Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

Reimagining Fairyland: The Royal Book of Oz

When I first encountered still more Oz books at the library, quite by accident, I felt a sense of wonder and joy and glee. A sense that had been sparked by an old greed.

L. Frank Baum’s publishers had no intention of losing Oz, their prize cash cow, after his death. Negotiating quickly with Baum’s broken-hearted widow, they arranged for the series to continue, as long as the words “Founded on and Continuing the Famous Oz Stories by L. Frank Baum” appeared someplace on the cover. For the next Royal Historian of Oz (a title of Baum’s invention), the publishers turned to one of their own authors, Ruth Plumly Thompson, who had already written two competent if largely forgotten children’s books. Thompson, who had a mother and sister to support, and who had always admired the Oz books, jumped at the chance, continuing the conceit that she would be transcribing the very latest news from Oz via magical radios. (Later Royal Historians used magic televisions. Which leads to the question of whether or not the inhabitants of the Emerald City have discovered the internet, but I digress.)

Perhaps because of the magic of that news source (I can buy into the fantasy, right?) she swiftly produced the first official Oz sequel by another author: The Royal Book of Oz.


In many ways, Thompson was the ideal choice: well read in children’s literature, reliably productive (she continued to churn out one Oz book per year from 1921 until 1939, two more Oz books in the 1970s, and a book of Oz poetry in the 1990s) and perhaps the only person in the United States even fonder of puns than Baum had been. But if the publishers had hoped for a writer who would produce near clones of Baum’s work, they were to be disappointed. Thompson may have used Baum’s setting, but she put an original stamp upon Oz right from her first page. Where Baum had played with the fairy tale as defined by the Brothers Grimm, Thompson responded to Hans Christian Anderson and Lewis Carroll. And where Baum was liberal to the point of fantasizing about socialism, Thompson kept a more conservative perspective, reacting to a world where many old political orders had just violently tumbled down, to be replaced by menacing new political structures. Her first books can be read against the rise of the communist Soviet Union. Her later books were written under the growing shadow of Nazi Germany.

Thompson not only indulged in far more wordplay and puns than Baum ever had, but also brought a new, often wistful or nostalgic touch to the Oz stores. Her tales typically focus on subtle questions of virtue and unsubtle questions of transformation. And since for Thompson, fairy tales, in Oz or elsewhere, apparently meant princes and princesses, she peppered her books with tiny Ozian kingdoms with delightfully merry names and plenty of princes and princesses. But despite her evident interest in European literature and culture, she was also writing in a world where many aristocracies had very recently come to violent ends. Her tiny kingdoms thus look back to a nostalgic past, and exist under surprisingly deep economic and internal stress. Thompson never outwardly denies the established concept of Oz as fairyland utopia, but her tales hint at the fissures beneath that surface. And apparently unable to conceive of any land, even a magical fairyland, completely without money and trade, she slowly began returning barter, trade and even coins to Oz.

Too, she had quite definite ideas regarding which of Baum’s characters she would continue to feature and which she would ignore or replace with characters of her own invention, and largely ended Baum’s habit of lengthy lists and descriptions of all of his former characters that had cluttered the last several books.

She did not quite have the courage to focus entirely on her own characters in this first book, which opens with a theme new to Oz: class and heredity. The Wogglebug—that Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated and Generally Irritating Bug—inexplicably decides to compile a Royal Genealogy of Oz, starting with the denizens of the Emerald City. It is, to put it mildly, an uneasy fit. In the first place, and to her credit, Princess Ozma had always been egalitarian in her friendships, welcoming everyone from poverty-stricken farm girls, American hobos, and chickens to elegant princes, eternally youthful queens, and perpetually hungry tigers to her palace and favor, with no regard to heredity. Significantly, quite a few of these people—most notably that American hobo, the Shaggy Man—are nowhere in the room. Or even the book.

In the second place, Oz would seemingly be the last place to need a genealogy of any kind, since, after all, no one ever dies or ages or more critically gives birth. This last was sometimes fudged for animals, and Thompson would fudge this still further in later books, but in this book, the status quo prevails. In the third place, several of the Wogglebug’s listeners—the Patchwork Girl, the Glass Cat, Jack Pumpkinhead, Tik-Tok, and the Scarecrow—are magically created people, with no family members aside from the friends they have made.

Indeed, as the Scarecrow points out, he comes from a pole, not a family tree. This lack earns the scorn of the Wogglebug, who dismisses him as a nobody, barely worth a mention in the genealogy. Which, now, really. How to put this? Right. The Wogglebug is a bug. Highly Magnified, sure, but just how distinguished can his ancestors be?

Nonetheless, the Scarecrow is inexplicably hurt and disturbed by this comment. The other magical people accept their parentless status with calm and even pride, but the distraught Scarecrow decides to leave the palace in search of his ancestors. A worried Dorothy follows after him, accompanied by the Cowardly Lion.

This sets up what would be a common technique in Thompson’s books: dual or triple plots unconnected throughout most of the book until the final climax. Here, alas, the technique does not work all that well, creating a disjointed feeling. The problems with the individual plots do not help: the story of Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion feels muddled, and the story of the Scarecrow, disturbing.

Not unreasonably, the Scarecrow heads to his old pole to find his ancestors, and in the nature of magic, finds himself falling down it, past the dreadful Middlings (mean and nasty creatures made of mud) and clutching the pole for, as Thompson notes, “dear life.” Since he’s only on the pole because of doubts about his life, the phrasing is a bit odd. At the pole’s end, he falls onto the Silver Islands, a vast subterranean realm which immediately hails the Scarecrow as Emperor. (For someone without a family tree, or, as the Wogglebug says dismissively, real royalty, the Scarecrow is certainly enthroned on a frequent basis.) The Silver Islands are exquisite lands of blue and silver, dragons and kimonos, glowing gardens and elaborate etiquette, kites and slaves, based on China or perhaps Japan or both.

And today, they read as a description filled with unfortunate stereotypes.

I suppose I should give Thompson some credit for acknowledging the existence of non-Western cultures, and full credit for not portraying this Asian culture in a fully negative light. She does fill the Silver Islands with images of beauty and fireworks. But some details read less well, including the slaves, and the climax, where the Scarecrow chooses the next ruler of the Silver Islands, upending a long Oz tradition of choosing monarchs by popular acclaim, on the none too subtle basis that the people of the Silver Islands are incapable of making a wise choice in rulers. The descriptions of Chinese food, presented as disgusting and morally wrong, are particularly awful. The illustrations, which for the first time have really not aged well, do not help.

Even apart from the stereotyping, it’s uncomfortable to see the cheerful, self-confident Scarecrow, the wisest and most intelligent man in Oz, reduced to such an uncertain pile of quivering straw. More than once, other characters need to remind him of his excellent brains, or provide him with ideas, and he is, in the end, saved more by coincidence than intelligence.

The Dorothy/Cowardly Lion plot has its own problems, existing, as it does, primarily as a method for Thompson to introduce three new character as replacements for beloved Oz characters that Thompson did not wish to write about. So, instead of the Shaggy Man, that genial if bland homeless American, Thompson gives us the honorable knight Sir Hokus of Pokes. Instead of the self-absorbed Glass Cat, she offers the reassuring, kindly Comfortable Camel. And instead of the confident, self-sufficient Billina or the pompous but brilliantly dressed Frogman, she gives us…the Doubtful Dromedary. Sir Hokus is instantly likeable. The camels, on the other hand…well, they become considerably more entertaining in later books.

The choices strongly indicate what Thompson did and did not consider appropriate for a children’s book. Over the years, she was also to reduce the role of the vain Tin Woodman, remove Trot from the influence of the often disrespectful if always useful Cap’n Bill, and almost entirely omit that model of careless living, Button-Bright. Even as she grappled with economic issues more realistically than Baum ever did, she removed characters who existed on the economic margins (with one notable exception, discussed in The Cowardly Lion of Oz), or who continually challenged the status quo or accepted social structures.

The end result, in this book, is something that just doesn’t feel “Ozzy,” for lack of a better word. In later books, Thompson developed her sense of magic and humor, and her books were to regain an Ozzy feel and match and even surpass many of the Baum books. But in this book, she’s not quite there. (Which is to say, if you’ve never read Thompson’s take on Oz before, this book may not be the best place to start, although you may want to head back to it, just to get the origins of Sir Hokus of Pokes, the Comfortable Camel and the Doubtful Dromedary.)

Plus, she gets one minor detail wrong: she actually depicts Ozma as an active, involved, wise and helpful ruler. I almost didn’t recognize the character. Don’t worry. This incongruity would not last.

I mentioned the wonder and the joy that I felt when I first saw this book, when I realized that yes, yes, Oz would continue. It was soon followed by my stinging disappointment over a book that was a decided comedown from earlier Oz books, had my beloved Scarecrow not acting like my Scarecrow at all and two camels that just wouldn’t shut up. But I didn’t want to give up on Oz just yet, and fortunately enough, my next Thompson book was a distinct improvement.

Mari Ness is still hoping that a whirlwind or an earthquake will bring her to Oz. In the meantime, she lives in central Florida, along with two cats, who were of no assistance whatsoever in writing these posts.


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