#Ozathon24: Bringing the Sun Underground

The third book of the Oz series starts with a storm at sea, seemingly far away from Dorothy (who lives in Kansas) and from Oz (which is surrounded by deserts). But we soon learn that Dorothy is journeying on a ship with her uncle Henry, whose health has been broken down by the hardships of farming.

Dorothy was brought back because readers wanted to know what happened to her and to have her meet Ozma, the restored ruler who was introduced in The Land of Oz. From now on, Dorothy will be firmly established as a central character, often the one who goes on journeys and has adventures.

The strangely slinky Ozma in John R. Neill’s cover illustration (usually she’s drawn as a young girl)

And as she confronts the storm, Baum uses it to show that an ordinary American girl can have some remarkable qualities of her own. When she goes up on deck in search of her Uncle Henry, she feels no fear, only a “sort of joyous excitement in defying the storm.” The wind, “as if enraged because the little girl dared to resist its power,” blows away the chicken coop to which Dorothy is clinging. And thus she is transported, not to Oz, but to the neighboring land of Ev, where she will continue to fight adversarial forces to save and protect others.

Along with the coop comes a new companion, a yellow hen called Bill; apparently when she was named, it was thought she was a rooster. Dorothy re-names her Billina, but Billina remains a fierce fighter who resists overbearing powers, and is not shy about using intelligence and daring to reach her goals. (Dorothy, who seems to prefer gender lines to be more conventionally drawn, scolds her for fighting and using slang, but she remains unrepentant.)

Billina’s move from male to female is reminiscent of that of Ozma, another character who started life with people thinking she was a boy. While I think it’s a mistake to read too much into this as a conscious subversion of binary concepts of gender, it’s clear that Baum finds inner qualities more important than outer markers of identity. People have different abilities, both inborn and acquired; what is most important is for each individual to know themselves thoroughly, and to use their unique abilities in a moral way, in order to help others rather than dominating or enslaving them. Labels are just for convenience. As Billina says, “It doesn’t matter at all what you call me, so long as I know the name means me.”

The Land of Ev, like all fantasylands, is one where moral quandaries take on picture form. Dorothy and Billina very soon encounter these in the form of the Wheelers, whose belligerence masks their cowardice and weakness, and Princess Langwidere, who embodies indolence and vanity. But they also acquire a formidable new helper in the form of Tik-tok, the mechanical man.

Neill’s illustration of Dorothy winding Tik-tok

So far in the series, there have been a number of characters brought to life from inanimate form (notably the Scarecrow and the Sawhorse), as well as the Tin Woodman, a person whose body was replaced by metal, but now we encounter a purely mechanized person. Baum was fascinated by gadgetry and technology, by the rise of the science that now is confronting us with the challenge of artificial intelligence. Reflecting Baum’s optimism about scientific progress, Tik-tok is a benign character, who serves Dorothy faithfully and well. But though he can act, speak, and think, he has no inner life, and thus no morality. He can only play out the program he’s been given, including any mistakes in it (and one of those mistakes leads to dire consequences later.)

Nevertheless, Billina and Dorothy are fortunate to meet him, as he does his best to defend them from threats, until his machinery runs down. Just as Dorothy is imprisoned, another stroke of fortune comes with the arrival of Ozma, who wants to rescue the royal family of Ev from their own imprisonment by the neighboring Nome King. She sets Dorothy free and the two groups join forces for the rescue mission.

Dorothy and Billina prove to be vital to that adventure in a number of ways. The Nome King won’t let Ozma in when she commands him as a fellow monarch, but opens his realm when Dorothy pleads for entry. With her simple, unpretentious nature, Dorothy brings a necessary balance to Ozma’s royal dignity; she also remains the brave girl from the storm-tossed ship, whose quick thinking and action later rescue the group from the power of the underground monarch. Billina, meanwhile, succeeds in defying the Nome King’s tricks where the others have failed. And her daily habit of laying an egg is another simple, unpretentious reminder of the farm back home that ends up being more powerful than anyone would have dreamed.

Illustration by Zbigniew Rychlicki

An egg is a sun symbol, and Billina is significantly a yellow hen — the only one in her whole flock. Together, the crafty Billina and the guileless Dorothy bring light into the dark, underground realm of the Nomes. The Nome King is a master of deception, turning things into what they are not; salvation comes through innocence and canniness joining forces to resist the power of evil. The journey underground has been another moral challenge, a sun-hero’s journey that, as often happens in the Oz books, is completed not by a single person, but by a group of people with complementary skills.

There’s more to enjoy; Baum’s dry humor is also in evidence, as he pokes fun at food fanaticism (Dorothy finds it disgusting to eat live bugs and Billina to eat dead cows) and at militarism (through Ozma’s army, which consists entirely of officers with one private for them to command). There is a joyful reunion with our old friends the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, and the introduction to another new character, the Hungry Tiger, who longs to eat fat babies but unfortunately has a conscience that won’t let him — another of Baum’s satirical touches.

Dorothy (played by Fairuza Balk) and Tik-tok in Return to Oz

If you’ve seen the movie Return to Oz, you will recognize some of the elements that were woven into that dark and scary film, which begins with Dorothy considered insane for talking about her adventures in Oz. Ozma of Oz is considerably lighter in mood — though Billina shows some initial skepticism when she hears Dorothy talking about Oz, that’s another absurd touch coming from a talking chicken.

Overall, I find Ozma one of the most tightly constructed and artistically satisfying books of the series, every scene a delight of one kind or another. What did you think? I’ll be back at the end of the month with a wrap-up post to gather any other thoughts about the book. Feel free to link them here, or add your responses in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “#Ozathon24: Bringing the Sun Underground

  1. This sounds to be another worthy entry to the series! I particularly liked your comment that “Baum finds inner qualities more important than outer markers of identity,” as that principle really only sounded its approach in later fiction. And Tik-Tok (the character, not the Chinese app!) is a wonderful anticipation of the robot in Metropolis as well as an echo of mechanical automatons and simulacra that were all the rage in sideshows and travelling fairs, as well as at court.

  2. I agree this is one of the best in the series. I’m about a third in so far, taking my time so I don’t devour it all at once. I love the passage you quote where Dorothy steps out on the deck in the storm and instead of being terrified, she’s excited. I appreciate the way Baum makes it very clear that Dorothy is unusual, but not because of her gender. There are so many vivid moments early in this book, like when Langwidere first takes her head off and when TikTok attacks the wheelers with a dinner pail (even the lunch and dinner trees make me happy). But the scenes in the Nome King palace are the best. And the illustrations are beautiful.

    1. It’s good if you can read slowly! I find it hard to hold back. I’m reading next month’s book already.

    1. Great review! I agree, Dorothy’s attitude toward Bill is irritatingly conventional, but fortunately doesn’t change her character one bit.

    1. Yes, they bring a sense of wonder and surprise and possibility that is very welcome just now.

  3. I just caught up on your review, and I think you brought a very adult sophisticated mind to this book. When I read the Oz books, I feel as if I’m a child again, and I don’t see the complexities!
    (I think you read my Oz post a few weeks ago.)
    best, mae at maefood.blogspot.com

    1. I think the best children’s books can be enjoyed on many levels. I keep coming back to them and finding new things.

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