Road to Oz' and have moved on to different stories without people being eaten by bears just because they give up possession of a love magnet. I have to say I'm with Phiala on this one. This series has definitely had a shine of nostalgia applied somewhere in my memory, and my actual re-read of the full series (the first 13 anyway) has severely dulled my ardor. Still like them, just no longer certain that I'll be reading them to my 5- and 6-year-old sons every night.
4. mairreading
Isn't this the one with the cave aglow with radium? I did love this book, but, run away, Dorothy, run away!
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Phiala I still found myself loving most of the books on this reread - (the exception was, to my surprise, Magic of Oz, which I'll chat about later), but I certainly do find myself questioning some of the decision making a lot more now that I'm older.

@Shadefell Yes! Lunchbox trees! In Tik-Tok of Oz it's Lunchbox nuts that you unscrew to find your dinner. I so want lunchbox trees.

@Beren Yes - the Wheelers insist that they own the lunchbox trees and get infuriated when Dorothy eats one of the lunches.

I was a bit older when I read the Oz books for myself (I was five when I first saw the movie, 8 and 9 when I read the books) so the bear eating parts didn't bother me too much. The Love Magnet, though, did and does - I didn't like finding out that it was stolen, and now, I don't like the concept of any magical item that enforces love and controls emotions like that. I have a LOT more to say about Road to Oz when we get there, though.

@4 Mairreading But at least Dorothy is safe from dying from radiation sickness....I don't recall the cave with radium, but I do recall an abundance of objects and jewelry made with it scattered throughout the series.
6. Teka Lynn
The underground radium-lined cave-houses are in a later book. Patchwork Girl, I think.

The local guide stresses how very healthful it is to live surrounded by radium. He is not being sarcastic.
7. Glitchie
@1 - You know, I've read the Oz books up to Rinkitink in Oz, and thus far, I don't really see anything that I at least would consider 'a childhood fantasy that can't stand up to adulthood' except perhaps the following:

The way Baum described things happening, and his lack of consistency in word use and descriptions. What blew it for me - aside from stopping because my ADD kicked in and I simply got bored with reading teeny-tiny print - was that he wasn't really consistent with anything. His descriptions changed on the lands of Oz from The Wizard of Oz to The Marvelous Land of Oz where color was used in paint and clothes and flowers the deign what part of the land you were in to include everything - which in the Wizard of Oz did not include grass and trees and dirt - to include them in the color scheme of the land.

Also what frequently got my attention was his changes in general spellings: color to colour and back again, some times he'd hyphenate a word, and sometimes it was compound as one word, some times it was two separate words. I know that a kid doesn't normally pick up on that, and for that, well, it was a good thing, but if he ever had hopes of making his way as a writer as a serious career, he was seriously lacking in continuity, and I doubt seriously - if the books were written in today's day and age instead of when they were - that a publisher would accept them.

That is one of the things that they were key on at Long Ridge where I attended to work on honing my writing skills, and I know that I STILL have a long way to go, but they always stressed if you're going to use British English, use it throughout, be consistent in what you're writing, and RESEARCH and TAKE NOTES and PLAN your stories. So yeah, even though I've yet to have a book published myself and am still working toward that means, I make sure I either take notes on what I'm working on or that I always go back and reread what I've written if its been a while since I've worked on a piece in order to know what I'd already done and where I was going with it.
8. Jim Henry III
Billina is indeed one of the coolest characters in the Oz books. Her being sassy to the Nome King is one of the best parts of this book, and she's interesting in The Emerald City of Oz as well.

The inconsistencies between the Oz books (and sometimes even within a single book) are annoying, but not enough to keep me from re-reading them with great enjoyment every few years. (I sometimes skim the last half of The Road to Oz, and in general the anticlimactic endings of several of the later books -- though none are as bad as The Road to Oz, several of them have the problem Maricats noted with this book, that of having an anticlimactic, even tedious section when the characters arrive in Oz after having adventures in other, more interesting (at that point in the series) countries: this one, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, The Road to Oz, Tik-Tok of Oz, and Rinkitink in Oz; maybe others I can't recall at the moment.)

Tik-Tok of Oz is as far as I've gotten in my own current re-read; well, that and The Sea Fairies, which introduces Trot and Cap'n Bill, who arrive in Oz in the ninth book, The Scarecrow of Oz, which is next on my list. My recollection from my last reread is that all of the later ones are better than The Road to Oz, and I don't remember The Magic of Oz being less good than the series average.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@7 Glitchie It seems fairly clear to me that Baum wrote the last Oz books in a hurry, without any particular concern for consistency.

But the other impression I had was that the books simply weren't edited much if at all. I know in my own fiction editors have caught inconsistencies, questionable spelling and other problems. My guess is a contemporary publisher would accept the later Oz books - but demand a lot of rewriting and editing, pointing out the various issues. Obviously consistency wasn't a major concern for Baum's publisher.

The Oz books aren't the only series with consistency issues - Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series comes to mind, where she decided that as a considerably more mature writer, she couldn't and wouldn't hold herself to what she had written in her earlier books. That decision allowed her to be considerably more creative in later books - and I think that not having to pay attention to what he wrote before allowed Baum to allow his imagination to go anywhere, and in most of the later books, I think that's a real plus.

You're right about the spelling though. Since I went to elementary school in Europe I have a bad habit of switching between British and American spellings myself (I can never remember which is which, to be honest) but it is irritating to have that inconsistency in a book.

@Jim Henry III I have to agree that Road to Oz is not a high point of the Oz series, and that most of the books that follow it are considerably better. For whatever reason, though, it was one of my childhood favorites - probably because I fell in love with the concept of fairies falling off rainbows and dancing their way to Oz. Or with Neill's gorgeous illustration of fairies falling off rainbows and dancing their way to Oz, whichever. And although I find the extended party scene a bit tedious now, when I was a kid I loved to imagine myself at that banquet.

I loved The Sea Fairies and Sky Island (Of course, Sky Island has Polychrome!). I've always regretted that Baum only wrote two non-Oz Trot books.
John Massey
10. subwoofer
This was one of the series that got me into fantasy back when. I second the motion @Philia that it is hard to come back as an adult with the same fresh eyes and mindset. Some things are best remembered and left alone.

11. Glitchie
I had a torrent download that I was seeding that had Baum's books in it but that had most of the files as image files that were scanned - these caused many problems with typos aside from the mistakes that were Baum's own, and only two files in PDF format. I didn't make this torrent, was just helping to seed it and I went in today and found I had someone cuss me out cause I had stopped seeding it a few months ago even though the torrent was still listed under my id on the server. It wasn't just on the Oz torrent that they commented about me seeding the Oz file either, but almost all my torrents on the server. I went in today - I post to the Pirate Bay and due to legal issues they have been down a lot - and I found these comments. I ended up deleting all my torrents and remaking them to repost - leaving out the Oz book torrent for now till I can go in and fix them with edits and such. I just couldn't believe that the person could be so rude as to slam me with spam, cuss me out and insult my intelligence. It was ridiculous!
12. Princess Ozma
I'm working on my own novel combining elements of (at least) the first 6 books, to explore Ozma's psychology... Why she makes her decisions and to streamline her origins (seriously she had at least 4 distinct origins by the time Baum was done writing the series). And I love that you're questioning her choices, because it helps me think about them a bit more.

I don't think it's fair to say she invaded two countries; she did engage in cowboy diplomacy with both Langwidere and Roquat/Ruggedo... whatever, but while she's quick to jump to not so veiled threats.

"To be sure," said Ozma. "I am Ruler of the Land of Oz, and I am powerful enough to destroy all your kingdom, if I so wish. Yet I did not come here to do harm, but rather to free the royal family of Ev from the thrall of the Nome King, the news having reached me that he is holding the Queen and her children prisoners."

Since all her conflicts in the book are about slavery (Dorothy's freedom included), I think it's more interesting to compare these events to the American Civil War that Baum actually lived through (mind you he was only 10 at it's conclusion)... There are a few other parallels I could draw from other books, though I'll save that for another time.

My question is how did Ozma go from willing to threaten war at the drop of a hat, to being unwilling to fight for her country 4 books later (I have an explanation that I think makes sense in my novel... but I'd love to hear someone else come up with an answer).

Anyway, nitpicking aside I love your reveiw, it really helped me think about some things more critically. Thank you.
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
@Princess Ozma -

First, my apologies for taking so long to respond to your comment - I didn't see it until now.

Second, huh. I admit that I did not think of the American Civil War as an influence on this book, but the more I think about it, the more I think you're right - not just in this book, but in some of the later books. Specifically, Emerald City, Tik-Tok, and Glinda, all of which discuss issues of war and and avoiding confict, Tin Woodman, which discusses issues of disability and artificial limbs.)

I suspect that even though Baum never saw any actual battles, he heard enough tales, and/or saw enough veterans, for this to make a very serious impact on him, and to help instill a focus on avoiding conflict.

So thanks for the insight here.

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