07 October 2006

Tik-Tok Stops Thinking

It's been over a week since my last Oz-related post, which seems far too long. So I'm sharing one of my favorite passages from The Road to Oz.

This is from the chapter in which all tension drains merrily from the book. Though Dorothy and her companions haven't gotten home yet, none is now under enchantment and it becomes clear that her powerful friend Ozma is looking after them. In other words, there's no reason for readers to worry about them any longer. Yet it's only chapter 14 out of 24, so what can possibly draw us through the rest of the book?

Despite that apparent weakness, The Road to Oz was one of my elementary-school favorites, and I've heard several other people mention it as a favorite as well. I think the key to its appeal is that, no longer worrying about plot, Baum focused all his attention on bringing out the vivid personalities of his characters. The Emerald City favorites never seem more real than in the final chapters of this book because Baum displays their foibles and failings as well as their strengths; we can weigh both and feel reassured of their appeal.

One example of how Baum added new layers to established characters appears in this little exchange between Dorothy and Tik-Tok, the mechanical man. Introduced a couple of books earlier in Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok has separate mechanisms for thinking, speaking, and moving. Throughout that earlier book he had a tendency to freeze, calling for help until his speech failed. But Dorothy is pleased with him nonetheless.

"This," [Dorothy said,] turning to her traveling companions, "is Mr. Tik-tok, who works by machinery 'cause his thoughts wind up, and his talk winds up, and his action winds up--like a clock." . . .

The copper man bowed low, removing his copper hat as he did so.

"I'm ve-ry pleased to meet Dor-o-thy's fr-r-r-r---" Here he stopped short.

"Oh, I guess his speech needs winding!" said the little girl, running behind the copper man to get the key off a hook at his back. She wound him up at a place under his right arm and he went on to say:

"Par-don me for run-ning down. I was a-bout to say I am pleased to meet Dor-o-thy's friends, who must be my friends." The words were somewhat jerky, but plain to understand.

"...how did you happen to be here, in the Country of the Winkies, the first of all to meet us?"

"I'll tell you," answered Tik-tok, in his monotonous voice, all the sounds of his words being on one level--"Prin-cess Oz-ma saw you in her mag-ic pic-ture, and knew you were com-ing here; so she sent Bil-lin-a and me to wel-come you as she could not come her-self; so that--fiz-i-dig-le cum-so-lut-ing hy-ber-gob-ble in-tu-zib-ick--"

"Good gracious! Whatever's the matter now?" cried Dorothy, as the copper man continued to babble these unmeaning words, which no one could understand at all because they had no sense.

"Don't know," said Button-Bright, who was half scared. Polly whirled away to a distance and turned to look at the copper man in a fright.

"His thoughts have run down, this time," remarked Billina composedly, as she sat on Tik-tok's shoulder and pruned her sleek feathers. "When he can't think, he can't talk properly, any more than you can. You'll have to wind up his thoughts, Dorothy, or else I'll have to finish his story myself."

Dorothy ran around and got the key again and wound up Tik-tok under his left arm, after which he could speak plainly again.

"Par-don me," he said, "but when my thoughts run down, my speech has no mean-ing, for words are formed on-ly by thought."
If only my iPod Shuffle were that easy to reboot when it freezes.


Anonymous said...

I agree that Road's strength is not in the plotting, but in the personalities of its characters. Dorothy, in particular, I find to be the quintessence of Dorothy in this book. I've heard and read that many Oz fans think Road is boring, but I just don't understand. In this book Baum brings Oz vividly to life for me. Neill's illustrations, of course, help. Small and unremarkable though it may appear, the picture of the characters standing on a hill looking at the tin castle in the distance purely and concisely captures all the essence of Oz for me.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think we're fortunate in growing up around the time of the Rand McNally paperbacks, which were on bright white paper instead of Reilly & Lee's cheaper stock. That helped display Neill's exquisitely detailed draftsmanship in Road at its best.