Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Royal Book of Oz

L. Frank Baum was dead, and Reilly & Lee were looking for someone to carry on the Oz series. They finally selected Ruth Plumly Thompson, a small time children's writer who worked mainly for newspapers and magazines, though she had a few books published before taking up the Oz series.

Thompson was an Oz fan and was probably thrilled, flattered, and honored to be selected as the next "Royal Historian." And anyways, she needed the money to support her widowed mother and invalid sister.

It is probably thanks to Oz that Thompson is remembered or noted at all anymore. The sampling of her non-Oz work I've come across is delightful, humorous, and just good reading. I recommend checking it out sometime, maybe I'll even blog about it later. It might be interesting to wonder if Thompson could have made it as big without Oz, but we'll never know now.

I sometimes wonder if Thompson was upset over what happened with her first Oz book. On the cover, her name did not appear at all. Reilly & Lee, with the help of Maud Baum, were trying to create a cover story for Thompson continuing the Oz stories, claiming that The Royal Book of Oz was based on notes left by Baum. Further publicity claimed that Thompson was a friend or relative of Baum, when in fact, there was no truth to any of these claims: she had been contacted, taken the job, and wrote an entire Oz book on her own. To her credit, today most editions of the book have her listed as the author on the cover and title page. (An edition by Dover is the only exception.)

Ruth Plumly Thompson's first Oz book, "the Royal Book of Oz", was published in 1921, with John R Neill remaining as the Royal Illustrator of Oz.

The story opens with Professor Woggle-Bug deciding to list everyone's genealogy in a book he will call "The Royal Book of Oz." While he often exaggerates details, he completely snubs the Scarecrow, claiming he has no family tree to speak of. The Scarecrow is not pleased, but decides to go visit the closest thing he has to a "family tree": the pole Dorothy found him on.

The Scarecrow gets much more than he bargained for when he discovers there is actually a hole around the pole and he falls through to the Silver Island, a Chinese-like country (yes, the misconstrued ethnic stereotypes did not end with Baum!) that claims the Scarecrow is in fact their reincarnated ruler!

And we all stop and say... Huh? Well, Baum never explained exactly why the Scarecrow was alive, except in a silent film in which cornfield spirits bring him to life, and the first Oz play had Dorothy bring him to life with a magic ring. Apparently, Thompson wanted an answer and created her own. The Emperor Chang-Wang-Woe was turned into a crocus by an evil magician, which, after being cared for by his wife, grew into a bean pole with a piece of paper saying that the first thing that touched the pole would become the reincarnation of the Emperor, who would one day return and save his people. While the Scarecrow thinks this makes sense, and finally gives him a family, he has no memory of his previous life. Thompson maintains this theory throughout her Oz books.

Some Oz fans are okay with this, some aren't. I think the whole memory issue might show that the story isn't really as simple as Thompson seemed to make it. Perhaps something alive touched the pole and the spirit of the Emperor went into that, but left the life force, which brought the Scarecrow to life. I was thinking of writing this into a story, but have since decided against it. (Too bad, though. It could create a character with two developed personalities.)

Meanwhile, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion decide to go visit the Scarecrow, and offer to "adopt" him as their family. However, they do not find him at home, so begin to head back to the Emerald City, and here comes another thing I have trouble believing with Thompson: they get lost.

Dorothy has visited her friends in the Winkie Country goodness knows how many times, and yet they get lost... REALLY lost. They eventually find the sleepy town of Pokes, and meet Sir Hokus, a knight errant who was cursed to remain in "the stupidest country out of the world." Breaking the laws of Pokes, the three manage to escape, and have many misadventures wandering around the Winkie Country. Sir Hokus defeats a candy giant, they visit Fix City, where the people stand still and let the furniture do all the moving about, and they meet the agreeable Comfortable Camel and his friend Doubtful Dromedary. Eventually, they stumble upon a stretch of land where all wishes are instantly granted, and Dorothy wishes them with the Scarecrow.

Meanwhile, the Scarecrow gets along with no one in Silver Island, not even his family (his grandsons flatly refuse to believe in Oz, not seeing it on maps), except Happy Toko, who he calls "Tappy Oko," sounding like "tapioca." Using a magic fan, he manages to save his people from the king of the Golden Island, but the glory goes to the reluctant army.

When the Scarecrow hears he is to be restored to his human, eighty-five year-old body, he wants to abdicate, but the people won't let him. However, when Dorothy and her friends appear on the scene, they help cause enough chaos to prevent the ceremony, turning the three princes into pigs and a weasel, and Sir Hokus slaying the Grand Gheewizard's dragon. The Scarecrow makes Tappy the king, and using Dorothy's new magic parasol the Scarecrow gave her, they fly out of the hole.

And now for a little bit more chaos to get the characters back to the Emerald City: Sir Hokus suddenly sprouts a vine out of his back after eating some beans that flies him through the air, Dorothy and the Scarecrow following with the parasol, and the beasts on foot. In the Emerald City, the vine is stopped and the Scarecrow is added respectfully to the Royal Book of Oz, and Sir Hokus pledges his services to Ozma.

Admittedly, I have trouble seeing how anyone could have thought this was a Baum story. His mark isn't there. Often, Baum's fantasy would have some underlying message, while Thompson seems to be more for fun, which isn't bad. Her lively, humorous chaotic scenes were her own touch to Oz, and make for some great reading.

I suppose The Royal Book of Oz wasn't the strongest beginning for Thompson. I'm not completely thrilled with her take on the Scarecrow's origin, but it is the only complete one in the Famous Forty. She gave us a good sampling of her humor, though her little visits to places, not even along the way from point A to point B like Baum's stories, could get a little odd. For most of her subplot, Dorothy just wanders around the Winkie Country. Even on my third reading, I almost felt like shouting "You've been here before! You shouldn't be so lost!"

Although the author for Oz was new, at least the pictures were still familiar, with John R Neill keeping his visionary pen attached to the writing of Oz. However his illustrations were not as lovely now as they were with Baum, especially in some of the colour plates, particularly the one with Dorothy alone. Sometimes the hair looked messier than usual and the characters were a bit more weary-looking, as though they were tired and exhausted.
(this paragraph is mainly from a recollection by me, Sam, as I once saw a paperback of this book in Books Kinokuniya when I first visited that bookstore, and certainly something like this art stands out against the lovelier illustrations of earlier years)

Anyways, like it or not, Thompson was the next officially appointed Royal Historian, and at the time, most readers were glad to have more Oz books to look forward to. How would Thompson follow up her debut? We'd see in the next year.


Nathan said...

I never totally bought how the characters were constantly getting lost in the Thompson books either. Then again, I've become pretty lost just by taking the wrong road occasionally, so I guess it might make a little sense. Still, even if Dorothy and the Lion were to get lost in the thunderstorm, that doesn't explain why they'd keep going the wrong way after leaving Fix City.

saintfighteraqua said...

Dorothy getting lost never really bothered me since people are getting lost in Oz all the time...especially in RPT's books thanks to Wish Ways and Quick Sandals and such!

I accept her story but I do not believe the Scarecrow is Chang Wang Woe, that story is too Un-Ozzy and depressing for my Scarecrow, At least in the origin of the Tin Woodman, that one while gory was very Ozzy.

I didn't really enjoy this book and thought it was one of her weakest efforts, especailly coupled with the terrible drawings of the Silver Islanders.