The inhabitants of Oz and its surrounding fairylands had endured a number of strange visitors and terrible threats over the years—gnome invasions, dragons, pirates, rockets, dinosaurs, and inexplicable odes to the wisdom of Ozma. In The Wishing Horse of Oz, however, they face something truly terrible: taxation and its (in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s opinion, at least) inevitably tragic aftereffects.
Thompson wrote The Wishing Horse of Oz during 1933/1934, at the height of the Great Depression, a period where the role of the federal government and taxation rates were a subject of great debate. Like her fellow writer Rose Wilder Lane (who was shaping her mother’s Little House books into subtle rants against Roosevelt and the Democratic Party’s platform during this same time), Thompson used her next books to argue against the New Deal and other liberal policies, tackling the evils of taxation and the perils of demilitarization in this book, and arguing for manifest destiny, colonialism, free trade and expansionism in the next.
This political agenda would perhaps be less noticeable in a book set in any other land than Oz. But the Oz created by fits and starts by Baum had been transformed into a centralized, planned economy, where Ozma stored the ample excess produce in vast storage houses, ready to be dispensed at times of need; directed agricultural projects; worked with farmers to ensure productivity; banned money; and regulated work periods. (Not to mention providing a nice parasitic group at the top of the Oz chain, but we’ll ignore that for now.) All of this eliminated any profit motive, while guaranteeing that Oz’s citizens could be guaranteed food, minor luxuries and time for play. (It helps that Oz is the sort of country where cream puffs grow on trees.)
But Thompson, it seems, could not bring herself to belief that this system could work, even in a fairyland. In previous books, she had slipped in references to money, shown some smaller Oz countries suffering under great economic stress, noted the presence of bandits deeply susceptible to bribes, and spoke of aristocrats, desperate for additional power and lands, bent on conquest. In this book, she takes matters a bit further, in her tale of King Skamperoo of Skampvaria, a tiny kingdom just outside of Oz, who has decided—gasp—to collect a tax—gasp, gasp—of one third of everything produced in the country.
Forget, for a moment, that this is actually a considerably lower tax burden than that generally imposed by most monarchies throughout history. (Although I admit that I have not made a comparable study of the taxation rates imposed by fairy tale monarchs on fairy tale kingdoms. That might make for an interesting dissertation.) The rate horrifies Thompson, who presents this tax not just as overly burdensome, but with extremely negative economic effects. As Skampavia’s Prime Minister argues:
If your Majesty would study ways to improve Skampavia and allow your own subjects to keep a fair share of their crops and merchandise, we might be a powerful country too.
Skamperoo, not overly impressed with this economic argument, instead chooses to take three emerald necklaces from a merchant named Matiah (which is two more than the king is entitled to under the law, suggesting that, just maybe, the tax rate might be just fine if the king was obeying his own laws) to pass the time. The necklaces turn out to have magical wishing powers, and Skamperoo quickly wishes up a horse (because, well, horse) and takes himself to Oz, where Ozma is busy shoring up the ongoing painfully inadequate Emerald City defenses. Ha, ha, ha, ha ha. Oh, overly high Ozma expectations. Will you ever go away?
No, actually, Ozma, as might be expected, is having a party. A party she, of course, finds too difficult to organize on her own, forcing her to call on others for assistance. The plot at this point stops dead (one of the other difficulties with this party), and takes a moment to echo The Road to Oz, with a nice parade listing the various celebrities of Oz. Her list, not surprisingly, focuses on her own characters, which includes several royal characters and to my annoyance, that horrible clown from The Cowardly Lion of Oz, who at least keeps his mouth shut in this book. Missing are those misplaced Americans the Shaggy Man, Cap’n Bill and Button Bright, two of whom might have had a great deal to say about the effects of taxation on ordinary people. (Incidentally, the kingdom of Ragbad, as I feared, is still struggling financially despite their temporary ownership of a hen capable of laying golden bricks. Their carriage is described as decidedly shabby.)
Parade over, it’s back to the plot, where Skamperoo quietly kidnaps the various rulers and magic workers of Oz, along with at least one foreign visitor, Jinnicky (there for the food) and causes most of the others to forget these rulers ever existed. Only Dorothy and Pigasus remember Ozma’s existence. For whatever reason, they decide to go to the effort of getting Ozma back. Their quest takes them to the Black Forest, the domains of the Gnome King, and Bitty Bit, a seer with a strange tower and the ability to see into the past and the future.
In the Black Forest, the Black Queen merrily summons up, and I had to reread this, just to be certain, CTHULHU. The name isn’t mentioned, but the tentacled, evil description shows that this is clearly who is MEANT. I am caught between horror at the thought of the Great Old Ones invading and eating their way through Oz, and amusement at the realization that Thompson was clearly indulging her love for Weird Tales. (Plus, after rockets, pirates, and the dinosaur, I suppose Cthulhu was kinda bound to show up.)
I have to admit, I started reading about the Black Forest with a certain apprehension given the casual and not so casual racism present in Thompson’s earlier books, and the sudden and unexpected appearance of Cthulhu was not overly reassuring. But although Dorothy and Pigasus are horrified to find themselves turned black, and although the people of the forest and Gloma, their queen, may practice black magic and, er, ok, summon Evil Creatures From Beyond, they turn out to be Good People, and, thankfully, not slaves. Not even to Cthulhu. And, despite initial appearances, they turn out not be cultists. (That might have been too much, even for Oz.) They have, after all, only summoned the Great Old One, with all of his tentacled power, out of the belief that Dorothy is a killer of witches, and, let’s face it, however accidentally both deaths might have happened, she is.
Anyway, after their encounter with the not precisely cultists and summoners of Cthulhu, Dorothy, Pigasus and Bitty Bit return to save the aristocracy of Oz (if you were hoping for some initiative from Ozma, abandon that hope now), sending Skamperoo back to his own kingdom of Skampavia. Where a delightful surprise greets him: despite the fact that but mere days have elapsed, the Prime Minister has already lowered the tax rate to one-twentieth of earnings (or 5% of earnings) rather than 1/3 of everything. As a result, his subjects are sending gifts of gratitude (gentle readers, your lobbyists at work even in the best of fairylands) and the country is on an economic rebound—helped by a few additional wishes from Skamperoo. Happiness all around!
This is all very nice, and I take the anti-tax message to heart (high taxes=unhappiness, war, misery; low taxes=peace, failure to invade neighboring fairy kingdoms, happiness all around) but I do have to note that, back in reality, things kind of have to work without the aid of magic wishes. And that this low, low, tax rate has one major problem—it fails to explain just how anyone can finance Ozma’s next project: colonizing the islands of the Nonestic Ocean and the lands beyond.
Mari Ness has gotten slightly less enthusiastic about heading to Oz after discovering that the Great Old Ones apparently got there first. She’s been known to report on some of Cthulhu’s more recent activities over at Innsmouth Free Press.