Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Ozma of Oz

Well, Reilly and Britton had done it again: they'd convinced Baum to write another Oz book. And not just another Oz book, but at least four. The first of these was released in 1907, Ozma of Oz.

The story opens with Dorothy and Uncle Henry at sea, and it's a stormy night. Baum explains that the long years of working on the farm have taken their toll on Uncle Henry's health, and they're heading to Australia to rest and recuperate.

I've been curious as to what exactly Uncle Henry's condition was. Furthermore, I'd like to imagine the doctor recommended hiring a nurse to see to Uncle Henry, but they'd opted for Dorothy to go instead, as they would only need to pay her fare. I estimate that she'd be about 10 at this time, and while that would seem young for someone to care for an ailing elderly man, Dorothy is consistently depicted as being very mature for her age, in practical matters.

Another thing: this was the first time Dorothy had been illustrated by John R. Neill, except for a cameo on a mural in the Tin Woodman's palace in The Marvelous Land of Oz. In that mural, and in W.W. Denslow's illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, she is depicted with thick braids. Denslow's coloring for her hair is usually interpreted as brown (subsequent interpretations of Dorothy such as the 1902 musical and the 1939 movie musical might be a factor), though I think it looks more like red. Neill, however, has Dorothy with a blonde bob. While the change in hair color could be anyone's guess (aside from different illustrator, different publisher), I came up with the idea that Uncle Henry noticed how out of style Dorothy's hair was on their way to the port, and let her get her hair cut and styled. Or maybe Dorothy met a new friend on the ship who cut her hair for her... (Hmmm... Now who else was illustrated by Neill who had a bob?)

Anyways, this stormy evening, Dorothy can't find Uncle Henry and goes on deck to look for him, when she gets washed overboard. Desperately, she hangs onto a chicken coop that also blew off the ship (sadly, Baum even notes that a number of chickens met an unfortunate end because of this) and climbs inside. Eventually, the storm subsides, and she falls asleep.

...Anyone notice how similar that is to the cyclone in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

Dorothy is awakened by a chicken clucking as it lays an egg. To her surprise, the chicken, named Bill, can talk and notes they are not far from land. When Dorothy notes that Bill is a female chicken, a hen, she decides to feminize the name Bill by making it "Billina," and thus one of the book's most entertaining characters is introduced. (And Baum is actually in top form here...)

It's no surprise Baum would introduce a talking chicken, given that he raised chickens, and his first published book, The Book of the Hamburgs, was about raising them. And Baum never makes his talking animals anthropomorphic, but keeps them in the character of what kind of animal they are, with the exception of the Cowardly Lion and Hungry Tiger, who have ridiculous inferiority complexes, with the Lion misunderstanding what courage really is, and the Tiger waiting for the meal that will permanently sate his hunger.

As Dorothy and Billina land, they notice letters in the sand reading "Beware The Wheelers." (Are these letters dug into the sand, or what?) As their clothes and feathers dry, Billina finds a golden key. Dorothy goes to look for food, and finds two trees that bear paper lunch boxes and tin dinner pails filled with food. She gets one of each, and has a lunch, before they encounter the Wheelers, men with wheels instead of hands and feet, and thus roll on all fours. Dorothy and Billina escape them on a rock, where the hen finds a path that leads to a locked cave. The golden key Billina found unlocks the cave, and inside, they find a man made of copper.

Tiktok (or Tik-Tok, the spelling varied in the books), once wound with a key (I thought Disney's Return to Oz improved on the idea by making the keys and his instructions attached to him), tells his story, that he was owned by the cruel King of Ev, Evoldo, who sold his wife and children to the Nome King in exchange for a long life. Afterward, Evoldo regretted his action, and having failed to bargain with the Nome King, locked Tiktok away and threw the key into the sea. Regretting this, he jumps in after it and drowns. (Evoldo, a life ended by regret.) Tiktok now dedicates himself to serving Dorothy, as she freed him.

Tiktok's first bit of service is getting rid of the Wheelers by beating them with Dorothy's dinner pail. He manages to capture the leader, who is forced to lead them to the city of Evna, to meet Princess Langwidere, the acting ruler of Ev.

Langwidere is a lazy princess (the first part of her name is a homophone of "languid," though I've never been able to decide if the name means "languid ear" or "languid dear"), and she has thirty heads she can change out for her own, each with a different personality. (Baum never tells us if Langwidere was born with these, if there are thirty headless or dead women somewhere, or if they came from somewhere else altogether. A suggestion I made for this is being worked into a story someone's working on.) When Langwidere fancies Dorothy's head, Dorothy promptly refuses, Langwidere locks Dorothy in a tower, puts Billina in her hen house, and as Tiktok has wound down, she leaves him where he is, letting him be more ornamental than useful. (Now where did I get that term?)

As Dorothy looks out of her prison, she notices the Land of Ev borders the Deadly Desert that separates her from the Land of Oz. To her surprise, she sees movement on the desert, and soon makes it out as Princess Ozma on a magic carpet that rolls out in front of her procession. Ozma rides in a chariot pulled by the Lion and Tiger, while the Scarecrow on the Sawhorse follows, and the Tin Woodman leads an army of twenty-six officers and one private, who proves to be Omby Amby, the soldier with the green whiskers from the previous Oz books. (He made good on his word to cut off his beard to disguise himself to trick Jinjur's army, as mentioned in the last book, a surprising bit of continuity from Baum.)

As the procession arrives at the palace Dorothy calls for her old friends to save her, and as they were going to visit Langwidere anyways, Ozma agrees. Langwidere happily releases Dorothy to Ozma when she hears that Ozma intends to free the Queen of Ev and her children, so Langwidere will be free of her duties. Dorothy winds Tiktok and frees Billina (who, in a brilliant metaphor of feminism, has beaten the rooster of the hen house in a fight), then a council is held about Evoldo's bargain with Roquat of the Rocks, the Nome King, and what must be done to free the Royal Family of Ev. All they can do is go to the Nome King and either bargain or fight.

The procession heads towards the Nome Kingdom, the Magic Carpet serving as a bridge over a gap they encounter, but a greater danger lies in an mechanical giant who hammers the ground, blocking off access to the Nome King's palace. (Tiktok admires the giant, noting that the creators of the giant also made him.) However, some quick bounding and running by the Lion, Tiger, and Sawhorse all manage to carry the party across, one at a time, as the giant raises the hammer.

Finally, they reach a dead end where they are laughed at by almost invisible rock fairies, and Ozma demands the Nome King to appear. Tiktok reminds Ozma that the Nome King does not answer to Ozma, so she requests that the Nome King appear, to no avail. When Tiktok suggests Ozma pleads to see him, she flatly refuses, and Dorothy instead politely asks the Nome King to see them, which causes an entry to appear in the rock. (For the titular character, you're getting shown up quite a bit, Ozma.)

The Nome King seems to be an amiable and cheerful fellow, but refuses to simply surrender the Royal Family of Ev, revealing that he transformed them into ornaments and knick-knacks to decorate his palace. Ozma offers to replace the ornaments, up to ten times what the Nome King would lose, or else they will fight the Nome King. He shows Ozma his own immense army, far outnumbering their own twenty-seven soldiers, so the Nome King offers to let them take a gamble: each member of the party can go into the ornament rooms, one at a time, and make eleven guesses as to the enchanted objects. However, if all guesses prove to be failures, the guesser will also be transformed into an ornament. However, the next guesser may have one more than the previous, giving them one chance to find each transformed person.

Ozma decides to accept, thinking she would surely pick one out of eleven correctly, and goes first. However, she discovers the ornament rooms are immense and full of ornaments, and all of her guesses prove to be failures. The Tin Woodman and the army follow suit, but all fail. Meanwhile, the Nome King provides refreshments for those waiting, and Billina wanders off. After Omby Amby fails, the Nome King decides to go to bed and continue the next day, and has Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tiktok, the Lion, and the Tiger sent to rooms. Dorothy, however, notices that she cannot find Billina.

Billina, however, has made herself cozy under the Nome King's throne, where she hears the Chief Steward (later named Kaliko) chide the Nome King for making the Royal Family of Ev the only purple ornaments in his collection, and the people of Oz the only green ones. He even mentions that if he had the Magic Belt, he would make a better king. The Nome King scoffs at this criticism and goes to bed, revealing he plans to make Dorothy a gray ornament, and the Scarecrow and Tiktok solid gold.

The next day, Tiktok is the first to go, but his action winds down before he can make his last guess. Dorothy is sent to wind him, let him make his last guess, then make her own guesses. After Tiktok fails, one of Dorothy's guesses proves successful, as she disenchants Evring, one of the princes of Ev. This means even if she doesn't make another correct choice, she will not be transformed, and Evring is free.

While Dorothy is going about this, Billina lays an egg under the Nome King's throne. He is outraged, claiming that all eggs are poison to Nomes, as they belong only to the outside world. (This has been a matter of much debate to Oz fans, some theorizing that it is not really true, some taking it to where even human ova would be fatal, or other extremities. Baum never settled on exactly how an egg would kill a Nome.) The Scarecrow offers to remove it, as he also carries Billina's daily egg from the previous day, but Billina tells him not to touch it unless she is allowed to have a round at the Nome King's guessing game. The Nome King agrees, thinking he will be rid of Billina.

The Scarecrow takes his turn after the rest of Dorothy's guesses prove unsuccessful, and also fails. Billina takes her turn, and using the information she overheard, manages to restore the rest of the Royal Family of Ev, Ozma, the Army, the Scarecrow, and Tiktok. However, she cannot find the Tin Woodman. They decide to confront the Nome King about his unfair gambles, but find his army ready to attack.

Using Billina's eggs, the Scarecrow manages to blind the Nome King, and Billina tells Dorothy to take the Magic Belt. As the Nome King finds himself powerless, he panics, and is forced to listen to Ozma's demands. He searches the ornament rooms himself but cannot find the Tin Woodman. They decide to leave the Nome King, since he seems to be in earnest, but as they leave, he makes his army attack, but Dorothy uses the Magic Belt to transform the front row of soldiers into eggs. (It always struck me as hard luck for the transformed Nomes, since they were just following orders. Maybe we can assume that Dorothy restored them when they were a safe distance away.)

The giant with the hammer proves no obstacle, as the Magic Belt halts it. On the way back to Evna, Evring produces a green tin whistle he'd found in the Ornament Rooms, which proves to be the transformation of the Tin Woodman, who is quickly restored.

Peace is quickly restored to Ev, as Prince Evardo takes the throne, as he is the eldest of Evoldo's sons, and Ozma and her company are rewarded for their efforts. Soon, they return to Oz to a banquet, where Omby Amby is promoted to Captain General, for at least trying to fight the Nomes. (This promotion is oddly the wisest thing Ozma does in the book.)

After spending "several very happy weeks" in Oz, Dorothy discovers Ozma's Magic Picture and asks to see Uncle Henry, who is obviously concerned over Dorothy's apparent loss at sea. Going to Glinda to ask how Dorothy is to return to Uncle Henry in Australia, Glinda reveals the Magic Belt can send Dorothy home, but if Dorothy uses it, it will be lost, like the Silver Shoes from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Instead, Dorothy lets Ozma use the Magic Belt to send to Uncle Henry, Billina opting to stay in Oz, and Tiktok being turned over to Ozma's keeping.

Ozma wishes Dorothy back to Uncle Henry. The story ends with Dorothy explaining her survival to Uncle Henry, and promising to take care of him until he gets better. Uncle Henry assures her that having her back, he's better already.

We might want to ask, who is the heroine of the story? Is it Ozma? Yes, it was her idea to free the Royal Family of Ev, thus making permanent peace with that country, but aside from being the diplomat, she doesn't do much in the way of heroics. Is it Dorothy? Maybe. It is Dorothy who moves the story along and who we mostly focus on. But if you want the character who is responsible for saving the day, it would have to be Billina.

The story also introduces the Nome King, one of the most popular villains in the Oz books. Yes, even the Wicked Witch of the West isn't quite as popular (except the MGM and Wicked incarnations). He at first seems amiable and agreeable, but is actually quite devious and can be quite dangerous when angry. In fact, Baum almost bookended the ... But we'll get to that in a later blog. Let's just say he's not going to take this defeat lying down. He is best summed up as I heard a different character described: "He'd politely ask you to tea, then bite your head off."

Ozma of Oz is one of the Oz books that are often pegged as a favorite. And it's not hard to see why. After all, Baum writes his best here, as well as retaining his humor: the character who saves the day is not the beautiful Princess Ozma, nor our daring Dorothy, but a chicken. Baum keeps his characters in top form, creates a landmark villain, and tellss a top-notch story.

And he not only does here what he did with The Marvelous Land of Oz, but better as well. Dorothy is back, she has a new friend or two - who have qualities and characters that are entirely different to one another but also entertaining and appropriate - while exploring a new land and its equally strange inhabitants, gets reunited with her old friends, meets a new threat, manages to help out in his defeat, save an enchanted kingdom and arrange a way to come back to Oz when she wishes while also returning to her despaired family. These points, like those mentioned in The Marvelous Land of Oz, were also key story elements in the plot of Disney's Return to Oz, and thus, finally wrote what felt like a satisfying follow up to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.


Nathan said...

I've seen it suggested that "Langwidere" might be a play on "languid air."

Nuria "iluvendure" said...

I really enjoyed reading this article: Ozma of Oz is my favorite book in the series. The story is entertained, Dorothy returns, Billina is a really interesting character and the King Nome appears for the first time ... though Ozma acts with great arrogance and without brain.

I've always been intrigued by one of the cover designed by Neill for Ozma of Oz: A drawing where Ozma appears with a red garment, and her hands removed the curtains to reveal a castle in the background. In the interior illustrations, she looks like a child. But she looks sexy in this cover... very sexy, she looks like a woman.

I love this illustration, It is my favorite oz's cover: Neill is a real genius of the drawing and And his Ozma is really beautiful ... but I have never understood the ambivalent designs: she changes constant appearance in the books