Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fairy Tale Superheroes

I'm far from the first person to point this out, of course, but it is interesting to note that among the cultural influences that eventually led to the creation of the modern superhero were fairy tales. A lot of the characters have what is essentially superpowers and the heroes often accomplish some pretty epic deeds.

So when L. Frank Baum wrote the fairy tale Queen Zixi of Ix in 1904/5 (originally serialized in St. Nicholas magazine)---over three decades before the first comic book superhero appeared--it's not surprising that it reminds a modern reader of a Silver Age Legion of Super Heroes story.

The story is enormously entertaining--considered by many Baum fans to be one of his best. In it, the fairy queen and her fairies make a magic cloak (pretty much because they are bored). The cloak will grant one wish to each person who wears it, as long as the current person wearing it didn't steal it from the previous owner.

The cloak ends up in the possession of an orphan girl named Fluff. Extremely odd circumstances make Fluff's younger brother Bud the king of Noland, so Fluff is now a princess. The cloak ends up being inadvertently passed around among the young king's five counselors, each of whom makes an off-the-cuff wish without being aware of the cloak's power. So each of them ends up with an odd power--giant-size; the ability to reach out and grab things many yards away; granting a pet dog the ability to talk; and so on. Before all this happens, Fluff's ill-tempered aunt gives herself wings.

When Queen Zixi of Xi decides she wants the cloak, she leads her army against Noland. But the various wish-granted powers are used in several ways to send her soldiers fleeing in panic.

Later on, the cloak as gone missing. Fluff and Bud must now enlist Queen Zixi as an ally to find it and save Noland from rampaging creatures called Roly-Rogues.

I love how Baum so efficiently establishes the internal logic of the story, then uses this logic to move the plot along in unexpected ways. I enjoy the surprising depth of some elements of the story--Zixi's character arc is believable and mature; while Bud's child-like attitude to being king is handled realistically without ignoring the consequences of this (such as a seemingly wise decision causing an injustice to an innocent person). The aunt who gets wings also shows remarkable character growth.

But mostly, I like the part where a winged woman, a few super-powered politicians and a talking dog work together to defeat a large army without actually hurting anyone.

Queen Zixi of Xi was made into a silent film in 1914, which I'm embedding below. By then, it was obvious that Oz would always be where Baum's readers most wanted to go, so the film version ended up with the title The Magic Cloak of Oz.

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