The history of Oz had been, at best, confusing. Baum, never interested in consistency, had casually tossed off three (or four) different and conflicting versions. In her first books, Thompson had mostly evaded the subject, while providing her own internal contradictions about Oz’s past. But in her fifth Oz book, she decided to tackle this story head on, attempting to reconcile at least some of the different versions, providing readers with some resolution. In doing so, she created one of her darker books, The Lost King of Oz, filled with troubling moments—and a genuine mystery.
In one such tale of the past, the king of Oz, Pastoria, had been overthrown (by either the Wizard of Oz, or four evil witches, or, as this book suggests, his own incompetence), leaving only a baby daughter, Ozma, who would later become the Ruler of Oz. This is the version Thompson decides to use, opening her tale with the return of Mombi, the evil witch from The Marvelous Land of Oz, now turned gourmet cook. Hey, even ex-witches need careers. (Witches, Thompson assures us, make excellent cooks.) She is not entirely happy with her life, even if she does work for the good king Kinda Jolly. Until, that is, a talking goose makes an appearance.
Troubling incident number one: Mombi and her employers plan to eat the talking goose. Erk.
Troubling incident number two: Mombi and the goose, as it turns out, Have a Past. No, it wasn’t the sort of past my mind immediately leapt to (which in turn is probably a little less filthy than what your minds may have leaped to after reading that sentence). Rather, they met back when he was the former prime minister of Oz, and when she transformed him into a goose, somewhat explaining why he is now facing immediate death and consumption. For evident reasons, he would rather be prime minister again instead of Kinda Jolly’s dinner. After a short discussion/info dump, the goose appeals to her badness (she hasn’t any goodness to appeal to) and off they go to search for the Lost King of Oz, Mombi hoping to regain her magic and power, the goose hoping to avoid getting eaten and regain his power. They also take along a small boy, Snip, who happened to overhear their conversation, to prevent him from talking to others. Snip has no particular hopes of power, but he does labor under the delusion that if Ozma hears about any of this, she’ll, um, stop it. Keep that faith, kid.
In a largely irrelevant sideplot, the three end up in a town called Catty Corners, filled with cats who do not like boys. I mention this mostly because it will be relevant in the next post, if not in this book.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Oz (Thompson’s books nearly always have a “meanwhile, elsewhere in Oz” second, third and occasionally fourth plot) Ozma receives a mysterious message from a golden feather: Go to Morrow to-day. It is, of course, another one of Thompson’s puns—and, of course, Ozma is unable to decipher the message, needing the help of the Scarecrow and the Wizard. (If nothing else, Ozma’s reign at least shows the importance of finding wise advisers.) Morrow turns out to be a decidedly unpleasant place, but Ozma finds herself remembering it: she and her father once hid there from Mombi. And here, she and her friends uncover a robe that can be used to restore her father.
But here’s the twist: no one, except Ozma, even wants the king to return, much less rule. Either they haven’t been paying attention to the ongoing failures of Ozma as a ruler, or, more likely, they figure that her father will be even worse, and possibly remove the few competent rulers (Glinda, the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodman and the Good Witch of the North) standing between Ozma and her people. After all, the lost king had been the one to allow the evil witches and the Wizard of Oz to take control of the country in the first place. And unlike the Wizard of Oz, he hadn’t even left a legacy in lovely architecture to justify the multiple issues of his reign. He seems, at best, to have been a careless sort of king.
(By the way, if you are wondering just how the Wizard could build the entire Emerald City during Ozma/Tip’s boyhood, a period that including the time Ozma has spent on the throne will be described as lasting 25 years just a few books later…allow me to say that the time schedules of Oz just do not work out well. An aftereffect of magic, I suspect.)
But none have the heart to say any of this to Ozma, almost heartbreakingly eager to see her-barely remembered father.
Indeed, her emotional confusion and resulting distraction almost allow me to ignore the nearly inevitable Ozma fail in this book. Which consists of her losing her palace again (has she never put protection spells on it?), doing nothing but cry when she discovers this loss, and, following an alarming new trend, once again having no idea how to punish the villain appropriately. I become more and more convinced that more and more of the actual work is done by the Scarecrow, and this is a very good thing.
Meanwhile (I did mention the many meanwhile, elsewhere in Ozes, right?) Dorothy, for no particular reason, ends up at a California movie studio. Where she spends a few happy moments chatting up a motion picture dummy, and then suddenly growing to what her size would have been had she stayed in the United States, before as suddenly returning to Oz and her former size. The entire incident has an air of “Hey, how can I get a motion picture dummy into this story!” feel to it that smacks of a bit of desperation. Also, why did it take Dorothy a full hour to suddenly grow to her should have been size and why does her Oz magic work in California? The entire incident ends before any of this can be answered.
Fortunately, Thompson moves the plot smartly along before too many questions can get raised here (although obviously I have some) as Dorothy and the dummy meet up with a bored Kabumpo, Snip, Mombi, the goose, and a kindly tailor named Tora, who has the tiniest problem with his ears—they like to fly away, which does allow him to listen to all sorts of faraway conversations, but renders him temporarily deaf when they aren’t around.
All of this sets up a a genuine mystery: who, precisely, might be the lost king of Oz? And a heart tugging moment, when Ozma looks at a line of men and wonders which one might be her enchanted father, her hope and fear (for once, justified) evident. Along with some snobbishness: the disenchantment attempts do follow a certain social pecking order, and it takes an outsider to remind the Ruler of Oz that she might do well to consider looking at the lower classes for her enchanted father.
A similar snobbishness appears in other parts of the book. The Elegant Elephant, for instance, has very definite ideas of who should and should not be allowed into a throne room, as well as the right sort of elephant wardrobes for a kingly coronation. The lower class American transplants (the Shaggy Man, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, and Cap’n Bill) are again conspicuous by their absence.
But before I get too judgmental here, I should note the way the ending challenges this snobbery—in a book focused on the search for royalty. None of the great and powerful of Oz can identify the king; that mystery is solved by someone considerably more humble. And in the end, the lost king of Oz has a few ideas on the subject of royalty as well. It’s surprisingly pleasurable to see, from an author with a clear love for the kings and queens of fairy tales, a book that so strongly rejects the desire for kingship, and an assertion that happiness does not always come from the place you expected it to come.
Mari Ness is now wondering just how many gourmet cooks used to be witches. She lives in central Florida.