Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Queen Zixi of Ix

Probably L. Frank Baum's finest 1905 work was Queen Zixi of Ix. Originally serialized in St. Nicholas magazine, Edward Wagenknecht called it one of the best fairy tales ever written by anyone. Baum struck a way to mix his witty humor and love for the bizarre with the traditional European fairy tale.

The story opens in the Forest of Burzee (first introduced in The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus), where Queen Lulea and her band dance nightly. But the night that the story opens on, Lulea is tired of dancing, and wants to do something else. The fairies then make a Magic Cloak that will grant each wearer one wish, whatever it is, unless the wearer has intentionally stolen it. The Man in the Moon advises the Fairies to give the cloak to the most unhappy person they can find.

Some think Lulea and Queen Lurline (first mentioned in The Tin Woodman of Oz) may be the same. I'm not so sure. Lurline seems to be almost a goddess, while Lulea seems to be the queen of the Fairies who care for humans. I would definitely think that Lulea is the unnamed Fairy Queen who appears in The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus, though.

The same night, in the City of Nole (when you consider a map of the Nonestic continent, between Noland and Burzee is the Land of Oz, so it's quite a way off), the King of Noland dies, and his counselors must discover how to select the next king, as there was no heir. Finally, they turn to the Book of Laws, which tells them that the next morning, the 47th person who enters the City will be the new King.

This was not Baum's first time of letting a ruler be chosen almost at random: in "Old King Cole" in Mother Goose in Prose, a counselor is blindfolded and walks the streets, the first person who he touches is the new king.

Here the story goes back several days and introduces a ferry man who lives in Noland, and his daughter Margaret, or "Fluff," and his son Timothy, or "Bud." One night, he is killed while ferrying a passenger during a storm. The children's Aunt Rivette, a laundress from Nole, comes to take the children to live with them, the journey being hard for the children, and Rivette being a firm believer in "spare the rod and spoil the child."

I once started writing a script based on Queen Zixi that also borrowed from it's silent screen adaptation The Magic Cloak of Oz. I had the idea that Rivette was just making ends meet with her work in Nole, and she was not a generally nasty woman, it's that her brother's sudden death and the family responsibility of taking care of his children got to her. Too bad I never finished that script. Maybe I'll do another draft someday.

Upon reaching an inn outside of Nole, Rivette and the children spend the night in a stable, and in the morning, Fluff is greeted by a youth who asks her if she is unhappy. When she confirms his suspicion, he gives her the Magic Cloak, which had just been woven the night before (so now two of the story lines have been tied together), and Fluff uses it to be happy again.

The youth is Ereol, one of the fairies in the first chapter, who has taken a disguise. This is one of the last times there was any gender-bending in Baum's stories. Strangely, most of the time it happened to a fairy, and not a human. It happened with the fairy in The Enchanted Island of Yew, the famous case of Tip in The Marvelous Land of Oz, and now here. The last one was King Gugu being changed into a fat Gillikin Woman in The Magic of Oz.

Finally, Rivette and the children enter Nole, where Bud is declared the 47th person to enter the gates, and the new King of Noland. He and Fluff are taken straight to the palace, going literally instantly from rags to riches. They are given new clothes, good meals, and all the toys they ever wanted.

However, the pleasure has a price, and Bud must attend to his matters of state, even when Aunt Rivette demands to be allowed to live in the palace.

Don't worry, now we're getting to the fun part. Aunt Rivette asks to go shopping for new clothes, and asks Fluff to loan her the Magic Cloak to cover up her old clothes. Fluff does this, but Rivette doesn't get to the shops before meeting with a curious incident: the shops being a distance from the palace, she wishes, albeit with an absent mind, that she could fly. She sprouts wings and makes a scene.

The next day, Jikki, the King's valet, is given the cloak to return to Fluff, as well as many other tasks. Being literally weighed down with his burden, he wishes he had a half-dozen servants to wait on him. Instantly, a group of young men, who could be identical sextuplets, appear, and take the chores for him. They refuse to wait on anyone but Jikki, they never seem to eat, they don't need to be paid, and if someone tries to hurt them, they become immaterial. The cloak drops to the floor and then begins to be passed from counselor to counselor: the general wishes to be ten feet high, the executioner wishes he could reach a distant apple, which results in his arm being able to elongate at will, the steward wishes his dog could speak, and the purse-bearer wishes that the Royal Purse might always be full. All of the wishes, though unintentional, come true, and finally, the cloak returns to Fluff.

Word about what the cloak can do spreads, and Quavo the traveling minstrel carries news of it to the neighboring kingdom of Ix, where there is no king at all. Queen Zixi has been reigning for six hundred and eighty-three years, for she practices witchcraft. However, possibly in a nod to The Picture of Dorian Gray, though Zixi appears to be youthful and beautiful, her reflection shows her true age: a withered old hag. When Zixi hears of the cloak, she wishes to use it so her reflection can reflect how people see her.

Since Noland and Ix are not friendly countries (why Baum never explains), Zixi sneaks into Nole as Miss Trust, a teacher of witchcraft. This attracts Fluff, who takes her handmaidens with her to learn magic, but when Miss Trust asks all the students to bring their prettiest cloak to the next lesson, Fluff gets suspicious and refuses to bring the Magic Cloak. When Miss Trust gets upset, Fluff leaves the class.

Being beaten, Zixi returns to Ix and makes war on Noland. However, using careful tactics, and a wish from the Magic Cloak by the last counselor who hadn't used it before, Noland is able to repel Zixi's army, despite them being seriously outnumbered.

Zixi then makes her last attempt to get the cloak: she disguises herself as a little girl and is hired by Fluff as a handmaiden. She manages to get a look at the Magic Cloak, and then has magical imps make an imitation cloak. She later manages to switch cloaks, and then hurries back to Ix, where she removes her disguise, and wishes. But her wish is not granted, as she stole it. She leaves the cloak in a lilac grove.

Along her way back to her palace, Zixi meets a series of animals and a little girl who wish for things that are foolish. Zixi, realizing how foolish their desires are, realizes her own desire might have been just as foolish, and decides to be content for the rest of her life.

Contentment is a theme Baum worked with in a lot of his stories. In one of his Animal Fairy Tales, a gopher chooses riches over contentment, and then has a hard life before deciding that contentment is better. In The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma tells the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman that the riches of content are the only riches worth having. It's not hard to see that it's a standard Baum must have lived by: he was never exceedingly wealthy, and when he was, it was quickly depleted. In the end, he had his wife and sons, he had his home, and he decided that contentment was the best for him. (Though it didn't stop him from making some risky ventures.)

Now the story introduces one final set of characters, the Roly-Rogues. Ball-like humanoids, they live high on a mountain over Noland. One day, they see Nole below them, and when one falls down to Nole (being protected by his tough, rubbery skin), they decide to invade Nole.

It is Baum's classic style not to introduce all the characters at the story's outset, but introduce them as they come into the story. Really, when MGM adapted The Wizard of Oz as a musical movie, the touch of having everything hinted at was a very non-Baum idea. (I've discussed before how it owes more to Alice in Wonderland.)

Bud and Fluff happen to be away from Nole at the time, but when they hear of the invasion (would it count as an alien invasion?), they determine to let Bud use the Magic Cloak to wish the Roly-Rogues dead and buried. However, since the cloak is an imitation, it doesn't work, so Aunt Rivette, Bud, and Fluff are forced to flee to Ix.

Zixi welcomes them and they explain what happened, and Zixi confesses to her theft. Fluff then explains about the cloak not being able to grant wishes to thieves, and Zixi repents and helps Bud and Fluff find the cloak. However, it has been given to Dame Dingle, a seamstress, who cut it up to use it crazy-quilts. Even worse, she traded the patches with other women. When they learn of the true nature of the Magic Cloak, they return it and the patches, but one piece, which was made into a necktie for a sailor who went to sea. The cloak doesn't work unless it is whole.

Ruffles, the talking dog, arrives at Zixi's court and tells about the suffering of the people of Nole at the hands of the Roly-Rogues. Zixi decides to make up for her theft of the Magic Cloak by using her magic to make a potion that is mixed into the soup served to the Roly-Rogues. The Rogues are tied up and thrown into a river, never to disturb the peace again.

Eventually, the sailor returns. He is given the reward before giving them the necktie, which turns out to be a fake, the real piece was lost at sea. The fury in the court is interrupted by Queen Lulea arriving, to reclaim the Magic Cloak. The rulers of Ix and Noland both ask to have their wishes: Bud is granted his wish to be the best king Noland ever had, but Zixi's wish is refused, because fairies do not approve of witchcraft. In addition, Lulea removes or changes some of the foolish wishes made with the cloak.

The book closes with telling us that Bud and Fluff grew up and Bud was the best king of Noland, and that Fluff was married and became a great queen of another country. However, in The Road to Oz, when Zixi, Bud, and Fluff arrive at Ozma's birthday party, they are still children. Either the events of Queen Zixi happened shortly before Road (maybe a few years), or Baum actually retconned the last two paragraphs of Queen Zixi and now Noland is protected by the same anti-aging spell that hangs over the land of Oz.

Still, taken altogether, I recommend Queen Zixi of Ix as a must-read for any Baum fan. Shame that Dover Publication's fine paperback edition is out of print. (The only edition in print is without illustrations and very unattractive. If you're looking into getting a used copy, be careful that you're getting a good one.)


Nathan said...

The youth is Ereol, one of the fairies in the first chapter, who has taken a disguise. This is the last time there was any gender-bending in Baum's stories.

What about King Gugu being turned into a fat Gillikin woman?

Jared said...

Noted and fixed. Thanks, Nathan!

S.P. Maldonado said...

This is my favorite Baum book.I use to doodle the Roly-Rogues all the time back in high school.

Anonymous said...

I saw a very nice hardcover edition with the original illustrations that was published in 2004 by the conservative magazine National Review, of things.