Straw Man Origins


I’ve already described Ruth Plumly Thompson’s origin story for the Scarecrow, but I thought this was a topic that could use another look. It’s rather controversial in the Oz community, although I have to wonder how much of that is due to the actual story and how much to the fact that it was tied in with a stereotypical take on East Asian culture. The Silver Island appears to be largely based on China (or rather how an American in the early 1920s thought of China), although there are elements of Japan and other nearby countries as well. It definitely appears that one of Thompson’s main sources was The Mikado, which is set in Japan but not at all intended to be culturally accurate. During the Book of Current Focus discussions, John Bell proposed that Anna Leonowens’ memoirs of her experience in the court of the King of Siam (later the basis for the musical The King and I) might have also been an influence.

Because of the Asian flavor, I would imagine that Thompson was referencing Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation in having the Emperor Chang Wang Woe’s spirit pass into the Scarecrow. Since the Emperor presumably never really died, however, it isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the belief. The beanstalk that was the vessel for the monarch’s soul presumably didn’t die either, as Sir Hokus eats a bean from it.

The Scarecrow’s slide down the beanstalk is most likely the story of Jack and the Beanstalk in reverse, but it’s not really clear why a beanstalk would have a beanpole on top of it. Then again, we ARE talking about an enchanted beanstalk that grew out of a crocus. The narrative also indicates that the Scarecrow picked the magic fan and parasol from the beanstalk right before falling through the roof of the imperial palace, but who knows why they were growing there? And even if we ignore the holes in the Scarecrow story that I mentioned in the earlier post, why would a lifeless scarecrow count as a “being” fit to receive the Emperor’s spirit? This is one reason why even people who accept the origin tale in general think the Scarecrow might have actually been alive BEFORE being placed on the beanpole and having the imperial spirit transferred to him. I’m sure this wasn’t Thompson’s intention, but it makes sense in a way.

Also worthy of mention is that the Grand Gheewizard attempts to restore the Emperor’s old body by means of a potion that he plans to use on the Scarecrow. As it happens, Dorothy knocks the potion on Chang Wang Woe’s three sons, who turn into two pigs and a weasel. Thompson’s explanation for this is that “[t]hey had been turned to their true shapes instead of the Scarecrow,” but it’s not clear what she means by that. I assume she doesn’t LITERALLY mean that the princes started out as pigs and a weasel, although I guess that could be the case if they were adopted. It’s more likely that the potion had that effect on them because they had the personalities of these animals, which is a common trope. If that’s true, though, would the potion have even worked on the Scarecrow? Certainly the Scarecrow is, in his own heart and mind (figuratively speaking, that is; I know he doesn’t have a physical heart), the Scarecrow, and not Chang Wang Woe, regardless of the life force that animated him. I guess we’ll never know for sure. If the potion was meant to revive an earlier incarnation of the soul, however, then that would mean the princes must have been swine and a weasel in their former lives.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that L. Frank Baum himself was interested in reincarnation, and I’ve sometimes seen it mentioned that he believed in it. He didn’t write Royal Book (contrary to what early publicity indicated), but it’s possible that Thompson included the references because she knew this about the author whose series she was continuing. Or am I giving her too much credit in that respect?

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9 Responses to Straw Man Origins

  1. vilajunkie says:

    The entire thing is just effin’ weird, man. I don’t really believe anything about the Scarecrow’s origin from this book, since it mostly contradicts Baum’s limited details. I’d like to think of the story as taking place in an alternate universe or something and the real Oz fixed everything at the end so that Sir Hokus was always a part of Ozma’s court, just we never met him until Thompson’s books. How much do the later books reference the Scarecrow plot anyway? I know there’s a book about Sir Hokus’ origin, but couldn’t that book be talking about a universe in which the Scarecrow’s trip to the Silver Island never happened, or at least not in that way?

    • Nathan says:

      Well, let’s see. Lost King mentions that the Scarecrow turned out to be the Emperor of the Silver Island. Jack Pumpkinhead has the character refer to the fact that he’s a grandfather. Wishing Horse didn’t get into the Scarecrow’s origin, but did say that the fireworks for Ozma’s party came from Happy Toko on the Silver Island.

  2. Marie says:

    Vilajunkie, I am on board with that. Or perhaps there was a lost chapter from that chronicle of Oz history in which the Scarecrow was briefly un-animated, re-animated as though awakening, and then looks about at all his worried friends, tells them they were all in his adventure — “And you were there, Dorothy, and you, Wizard…” And they break it to him is was just a dream.

    Yeah, I really like that version.

    • Nathan says:

      Since when is the Scarecrow capable of dreaming, though?

      • vilajunkie says:

        Maybe he just imagined he was dreaming? I’m sure at some point the Scarecrow either tried to make himself dream or asked the Wizard to give him a gadget that would make him dream, because he was curious about how meat people’s brains work.

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