Thu
Mar 25 2010 1:15pm

Youth and Aging in Fairyland: The Giant Horse of Oz

Everybody, of course, knows Glinda, the mighty sorceress and the Good Witch of the South, thanks to a certain little movie and a moderately successful Broadway show. But what about her counterpart, the Good Witch of the North—the very first magical creature to meet Dorothy in Oz?  Alas, nearly all the popular adaptations had forgotten about the cheerful little old lady—not surprisingly, since L. Frank Baum himself tended to forget his own character, leaving the door wide open for Glinda to snatch up the fame, the glory, and her very own line of jewelry.

But Ruth Plumly Thompson, at least, was intrigued enough by the character to give us a bit of the backstory of the Good Witch in The Giant Horse of Oz, as well as clearing up one of Oz’s minor mysteries—who, exactly, is ruling the four kingdoms of Oz?

If you’ve been following along, you know this certainly isn’t Ozma—who in any case, functions more as a Supreme Ruler over the other four rulers of the four kingdoms.  When Dorothy had first arrived in Oz, the four countries—the lands of the Munchkins, the Quadlings, the Winkies and the Gillikins—had been ruled by two Wicked Witches and two Good Witches. Later books had established Glinda as the firm, all powerful ruler of the Quadlings and the Tin Woodman as the Emperor of the Winkies.   (Both also presumably ruled over all of the other little kings and queens in the various tiny kingdoms that dot their lands. For a supposedly peaceful and prosperous country, Oz certainly seems to need a lot of rulers, but at least, in the Thompson books, it does not lack royalty of all kinds.)  The Good Witch of the North remained nominally in charge of the Gillikin country, and as for the Munchkins—

Huh. What did happen to the ruler of the Munchkins? Just forgotten about?

Also forgotten about: the beautiful Sapphire City and Ozure Islands in the Munchkin country, kept trapped upon their lake by a dragon. For isolated, trapped people they are surprisingly up to date on the latest Oz news, aware not only of Ozma but also of the many mortal immigrants in Oz.  A bored Ozure Islander repeats these tales to the dragon, who immediately recognizes that this might be his chance to have a mortal maiden (every dragon needs one)—and orders the Ozure Islanders to fetch a mortal maiden immediately.

It’s the entrance for one of Thompson’s more intriguing villains—not the sadly rather forgettable dragon, but the soothsayer Akbad.  Intriguing, because unlike most Oz villains, he is evil not from greed, personal glory, doing bad things or collecting lions, but because he genuinely wants to save the Ozure Islands, and believes that kidnapping Trot is the only way to do so.  Why Trot? Presumably because Thompson has already featured Dorothy and Betsy Bobbin in previous adventures, and believed that Trot was now due for another adventure—if one without her previous companion, Cap’n Bill.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in—Boston? Yes. Boston!—a stone statue of a Public Benefactor has come to life and started to stalk the city streets. Boston drivers, who apparently can only make way for little ducklings, react in classic Boston fashion by almost immediately attempting to run him over. (Apparently, Boston drivers were infamous all the way back to 1928. Who knew?) In a desperate attempt to evade the drivers, and in utter confusion at the city streets and lack of street signs, the stone statue leaps into an embankment, and falls through it all the way to Oz, which, um, apparently has been beneath Boston this entire time. It EXPLAINS SO MUCH.  (Incidentally, this otherwise somewhat inexplicable outing in an American city provides what I believe is the first illustration of a car in an Oz book.)

Back in Oz, the Good Witch of the North, Tattypoo, and her dragon, Agnes, find themselves falling through a magic window and vanishing, much to the distress of young Philador, prince of the Ozure Isles, there for her help. A magical slate advises Philador to go to Ozma for help instead. (Good luck with that, kid.) Off he heads through the Gillikin Country, meeting a man with a literal medicine chest—opening his body allows him to pull out all kinds of medications, including things that sound suspiciously like things that should not be dispensed without a proper prescription, and other things that would quite possibly be illegal in Boston. They also meet Joe King, who, um, tells a lot of jokes, ruler of the Uplanders.

(Incidentally, when this assorted crew reaches Ozma, the Ruler of Oz is busy...playing Parcheesi. It’s enough to make me doubt the wisdom of anonymous magical slates. Fortunately, the Wizard of Oz is in the vicinity, or who knows what might have happened.)

As you might be gathering, summarizing this book, with its myriad appearances and disappearances and transformations, is surprisingly difficult.  And yet the several plots all weave together into what is, for the most part, one of Thompson’s better works, a swiftly moving book filled with genuinely magical moments and some of her most lyrical writing.  The Ozure Islands have a feel of what can only be called “fairy.”

But oh, the ending.  The Good Witch of the North makes a surprise reappearance—she’d been gone so long I’d half forgotten she was even in the book—announcing that she is, in fact, the enchanted queen of the Ozure Isles,  transformed into a busy, powerful, kindly, witchy—and elderly—woman by the spell of the evil witch Mombi. The destruction of the spell has transformed her back into a beautiful—and young—woman.

I am more than a little dismayed that Mombi chose old age as both punishment and enchantment. And even if the book had earlier softened this negative image by showing us just how happy, and useful, the Good Witch of the North could be, her transformation back to a young woman just reinforces the image of old age as punishment, and evil.  And I rather wish the Good Witch could have regained her family without also (apparently) needing to lose her magic. It suggests, none too sublety, that women must choose either a career or a family—not both.

In contrast, that decidedly male stone statue from Boston, originally wanting to become a normal human, just like Peg Amy in Kabumpo in Oz), learns to accept himself for himself, and in the end, rejects any transformation that would alter his real self, exactly unlike the earlier, very feminine Peg Amy.

I do not think it coincidental that in Thompson books, more women are enchanted and transformed than men (although the men do not entirely escape, as we shall see), nor that with women, their disenchantments almost invariably end in marriage. Thompson’s male heroes return for starring roles in later books; her girls, with the exception of Dorothy, do not. It is not that Thompson was unable to create strong, self-reliant girl characters, as we will see, or that she was uncomfortable with creating a range of female heroines, since she did. But perhaps her experience with the very real boundaries faced by women caused her to set boundaries in her very unreal fairylands.  It is also probably not a coincidence that her most self-reliant heroines, with the exception of Peg Amy, appear in her later books, after she had firmly established herself as a successful author, and was beginning to explore other writing outlets outside Oz.

Oh, and if the fail of playing Parcheesi when one of your friends has just been kidnapped and is desperately dashing through caves with the inept assistance of a merman isn’t enough for you, more Ozma fail, as the Ruler of Oz arbitrarily installs as new rulers of the Gillikin Country two people she’s apparently never even met—Joe King and his wife, Hyacinth.  (The extreme difficulty of reaching their home, Up Town, does not bode well for the reign.)  The supposed reasoning behind this decision: without a ruler, the Gillikin Country will be open to war and invasion, which, fair enough, I suppose, although a true sense of fairness would note that most of the wars and invasions in Oz seem to be focused on the Emerald City and not the Gillikin Country. Still, Ozma, whatever the invasion threat, would it have killed you to arrange for an interview, or at the very least invited the two to one of your fabulous parties, before installing two strangers to rule one fourth of your country?  (Not to mention that no one bothers to consult any of the Gillikins about their preferences.)

About the book’s title: you might have noticed that I haven’t talked all that much about the Giant Horse of Oz. Oh, he’s certainly in the book, and he’s certainly giant—he can stretch his legs to giant heights at will—but I have absolutely no idea why the book was named after him, since he’s a a minor character that appears only midway through the book, serving mostly as a giant sort of rapid transportation system, albeit one with jokes. I can only assume that Thompson’s publishers thought that  “The Surprising Transformation of the Good Witch of the North, a Character You Probably Forgot About, Into Kinda a Hottie,” was just slightly too long for a title.


Mari Ness rather hopes that she, too, might someday rule a kingdom of Oz without even a job interview. In the meantime, she lives in central Florida, where she has so far been unable to wrest the rulership of the household from two cats.

7 comments
Karen Simley
1. Simka
Thank you for reviewing these books. I have all the original 14 by Baum and all but one or two of the Thompsons. I look forward each week to reading your blog.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@1 Simka - You're welcome! I hope you stick around when I continue on to the next four writers (I recommend Magical Mimics and Merry-Go-Round in particular - well, if not my reviews, the books at least.)
Karen Simley
3. Simka
I have all but 33-39 of the first 40, and I plan to collect those. I do actually have "Merry-Go-Round", so I'm looking forward to that review. On to "Jack Pumpkinhead"!
Rafe Macpherson
4. Rafe Macpherson
Hi, MariCats. Thanks for your witty if slightly revisionist review of The Giant Horse Of Oz. This was the first book I ever bought with my very own money. It was 1953: I was seven. The cover illustration drew me to it and I remember finding it to be a bit of a hard slog at first but subsequently, I reread it so many times that I probably could have recited it.
I became enamoured of the Oz Books and when I was older, I haunted used book shops for as many as I could find. My last purchase was The Royal Book Of Oz. I found it in a seedy shop in an even seedier part of L.A. in 1964. It had the original colour plates as did several of my other volumes.
By that time, I'd amassed quite a collection (20 or so) but it's being the 60's and my fancying myself a hippy and all that that implies, I lost or misplaced or abandonned them or whatever, man, groovey! Today, I'd imagine, they'd fetch a pretty penny on eBay.
Now, in my— ahem— senior years, I've written my own book. It's a fantasy, of course and although I'm sure that even the most assiduous of Ozophiles would be hard pressed to see the connection, the Oz books are an enormous influence on my writing; not so much the prose and the awful puns (Hurry Canes, anyone?) but the structure: an ill-assorted group, some human, some not so much, journey singly at first, meet up and go on a quest. I've used this as a template for part of my own book.
As for your harsh (and I think unfairly feminist) judgement of Thomson's enchanted old women, the Grimm brothers' woods are teeming with old crones who, inexplicably, seem to know everything. I think she's echoing a folkloric tradition and she did write the book in 1925. Give her a break.
My book, editor and publisher willing, should be out by late 2012. It's got royalty, twins separated at birth, enchanted cottages, sullen youth, dragons, evil enchantresses, secret passageways, magical incantations, a reminiscence of the relative innocence of the 1950's and yes, enchanted old women.
It's title? Thanks for asking.
It's called Uncle Duffy and the Enigma of the Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Did I mention that it has princesses? Lots of them.
Thanks again,
Rafe Macpherson a.k.a. Uncle Duffy
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Rafe Macpherson --

Thanks for your comment.

First, just a friendly note: this is Tor.com's playground, not yours and not mine, and therefore not the best place to be promoting your own work, since comments of that sort are usually deleted, though you'll see other novelists happily contributing to discussions all over the blog.

Second, I'm aware that Thompson was echoing folkloric traditions here -- and if you read through all of my Oz posts, you will note that this is one of my major issues here. Baum played with and then broke these traditions on a regular basis; Thompson sometimes did, but usually worked within those traditions. Possibly because she liked them, but I find it interesting that a woman who personally broke gender barriers through her work as a novelist and writer often found herself supporting traditional gender roles -- with a few exceptions as in The Yellow Knight of Oz and Handy Mandy in Oz.

Unfairly feminist? Well, yes, my harshest criticisms of the series were directed at the generally incompetent books by John O'Neill, but I've expressed genuine admiration for his illustrations and contributions to the series in other posts. After that, my next harshest criticisms were directed at Thompson and Ozma -- both women -- but I've also written admirably about Thompson, and with Ozma, it's more that I just think that any person who gets kidnapped that often really needs to pause and take a moment to think about her choices in life.
Rafe Macpherson
6. Bayushi
@Rafe Macpherson

What in the world does "unfairly feminist" even mean? As far as words go together, I don't think those two work in quite the same way as you think they should.
Rafe Macpherson
7. Rafe Macpherson
Oops! I stand rebuked. My unfortunate "feminist" remark was flippant and ill considered and, in the light of your exellent treatise, thoughtless.
As for using this site to promote my own book, again I apologise. It was not my intention and if I could rewrite my posting, I never would have mentioned the book's title.
I'd just solved a difficult plot problem but upon reflection, had to admit that my brilliant solution was actually Ms Thomson's and specifically, a shocking moment that happens in The Giant Horse Of Oz. This sent me into a reverie. I remembered the terrifying "Roundies" (yes?) and the merman with the crutch and Benny the Benefactor but I'd forgotten most of the book that had meant so much to me as a child so I Googled it and and found myself here.
In my excitement, I guess I overstepped my bounds.
In one of my Baum acquisitions, ( I think it introduced Jack Pumkinhead and a chicken named Bellina but I may have confused them) there's a character named General Ginger who wants to invade the Emerald City so that she and her army can revel in the jewels for themselves. Even at my tender age, I recognised that he was disparaging suffrages as silly women and was quite turned off. I much preferred Ms Thomson's more apolitical books. I'm still awed by —and wish I could emulate— her powers of invention and irritated by those who think that J.K. Rowling invented the wheel. (although I'm sure that Ms Rowling would happily acknowledge her own influences)
Thank you, MariCats, for this trip "down memory lane" and I assure you I meant meant no offence. Your disquisition on Oz is inspirational.
Rafe Macpherson

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment