16 January 2007

Living to Tell the Sea Fairies Tale

It's been a while since I posted something Baumian, and even longer since I simply quoted a choice passage from one of L. Frank Baum's books, so here's a bit from the first chapter of The Sea Fairies.

After Baum brought his first Oz series to a close after six books in 1910, he started a new fantasy series about a little California girl named Trot and her one-legged sailor friend, Cap'n Bill. Dorothy usually travels to fairyland on her own or is the most experienced traveler in her group; she also tends not to worry over how and why things came to be. In contrast, Trot looks up to Cap'n Bill and his wisdom--though, as this passage shows, her habit of thinking deeply about what he says can make for some awkward moments.

The little girl was thoughtful for a moment. "But why do folks dive in the water when the mermaids smile an' wink?" she asked.

"Mermaids," he said gravely, "is the most beautiful creatures in the world--or the water, either. You know what they're like, Trot, they's got a lovely lady's form down to the waist, an' then the other half of 'em's a fish, with green an' purple an' pink scales all down it."

"Have they got arms, Cap'n Bill?"

"'Course, Trot; arms like any other lady. An' pretty faces that smile an' look mighty sweet an' fetchin'. Their hair is long an' soft an' silky, an' floats all around 'em in the water. When they comes up atop the waves, they wring the water out'n their hair and sing songs that go right to your heart. If anybody is unlucky enough to be 'round jes' then, the beauty o' them mermaids an' their sweet songs charm 'em like magic; so's they plunge into the waves to get to the mermaids. But the mermaids haven't any hearts, Trot, no more'n a fish has; so they laughs when the poor people drown an' don't care a fig. That's why I says, an' I says it true, that nobody never sawr a mermaid an' lived to tell the tale."

"Nobody?" asked Trot.

"Nobody a tall."

"Then how do you know, Cap'n Bill?" asked the little girl, looking up into his face with big, round eyes.

Cap'n Bill coughed. Then he tried to sneeze, to gain time. Then he took out his red cotton handkerchief and wiped his bald head with it, rubbing hard so as to make him think clearer. "Look, Trot; ain't that a brig out there?" he inquired, pointing to a sail far out in the sea.

"How does anybody know about mermaids if those who have seen them never lived to tell about them?" she asked again.

"Know what about 'em, Trot?"

"About their green and pink scales and pretty songs and wet hair."

"They don't know, I guess. But mermaids jes' natcherly has to be like that, or they wouldn't be mermaids."

She thought this over. "Somebody must have lived, Cap'n Bill," she declared positively. "Other fairies have been seen by mortals; why not mermaids?"

"P'raps they have, Trot, p'raps they have," he answered musingly. "I'm tellin' you as it was told to me, but I never stopped to inquire into the matter so close before. Seems like folks wouldn't know so much about mermaids if they hadn't seen 'em; an' yet accordin' to all accounts the victim is bound to get drownded."

"P'raps," suggested Trot softly, "someone found a fotygraph of one of 'em."

"That might o' been, Trot, that might o' been," answered Cap'n Bill.
Baum wrote a sequel to The Sea Fairies called Sky Island, one of his very best novels. But the Trot stories didn't sell as well as the Oz books, so in 1913 Baum returned to writing about Oz. With The Scarecrow of Oz he merged the two series by bringing Trot and Cap'n Bill to the Emerald City to stay.


Anonymous said...

Baum's Sky Island is one of my favorite books. The structure of the first section--up to the point the main characters land on Sky Island--is marvelous to me. Each development in the story builds so perfectly upon what's come previously. What a wonderful book!

Eric Shanower

J. L. Bell said...

I think Sky Island also benefits from having a plot as strong as its characters. Perhaps taking his heroes to that island in the sky forced Baum to forgo easy encounters with places and people we never see again (as in much of The Sea Fairies, alas) in favor of some real twisty machinations among the established characters. The up-and-down of Trot's war against the Boolooroo never feels contrived. And of course he's a wonderful villain!

Blair said...

I would love to see a big screen version of Sky Island someday. Along with The Master Key and Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, I think this is one of Baum's best non-Oz books.

lemming said...

I stumbled across Sky Fairies as an adult - through some miracle, my local library had a copy. It's lovely, and does explain certain aspects of Scarecrow which puzzled me. At the same time, I credit Baum with doing a terrific job of situating Trot and Cap'n Bill's world in Oz with enough context that it all "fit" - you don't need one to understand the other.