All’s Fair in Oz


It’s interesting how much of the Oz series can be seen as referencing circuses and fairs. I guess it’s not surprising for children’s books of the time (or, really, even today, although the traditional circus is severely waning in popularity). The Wizard of Oz worked in a circus as a stage magician, ventriloquist, and balloonist. Many of the exotic animals living in Oz, including the famous lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) as well as elephants and camels, at least one of each being a significant character at some point. J.L. Bell pointed out how much of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, an appropriate book for this time of year in some ways, is influenced by circus and carnival rides. He writes, “We have the haunted house of Scare City, the equestrians of Baffleburg, and the high-flying acrobatic Swingers. In Mogodore’s castle Peter must overcome not only the funhouse mirrors, but a tilting room that slides everybody to one side and an indoor labyrinth.”

The comparison of Scare City to a fun house is definitely apt, as its inhabitants seem more keen on scaring people than on actually doing anything to hurt them, although they do keep prisoners. The atmosphere is provided by flashing lights, lanterns shaped like goblin heads, bluish-green smoke, and wails and screeches. The Scares live in rocky cliff dwellings, and the air is dry and sulfurous. It’s traditional to tremble and groan for the King.

During the sequence in the mirror room, Peter Brown remembers “the mirror maze at Willow Grove,” referring to an amusement park in the suburbs of Philadelphia that was open from 1896 through 1975. There’s a shopping mall on the site now. Swing City, appearing later in the book, is an aerial community of trapeze artists and tightrope walkers that the Iffin accidentally flies into. The people dress in pink and blue silk tights; and are ruled by King Hi-Swinger, self-described highest Swinger in the city, and his wife Queen Tip Toppsy the Tenth.

Lin Carter, who reused quite a few names and concepts in his two Oz books, Queen Upsy Daisy of Tip Top Mountain in Merry Mountaineer has a daughter named Tip Topsy, and I have to wonder if they’re related. There’s also a Tip-Topper, the ruler of the Topsies of Turn Town in Handy Mandy. There’s a net underneath Swing City, but it’s not specified whether the trapezes and tightropes are actually connected to anything.

There are a few mentions of carousels in the Oz books. Lost Princess has the Merry-Go-Round Mountains, fast-spinning peaks situated in a gaping pit in the Winkie Country, which really don’t have that much to do with the ride beyond the name. As Trot says, “They go ’round, sure enough…but they don’t seem very merry.”

There’s an enormous carousel in the middle of the Round-abouties‘ round house in Giant Horse, with carved animals including a zebra, a tiger, and an elephant. A living carousel horse named Merry Go Round is a significant character in…well, Merry Go Round. Robin Brown finds her at a carnival in Oregon, and there’s no indication as to how she comes to life or exactly how the two of them get to Oz. Dorothy states later in the book that she doesn’t know of any merry-go-rounds in Oz, apparently forgetting the one in the round house, or maybe purposely not mentioning it because the Round-abouties are hostile to strangers.

The Silver Mountain has a transportation system consisting of a silver carriage without wheels that moves up and down a track like a roller coaster. Thompson compares it to a “scenic railway” or “chute the chutes,” both old-fashioned terms for amusement rides. The scenic railway was an early sort of roller coaster, based on gravity railroads like the coal delivery one in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania (now called Jim Thorpe). A Shoot the Chute is a ride where a flat-bottomed boat runs down a ramp and lands in a pool, like a log flume but generally less elaborate. There’s also a waterfall in Cavernland in Ozmapolitan that goes around in circles, and Dorothy compares it to a Shoot-the-Chutes. The Isle of Phreex in John Dough and the Cherub is largely based on a sideshow, with many of its inhabitants being curiosities of one sort or another.

And Purple Prince mentions Big Top Mountain, a home of giants that presumably doesn’t have anything to do with circuses, but that’s probably where the name came from.

In addition to the Wizard, several other characters have worked in circuses or fairs. Cowardly Lion features a clown named Notta Bit More who essentially never breaks character, which means he relies on jokes and disguises even when they’re repeatedly ineffective.

He’s an unpopular character with readers, but Thompson seemed to be trying to present him in a generally positive light, even if he wasn’t all that bright. He ends up living in a tent and putting on circus shows for the inhabitants of the Emerald City. Snufferbux in Ojo is a dancing bear, forced to perform tricks at fairs. It’s mentioned that he’s mistreated by his handlers, Zithero’s gypsy band. And Humpty Bumpty in Enchanted Island is also treated cruelly while in the circus. It seems like Thompson might have developed more sympathy for the captive animals at circuses and fairs over time.

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2 Responses to All’s Fair in Oz

  1. Interesting insight! I hadn’t thought of Jack Pumpkinhead in Oz in that light before, but it makes perfect sense. Incidentally, where did that Dick Martin picture come from? I didn’t know he’d done an illustration of Scare City before. It’s actually quite effective, much more so than anything Neill had done for that place (I tend to find that Neill was just dialing it in for some of those books).

    Sadly, the concept of doing an Oz book based on a circus is kind of lame, in my opinion, and tends to reinforce my feeling that some of RPT’s stories are all “sound and fury signifying nothing,” kind of like a circus. I know she wasn’t trying for anything literary, but if I was a friend of her’s at the time, I’d say, “Ruth, your books are fun, but you can do so much better. Start with treating Oz like it’s a real place.” She’d no doubt laugh and say “It’s just fun for kids,” to which I’d reply, “Some kids want more.”

    Anyway, I must be an odd duck because I actually quite like Notta Bit and Bob-Up, while I can’t stand Peter Brown, who I think should’ve been shot out of a cannon and out of Oz forever. Even Speedy is only tolerable half the time (and he’s redeemed by his relationship with Terrybubble). But I think that has to do with the fact that Notta Bit and Bob are outcasts and outsiders, while Peter is the typical spoiled jock and very much a brat. Thompson not only indulges his violent streak (which alone should’ve gotten him banned from Oz), but he so completely lacks appreciation for the fact that he’s in a fantasyland, and a very cushy one at that, that he leaves each time so that he can play baseball! Seriously, why on earth did Thompson think that would make for an appealing character, unless she was trying to cater to and bring in that demographic of young reader (who, let’s face it, weren’t reading Oz books).

    • Nathan says:

      The Martin picture is from “An Oz Picture Gallery,” which the Oz Club offered. There’s more to it, actually, but it wouldn’t all fit on my scanner. I’m not sure either artist really did Scare City justice, although Martin did at least try to make it kind of creepy, while Neill mostly just made the Chief Scarer and King Harum Scarum kind of silly. Then again, he did follow Thompson’s descriptions.

      I never really bought Peter wanting to leave Oz to play baseball. I know it wasn’t JUST baseball, and that he was also attached to his grandfather, but he still seemed remarkably casual about it. I think Thompson tried to write him how she thought of boys, which means he doesn’t tend to show his feelings. But he’s also a very social kid, while most of Baum’s American visitors (and many of his native Ozites, for that matter) were loners to some degree, much easier for me to identify with. Tompy from Yankee was even harder to take seriously, being a popular jock AND a talented musician, a wonder kid of sorts, but still not that likeable.

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