14 September 2006

L. Frank Baum's "Mary-Marie"

The short story form wasn't ideal for L. Frank Baum. Magazines and newspapers fiction rarely gave him enough space for his powers of characterization to take hold, and made his haphazard plotting more obvious.

But a little-known tale called "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie" strikes me as epitomizing Baum's approach to traditional fairy tales. It offers a strong, sensible heroine on a quest with lots of modernized magic. It rejects traditional ideas of witches as evil, saying magic is only as wicked or good as the people working it. Plus, [spoiler ahead] it includes the gender-crossing that shows up in several of Baum's novels from the early nineteen-oughts.

So, saving further ado for later, here's the start of "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie":

Mary-Marie wanted something to do. Her mother had died years before, and the cruel king had commanded her father to join the royal army and march into far-off countries to do battle. She could not even guess when he would return; indeed, few of the soldiers of the king's army ever did return from the fierce wars. So the girl lived through many tedious days in her lonely little hut, and gathered nuts and berries from the forest to satisfy her hunger. But her one gown was getting faded and shabby, and Mary-Marie could not think how she might manage to get another.

The hut stood beside a path that wound up the mountain side and away into the kingdom of Aurissau that lay in the valley beyond, and one day as Mary-Marie sat before her door an aged traveler came up the path and paused before her. The girl brought him a cup of water and in answer to his questions told how lonely and poor she was.

"But what can I do?" cried she, spreading out her arms helplessly. "I can not hew down trees, as my father used; and in all this end of the king's domain there is nothing else to be done. For there are so many shepherds that no more are needed, and so many tillers of the soil that no more can find employment. Ah, I have tried; hut no one wants a weak girl like me."

"Why don't you become a witch?" asked the man.

"Me!" gasped Mary-Marie, amazed. "A witch!"

"Why not?” he inquired, as if surprised.

"Well," said the girl, laughing. "I'm not old enough. Witches, you know, are withered dried-up old hags."

"Oh, not at all!" returned the stranger.

"And they sell their souls to Satan, in return for a knowledge of witchcraft," continued Mary-Marie more seriously.

"Stuff and nonsense!" cried the stranger angrily.

“And all the enjoyment they get in life is riding broomsticks through the air on dark nights," declared the girl.

"Well, well, well!" said the old man in an astonished tone. "One might think you knew all about witches, to hear you chatter. But your words prove you to be very ignorant of the subject. You may find good people and bad people in the world; and so, I suppose, you may find good witches and bad witches. But I must confess most of the witches I have known were very respectable, indeed, and famous for their kind actions."

"Oh. I'd like to be that kind of witch!" said Mary-Marie, clasping her hands earnestly.

"It's easy enough," answered the stranger. "I passed a witch's cottage about five miles down this path, and there was a sign on the door which read:

WITCHCRAFT IN ALL ITS BRANCHES
TAUGHT BY THE MOST APPROVED MODERN METHODS


"Were I you, my dear child, I would seek this cottage and learn to be a witch, for then you would have a busy and a happy life."

Saying these words the traveler rose and resumed his journey up the mountain, and Mary-Marie looked after him thoughtfully until he was out of sight. Then she jumped up and walked down the path, saying to herself:

"I'll go to the witch's cottage, anyway; and if I can coax her to give me lessons without cost I will learn her craft and become a witch myself." So, singing and dancing along the steep pathway, she covered the five miles in a space of two hours, and so came to the very cottage the stranger had mentioned.
You can read the rest of the tale here or here. A version on actual paper with modern illustrations appears in the Books of Wonder edition of the Baum collection American Fairy Tales. "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie" is also illustrated in the International Wizard of Oz Club's new Collected Short Stories of L. Frank Baum.

2 comments:

ericshanower said...

The illustrations in the International Wizard of Oz Club edition are by yours truly.

Best,
Eric Shanower

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the added information!

I had a hard time finding the Oz Club's Collected Short Stories on the web last night, but was able to add a link this morning.