The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Companions One Too Many?
I’ve had an idea bouncing around the old noggin recently and I wanted to try ricocheting it off your heads for a while to see where it leads.
Recently I’ve been reading a fair number of fantasy and sci-fi (mostly sci-fi, curiously enough) quest novels that follow in the Wizard of Oz rather than Alice in Wonderland vein. You can tell the difference because in an Alice in Wonderland quest novel the protagonist is almost always on his or her own (Coraline‘s a good example of this) with maybe a random helper companion that flits in and out of the action. Wizard of Oz quest novels consist of picking up companions, whether willingly or unwillingly, over the course of the story’s plot.
After reading two Oz-like books in a row, I started to notice a strange pattern. Is it just me, or do most Oz-like stories have the same number and type of companions in a row? Here’s what I mean. In a fantasy novel your hero acquires three different types of fellows:
1. The Cowardly Lion type – This is a large, potentially ferocious beast of some sort that turns out to be just the sweetest thing and allows the hero to ride him/her/it at some point. Ell the Wyvern in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente would count. So too would Protein the woolly mammoth in Greg Van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World. They’re usually big critters with hearts of gold. Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for the nice people they befriend. It’s a thing.
2. The Tin Woodsman type -The heartless companion who grows a heart. In Zita the Spacegirl that would be One, the battle orb who starts out prickly. In The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi that would be Muthr, the robot parent companion to the heroine Eva Nine. And in The Boy at the End of the World it’s Click, the robot parent companion to the hero Fisher and . . . huh. All robots. Whodathunkit?
3. The Scarecrow type – The native with the brains. I’m stretching a bit here, but that’s generally the type of character you get in these books. So if we go back over some of the books I’ve just mentioned it would be Saturday in Valente’s book, Zapper in Van Eekhout’s, Rovender Kitt in DiTerlizzi’s, etc.
Obviously these aren’t hard and fast, but the consistency is intriguing to me. Why do authors again and again turn to these types? Sometimes it’s because the books are a purposeful homage to Baum’s classic (as with DiTerlizzi). Yet they’re not all that way. The number three for companions is interesting as well. Even the movie Labyrinth outfitted Jennifer Connelly with only three companions and her dog. Mute pet companions of the Toto variety don’t really weigh into all this, being fairly superfluous to their stories.
Of the books I’ve read recently, only Zita the Spacegirl broke this magic number three by giving its heroine no less than five stalwart companions, not even counting the friend she’s questing to save. Do graphic novels allow for greater numbers because the visual edge allows them to tell a story more quickly and succinctly than prose?
What do you think? Is this a consistent trend or am I just detecting repetition where there is nothing to detect? After all there are books like the Prydain series that throw this theory to the wolves (unless, of course, you consider Gurgi the Scarecrow and Llyan the Cowardly Lion and . . . okay, I’ll stop now).
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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