by Alison Natasi)
Next week marks the 158th birthday of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, whose 14-books series set in a faraway fantasy realm has captured the imaginations of generations of readers. The surreal landscape, which is downright psychedelic as the movie version demonstrates in bold Technicolor, is home to colorful creatures who are wonderfully odd-looking and truly weird. Many of Baum’s characters were written as icons of the cultural and political allegories woven throughout his tales, but that doesn’t make them any less strange. We’re celebrating ten of the most bizarre characters in Baum’s Oz canon that often get overlooked when discussing the author’s legacy.
With a humble notch for a mouth, two wooden knots for eyes, and a tree branch for a tail, the Sawhorse is exactly what his name implies. The animated trestle was brought to life by some magic powder, and his sole job is to carry around a guy with a pumpkinhead. He’s not the brightest bulb in the bunch (which might be due to his lack of ears and hearing during a stretch of his lifetime), but his personality is anything but wooden.
Tim Burton ripped a page from Baum’s character playbook when he spotted Oz’s Jack Pumpkinhead and created “Jack Skellington.” Built from tree branches and sporting a jack-o’-lantern head, Jack was initially created to scare off one of Oz’s witches, Mombi. Magic powder brought him to life, but Jack is only as intelligent as the number of seeds sprouting in his head at any given time. Did we mention that when his head goes rotten, new heads are carved out and the old ones are buried in their own graveyard?
Baum created one of the earliest robots to appear in modern literature and named him Tik-Tok. The mechanical man can’t operate unless he’s wound up, which means he’s doomed to stay mute until someone helps turn his parts. He only talks with his teeth, which at times appears a little menacing. Tik-Tok doesn’t process emotions, but considers himself to be a devoted “slave” to Dorothy.
Many contemporary fans of Baum first met his character Billina, the talking chicken, in the creepy 1985 film, Return to Oz. The yellow hen replaces the role that pup Toto previously assumed, and acts as Dorothy’s companion for her long, strange trip through Oz. Billina experiences frequent bouts of gender dysphoria. The spunky bird was originally named Bill, because it was thought that she might be a rooster, but Dorothy insisted on changing Billina’s name to a feminine moniker. Billina eventually hatched chicks (oddly, she named them all Dorothy), but her gender confusion continues throughout her lifetime.
If Burton modeled Jack Skellington after Baum’s Jack Pumpkinhead, then he surely modeled Sally after Baum’s Patchwork Girl — often referred to as “Scraps.” The living rag doll also came to life via some magic powder, courtesy of a Munchkin magician. The wobbly Scraps was created to be a servant, but quickly became the love interest of the Scarecrow.
Ojo the Lucky
Baum created a weird little character in the form of Ojo — a Munchkin who lives with his uncle in the forest, but is actually a prince. Ojo was given his nickname as a way to counteract his bouts with bad luck. The tiny royal was born on Friday the 13th, even. He believes that being left-handed and having a wart under his arm also makes him bad news for those around him.
Bungle, the Glass Cat
Apparently no one in Oz got the memo about this magic powder, because everyone and everything is tampered with using the potent dust. The magician Dr. Pipt wanted to create a cat for his wife, whose sole purpose was to catch mice. Using the powder to bring a glass feline figurine to life, the Dr. quickly found out that his creation was no mouser. In fact, the transparent kitty scoffed at the idea of chasing prey. Named Bungle, the cat is a striking, albeit eerie-looking, creature, totally see-through except for her heart, eyes, and brains. Weirder still, Bungle was subject to a lobotomy by the Wizard of Oz who replaced her pink brains with clear ones in order to make her more docile.
Yep, an entire race of living utensils. According to Baum, who clearly got a little too pun-tastic here, the colander is the high priest of the bunch, because he’s the holiest.
The Bun People of Bunbury
The Bun People are indeed made of baked goods. Toto and Billina let their appetites get the better of them and wound up devouring a Bun person in The Emerald City of Oz.
This mountain-dwelling race of people lack a cranium and forehead, but the Flatheads carry their brains around in a can, inside their pocket. Sounds like pure nightmare fuel