Nick Chopper wasn’t always the Tin Woodman; Once he was a flesh-and-blood man who fell in love with a Munchkin girl. The Wicked Witch of the East disapproved and enchanted Nick’s ax. He went to work felling trees, and his ax chopped off his leg. A nearby tinsmith named Ku-Klip replaced the leg with a tin one. Then he lost another leg. Then an arm. And so on, until he was entirely made of tin. He rusted in the forest, until Dorothy saved him and he began his grand adventures in Oz.
L. Frank Baum’s Oz series is an amazing combination of whimsy and wit, and I highly recommend even adults give a few of the books a try. They’re well worth your time.
I just finished The Tin Woodman of Oz by Baum, and this one… is a little horrific.
I should note that the Oz books have always had that fairy-tale horror element. An evil queen replaces her head whenever she wishes, and tries to take Dorothy’s. Armed insurrection leads to panic in the Emerald City. The Gnome King gathers up all the enemies of Oz to try and take over. These things happen with stunning regularity.
But this novel takes the cake.
First, remember that munchkin girl that Nick was supposed to marry? (Yeah, I know you probably know him best from the MGM movie, but I’m not going to deal with that continuity nor that nightmare of a film… sorry, but it is… not my favorite movie. At all. Ever. And that means that, like Baum himself, I’m more inclined to call him “Nick” than “the Tin Woodman.)
Anyway, a young boy asks Nick whatever happened to her, and why he didn’t go back and marry her after Dorothy freed him. Somewhat from shame and somewhat from duty, Nick sets off with the Scarecrow and the boy – named Woot – to find his old love. And that’s where we start entering an existential crisis.
Nick and his pals find a tin man identical to him, standing in the same spot in the forest where Dorothy found him. Who is it? Why, Captain Fyter, the Tin Soldier! The good captain fell in love with a munchkin girl whose love had abandoned her. The Wicked Witch of the East had found out and enchanted the soldier’s sword, which began hacking him apart piece by piece, and good ol’ Ku-Klip replaced each piece with tin.
Thus the horror begins. Anyone can take away your unique identity in Oz, apparently. All it takes is a good-hearted tinsmith to make you just like someone else. And yes, the book underlines repeatedly that the only difference in appearance is that Nick has an ax, while the captain has a sword. And it also notes that Nick is displeased, because his entire identity is wrapped up in being the Tin Woodman. If he’s not the only one… is he anyone?
Oh, don’t worry. It gets worse.
See, Baum created a world in Oz where no one can die. He makes note of it repeatedly through the series. I think he designed that so that young children wouldn’t get scared reading the books, but it means he paints himself into some odd corners sometimes.
Nick, the captain, and crew wind up stilling at Ku-Klip’s tinworks on the way to finding the one true love that Nick and the captain share. Ku-Klip isn’t home, so being good citizens, they enter his home and start looking through cabinets.
And that’s when Nick discovers his old head.
See, ol’ Ku-Klip didn’t throw out Nick’s old parts when Nick was done with them. He just set them aside. And since nothing ever dies, Nick’s old pieces are still in tip-top shape. So are the captain’s, for that matter.
Nick proceeds to have a nice conversation with himself, insulting himself, and eventually closing his head in the cabinet to be alone again for decades.
So… if the head is still alive, isn’t that actually Nick? Or is the Tin Woodman the real Nick? If the Tin Woodman isn’t Nick, what is he? And if he is Nick, what is this unholy abomination casually laying about a tinsmith’s cupboards? While the real Nick Chopper please stand up?
Ain’t this book grand?
We’re not done yet.
See, after both Nick Chopper and the Tin Soldier went out into the world, Ku-Klip got some “meat glue” and combined various pieces from Nick and the captain’s bodies and made a new creation, Chopfyt.
And yeah, the old girlfriend? She ended up marring Chopfyt while Nick and the captain were gone.
So apparently in Oz you can take two disparate humans and combine them into one monster, and everyone’s cool with that.
Actually, not everyone’s cool with that. Nick complains he wants his pieces back from Chopfyt, but he is eventually dissuaded by his friends. But… don’t they belong to Nick? Or to the disembodied head back at the tinsmith’s?
So many questions.
I felt a little like Neal Shusterman had decided to write an Oz novel and couldn’t stop being creepy, even though he tried. Either that or maybe I’d found the origin of the Spider-Man Clone Saga. (If you don’t know, it’s probably better that you don’t ask.)
Look, the book is fun and whimsical. I’m looking at this as an adult. I suspect a kid would just giggle and think nothing of the existential horror laid out before them in a child’s novel published more than a century ago. I just needed to share my reaction.
Who wants to talk to their own disembodied head and then figure out which one is the real one?