07 February 2012

A Lesson from Sir Hokus

My thoughts on the value of a ongoing characters having an unresolvable foundational conflict have their roots, I realize, in thinking about a character far less known than Superman.

It was Sir Hokus of Pokes, the first recurring character that Ruth Plumly Thompson added to Oz. He’s an old knight that Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion find in The Royal Book of Oz (1921). He moves to the Emerald City and plays a supporting role in several more adventures, rather as L. Frank Baum used the Shaggy Man. He’s not rounded, and I doubt he’s many people’s favorite, but he becomes a comfortable part of the fabric of Thompson’s Oz.

As such, Sir Hokus reflects Thompson’s sensibility, based on older European fairy tales. In contrast, Baum’s usually tried to find magic in contemporary American culture for Oz.
I think Sir Hokus’s unresolvable foundational conflict is that he’s a man out of time. He speaks in a medieval lingo, constantly expressing a wish to rescue fair maidens and slay dragons. His anachronism is underscored by his age. Like Lewis Carroll’s White Knight, he’s an old man, still active but gray. In both respects, he’s removed from his prime period, no longer able to undertake all the quests he yearns for.

In The Yellow Knight of Oz (1930), Thompson made Sir Hokus one of her protagonists. He goes off on a solo quest at last. Along the way, complications ensue. By the end of that book, Sir Hokus is no longer a man out of time; he’s ensconced in a medieval-style culture. Furthermore, he’s young again.

As a result, the character is no longer the least bit interesting. Sir Hokus’s foundational conflict has been resolved. Even though Dorothy looks in the younger man’s eyes and says he’s the same friend she knew, it’s no surprise that he makes only token appearances in the rest of Thompson’s series.

John R. Neill liked drawing Sir Hokus so much, evidently, that he brought the old knight back in his three Oz books, once more chasing dragons without being able to slay them. Neill offered no explanation of how, but neither consistency nor logic was part of his storytelling.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Kabumpo in Oz was my first Thompson book for a few years (long years of childhood). I didn't know Kabumpo or Pumperdink, of course, but Baum had certainly begun books in out of the way places. When the scene shifted to the Emerald City I was hoping for the familiar, after all it was only the second Thompson book so she couldn't have changed things that much, right? Yet already there was this strange knight sharing space with the names I knew and acting like he was an old part of the coterie.

J. L. Bell said...

Sir Hokus made himself at home quite fast, didn't he?