After The Emerald City of Oz (1910), L. Frank Baum felt confident that he had put a cap on the story of his most famous fairyland, and he was ready to depart on new travels of the imagination. Although, by this point, he had published a significant number of books under pseudonym for a variety of audiences, he had it in mind specifically to start a new series under his own name. These new fantasy adventures, featuring the team of the Dorothy-like young girl Mayre “Trot” Griffiths and her friend, the old sailor Cap’n Bill, would take Baum’s readers to new fantasy lands outside the world of Oz. Only two were published – The Sea Fairies (1911) and Sky Island (1912) – and a third partially completed before Baum and his publishers were forced to face the steep decline in sales. A Baum book did not, in and of itself, guarantee a hit – it had to contain the word Oz.
Here are BURZEE, our intention was originally to consider the two Trot and Cap’n Bill novels together. However, the more we read, the more we realized they were each deserving of their own discussion. Join us as we leave these familiar shores and dive, straight down, to the bottom of the sea . . . .
You’ve obviously never read this book before, Nick, says Sarah. Did you have any preconceptions beforehand?
Well, strangely enough, I did, Nick says. And for years, too! Although The Sea Fairies is a book I never even thought I’d get a chance to read, I always felt that I should. That’s because of Allen Eyles’ little reference in The World of Oz (1985) to its movie rights having been optioned. Obviously, Eyles was anticipating the critical and commercial smash that Return to Oz somehow never quite achieved. I don’t know if anything is actually known now about who wanted to make The Sea Fairies into a movie, why, and how they planned to go about it . . . .
That’s funny. Until you mentioned it, I misremembered that bit in World of Oz as referring to a film of Sky Island, which – to my mind, anyway – is a much more cinematic book than this one. Either way, no, I don’t think anything’s ever been said about these mystery plans. I almost can’t imagine what a film of Sea Fairies would be like, except perhaps a sort of 1980s Incredible Mr. Limpet.
Well, that’s just it! For a long time I was totally prepared for this to be a grand, exciting adventure, perfect for a 1980s multiplex audience, in the vein of any of the better Oz books.
I can’t say I expected a whiz-bang blockbuster, but my own expectations were thwarted, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever read The Sea Fairies once before, thanks to my childhood library – their copy had the impossibly ugly 1960s cover shown here. I can’t say it really grabbed my interest, but it was Baum, so I read it. What’s interesting is that I only remembered it as a nice story where Trot and Cap’n Bill wander around and meet some fish – which does, indeed, adequately describe the first half. I have no memory of anything from the second half at all! Isn’t that strange?
Suspicious, I would say!
Mother Nature’s Son
Something that’s a little bit interesting about Sea Fairies is that Baum starts it off by telling this old sailors’ tale about mermaids – a little fairy tale in and of itself – and then he spends the whole book working to undercut it. We have a new little girl protagonist, Trot – I don’t know where Baum comes up with these names – and her protector figure, Cap’n Bill. How does that strike you as the setup for a whole new series?
I think it fails, almost from the first page, because it doesn’t even try very hard. There’s no background for Trot’s character at all, and not very much for Cap’n Bill, which seems surprising given that he’s a sailor and this is a book about the sea! That’s one of the things that struck me as odd about the novel. In a funny sort of way, “sea fairies” seems to be a pun on “seafarers,” and heroic sea adventures were hugely popular at the time. Yet there’s a kind of incuriousness about sailors, and anyone else’s experience of the sea, beyond Baum’s imaginative one. It doesn’t feel interested in the romance of the sea at all.
I found myself wondering why Baum thought this could be the launch of a series. I haven’t sat and read them extensively, but by this point Baum had pseudonymously published a number of nature-oriented fairy stories for small children . . .
Isn’t Policeman Bluejay one of those?
Yes. They involve two little kids named Twinkle and Chubbins who are transformed so they can communicate with, and live among, birds, woodland animals, and so on. They’re supposed to be very environmentally-oriented for the early part of the 20th century, and I found myself wondering if The Sea Fairies was originally intended to be that kind of story – something shorter and more intended for a very young audience. Somewhere about halfway through, Baum decided to make it his next major novel and completely changed course. That’s my best guess, but admittedly, I have no direct evidence. I do think it’s a very thin book: perfectly pleasant to read, but it doesn’t linger long in the memory.
After a few chapters of, “Here’s the swordfish, and here’s the inevitable puns about them,” something clicked for me. I stopped expecting the multiplex summer smash of 1986 and decided it was part of the genre – now out of fashion, with good reason – of ‘fuzzy’ nature books, designed to play on the wonder and imagination of the child but not really to inform them at all. It actually reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book (1944), which I used to own. I loved both Blyton and Baum as a kid, and they weren’t all that different given their tremendous output and the sense of responsibility they felt towards their readers. In her nature book, Blyton tells you why buds are sticky, and why the tips of daisies are pink – but she says they’re sticky or pink because pixies painted them with glue or paint. Sea Fairies mostly felt like that: a didactic, well-meaning but shamelessly misleading sort of text.
I was reminded of favorite childhood author of my own. Mine is an American named Thornton Burgess, who made a career out of writing nature stories for children. He wrote a book called Old Mother West Wind (1910) and its many, many, many, many sequels, which are about the American woodlands and the creatures who live there – rabbits, foxes, raccoons, muskrats, possums, and so on. The difference is that Burgess was a naturalist who was very committed to depicting genuine animal behavior, although he dramatized it with anthropomorphic animal characters in fable-style situations. Most of his books are collections of short stories in that format: The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk, and so on. There are a couple of books he wrote in the ‘20s and ‘30s, though, that are even more realistic and attempt to show real-world animal behavior and scientific understanding of the early-to-mid-20th century. This book reminds me strongly of that.
I really got lost trying to identify some of the fish Baum was talking about – the argonauts, the devilfish, and some of the others – assuming that those were archaic names for real animals. It only occurred to me about a week after I finished the book that a lot of it was probably stuff Baum made up! I should have been clued in by Neill’s highly fanciful art, but I got so wrapped up in the idea that this was a naturalist’s book that I forgot Baum wasn’t really a naturalist! Does that make sense?
Yeah, absolutely! A lot of the book feels like the “inhabitants of the underwater world” are portrayed in such outrageously unrealistic form that Baum and Neill let themselves off the hook: “This is just a way to get kids into the subject. We’re not going to try to make any claims, or be accurate, because then it will look bad…” Ultimately, I excused them a lot of the nonsense, because I thought there was an earnest feeling behind it somewhere.
The Underwater Menace
I am completely willing to believe that you and I have jointly discovered the entire reason for the first half of the book. I think if the whole book had been written in this way, I would write it off as a nice little exercise in getting kids interested in the ocean. The problem is that halfway through the book, Satan shows up – and that changes things entirely.
Well, you call that a problem; I call it merciful release! I was ready for something to happen and was grateful for whatever Baum came up with, which still isn’t all that much in the way of actual adventure.
True! No, the villain isn’t really called “Satan” – he’s Zog – and very little happens even in the second half of the book, but wouldn’t you agree with me that the tone turns darker very, very suddenly?
Yes, but first – am I getting mixed up? Who is this in the picture? Is he the incredibly beautiful boy, Sacho?
I think so – at least, I think that’s who he’s supposed to be. I had the exact same question.
He looks just like Jikki, the servant from Queen Zixi of Ix. He’s not a boy!
It does make me wonder if something was altered in the text after Neill turned in the illustrations.
That’s the only thing that would make sense of it, which is sad, because I like Baum’s creation of a strange, beautiful, bland optimist. There’s something a bit sinister about him.
I think Sacho may be the most sinister character in the book. He’s a waif who has been nearly drowned and then saved and indoctrinated by Zog. He reminds me very much of A Wrinkle in Time. Have you ever read that?
A long time ago.
There’s an episode where one of the protagonists, five-year-old Charles Wallace, has his mind taken over by an evil intelligence. He becomes the mouthpiece for that force. That’s what Sacho reminds me of – this small child speaking obviously nihilistic yet upbeat philosophies. Plus, the fact that he has gills in his neck is undeniably creepy. He’s the first real sign that the narrative is changing to something much darker, so I find him the most sinister figure in the book.
I do wonder if there was meant to be something satirical about him, and the way he isn’t just subservient or lacking in identity – he has capitulated and changed his entire worldview to be unthinkingly positive. It feels like it’s his own philosophy; he’s complicit. I don’t know in what sense that had any significance for Baum.
I don’t know either. What do you make of Cap’n Joe? That’s also quite eerie to me – that scene of Cap’n Bill meeting his dead brother under the sea, and . . . he’s a fish.
Yes, he does actually say, “I am a fish!” I would love to credit it with being sinister and macabre, but instead it just felt to me like a weird, boring gag that has the effect of making Cap’n Bill feel even less of an interesting character than he did originally. Despite Baum’s own history of seemingly siding with the working man, it seems that sailors – for him – are just comic figures.
What do you make of Zog himself? I see him so clearly as being Satan – or Lucifer – or whatever you want to call the Christian interpretation of the Devil. Particularly in the early scenes, every last bit of description of his appearance aligns with the typical iconography of the Devil. I’m curious why Baum decided to go this route, but more than anything, Zog proves that evil incarnate isn’t terribly interesting. The expression of Zog’s awfulness through a character like Sacho is far more effective than Zog himself, and the whole part-man, part-beast, part-fish revelation isn’t terribly surprising. I was far more shocked by Anko disposing of him by squeezing him into “jelly”!
There’s something so pathetic about his end, which you can either read as Baum’s comment on the banality of evil – that you can just knock the horrible man-thing on the head and he’ll be gone – or a lack of imagination.
Yeah, I think Baum got bored. If this were a Disney film, Zog would escape to the surface, grow massively in size, and start shooting lightning beams from his eyes. That’s the end of The Little Mermaid! He wouldn’t just escape his palace to be squished. It’s an amazing anti-climax to the book, and it makes Anko a little more disturbing than we would have given him credit for otherwise. I’m getting used to this with Baum, you know? “Oh, I’m getting bored now. Time to end the book.”
I just find it really funny that there can be an anti-climax in a book where nothing happens! Nothing is built up and nothing ever comes of it.
Would’ve been a hell of a movie, right?
Part of Your World
Zog is the closest that Baum has ever come to portraying a wholly evil, demonic force, and as much as there is a switch in tone, it is slightly foregrounded with some talk of this evil fairly early on. It fits quite well with the idea of the fairies as part of the mystic structure of Baum’s world. In particular, the idea of the mermaids as sea fairies is a kind of continuation of what he’s said about fairies in the past and his use of them in books like The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.
You mean the part where Dorothy and her friends see the Mist Maidens?
Yes. In that moment, it does feel sacred to see these creatures, and they’re not treated as imaginary beings as much as glimpses of something ethereal. That relates to the Phanfasms in The Emerald City of Oz; again, you get the impression Baum takes them seriously in a way he doesn’t take most of his creations. It feels like there is a kind of structure to Baum’s universe outside of this book, and bizarrely, Zog as a Satanic fish-goat fits into that perfectly.
Since you bring up mysticism, and fairies, what do you think of Baum’s use of mermaids?
Well, never let it be said I don’t prepare for these blogs of ours, Sarah. I turned to my trusty Dictionary of Fairies and Folklore (1976) by Katharine Briggs, and read the entry on mermaids. What’s clear is that in all their various manifestations in folklore, they are less kind and companionable than at any time in The Sea Fairies.
More than almost any other children’s author, we know that Baum was familiar with and influenced by Hans Christian Andersen, and I think it’s impossible to think about Sea Fairies without thinking about what he may have read of mermaids from Andersen. The Little Mermaid is a Christianized figure of piety; that’s the entire point of the story. Isn’t there an implication at the end that she receives a soul, unlike all the other mermaids?
From memory, I believe she goes up to Heaven, basically, and she’s happy about that. I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of it. Mermaids are much older than Andersen, of course. They’re mythical – are they in the Bible?
I don’t think so. They do, however, appear in mythologies across the world, stretching back to the ancient Middle East. Somewhere along the line, Western culture has hodge-podged together attributes from a number of different distinct cultures into a single creature, including the sirens of Greece and the selkies of Celtic mythology. They lure you into the sea, usually, to your doom – it’s only from the Victorian era on up that there’s been a shift in how they are presented.
They’re intrinsically sexual beings, as well.
They’re sexual beings that will kill you. Yeah. The more you look at it, the more you wonder if Baum was inspired by mermaid lore at all. I wonder if he may have been thinking of another, more Victorian brand of watery fairy tale: Charles Kingsley’s famous novel The Water-Babies (1863) seems to hover on the periphery of our vision. He might also have been inspired by Edward H. Cooper’s now-forgotten Wyemarke and the Sea-Fairies, which was published in 1899 by the same British publishing house as Baum’s own Mother Goose in Prose; the two books were highlighted together in a number of print advertisements. Both Kingsley’s and Cooper’s works seem to focus on children who are turned into water-dwelling creatures to learn moral lessons and have adventures.
Making a Splash!
The question of the mermaids reveals some interesting assumptions about how we read these books and how they would have been presented on the market. A great deal of readers’ interest in mermaids would be visual; they are, after all, a particularly beautiful way of depicting the female form. They’re very easily aestheticized in that way. We overstate, perhaps, the role of Baum as author when these books are saturated with purely visual material. And when you look at the beautiful images John R. Neill came up with, it makes complete sense that we keep coming back to the mermaids. He was obviously, if you will, in his element with this kind of imagery. His work is just amazing.
I would say that I enjoyed this book twice as much because of Neill’s pictures. They are particularly lush. As you say, his obvious joy in depicting the feminine figure is given its full sway in this book.
It’s a bit like when we read Dot and Tot of Merryland. There was a sense that Baum had written to Denslow’s strengths in that book, even though the story wasn’t very strong. In this book, you could really think of Neill as a kind of co-author. Maybe we should think of him that way in future. They obviously worked well as a team, and whether it’s true or not, it feels like Baum is writing for his illustrator here – thankfully, compared to Dot and Tot, with much better outcome.
I don’t know what the exact circumstances were surrounding The Sea Fairies. I do know that Baum could still be annoyed by Neill’s work several years later and tried to get him off the books; it was only in the last few years of his life that he started complimenting Neill’s art, and perhaps he was simply resigned to it by then. Mostly, it was the publishers Reilly and Britton who insisted on pairing Neill with Baum for . . . reasons we don’t know, actually. Maybe he was cheap. Whatever the reason, I am inclined to think they had better judgment than Baum, because honestly? I don’t know how this book works without Neill.
The idea of setting an entire book underwater, in an entirely natural world, feels like a formula for creating a beautifully illustrated book, and in many ways that’s also its biggest problem. The Sea Fairies is really superficial – essentially, a series of tableaux – with nothing at the heart of it in terms of Trot and her friends.
I think “a series of tableaux” describes it really well. Even Neill’s color plates are, far more so than usual, a series of tableaux! If you look at them, they are beautiful but resoundingly Victorian images, far and away beyond almost all of his imagery for the Oz books, and clearly intended to be more aesthetic works of art than they are depictions of storybook scenes. This is the perfect book for someone whose strength is in depicting movement through lines. All of his work for this book is breathtakingly Art Nouveau, very much a companion to The Emerald City of Oz in terms of the intricacy and ornateness of the art. It’s almost the last time we’ll see that from Neill, too.
Yeah. They’re more decorations than illustrations, aren’t they?
Oh, that’s exactly it. They’re more decorations than illustrations. Did I ever tell you I once made one of these plates into a picture postcard? It was perfect; I didn’t change a thing. The plates are so detached from the story, even though they purportedly depict moments from it, that they almost function on their own. The two-tone color, the metallic borders – it’s all beautiful, but it makes The Sea Fairies feel much more archaic than the Oz books we’ve read.
Yes. We’re going to see a sharp contrast with the art of Sky Island, which is very different.
I was also kind of struck by the fact that as much as Neill enjoys drawing fish – and women’s bodies, frankly – there are maybe two images of Zog in the whole book. They’re not even particularly striking ones. Anko is sort of a cartoon character, too, so you can tell where Neill’s interest really lay.
Absolutely! The illustrations of Anko are bizarre, really, because they’re so carelessly done compared to everything else. He’s supposed to be the great sea serpent of the sea, you know – but he looks a bit like the Cheshire Cat.
He’s what I remember from reading the book as a kid, to be honest. Those giant eyes! He looks like a refugee from Sonic the Hedgehog!
Fishing for Compliments?
It’s fairly obvious why this book didn’t sell as well as the Oz books, right?
Lots of reasons. I mean, there’s the fact that the Oz books weren’t a series, really; they were a phenomenon. They were a great first novel, and they were a massive stage hit, and then they were something between the two, which is what we have left. There’s also the fact that the characters in the Oz books are invested with so much complexity and human quality, and oddness, and humor – but Baum doesn’t seem interested in any of these new characters beyond the pages of this book. What was your feeling?
I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it, because – well, I hadn’t been looking forward to it. I just because I remembered it as a series of encounters with fish! There’s something naturally in the way Baum writes that appeals to me and makes me want to keep reading, even when the story is so thin.
I understand that completely.
I guess I am surprised the sheer beauty of the volume didn’t sell more copies, but it was fairly well reviewed in the press; there was no great backlash. I think it simply took a hit from not having the word “Oz” in the title, and it probably wasn’t a remarkable enough book to rise above that. It’s obvious that whatever tricks Reilly & Britton tried to make it visually appealing to a buyer, they couldn’t overcome the fact that the audience just wanted more Oz.
I wonder if there was also more children’s fiction being produced at this time, and the competition was so high it needed to be a big brand like Oz to stand out. The Secret Garden was published in 1911, as was the novel of Peter Pan (Peter and Wendy), suggesting a growing children’s book culture.
That’s interesting. I can think of a whole slew of famous children’s novels that had come out within five years or so leading up to 1911 – The Wind in the Willows, Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children, White Fang, and more – so it’s definitely a different landscape than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz faced in 1900. Are you pleased you read The Sea Fairies?
Absolutely. I was always curious about it and as it turned out, it’s a really weird book, and beautiful, too. I did enjoy it while it lasted – particularly once it went bonkers in the second half. How about you?
I think this is a case where I like the art better than I like the story, and . . . I understand, now, why I only read this once as a child and did not campaign for my own copy. I don’t think I saw a need. I enjoyed revisiting it, but – unlike the Oz books – I don’t see a strong reason to ever revisit it again. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does.
Would you give this book to a child?
Not a hope! It’s very of its time.
Having said that, though, if you think of it as a game of two halves – a book as equally about its illustrations as its text – I would consider looking at the book with an imaginative child, one who was into mermaids and fantasy, and showing them the pictures. Neill’s work is extraordinary, and I think that in a funny sort of way, it’s one of the non-Oz Baum books I could see being reprinted in a nice edition just because the art is so good – which is really counter to everything I’ve thought about the other books we’ve read so far!
What a marvelous idea. Yes – wouldn’t The John R. Neill Coloring Book of Mermaids be a beautiful thing?
Yes, it would.
Well, that’s it, Nick. I feel we’re winding down. I would just like to say here that I’m very pleased we managed to get through this entire discussion without mentioning Zog’s henchmen, the nefarious Sea Devils. Why do they seem so familiar?
Evidently there are really things called sea devils, and probably the name – sea devils – inspired most of this book. Sea devils vs. sea fairies – a battle between the two! That’s kind of the story, so in a funny sort of way they are directly inspired by Baum looking at sea lore, and . . . wait . . . you just wanted to end this on a silly Doctor Who gag, didn’t you?
Right, then. Carry on.
What would you do? Would you rescue The Sea Fairies from the vast ocean of forgotten books, or allow it to sink to the watery depths of lost memory? Tell us in the comments section below!
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