B-Sides: L. Frank Baum’s “The Enchanted Island of Yew”

Many know L. Frank Baum for writing the book that inspired the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” However, like any good magician, Baum had a lot more up his sleeve.

I come by my fondness for L. Frank Baum honestly. When I was little, my father would pull the Oz books off their special shelf and read them as bedtime stories, or the two of us would “dial” the ISBNs on a defunct phone and ask to speak to the Wizard or Dorothy.

Oz as a book series (14 in all) was mostly eclipsed once it hit the screen: Who could forget Judy Garland in living color? And those monkeys! However, like any good magician, Baum had a lot more up his sleeve.

The Enchanted Island of Yew (published in 1903, early in his Oz phase) stands out by any account. Yet this matter-of-fact tale of gender transformation has never received the buzz accorded to Baum’s more famous series. Perhaps what is most laudable about the book, in retrospect, is the unconcerned tone with which the narrative presents the subversive “gender trouble” at its heart.

The gender agnosticism of Baum’s work contrasts noticeably to the priorities of the world around him. In his 1906 children’s fantasy John Dough and the Cherub, Chick the Cherub, a young child, is never assigned a gender. When Baum’s publishers came after him about this, he allegedly replied, “I cannot remember that Chick the Cherub impressed me as other than a joyous, sweet, venturesome and loveable child. Who cares whether it is a boy or a girl?”1 Bad timing: in an era rife with threatening jeremiads about “the New Woman” and pressure on men to trade domesticity for adventure tales and sporting life,2 the publishers were dissatisfied with casual gender ambiguity. They launched a contest for child readers, offering prize money for the best answers as to whether Chick was a boy or a girl and why.3

Baum himself, though, did not succumb. While the world around him fixated on gender and instilled the ideas of conventional gender presentation in children from a young age—to the point of paying them to go along!—gender play is just one element among many that makes up his fantasy worlds.

Transformation in “The Enchanted Island of Yew” is meant to be used as a tool for happiness, with gender as one of many facets of change.

That approach is particularly on display in The Enchanted Island of Yew. It follows a year in the life of a fairy, who is initially female but spends most of the book transformed into Prince Marvel. As a mortal boy, she hopes for freedom from endless and frankly boring fairy life. As Prince Marvel, he (the fairy’s pronouns change without narrative comment) travels through the Island of Yew, passing through various magical kingdoms and helping those in need.

The fairy’s initial transformation suggests that gender doesn’t matter beyond the social circumstances that create it. The fairy approaches three girls, Seseley, Berna, and Helda, to transform her; Seseley suggests that the fairy become a girl, but upon finding out that she wants to travel, says that a girl would likely not be allowed to travel alone. To this, the fairy responds, “No … your men are the ones that roam abroad and have adventures of all kinds. Your women are poor, weak creatures, I remember.”4 This seems pretty dismissive; yet the text makes clear that girlhood and its consequent “weakness” arise from restrictions placed on women, rather than from anything intrinsic.

The fairy, however, goes beyond social expectations and sees no reason an individual should be tied to a particular gender. When Helda jokingly suggests that she should become a boy, she seizes on the idea, despite Seseley asking:

“Why—you’re a GIRL fairy, aren’t you?”

“Well—yes; I suppose I am,” answered the beautiful creature, smiling; “but as you are going to change me anyway, I may as well become a boy as a girl.”

“But would it be right?” asked Seseley, with hesitation.

“Why not?” retorted the fairy. “I can see nothing wrong in being a boy. Make me a tall, slender youth, with waving brown hair and dark eyes. Then I shall be as unlike my own self as possible, and the adventure will be all the more interesting. Yes; I like the idea of being a boy very much indeed.”5

While Seseley is not sure if changing gender is “right,” the fairy sees it as enjoyable and analogous to any physical change. Her attitude toward transformation and Baum’s portrayal of it in the narrative reflect Judith Butler’s ideas of gender’s lack of coherency. Butler writes, “The construction of coherence conceals the gender discontinuities.”6

Following that initial scene of transformation, the novel hardly dwells on Marvel’s shift. This is not a story of someone with an essential inner self and an essential bodily presentation (whether matched or mismatched). Instead, its protagonist is someone for whom both are in flux. It is tempting here to look ahead to speculative works hailed as revolutionary for making the same move seven decades later, such as Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton or Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Marvel is not a totally different person from the fairy; he still retains magical powers and is described as having a “girlish heart” alongside “his resolve to be manly and stern.”7

Butler writes that “Drag fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity … Both claims to truth contradict one another and so displace the entire enactment of gender significations from the discourse of truth and falsity.”8 Drag creates a situation in which it is impossible to tell whether the inner self is feminine and the outer self masculine or vice versa. That is a formulation particularly applicable to Baum’s most famous gender-bending creation, Princess Ozma of Oz, who is turned into a boy as a baby, lives through childhood as a boy, and eventually turns back into a girl.9 Like the fairy Marvel, her narrative is not linear but fluctuating; her gender transformation is part of her story but not the only thing that makes her who she is.

The range of subsequent metamorphoses in Enchanted Island further emphasizes the mundanity of gender play as one kind of shape-shifting among many. A group of thieves decide to become honest men to avoid being hanged; this transformation is pragmatic but sincere, as they later come to Marvel’s rescue. A king tries to kill anyone who sees him so they will not spread rumors about his hideous appearance; Marvel transforms him to a handsome man and thus a kinder one.

The novel resists transformations, though, when they would force people to fit a single, “normal” standard. When Marvel visits the Kingdom of Twi, where each person consists of two people who do everything simultaneously, he initially separates the ruler into two individuals. Finding she is not happy like that and no longer feels at home in her kingdom, he changes her back to her old self. Transformation in The Enchanted Island of Yew is meant to be used as a tool for happiness, with gender as one of many facets of change.

A character can switch genders or have no gender at all; in Baum’s fantasy realms, this is something to enjoy, to embrace, to accept as a matter of course. The Wizard of Oz was frequently banned from libraries earlier in its career—for witches, strong women, and “negativism.”10 By contrast, Baum’s queer subversiveness, to my pleasure, seems to have flown under censors’ radars. The 1939 Wizard of Oz film is already beloved among the queer community for its portrayal of found family, its colorful rainbow imagery, and Judy Garland’s central performance.11 How wonderful to discover a more pervasive pattern of identity shifts in Baum, who all along may have meant to show young readers that figuring out who you are can be a form of joy. icon

This article was commissioned by John Plotz.

  1. L. Frank Baum, John Dough and the Cherub (1906; Dover Publications, 1974), p. xii.
  2. John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England (Yale University Press, 1999) p. 172.
  3. Tosh, A Man’s Place, p. ix.
  4. L. Frank Baum, The Enchanted Island of Yew (1903; Project Gutenberg, 1996).
  5. Baum, Enchanted Island.
  6. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Tenth Anniversary Edition (Routledge, 2002), pp. 172–73.
  7. Baum, Enchanted Island.
  8. Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 174.
  9. L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904; Project Gutenberg, 1993).
  10. Kristina Rosenthal, “Banned Books: The Wizard of Oz,” University of Tulsa Department of Special Collections and University Archives, February 27, 2014.
  11. Kathi Wolfe, “‘The Wizard of Oz’ Turns 80 This Year,” Washington Blade, February 25, 2019.
Featured image: Richard Doyle, The Enchanted Tree (1868). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art