Thompson dedicated the book to her sister Dorothy Thompson Curtis.
Mudge is a land of deserts and blue-bearded nomads — one of the poorest, barrenest, remotest corners of the Munchkin Country. Mustafa, ruler of Mudge, is obsessed with lions; he has collected all 9,999½ lions of Mudge into his menagerie, yet still demands more. When he learns of the Cowardly Lion, Mustafa feels compelled to add that famous big cat to his collection.
A bit of accidental magic brings two unwilling and unwelcome visitors to Mudge: a circus clown named Notta Bit More, and 7-year-old Bobby Downs, an orphan from Stumptown, U.S.A. Unfamiliar with circuses or clowns, the Mudgers think Notta is a wizard; Mustafa orders the two to capture and bring the Cowardly Lion to Mudge, on pain of magic penalties.
In the Emerald City, the Cowardly Lion is in a funk; he thinks the courage given to him by the Wizard of Oz has "worn off." The imaginative but heartless Patchwork Girl suggests that the Cowardly Lion can regain his courage by eating a brave man — and the Lion is desperate enough to give the idea a try. He slinks away from the city, with mayhem on his mind.
So the plot is set in motion: two cowardly lion hunters hunt a cowardly lion, who is on a hunt of his own. The Cowardly Lion searches for a victim, but instead meets enthusiastic admirers. He finds Notta and Bob. The trio then encounter bird people on the Skyle ("sky isle") of Un; they make a new friend in Nickadoodle the Snorer (Nick), a bird with a telephone beak. They fly about in a Flyaboutabus, and confront the bottled city of Preservatory, where people and even pets are kept in jars.
In the story's climax, Crunch, a magically-animated stone giant, carries the Cowardly Lion to Mudge while Notta, Bob, and Nick head to the Emerald City for help. Princess Ozma, Glinda, Dorothy, the Wizard, and other friends are spirited to Mudge. There, Crunch uses the one incantation he knows to petrify all of Mustafa's lions, including the Cowardly one. Glinda and the Wizard return the favor, sending Crunch back to his inanimate state. They deprive Mustafa of his magic ring, but have trouble restoring the Cowardly Lion to life. As a stone statue, he is transported home to the Emerald City, where the tears of Dorothy and other friends prove to have a special magic of their own; the Lion is flesh and blood once again.
Mustafa makes a fortune selling his stone lions to parks and public buildings.
The villain's name is a pun: Mustafa "must have a" lion.
Thompson makes it plain that her Mudgers are modeled on Arabs; as she puts it, "if it were not for their bright blue whiskers, you would take them for Arabs, as they wear sweeping white robes and turbans to protect themselves from the heat and desert sands." (Chapter 1) Her portrayal of Mudge society is unflattering; they used to raid their neighbors so aggressively that Glinda and Ozma have threatened to behead any Mudgers who cross the border. Deprived of this outlet, the Mudgers steal from and quarrel with each other.
Baum also gave negative portraits of Arabs, in John Dough and the Cherub and The Woggle-Bug Book. Thompson created more Arab-like figures, like the people of Rash in The Hungry Tiger of Oz. Her character Jinnicky the Red Jinn is an Arabian inspiration in a less negative context.
The issue of death in Oz is even more confused in this book than elsewhere in the Oz corpus. Formally, Thompson maintains the view that there is no death in Oz. At one extreme, a lion that has been cut in two remains alive in its separate halves. (This accounts for the ½ lion in Mustafa's collection. Mercifully, the Wizard re-unites the two halves at the close of the book.) At the other extreme, the book features the predation of wild animals. In Chapter 5, Notta and Bob spend a night in a forest, and as they sleep a fairy protects them from becoming the "dinners" of "bears and other beasts." The Featherheads of the Skyle of Un "fish" in the sky for birds to eat.
As noted above, the Mudgers face a threat of beheading if they leave their country. Would a beheaded Mudger still remain alive in two pieces, like the half-lions? The next book in the series, Grampa in Oz, indicates yes.
|Ruth Plumly Thompson's Oz books|