Apr 22 2010 1:22pm

Private Armies in Fairyland: The Purple Prince of Oz

Purple Prince of Oz cover imageIn The Purple Prince of Oz, Ruth Plumly Thompson returned to the tiny kingdom of Pumperdink, to let us know the fates of the characters she had created in Kabumpo of Oz.  Kabumpo, the Elegant Elephant, had made several previous appearances, often complaining that he was bored with his post-adventuring, domesticated life. He could make no such claims in this book, where he takes center stage in a plot with (almost) non-stop action.

Notably in a land where, in theory, no one ever ages or dies, the royal family of Pumperdink has aged, if not very much.  Prince Pompadore and Peg Amy have settled down into a happy family life, with an adorable young daughter, rather startling in Oz, where most characters tended to form family relationships with friends, and where even Uncle Henry and Aunt Em have vanished for several books now.  (This is, I think, the first baby born in the entire series.) Perhaps to illustrate the looseness of family ties in Oz, an Evil Uncle, untouched by the utter cuteness of the baby princess, decides to usurp the throne with the help of the old fairy from Kabumpo and a bit of evil magic. (No, nobody follows Ozma’s anti-magic laws. Nobody.)

The only ones left to save the royal family are Kabumpo and his new found page/servant, Randy, a boy with a touch of sarcasm and some self-esteem issues.  (Thompson later implies that Randy’s father took off without saying a word to his son, possibly explaining the issues.)  With misguided optimism, they head towards Ozma for help. A soothsayer (he says “sooth! sooth!” a lot) warns them that Ozma will be of absolutely no use to them. (I have to agree.)  Instead, he advises them to seek out the Red Jinn—the owner of the magic dinner bell introduced in Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz.

Jinnicky, as he prefers to be called, takes an instant and mutual dislike to Kabumpo. The two spend the next several chapters exchanging sarcastic barbs as they attempt to rush back to save the Royal Family of Pumperdink—an attempt delayed by the now almost inevitable detours and sidetrips, including a meeting with yet another unauthorized magic user.  This one defends his actions by loftily explaining that he is not a wizard, but a wozard.  (Ah, semantics. Is there any law breaking that you can’t help us with?)  The wozard is also building a private army of unstoppable wooden soldiers, something I would think would be illegal regardless of spelling, but after a few token protests about Ozma’s anti-magic laws, Kabumpo, Randy and Jinnicky merely nod in delight, and rush on to save the day and reveal Randy’s none-too-secret secret identity. (It probably helps that the wozard bribes them with a gift of a wooden soldier.)  And none too soon, either—under the evil fairy, “Everything was against the law, and the law was against everything.”  Sigh. Some evildoers just don’t know how to have fun.

The least interesting part of all of this is Randy’s “reveal,” which, as noted, is not all that revealing, given that the book is sorta named after him, a rather major giveaway. And, to further keep this from being a surprise, Thompson also inserted a chapter listing the various Things the Purple Prince Must Do To Earn His Kingdom, which not surprisingly just happens to follow the plot of the book), a list so long that she apparently felt impelled to repeat it at the end of the book, with explainations, probably from her awareness that her readers would have long forgotten the list by that point.

And, of course,the book has the now pretty much inevitable Ozma fail: quite apart from being unable to rescue the Royal Family, enforce her anti-magic laws, or prevent one of her subjects from creating an unstoppable private army, one able to disarm and imprison fairies, she allows a subject from another land to hurry off with one of the wooden soldiers with every stated intention of building his own army. If this army decides to conquer you, Ozma—and by all indications that won’t be too difficult—you can take comfort in knowing that it was entirely your fault.

But the rest of the book is considerably more intriguing.  Published in 1932, the book focuses on the concepts of rightful rulership, and the dangers of rebelling against authority—a pointed message in the face of growing fears about the Soviet Union and the slow rise of facism in Italy and political turmoil in Weimar Germany. Like her contemporaries, Thompson was well aware of the evils that had resulted from the revolution against the established, aristocratic Russian tsars (if perhaps less aware of the multiple issues of Nicholas II’s reign that sparked the revolution in the first place). Pumperdink, under the rule of the evil fairy, draws clear parallels with the cheerlessness of the Soviet Union. Those who overthrow their rulers and leaders, the conservative Thompson notes, may not be all that happy with the results. 

The book also reflects Thompson’s awareness of modern military developments. Along with the unstoppable wooden soldiers, she introduces a race of bad tempered people made of torpedos, so focused on weapons that they have become weapons themselves.  But any qualms the torpedo people might raise about a focus on weapons—especially in a country at least verbally focused on peace, with an all powerful magic belt at its disposal eliminating—in theory—any need for advanced weaponry—is quickly overcome in the admiration for the unstoppable wooden soldiers, a striking contrast to the pacifism embraced in the Baum books.  It’s a taste of the themes of military and conquest still to come.

Not that the book is entirely or even mostly serious; for the most part, it’s a delightful piece of froth, with one particularly marvelous detour to a dinner with a sad giant too small to live with giants, but too large to live with anyone else, delighted to finally find friends.  Thompson was always at her best when she focused on her own characters, not Baum’s, as she does here. Alas, she was to return to Baum’s characters in her next book, with not always happy results.

Mari Ness admits that she sometimes wants an unstoppable wooden army, if only to do a bit of housecleaning for her. Or a lot of housecleaning. Unstoppable wooden soldiers can fight dirt, right? She lives in central Florida.

Liza .
1. aedifica
One would hope that unstoppable wooden soldiers could fight a lot of dirt! I like your plan.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Huh. There were unstoppable wooden soldiers in the graphic novels _Fables_, too; I wonder if there was homage there or independently-arrived-at ideas?
Mari Ness
3. MariCats
@aedifica - One would hope, yes! We need to start building some.

@katenepveu - I've heard that the current Fables storyline uses Ozma as a character, showing some familiarity with the series, but I don't know if that includes the Thompson books or just the Baum books.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
Yeah, I gave up on _Fables_ after "Sons of Empire"--well after I should have, really.
5. ericshanower
Funny, I've long considered The Purple Prince of Oz the worst of the Oz books. That's because the second and third times I read it, I only barely remembered reading it before. Squeegeeville was a complete surprise. Tripedalia? Double-Up? Stair Ways? The Delves are absolutely amazing in their inconsequentialness.

Over the years I've asked other Oz fans who claim to like the book to tell me something about it. They usually mention Randy, Kabumpo, and Jinnicky and can't come up with much else. Everyone loves the cover illustration, but beyond that it's mostly a blank. It's like a spell of forgetfulness was cast on this book. I ask who the villains are and I don't think I've ever gotten a correct answer--although I think Fred Meyer may have gotten that right. Ask any Oz fan who Pajonia is, or who Johnwan is, or if there's a country in Oz where the inhabitants are living warheads with pistols for arms--you'll be hard pressed to find one who can answer correctly without looking it up.

A book that makes so little impression can hardly be good in my estimation.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@ericshanower Now that a few months have passed, I agree with you on one point - I'm already having some problems remembering the book.

On the other hand, when I read it, I found myself chuckling at the banter between Kabumpo and Jinnicky - which makes the book - and fascinated by the undercurrents of war and rightful rulership. This book isn't as overly conservative as some of her other works, but it still shows that even in her fluffier moments, Thompson could not keep her awareness of world issues entirely out of her fantasy.

So that was the reaction I was working with when writing up this post. And, unlike with Cowardly Lion, I never found myself wanting to punch out a character or throw the book across the room. And while I'll also agree that Wonder City and Scalawagons are more memorable books, I'm not entirely sure they're memorable for the right reasons...
7. Nathan DeHoff
There's also an army of wooden soldiers in one of the Russian Magic Land books based on the Oz series. While the book was written after Purple Prince, I don't know whether Alexander Volkov had read any of the Thompson books.

I remember all of the minor kingdoms visited in Purple Prince, but I really do get the idea Thompson was in kind of a rush when introducing them. The protagonists usually just wander into a strange place, exchange a few puns with the inhabitants, and leave after a few pages.
8. Scott Andrew Hutchins
Oddly enough, I found Door Ways, Torpedo Town, and the Delves interesting enough that I have a short story that involves them, although Torpedo Town is practically dead from the previous attack. My vote for worst Oz book goes to Wonder City.

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