Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Wonderful O, by James Thurber


A fun short story by humorist James Thurber, though nowhere near as clever or delightful as the  fanciful The 13 Clocks.

Two pirates, Littlejack and Black, plus their minions, set off on a treasure hunt that takes them to the island of Ooroo. The inhabitants don't know anything about any treasure, so the pirates and minions scour the island, wreaking havoc and destroying anything that gets in their path. Along the way, the pirate Black, who has an unaccountable loathing for the letter 'O', tries to eradicate it from the island. He has it removed from all the books, and soon starts ordering the destruction of any object with 'O' in its name. 'O' activities are outlawed, and a nitpicky lawyer is tasked with working out the details of the legislation (so, for example, 'cows' are outlawed unless they are in groups, thereby becoming 'cattle').

Things get worse and worse on the island. Communication is difficult ('shoe' has become 'she', etc.), and the islanders are at their wits' end. With the help of a local legend, they finally figure out how to rid themselves of the oppressors and, in the process, discover the real treasure (which, surprise surprise, contains the letter 'O').

I suspect this was intended as something of an allegory, but I'm darned if I know what it's an allegory for. The story has a linguistic focus, so Thurber could be decrying the dangers of censorship. Then again, there is political oppression, and it was written in the 1950's, so we could be dealing with an anti-Commie book.

Regardless of the allegorical intent (if any), it's a fun story, though it would have been more so if Thurber had lopped a good, oh, 30 pages off of it (my copy is 72 pages long). The trouble is, Thurber gets carried away listing things with (or without) 'O's in their names.
[H]e ordered his crew to get rid of roses and phlox in the gardens of the island, and oleanders and moonflowers and morning-glories, and cosmos and coxcomb and columbine, and all the rest with O's. 
'But my livelihood is violets and hollyhocks and marigold,' a gardener complained. 
'Lilies are nice for livelihood,' said Hyde [the lawyer], 'and more alliterative.'
It just goes on and on like that ad nauseam. Also, the final resolution is a little nutty and feels disconnected from the rest of the story. I enjoyed the wordplay and the idea, but the end result drags and doesn't really go anywhere and the 'moral' feels forced. I don't know if kids would like it or not--I suspect not, since many of the words border on obscure and would be unfamiliar to young readers. And, after all, lists and lists of words can only entertain you for so long.

Basically, for the same general idea in about 3 minutes--without the wordplay--see the song 'One Tin Soldier'.

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