A boy with magic powder. A scarecrow come to life. An adventure through Oz. And a death with barely a passing mention. This is the tale of Jack Pumpkinhead, a character I quickly fell in love with, but who met a sad demise at the hands of his author.
Jack Pumpkinhead was a character introduced in The Land of Oz, the first sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1904. I bought the book on a whim at a used bookstore for $20, and was entranced by the delightful world L. Frank Baum created. Jack is a lovely character, my favorite from the story, but his fate bothered me. As an author myself, one who has created numerous characters in numerous fantasy stories, I found that examining Jack’s arc revealed much about how to create, and how not to treat, one’s character.
Let’s jump in!
Tip manufactures a pumpkinhead
The Land of Oz is curious in that it doesn’t concern Dorothy, the Wizard of Oz, or even the Cowardly Lion. While the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman eventually feature prominently in the adventure, the tale doesn’t begin with them. Rather, we are introduced to Tip, a little boy under the care of a mean ol’ witch, Mombi.
Wanting to play a trick on Mombi, Tip carves a pumpkin, a “pumpkin-jack” as he calls it, then builds a spindly wooden body for the head. He puts clothes on the man, then proclaims:
“I must give him a name! So good a man as this must surely have a name. I believe I will name the fellow ‘Jack Pumpkinhead!'”
His creation finished, Tip waits until Mombi leaves the farm for business. Tip stands Jack Pumpkinhead near the road so as to scare Mombi on her way home.
Mombi, however, is not fooled, and decides to pull one over on Tip. She has just returned from a wizard’s home, where she traded goods for the Powder of Life. Wanting to see if the powder works, she sprinkles it on Jack, bringing him to life! Jack says a few words, testing his voice, then analyzes his situation:
“For although I feel that I know a tremendous lot, I am not yet aware of how much there is in the world to find out about. It will take me a little time to discover whether I am very wise or very foolish.”
Mombi secures Jack in the stable, then devises a punishment for Tip for his foolishness. She decides to turn him into a marble statue for trying to trick her, but her potion needs to cool before the transformation can take place. Mombi goes to bed, and Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead run away in the middle of the night.
And with that, Baum shows us what’s needed for a character to live: a body, a voice, a purpose, a name. These are the kind of stories I like. This character is what hooked me on this 113-year-old tale.
Jack learns to be alive
While on the road, Jack comes to grips with what it means to be alive. And he quickly realizes that he and humans are quite different:
“I don’t seem to be made the same way you are,” Jack said.
“I know you are not,” returned Tip; “for I made you.”
“Oh! Did you?” asked Jack.
“Certainly. And put you together. And carved your eyes and nose and ears and mouth,” Tip said proudly. “And dressed you.”
Jack looked at his body and limbs critically.
“It strikes me you made a very good job of it,” he remarked.
“Just so-so,” replied Tip, modestly; for he began to see certain defects in the construction of his man. “If I’d known we were going to travel together I might have been a little more particular.”
“Why, then,” said the Pumpkinhead, in a tone that expressed surprise, “you must be my creator–my parent–my father!”
“Or your inventor,” replied the boy with a laugh. “Yes, my son; I really believe I am!”
“Then I owe you obedience,” continued the man, “and you own me–support.”
While Jack recognizes that he is a creation, Tip seems not to understand the implications of creating life. Tip decides to go to the Emerald City, and along the way, teaches Jack how to be alive.
He tells Jack to sit and rest his joints, but when Jack tries, “he came clattering to the ground with such a crash that Tip feared he was entirely ruined.”
Tip decides to make a sawhorse for Jack to ride on. He creates a reasonable facsimile of a horse, then bemoans “And of course it can’t ever be alive, because it is made of wood.”
Jack points out, “So am I,” and Tip has some inkling that Jack really is alive. Tip uses the magic powder on the sawhorse. To make the magic work, Tip begins by saying the magic words:
“What’s that, dear father?” inquired Jack.
“It means you must keep quiet!” replied the boy, provoked at being interrupted at so important a moment.
“How fast I am learning!” remarked the Pumpkinhead, with his eternal smile.
It’s scenes like this that make Jack an enduring personality. He’s overall portrayed as very stupid, yet he knows more than he thinks he knows, and often inadvertently says profound things.
While Tip is often quick to make snide comments about Jack’s lack of intelligence (“I think I understand,” Jack once said after a conversation about ears, Tip replied, “If you do, you’re a wonder. But there’s no harm in thinking you understand”), the story frequently reveals that those around Jack are just as stupid.
There’s a wonderful scene when the party arrives in the Emerald City and is taken to his Majesty, the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow, having received his diploma at the end of the first story, is supposed to be the one with brains. Jack, after all, has no brains inside his head. Yet the Scarecrow quickly proves that his intelligence is illusory:
The King was the first to speak. After regarding Jack for some minutes he said, in a tone of wonder:
“Where on earth did you come from, and how do you happen to be alive?”
“I beg your Majesty’s pardon,” returned the Pumpkinhead; “but I do not understand you.”
“What don’t you understand?” asked the Scarecrow.
“Why, I don’t understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner.”
“Ah, to be sure!” exclaimed the Scarecrow. “I myself speak the language of the Munchkins, which is also the language of the Emerald City. But you, I suppose, speak the language of the Pumpkinheads?”
“Exactly so, your Majesty,” replied the other, bowing; “so it will be impossible for us to understand one another.”
“That is unfortunate, certainly,” said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. “We must have an interpreter.”
The two go back and forth for some time, “failing” to “understand” the other’s language, even though they are both speaking English. Through the intentional interpretation errors of a child, Jack inadvertently insults the King. The King then rudely condemns Jack for daring to be alive, and Jack, having no proper guide in Tip, sadly agrees with the assessment:
“This should be a warning to you never to think,” returned the Scarecrow, severely. “For unless one can think wisely it is better to remain a dummy–which you most certainly are.”
“I am!–I surely am!” agreed the Pumpkinhead.
“It seems to me,” continued the Scarecrow, more mildly, “that your manufacturer spoiled some good pies to create an indifferent man.”
“I assure your Majesty that I did not ask to be created,” answered Jack.
It’s at this point in the story that the insults on Jack’s intelligence, and his very being, his very existence, begin to pile up. Jack has the disposition of a carefree, optimistic, mentally-challenged child. And rather than celebrate his fragile, miraculous existence, those around him tear him down and afford him no respect.
And scenes like the previous make me ponder whether the author, Baum, understands what he’s created.
Jack discovers he’s mortal
From here, the story takes a dark turn. The Emerald City is overthrown by a usurper, the main characters are expelled, and they go on an adventure to find more friends and formulate a strategy to retake the city. Jack, meanwhile, realizes that unlike the Scarecrow, his life will not last forever.
While the group is in the castle, trying to escape, Jack remarks:
“Should I remain here a prisoner for any length of time,” protested Jack, “I’m liable to spoil.”
“Ah! then you would not be fit to associate with,” returned the Scarecrow. “The matter is more serious than I suspected.”
“You,” said the Pumpkinhead, gloomily, “are liable to live for many years. My life is necessarily short. So I must take advantage of the few days that remain to me.”
Whereas the Scarecrow is composed of dried straw and wood, Jack’s head was created with a fresh pumpkin, and pumpkins don’t last forever. The introduction of this element adds a lot of intrigue to the story, and raises the stakes considerably. If Jack really wants to be alive, he must also accept that all living things eventually die. Life is lived with this ever-present reality hanging over us all.
Throughout the journey, Jack has many brushes with death. Once, after falling, his head dislodges and falls into the water. “Dear me!” Jack said. “What a dreadful experience! I wonder if water is liable to spoil pumpkins? If water spoils pumpkins, then my days are numbered.”
Death permeates Jack’s every conversation. “I am in constant terror of the day when I shall spoil,” he says to the Tin Woodman.
Those around Jack constantly make light of his mortality. The Tin Woodman responds to Jack’s fear by saying, “Do not, I beg you, dampen today’s sun with the showers of tomorrow. For before your head has time to spoil you can have it canned, and in that way it may be preserved indefinitely.”
The irony of all this is that the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are both themselves creatures with unnatural bodies, yet they fancy themselves higher lifeforms than Jack, precisely because they contain no living flesh.
Yet isn’t Jack, with at least the most important part of his body made of living material, more alive than they?
All this discussion of Jack could easily be enhanced, had I the space, by referencing the numerous other creatures Tip brings to live, such as the wooden Saw-Horse, and an amalgamation of furniture called a Thing, or Gump. The Scarecrow even has a near-death experience when his stuffing is removed. His friends bail him out of that jam by stuffing him with money.
Toward the end of the book, it’s revealed that Tip is not a boy, but in fact Princes Ozma, heir to the throne. Old Mombi transformed Ozma into a boy when she was little to hide her. The witch transforms her back into a girl, to which Ozma’s first words are:
“I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know; only–only–”
“Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.
Somebody better versed in queer and gender theories than I could probably make much of the (unintentional?) transgender implications of this.
The end of Jack, barely a footnote
Ozma, formerly Tip, and her friends take back the kingdom, and the Queen begins her rule.
The Gump, a monstrosity constructed of furniture and a stag mount, makes a most unusual request:
“Please take me to pieces. I did not wish to be brought to life, and I am greatly ashamed of my conglomerate personality. Once I was a monarch of the forest, as my antlers fully prove; but now, in my present upholstered condition of servitude, I am compelled to fly through the air–my legs being of no use to me whatever. Therefore I beg to be dispersed.”
So Ozma ordered the Gump taken apart.
The Gump is more intimately aware of the wrongness of his existence than Jack is. Ozma, though, only partially complies with Gump’s request. She takes him apart, but puts the mount back on the wall, where the head “continued to talk whenever it took a notion to so.”
Jack’s fate is given scant attention, and we have no parting words from Jack or his creator:
Jack Pumpkinhead remained with Ozma to the end of his days; and he did not spoil as soon as he had feared, although he always remained as stupid as ever. The Woggle-Bug tried to teach him several arts and sciences; but Jack was so poor a student that any attempt to educate him was soon abandoned.
Having read that the first time, I was incensed. Baum had been building a powerful case for hundreds of pages about the aliveness and being of Jack, yet in the end, treated this character with disposable contempt. All of Jack’s friends, from Tip to the Scarecrow to the Tin Woodman, never seemed to grasp the significance of Jack’s life, and Tip seemed to take little responsibility for his role as creator, as father, of Jack.
While I’m not suggesting Jack should’ve lived forever–the rotting pumpkin for a head was indeed a problem–I would’ve liked the character to be treated with a little more care, a little more dignity.
I also didn’t have a problem with Jack’s lack of intelligence, but I did have a problem with his companions constantly knocking him for it. In today’s parlance, it’s easy to see how Jack was bullied for his stupidity. Yet Jack is never vindicated, even though a strong case can be made that all other characters, especially the fabled intelligent Scarecrow, are just as, if not more, foolish than Jack.
However, I have newfound anticipation for the character’s future. Apparently he returns in four more Oz books: The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, and the final Oz book, The Runaway in Oz.
How the character comes to grips with his mortality, and how those around him view him, remains to be seen. Despite the character’s unfortunate demise at the hands of Baum, and his terrible treatment by those around him, Jack Pumpkinhead is a stellar example of the power of life, whatever form it takes.