Monday, June 10, 2013

10 Beloved Characters from the Land of Oz

One of my goals for 2013 is to read every book in L. Frank Baum's children's series, which began with The Wizard of Oz.

Yes, I said series. Did you know there were so many adventures in Oz? They are:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
The Marvelous Land of Oz
Ozma Of Oz
Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
The Road to Oz
The Emerald City of Oz
The Patchwork Girl of Oz
Tik-Tok of Oz
The Scarecrow of Oz
Rinkitink in Oz
The Lost Princess of Oz
The Tin Woodman of Oz
The Magic of Oz
Glinda of Oz

It's hard to imagine American pop culture without references to a wicked witch, a road of yellow brick, or not being in Kansas anymore. I have always had a soft spot for the Scarecrow, but if you've only ever seen the iconic 1939 movie, you are only scratching the surface of Oz.

Lyman Frank Baum was a homesteader, an inventor, a dreamer, and an author who created the Land of Oz almost reluctantly. He conceived The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to be a single book, and wanted to focus on other children's adventure or fantasy projects. (He also wrote manuals and took on other technical writing projects for adults.)

Baum's introduction to each Oz book usually promised that it will be the last in the series, but ultimately, Baum wrote 14 books about this marvelous fantasy world.

I am currently in the middle of book #5, The Road to Oz. I am enjoying this project immensely!

These books are more than 100 years old, but they still make me laugh out loud.

When the Hungry Tiger, self-pitying companion of the Cowardly Lion, yearns to eat sentient creatures, he stops himself because he has a Conscience. But every once in a while he muses about how great it would be to eat fat babies. Every time he does, I laugh.

There is much to love and learn in the volumes about Oz. Here are some of my favorite characters:

10. General Jinjur At the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Wizard himself returns to Kansas and leaves the Scarecrow in charge, because of his wonderful new brains. But the Scarecrow is usurped by a gang of rebellious girls, led by General Jingur. These girls are fierce--they pull knitting needles out of their hair and seize the Emerald City.

9. Polychrome The daughter of the Rainbow appears in The Road to Oz, which is the last in the series that I read as a child. It's fascinating to return to this series as an adult, because my feelings about this character have changed. Polly ends up with Dorothy's gang as a mistake, and only wants to dance in the road, eat dewdrops and mist-cakes, and wait to return to live on a rainbow.

As a child, I hated Polychrome. I thought she was silly and useless to Dorothy's friends.

As an adult, I find her whimsical and cute. And I adore the illustrations of her:

8. Tik-Tok This creature is what we would call a robot today, but with a steam-punk twist. He constantly needs to be wound up with separate keys for separate functions--one for movement, one for speech, one for thinking. If no one is around to wind him, he'll power down. I have a vivid childhood memory of learning Tik-Tok's story. When he was abandoned for decades in a cave, he moved around until he couldn't move anymore, he talked until he couldn't talk anymore, and then he thought until his thoughts shut down.

This character gave me the beginnings of an existential awareness in childhood. I realized my mind was separate from my body; the two interacted, sure, but my mind might work when I wasn't thinking of moving.

Thank you, Tik-Tok, for that Philosophy Minor.

7. Jellia Jamb This servant in the palace of the Emerald City is always causing mischief--especially for King Scarecrow. She is inefficient and bumbling, and so, so charming all the same.

6. Button Bright This beautiful and absolutely empty-headed boy is a character you love to hate in The Road to Oz. Where is he from? Where is he going? Why is he lost? All Button Bright will say is, "Don't know." But sometimes a blank slate comes in handy...

5. The Hungry Tiger See reasoning above.

4. Eureka the Kitten Dorothy doesn't always return to Oz with Toto. One time an earthquake takes her back to Oz while she's caring for a young kitten. Since all animals can speak in Oz, Eureka the cat reveals herself to be cunning, self-interested, and spoiled. And yet, I was charmed by her honesty throughout Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz.

3. Billina the Yellow Hen Dorothy is completely absent from the second book in the Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz. In fact, L. Frank Baum originally intended for Dorothy to live safely in Kansas forever after his first book, but he was flooded by letters from children who wanted Dorothy to go on more adventures. So, our plucky heroine ended up returning to Oz and other fairylands in subsequent books.

The first time Dorothy returns, she travels with a yellow hen who calls herself "Bill." Dorothy begins to call her "Billina," and she acts as a practical mother-figure for the girl throughout Ozma of Oz.

2. Jack Pumpkinhead Jack is a happy-go-lucky creature, probably because the only thing upstairs is some pumpkin goo. He spends most of The Marvelous Land of Oz worrying that his head will spoil or that he'll fall and crack it. Ultimately, he learns that time is short for every living creature, so he shouldn't waste his life worrying about his demise.

1. Ozma of Oz Ozma is the rightful ruler of Oz, and returned to rule in an unexpected way at the end of The Marvelous Land of Oz. She is just and wise, and also creative--she's the perfect big sister figure for Dorothy. And I LOVE the way she is drawn in the series:

Something surprised me when I read book #3, Ozma of Oz. At one point Dorothy and her friends are trapped in a kingdom under a mountain ruled by the Nome King, and these are his minions:

This illustration appeared in some of my childhood nightmares. Their faces were so sinister, and in my memory they were red and yellow and laughing maniacally.

Largely, the Land of Oz is gentle. Most bullies are just faking it, and can be convinced to act kindly--or at the very least, outsmarted without bloodshed. But I still got scared by some of Baum's creations. I will never forget the Nomes.

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