This month, we turn again to adventures by L. Frank Baum that take place in the “borderlands” of Oz. Published between The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907), these lesser-known stories provide surprising perspectives on their author and introduce characters who will later visit Oz. In addition, one of these is a book neither of us has ever read before…
Queen Zixi of Ix is Baum’s last pastiche of a European-style fairy tale before he devoted himself to Oz. The Fairies of Burzee weave a cloak that bestows a single wish on its owner. They gift the magic cloak to a young orphan named Fluff just as her brother, Bud, unexpectedly becomes King of Noland through a bureaucratic quirk. News of Noland’s misadventures with the cloak draws the attention of Zixi, the Witch-Queen of Ix. She will do anything to get the cloak – even go to war – but the worst threat is yet to come in the strange form of the rubbery Roly Rogues…
John Dough and the Cherub provides a very different approach to an old folktale. Brought to life by an ancient elixir, life-sized gingerbread man John Dough is on the run from those who want to eat him, including Ali Dubh, the tyrannical Kinglet, and the hideous Mifkets. Allied with Chick, the “original Incubator Baby,” he visits islands of romance, pirates and princesses. But where does his destiny lie…?
I read Queen Zixi of Ix several times as a child, Sarah says. In fact, I think it’s the only non-Oz Baum book I could say I read with the same rotation that I read the actual Oz books, and in fact, more than some of those. I clearly thought it a superior story. Have you read this one before, Nick? Or is this your first time round?
I’ve never read it, Nick says. I often wondered what those odd creatures with knitting needles are doing on the front cover. It turns out they’re giant angry “soccer” balls! I wasn’t prepared for them at all, after the gentleness of the rest of the book.
Oh, the Roly Rogues were probably my favorite part as a kid. Until this rereading I’d recalled them being far more present throughout the book! There was clearly a fad for India rubber balls around this time – or Baum knew children liked them, anyway, because he has another “bouncing ball” character in John Dough and the Cherub.
I wonder if Baum, not a physically robust child, is expressing a vague contempt for sportsmen and organized games, which I can identify with. Later, Para Bruin – John Dough‘s bouncing bear friend – will take some pleasure in smashing up “Sport.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What did you make of the Zixi storyline, particularly the way she changes from a villain to an ally? That felt to me almost more addressed to an adult reader than a child.
That was probably the biggest surprise to me as an adult reader, because it’s not at all how I remembered it: for some reason, I remembered Bud and Fluff coming to Zixi and begging for the cloak, and her being cruel and saying “No.” Instead, Zixi realizes her folly and pledges to be helpful.
On the one hand, Zixi’s a typical Baum antagonist – selfish, instead of evil – but she seems very normal, very human. I really like that she comes to a self-realization, instead of having the fairies show up and prescribe it to her.
Yes, it’s a part of the book that feels more like an actual folktale than a fairy tale: there are lots of other parts of the book which overtly use folktale tropes, such as the strict rules about the wishing cloak, and it all fits together.
Reading Queen Zixi, I found myself coming up with a theory as to part of why The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was so enormously successful. Of course, we’ve discussed a few reasons already: the universal themes, Denslow’s design and collaboration. I’m wondering now, though, if its success came in part because unlike so many of these early Baum books, Wizard has a real story: beginning, middle, (delayed) end.
Thinking about that, Queen Zixi is often called the best of his non-Oz books, and Baum really liked it himself. I wonder if it’s because Zixi has a story, too: a simple one, but a structured story, nonetheless. The publishers obfuscated that a little by renaming the book Queen Zixi of Ix, when Zixi is only a major player in the middle third of the book; instead, all of the story threads lead back to The Magic Cloak – the original title.
Absolutely. I had exactly the same thought. Wizard has a beautifully tight structure, a mixture of fairy tale and picaresque adventure. Apart from the odd bit of Hammerhead-bothering, it does everything very carefully and economically. Zixi‘s success seems to derive from a similar use of old narrative tropes, consciously borrowed from fairy tales.
Right. I think we were also reading something earlier about how Zixi is one of the few times Baum actually had fairly heavy editorial guidance – and who knows, it might have started as bedtime stories, just like Wizard. It’s still a little bit piecemeal, three stories linked as one – the Bud-as-King story, the Zixi-and-the-cloak story, and the Roly Rogues story – but “gluing” them together creates a surprisingly good children’s novel.
It works a lot better than you’d expect, given this is Baum with a fairly straight face throughout. It gets heavily moralistic, with Zixi’s epiphany, but I didn’t even dislike that! It’s no surprise that Baum came back and filmed this book ten years later (as The Magic Cloak of Oz), because the story is so strong. Characters make actual choices and change as a result of their experience.
What surprises me is that nobody has filmed Zixi since. There was a lot of good-hearted but rather cheap and saccharine trash made for kids in the 1950s and ’60s, both in movies and on TV, that were based on classic stories and fairy tale tropes. Disney’s Babes in Toyland comes to mind, as do the popular Cinderella and Pied Piper of Hamelin TV specials. The basic story of the magic cloak, the boy king, and Zixi’s vanity would have been perfect for that era – you know, pretty much everything minus the Roly Rogues part.
Ironically, this feels like a rare Baum book of the period that wasn’t written with an eye to adaptation. Maybe Zixi’s change of heart has just been too nuanced for filmmakers.
Well, that’s assuming potential filmmakers even read it. It might have been lost in the sheer morass of fairy tale-type stories.
It’s easy to look at Baum’s increasing output of Oz books and assume that everything else was inferior, rather than simply less popular. I would say that in some respects, Baum’s deliberately old-fashioned story has dated better than other children’s books of the time. E. Nesbit’s Psammead trilogy has a similar theme of “be careful what you wish for,” but those books belong very much to Edwardian England. I don’t think there’s anything in Queen Zixi about American life in 1904, except perhaps a cautionary note on consumerism.
Yeah, it’s pretty free of any direct reference to the present day – unlike John Dough and the Cherub, which stunned me out of left field with a little speech about the Pan-American Exhibition and incubator babies.
Yes, I found some of the gags at the start of John Dough completely baffling. I read that there are some in-jokes in there that nobody can really explain now, like the name of the frustrated Lady Executioner.
You can tell that neither of us has read this book before. I do think it’s…vaguely…interesting that the drive of the story is based on the old folktale “The Gingerbread Man.” Do you have that one in Britain? (Many people will know a version of it as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man.)
Yes, it’s very popular (and Scieszka, too). I think it’s interesting that Baum takes the central character of the story and the idea that he’s being pursued because he’s edible… and that’s it. What a difference from the focused fairy tale structures of Wizard and Zixi!
Right. It very, very quickly turns into a wacky travelogue. In fact, probably the best way I can damn this book with faint praise is to say it feels like an Oz book… by Ruth Plumly Thompson. And not one of her stronger ones, either.
It’s pleasant. I didn’t dislike reading it. It didn’t annoy me the way Dot and Tot of Merryland did, but I was ready for it to end by about halfway through.
It’s funny that you talk about the halfway point. I think I was slogging through this bugger by the halfway mark too, but the funny thing about it is that because of the way I assume Baum wrote it – ex tempore, inventing on and on – I actually found it hit its stride in the last third.
One thing I really admire about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that strange sense of melancholy that runs throughout: Dorothy yearning for home, her friends’ yearning to be something else, and then that sense of disappointment. Quite unexpectedly, we get a big dose of existential melancholy on the island of the Mifkets, when John has to agree to be eaten.
…Which I found genuinely disconcerting. All the dismemberment / being eaten stuff, throughout the whole book, was more off-putting than any other time I’ve seen Baum play that card.
Yes, it’s a very creepy theme and I really don’t know what Baum intended us to make of it. The scene where John’s nibbled by a Mifket is very unpleasant, and the fact he’s not resigned to his destruction – the way the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman usually are – gives it a strange dramatic weight.
This all appears to be coming from an unusually dark place. It probably doesn’t help that John Dough’s obsession with being eaten/falling apart is very nearly his only defining characteristic.
On the Isle of Phreex, there’s a soldier who consists entirely of his prosthetic replacements. I guess this comes from a time when amputation was more common in cases of extreme injury, which relates back to one of Baum’s themes: whoever you are, that’s who you are, you can’t really change it and you shouldn’t try.
Let’s talk about the Isle of Phreex, because I think it represents an unusual reversal on a conversation we had last month. I might be taking this a little bit badly, because for me “freaks” is a word loaded with negative connotations, but the Isle of Phreex – which basically anticipates Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer‘s Island of Misfit Toys – feels like Baum having a snipe at “unusual” people.
There’s not even an attempt to give these people character. In last month’s book, Jack Pumpkinhead wasn’t just a nice character, he was a little selfish, a little nervous, a little rebellious, a little sentimental. These “freaks” are just puns with dialogue, aren’t they?
Yeah, they’re walking puns. The entire book is basically puns. John Dough’s name is a pun. Chick’s name is a pun. Sport, the terrifying sports equipment man, is a pun. Endless, endless puns.
I have a very clear image of Baum inventing Sport. It mostly involves him staring at a typewriter saying, “There must be something. There must be something.” Over and over. Possibly drinking coffee at two in the morning. Drinking something, anyway.
None of the Phreex except Chick the Cherub – and we’ll get to Chick in a minute – is presented all that well. They all seem a bit insane, and hey, they all got exiled to an island for being themselves. That’s, erm…great…
Yes, the novel as a whole is lacking in compassion for the outsider. I don’t know if we need to go into it much, but Ali Dubh…
You know, at first I was prepared to defend Ali Dubh, the Arab. I really was.
I liked him in the opening chapter, where he seems more or less like a nice guy on the run.
Initially, I think Baum’s really only guilty of some very generalized stereotyping. He calls Ali Dubh a “child of the desert,” which is a very turn-of-the-century phrase, and of course he’s got a fake “ethnic” name, but otherwise? He’s pretty much okay. Even Neill’s art – pretty much okay.
Skip forward most of a book, and you’ve got Baum suggesting the Arabs are descended from the Mifkets, who are described as “neither an animal nor a man.”
I think I groaned involuntarily at that moment, like I’d been hit in the stomach.
I may actually have done the same thing. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised, but out-and-out racism is so rare in Baum’s work for children that it really does feel like that: a physical blow. Broad, ethnic humor plagues The Woggle-Bug Book from around this same time, and it’s hard not to believe, in both cases, that Baum was pandering to the adult audience.
Speaking of audiences – what’s your theory on Chick the Cherub? Is Chick another theatrical “turn,” like the Tip/Ozma transformation? Is it all just to promote the book through the contest (to determine if Chick is a boy or a girl)? Does Baum even care?
I think this is probably sort of complex. Ultimately, it is just a gimmick, really, but it may be inspired by some fairly major changes in perception of gender at the time. Baum is obviously invested in the idea that women can possess many of the virtues typically ascribed to men. The fact that Chick could be a girl dressed as a boy doesn’t seem to be a very troubling prospect, at the very least. Baum isn’t scared by progress.
I don’t feel that Chick the Cherub meant much more to Baum than a fun character, but the fact s/he is a fun character, a happy, strong, engaging character and very modern, certainly suggests a similar open, optimistic attitude to such ideas. This character deserves a ton of historical context and queer theory to really gauge his/er significance.
I guess I would argue that I don’t think Chick has much significance, except in some pretty extreme hindsight, but I agree with you that a socio-historical approach might reveal something very different. Might.
I guess my possibly overly simplistic question is this: Chick – boy or girl?
Hmm! I think the great thing about reading this book today is that we can confidently say Chick is neither. That’s a valid gender identity today – and even in 1906, Baum didn’t care. The contest prize was apparently divided between two children, each arguing for a different gender.
See, for me the whole question about the Cherub is a massive distraction. This is a young child – indicated as being six when abandoned on the Island of Phreex – with no parents and no social concerns, and thus, pretty much tabula rasa. I think that’s a far more relevant way to look at Chick than any sort of queer theory, because while it’s loosely reflective of some aspect of the women’s rights movement, the whole idea that a child is anything but a miniaturized adult was still quite new in Baum’s time.
I disagree with you, though, that the Cherub is confidently genderless – which is, perhaps, why I don’t see Chick as especially significant in any way. To me, it’s abundantly clear Chick is a boy. What really hammers it home for me is Neill’s art. Chick is wearing trousers! Neill’s little girls never do that. All in all, the character looks an awful lot like Button-Bright, whom we’ll meet in a few books’ time.
I think the fact that Chick’s gender is not remarked upon by anybody, including Chick, is the powerful thing. For what it’s worth, I would have expected most of Baum’s readers to see Chick as a girl. Like I said, this is the beginning of female emancipation, whereas I’d imagine the prospect of an overtly feminine boy being much less appealing to audiences.
Apparently, Baum added Chick to his John Dough manuscript because Ladies’ Home Journal refused to serialize it without a child protagonist (and they never did, anyway). To me, that shows. Chick has no character; Chick is proactive, I suppose, doing the things John Dough probably did for himself in the original version, but that’s about it.
In fact, I’d say that proactive nature is just about the only hint toward Chick’s being a girl, just because Baum’s girls are always far more proactive than his boys.
There you go. Conclusive proof! Now can we talk about the fairy beavers?
I love that Baum sat around and decided the two species of “fairies” and “beavers” belonged together.
I started to wonder if Baum was taking something, you know, for his heart – perhaps something with powerful hallucinogenic qualities.
Nobody writes absurd fantasy like Baum, and that’s one reason I am glad John Dough exists, even if he did (food metaphor!) over-egg the pudding in the final pages. You can’t argue with a princess in a glass submarine carried by fairy beavers, and that’s my final word.
Yeah, I guess I’m glad it exists, too. I think I’d have liked it as a child – not loved it, but liked it. As I said before, it’s extremely pleasant, but it’s forgettable, too. I wouldn’t buy a gift copy for a child today. I would, however, gift a child a copy of Queen Zixi.
I do think it says something that Dover brought Queen Zixi back to print as a paperback in 1971 – that’s the edition both you and I have been reading – and with a slight cover redesign, they’re still publishing it today! In sharp contrast, their 1974 paperback of John Dough was out of print a decade later. Maybe quality really does out.
That’s great, but I’m anxious to get back to this blog’s raison d’etre, and the creation that displaced Zixi and Mo and, thank goodness, Sport of Pirate Island.
I think we’ll both be happy to get back to Oz – and with a vengeance, too. Next time, it’s an old favorite. Is that a chicken in there with you?
Read along with us and send in your thoughts! Tell us what topics we should discuss! Be a part of BURZEE!