Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Characters of Oz - The Scarecrow

This post contains spoilers for The Royal Book of Oz.
As Dorothy set off down the yellow brick road, aside from the existence of witches and wizards, Oz seemed like a pretty normal place. Then she noticed a Scarecrow in a cornfield that winked at her, and Oz would never, ever be just a pretty normal place again.

Made of old clothes and a burlap sack and stuffed with straw, the Scarecrow managed to go from creepy to endearing with his gentle nature and his earnest desire to have a brain so he could think and store knowledge.

Of course, the message Baum sends is that the Scarecrow didn't need a brain to think, he just believed he did because he didn't have one. The pins and bran that the Wizard gave him were nothing but a placebo to keep him happy.

Throughout the Oz books, the Scarecrow goes from having the intelligence of a child to being the King of Oz, to being a respected gentleman who lives in the Winkie Country who sometimes heads out on adventures when not visiting the Emerald City or his dear friend the Tin Woodman.

While W.W. Denslow and John R. Neill both had their own styles (Neill's evolving over time), they generally maintained the same design for the Scarecrow: a pointed Munchkin hat (with no bells, presumably the bells were removed to use on another hat), a burlap sack with a painted face for a head, gloves for hands, boots, and pants and button-up shirt. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Scarecrow couldn't scare crows is because he just looks too charming!

Which brings us to a point: his kind appearance is part of what makes him who he is. This is something that people sometimes forget when they decide to redesign the character and make him look menacing: that's not him!

However, the big thing about the Scarecrow is we are never told exactly how he came to life. He mentions that he was able to see and hear as soon as his eyes and ears were painted on, so presumably, he's always been alive. But how? Baum doesn't explicitly answer in his books. In a story from Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz, the Scarecrow retells his origin story and says:
"You must know, my dears, that in the Land of Oz everything has life that can become of any use by living. Now, I do not know of what use a live Scarecrow can be unless he serves to amuse children; but it is a fact that, as soon as the farmer had stuffed me into the shape of a man, and made me a head by using this excellent cotton sack, I began to realize that I was a part of the big world and had come to life."
In the silent film His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz, written by Baum, cornfield spirits (or fairies, more likely) bring the Scarecrow to life after he is created.

When the Powder of Life was introduced, some fans began to theorize that somehow some of the magic powder made its way to the Scarecrow and brought him to life. Another explanation has been that, like the original musical extravaganza, Dorothy brought him to life unwittingly. While Baum doesn't mention that she wanted a friend, readers presume that she wished she did and the Silver Shoes brought the Scarecrow to life and his pre-life memories were a side effect of that.

Apparently, one Oz fan who noticed that this critical element was missing from the Scarecrow's origin was Ruth Plumly Thompson, and she decided to offer her own explanation in her first Oz book, The Royal Book of Oz.

In the story, the Scarecrow goes back to the cornfield he came from and finds the pole Dorothy found him on. He winds up sliding down it to the underground Silver Islands where he is hailed as the reincarnated Emperor Chang Wang Woe.

It is eventually explained that the Emperor was transformed into a crocus (a flower), and after three days, it became beanpole that grew out of the Silver Islands into the Land of Oz. An accompanying parchment read "Into the first being who touches this magic pole—on the other side of the world—the spirit of Emperor Chang Wang Woe will enter. And fifty years from this day, he will return—to save his people."

Throughout the rest of Thompson's books, this is maintained as the Scarecrow's origin, though I can only specifically recall it being referred to in The Giant Horse of Oz. The other writers of the Famous Forty did not return to this topic.

The thing I don't buy is that the Scarecrow doesn't seem to have the memories or personality of the old Emperor. All this did was bring him to life. Or did it? After all, the parchment said that the first "being" who touched the magic pole would have the Emperor's spirit enter it. A being, as a noun, is generally considered to be a living thing. We are not told that it would bring to life a non-living thing. Thus, we may assume that Chang Wang Woe is, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Or is he? After all, Thompson says that the bean pole sprouted 50 years before the events of Royal Book. Presumably, the Scarecrow has existed for no more than the last twenty of those years. Are you going to tell me that that bean pole went untouched for thirty years when it was in a farmer's cornfield?

So, this brings me to an abandoned Oz story that happened during the writing of Outsiders from Oz. In the original version of that book, the story focused only on the Wizard and Button-Bright while Ozma, we were told, went off to do something else. I decided it might be fun to explain what exactly she did, and the Scarecrow would go with her.

She would meet two feuding farmers, and discover that one of them has actually had the spirit of Chang Wang Woe in him as well, creating two personalities sharing one body. Rather than treat it as a disorder, the man has actually found ways to have two personalities work in his favor, though everyone assumes he's talking to himself all the time.

My editor suggested I tell Ozma's story in tandem with Button-Bright and the Wizard, and in the final book, all that is left of that plot is Ozma taking the Red Wagon and leaving the Emerald City. Perhaps it will be told someday.
"Back on topic, Jared. This is really getting confusing."

Whether or not the Scarecrow has some of Chang Wang Woe, I think all I've pointed out is that this still does not explain why the Scarecrow is alive. There are many stories that do go back and have the Scarecrow sprinkled with the Powder of Life, but probably one of the best of these is "Cryptic Conversations in a Cornfield," a short story by Jeff Rester that appeared in Oziana 2011.

All we know is that despite how he came to life, the Scarecrow created his own personality (something even Thompson makes clear), made his own friends, and thought his own thoughts. No matter what he was or wasn't, he's the Scarecrow, the most popular man in all the Land of Oz.


Nathan said...

In Jack Pumpkinhead, the Scarecrow mentions he's a grandfather, a reference to his being Chang Wang Woe.

Sam A M said...

"The Scarecrow managed to go from creepy to endearing . . . " CREEPY?

You've got to be kidding! I never thought even you would go with that!

One more question (WHAT Is It that brought the Scarecrow to Life?) that Oz Enthusiasts would want to ask Baum and have a Good answer to ... if they could.

Jared said...

The idea of a scarecrow coming to life had been explored in fiction before, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Feathertop" and a traditional story that has two men infuse a scarecrow with their hatred, bringing it to life, and in the end, it turns on them.

But the Scarecrow of Oz is different. Rather than being told he was brought to life by something unsavory, he looks charming and has a great personality. He doesn't get a chance to be creepy from the get-go. And, as I pointed out, that's not who he is anyway.

Nathan said...

I remember reading something about Baum being partially inspired by a nightmare about being chased by a scarecrow, but I don't know how accurate that is.