Questions and Themes from Ozma of Oz

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We have been reading several of the Oz books (and doing Oz-themed activites) and while I will eventually write up more of my notes about the Wizard of Oz,  today I’ve taken the time to write up some notes on Ozma of Oz. In a strange way I like Ozma of Oz better than the Wizard of Oz, perhaps because the plot is less well known and was more of a surprise to me. Ozma of Oz is the third book in the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. I suspect few school children get the opportunity to study it in school, because it is the third, and I count it as one of the advantages of homeschooling that we can stick with one series for a while and enjoy the later books as well as the first.
In a strange way I like Ozma of Oz better than the Wizard of Oz, perhaps because the plot is less well known and was more of a surprise to me.

The bulk of the story is set not in Oz but in two other fairy lands, the kingdom of Ev and the kingdom of the Nomes. Both of these kingdoms are identified as being fairy lands, like Oz, where magical things happen. The kingdom of Ev has lost its proper rulers, who must be fetched back from the kingdom of the Nomes. The four main travelers from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz return in this story (Dorothy, the scarecrow, woodsman and lion), as well as Ozma and the sawhorse from the second book in the series. Joining their group is a yellow hen, a hungry tiger and a wind-up man as well as an army of soldiers.  As each character brings some interesting aspect to the story, I’ll go through them one by one including some ideas for conversation or essay topics.

The Wind-up Man, Tiktok, has three mechanisms that need to be regularly wound. One allows him to think, one to speak and one to act. A little key is necessary to wind him up each time he winds down, so one possible discussion topic is what that key does. Even children familiar with wind-up toys might not think about the pros and cons of having the piece of the toy that allows it to be wound be able to be detached and carried away. There is mention in the story of how the wind-up man has gears, so a second direction of conversation would be how the gears work. It is fairly easy to picture how gears could allow a person to walk and talk, but how to think? This could lead into looking at some early mechanical “computers” and how they worked. A third area for discussion would be the difference between thinking and guessing. The wind-up man can think, but he says he’s no good at guessing because he doesn’t have a guessing mechanism. What is involved in guessing? (Another connection with guessing would be whether it can really be said that the yellow hen does guess, or whether she is not guessing because she has extra information. But that is another topic.) A fourth topic could be the question of serving, and why the wind-up man wants to serve Dorothy. Discussion could go off on a different direction based on the comment Tiktok makes that “My thoughts are us-u-al-ly cor-rect, but it is Smith & Tin-ker’s fault if they some-times go wrong or do not work prop-er-ly.” Are the creators responsible for the results of their creations actions? Are parents responsible for what their children do? Does Tiktok have free will?

Because the Hungry Tiger is a friend of the Cowardly Lion he seems in some ways quite familiar and not a new character at all. Yet there is an interesting difference between the two. The lion wished to gain courage. The hungry Tiger wishes to get rid of hunger. Just eating won’t do it, since the Tiger has an enormous appetite but an unwillingness to eat living creatures. The Tiger wishes it could eat a fat baby, yet at the same time wouldn’t want to. Is this meant to make us reflect on our willingness to eat plump baby animals? Is the Tiger more ethical than humans? Or does it simply point out the complexity of a world with anthropomorphism? My children noted a similarity between the Hungry Tiger and the story of The Very Hungry Lion, a favorite picture book. I think he can also be put in an interesting contrast with the animals in one of Aesop’s fables, where the animals swear to live in harmony and the hare says how wonderful it is that they do so before he takes off running, knowing he cannot trust them. In Aesop’s fable animals cannot change their nature. Can they in Baum’s stories? In a way they can and in other ways they can’t. The cowardly lion never stops feeling cowardly, yet at the same time he’s always brave. The hungry tiger remains hungry, yet at the same time, he controls his appetite.

The yellow hen is another strange example of trying to integrate human-like animals into a story. Is it permissible to eat the eggs of such a human-like creature? In this case, the answer is most definitely yes. There is some fun in the story also around whether human or chicken food is the more disgusting. The hen’s name is Bill but Dorothy disagrees with a female being called Bill so she is referred to as Billina for most of the story. “It doesn’t matter at all what you call me, so long as I know the name means me,” says the hen.

The Army, led by the Tin Woodsman, consists of eight Generals, six Colonels, seven Majors and five Captains, besides one private. Why must they have the private? So that they have someone to command, of course! Yet the Tin Woodsman says “I’d like to promote the private, for I believe no private should ever be in public life; and I’ve also noticed that officers usually fight better and are more reliable than common soldiers. Besides, the officers are more important looking, and lend dignity to our army.” In this case the Tin Woodsman’s words don’t quite work out. The private turns out to be much more reliable in the end. Yet the craziness of an army consisting almost entirely of officers is a fun one to discuss with children. What would happen if the officers disagreed with one another? What would happen if the private could no longer fight or was – gasp – promoted? When at last the private is ordered into battle and goes alone into it, how useful can one say the officers are?

The idea of usefulness is an interesting theme within the book, sometimes in contrast with “ornamental.” The true rulers of Ev have been made into ornaments in the Nome King’s palace. Yet the princess who is ruling Ev is almost entirely ornamental, doing state business for only ten minutes or so a day and concerned primarily with her looks (more on that later). The officers are more dignified than the private, the private ends up doing more. The Tin Woodsman “was always an ornament to society” and in this case the word “ornament” doesn’t necessarily imply uselessness. The wind-up man associates his usefulness with his ability to move and function. At times being powerful reduces one’s usefulness. When Ozma’s demands to be let into the Nome King’s palace are rebuffed she refuses to plead saying “Shall Ozma of Oz humble herself to a creature who lives in an underground kingdom?” only to have Dorothy willing to do the pleading for her, because, as she says, “I’m only a little girl from Kansas, and we’ve got more dignity at home than we know what to do with.”

The princess of Ev can magically change heads and concerns herself with switching them rather than worrying about her clothes. The different heads however carry with them something of a different temperament. Do clothes bring about a different temperament at all? It is interesting also to note that when she wants Dorothy’s head, to add to her collection, she attempts to take the head through coercion (locking Dorothy up until Dorothy can agree) but not by force. Is there a limit to her power? What do you think it is and why?

The story does touch upon suicide, for the King of Ev had sold his wife and children to the Nome King in exchange for a long life and then thrown himself into the ocean and died. One of the questions in the story becomes whether or not that was a fair deal or not. Does the Nome King now have to return the Queen and her family because the King has not lived a long life? Is a long-life a thing, like a doll, that comes with no warranty and can be broken? Or is a long-life not a thing but something else? Perhaps an ability, which isn’t itself if it doesn’t succeed?

The story also touches on questions of what it means to be alive. The Hungry Tiger wishes at some point to become an ornament, so he will no longer “suffer the pangs of hunger.” Many of the characters do not sleep. Are they alive? Can they die? Tiktok, the wind-up man, says he cannot die.

The writing is pleasant with a decent vocabulary. The word “obliged” reappears quite frequently and could be the basis for another discussion. There are many puns and jokes, as well as cute descriptions such as “his laugh is worse than another man’s frown.” I asked my children why the Nome King’s “rock colored face turned white as chalk” instead of “as white as snow” to point out to them how carefully a skilled writer chooses their words. There are many interesting details from the time period that could be discussed, such as why the hen is so insulted that others might not consider her eggs fresh (think of people selling eggs from their farm gate), or what the name of Tiktok’s maker means.

(Note: the whole book of Ozma of Oz is available, with illustrations, at Project Gutenberg.)

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