James Thurber’s The Wonderful O, first published 60 years ago and now reissued in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with an introduction by Ransom Riggs, is a humorous fairytale about a couple of sailors who team up to hunt for treasure. One of them, Black, hates the letter O and makes an attempt to obliterate it from the alphabet. The concept is ridiculous—of course you can’t get rid of a letter—and so the story is hilarious, but Thurber uses humor to explore what becomes of a society when something we use to communicate—to understand and to be understood—is taken away.
Black meets Littlejack in a tavern on a stormy night. “You look like a man with a map,” says Black. I was reading out loud to my daughters, and laughed at Black’s observation. What does a man with a map look like?
“I am a man with a map,” Littlejack tells him, and he continues: “It is a map of a far and lonely island, rich with jewels, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies. I seek a man with a ship.”
“I am a man with a ship,” says Black.
Though the story begins, literally, on a dark and stormy night, and the two characters we meet are villains, their exchange is deliciously absurd. After I read Black and Littlejack’s first meeting to Hadley and Harper, “You look like a man with a map” quickly became an inside joke for us.
Black looks at the map and tells Littlejack there’s nothing on it that indicates where the treasure is. After a quick but confusing conversation, Littlejack decides the map is safer if it’s in half, and proceeds to tear it in two with his sword.
“What’s he thinking?” my oldest daughter, Hadley, exclaimed. “How is that going to help?”
If you’re going to write for kids, and if you’re going to take them to dark and confusing places, you have to establish trust right away. Humor, especially boisterous humor, is a good way to do that. In only three pages, Thurber hooked my kids with the ease of spreading butter on corn during a July picnic.
The humor continues when Black shows Littlejack his ship and Littlejack doesn’t know how to pronounce its name, Aeiu. When Black says it for him, Littlejack calls it a “weird, uncanny name”: “It sounds a little like a night bird screaming.” We laughed again at the description, and Hadley and I continued to laugh when Black explained that the only vowel he won’t use is O because of an unfortunate incident having to do with a porthole and Black’s mother. She somehow got stuck in it, and Black and his crewmates couldn’t pull her into the ship, so instead, they shoved her out to sea. It was a wicked act, but also hard to take seriously—as unbelievable as trying to get rid of the letter O—and Hadley and I were holding our stomachs from laughing at this nonsense.
However, Harper, my youngest daughter, decided something else. “So, Black’s like Voldemort,” she said quietly, and Hadley and I stopped laughing.
Harper is a careful reader. She makes deft connections, not only between characters in books but also between these literary creations and people in the world, including herself. She was reading the Harry Potter series during last year’s presidential election, and while Voldemort would be disgusted that he helped a Muggle, he walked my daughter through the behavior she saw that baffled and upset her. When Harper learned about Voldemort’s childhood and the terrible demise of his mother, it wasn’t that she thought Voldemort wasn’t evil anymore, or that his actions were justified; rather, she understood where he was coming from. Because of Voldemort, Harper became curious about what it was that happened in the candidates’ lives that made them see the world the way they do.
So it was with Black. Harper didn’t agree with his actions, nor did she think it sane to wipe out a letter from the alphabet, but she understood why Black never wanted to hear its sound again.
When Black and Littlejack arrive at the island of Ooroo (Black can’t stand the name), they tell the people living there that they’ve come for jewels. The people reply that except for “the blue of the water, and the pink of our maidens’ cheeks and lips, and the green of our fields,” no jewels are on the island of Ooroo.
These kinds of jewels are of no use to Black and Littlejack, so they tear the island apart looking for rubies and sapphires. After a long day of destroying everything on Ooroo, the two men meet at a pub, drink rum, and realize everything they’ve found has an “o” in it. This makes Black angry. He throws his glass of rum at the clock on the wall and issues an edict: “All words in books or signs with an “o” in them shall have the o erased or painted out.”
“What a brat,” Hadley said, and we all agreed with this observation.
Everything with an O in it becomes something else. “Little Goody Two Shoes lost her O’s and so did Goldilocks, and the former became a whisper, and the later sounded like a key jiggled in a lock.” Parents stopped reading to their children because nobody understood the story without the O’s. Reading was lost, but “the search for precious jewels went on”: a sad irony, because it is in reading that the most precious jewels are found.
The Wonderful O continues to be humorous throughout, and the sentences are rhythmic and fun to read out loud. At times, if it weren’t in paragraph form, I’d think I was reading poetry. However, at its heart the tale evokes the chaos, panic, and frustration that occurs when someone makes a rule that, as Riggs writes in his introduction, “enforce[s] ignorance and punishes curiosity.”
The people of Ooroo (which is now “R”) meet secretly in the woods: “Something must be done at once, or we shall never know what we are saying.” Later, a father who is fed up with Black’s rule, yells out, “You are still my spouse and not my spuse, and this is my house and not my huse, and I make boats, not bats, and I wear coats, not cats.” The loss of one letter brings with it a loss of definition; a loss of identity.
As the tale proceeds, we see that the search for jewels is just a pretext. What really drives Black (and his loathing for O) is the desire to eliminate dealing with other people. At one point, he says, “I would that I could banish body; then I’d get rid of everybody. No more anatomy, and no more morphology, physiognomy, or physiology, or people or even persons. I think about it often in the night. Body is blood and bones and other O’s, organs, torso, abdomen, and toes.” Here is Black’s true dilemma: bodies, and all that come with them, are too messy, too complex, too heartbreaking to deal with.
In the introduction, Riggs recalls that his grandmother was the one who introduced him to Thurber’s story. She read it to him at bedtime, and he remembers loving the wordplay and listening intently as people fumbled their way, speaking and living in a world without O. He also remembers that there were times (while they read) when his grandmother would sigh or shake her head as though frustrated or upset. Only much later did he realize that “this is a fairy tale in the classic tradition: a dire warning about dark forces in the world and the catastrophic consequences that can result from running afoul of them.” And with this recognition of The Wonderful O ’s duality, Riggs tells us, he also understood his grandmother better. “My grandmother was a stern and dignified lady. . . . [H]er jokes were so dry and delivered with such flatness that they were camouflaged, and you could catch them only if you were really smart and really listening. The inverse was true of Thurber; most people assumed he was always joking, and he was often praised as a humorist but dismissed as unserious in the same breath.”
This, then, is what I think reading ought to do: help us understand each other better, even villains. Hadley and I laughed so easily at Black because we didn’t take him seriously, and this was quite similar to my reaction to much of the presidential election. I can remember chuckling and saying to my husband last summer, “This can’t possibly be real.” Harper, though, remembered another villain and reminded us of the destruction he accomplished, and Hadley and I quickly simmered down, sat up, and paid attention.
Despite Black’s efforts, the people of Ooroo bring O back. They do it by speaking the names of characters in beloved stories: Romeo, Robin Hood, Shylock, and Captain Hook. Black scoffs at their efforts; these characters, he says, are mere creatures of fantasy, made of ink, and “ink can be destroyed . . . books can be burned.”
“They have a way of rising out of ashes,” says a fellow named Andreus, and the islanders continue to speak the names of characters they love, both good and bad; the people want their O back, and all it holds: hope, sorrow, love, and brokenness.
“These wearers of the O, methinks, are indestructible,” Littlejack cries. He’s right. Letters and the stories they can become are powerful; willing readers of these stories become warriors. Harper’s asked before that we re-read certain passages of books where a villain enters the scene, and I worry that studying a villain the way she does will scare her, but she tells me, “I need to be able to see the evil.” I think she wants to see it not only so she can understand it but also so she can fight back, like the people of Ooroo.