Review: The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum

A few days ago, my friend Kae-Leah, who I mentioned in my "Mermaid Princesses" post, sent me a recommendation and link to read The Sea Fairies by L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I was hesitant at first because it didn't sound like a story about mermaids from the title, and older books can be unnecessarily wordy. To my surprise, it was entirely about mermaids, and it was just the right length. I couldn't help but wonder as I read it why no one has turned this book into a movie yet.

The Sea Fairies, written in 1911, explores the adventures of a little girl named Trot and her friend, Cap'n Bill, a sea captain entrusted by her mother to babysit her. The two main characters have a fantastic relationship that is rarely explored in the media. Cap'n Bill does not act like an authoritative figure to Trot. Instead, he listens to her and tells her everything she wants to know about the sea to the best of his knowledge. She trusts him without thinking he is omniscient. When he tells her the siren-like myths about mermaids in which they drown everyone who comes into contact with them, she is doubtful. She is convinced if everyone who saw a mermaid was killed, would be no stories about them at all. Meanwhile, deep in the sea, the mermaids were listening to her conversation. They come to the surface to invite her to visit their world so they can prove that they are not monstrous sirens like the in tall tales Cap'n Bill has heard.

In most stories where a child visits a magical world they so in secret, like in Peter Pan. Their parents or guardians never find out or often don't believe them. In The Sea Fairies, Cap'n Bill insists on accompanying Trot and the mermaids into the sea because he takes his duty to watch her very seriously. According to Cap'n Bill, being drowned would still be preferable to facing Trot's mother if something were to happen to her. This detail made perfect sense. Why would a responsible adult entrusted with a child's safety allow the child to run off to a potentially dangerous world by herself?

For most of the story, Trot and Cap'n Bill are escorted by the mermaid princess, Clia, and the mermaid queen, Aquareine. In some ways, this seems almost too convenient for Trot. One day, she's dreaming about mermaids and wondering what they're like, and the next, she is an honored guest of the highest-ranking royal mermaids. Clearly, mermaid society is very different from human society. Mermaid princesses do not need ambassadors to represent them, and queens must clear their good name on their own instead of asking servants to do it for them. It is a truly benevolent matriarchy. Princess Clia and Queen Aquareine wanted to show Trot and Cap'n Bill the best their kingdom had to offer so that they would never suspect that they were wicked sirens again.

The descriptions of the underwater kingdom in this book were also quite lovely, They reminded me of some of the visuals in the mermaid-themed Barbie movies. The palace was described to have mother of pearl and jewels encrusted into all of the architecture, a glass roof that allowed Trot to see the ocean above her from inside her room, and comfortable soft cushion seats. If these descriptions were incorporated into a feature film today, they would be even more stunning. Baum described the mermaids in a very traditional way, with beautiful faces, long flowing hair, and tails that sparkle with pink, green, and blue scales.

There was one additional detail he added of each mermaid using "fairy magic" to create a tiny pocket of air all around them so that they stay warm and dry at all times and nothing they touch gets decayed by the rough salt water. This answers a lot of questions people like to ask about mermaids such as how all of their possessions stay in pristine condition while underwater. They particularly like to give this criticism about Disney's The Little Mermaid when they see all of Ariel's human treasures preserved perfectly in her grotto, including a book and a painting. I thought this was a terrific detail because it also allows mermaids to wear pretty dresses and have curly hair or lighter-colored hair that would not be affected by the water.

Even though The Sea Fairies is chock full of imagination and whimsical imagery, it still contains a very wicked villain. Zog, the demon-like sorcerer, is mentioned toward the middle of the book but does not show up until near the end. This keeps the novel from getting too dark since he is quite terrifying. Rumored to be the most wicked sorcerer to have ever lived in the sea, Zog lures Trot, Cap'n Bill, Princess Clia, and Queen Aquareine into his lair using the tentacle-like "sea devils." He makes his intentions to have everyone suffer before ultimately killing them very clear, and our heroes do not doubt these intentions for a moment. In spite of the danger, the mermaids are quite confident in their ability to keep everyone safe.

Trot never gets scared no matter what happens because she trusts so much in Cap'n Bill and the mermaid princess and queen to protect her. This is another reason I thought she was a terrific protagonist. Unlike the sheepish Dorothy, who goes to Oz alone and wishes for nothing more than to find a way home, Trot is excited by the prospect of adventure and danger because she knows that the adults will always look out for her. This is very refreshing when there are so many stories about children trying to defy authority. Though Trot is an inquisitive girl, she also knows when to do as she is told.

The Sea Fairies has quickly become one of my favorite books of all time. Since it has been around for over a hundred years, I'm very surprised it does not get more recognition among mermaid fans. It has all the makings of a classic children's movie--a smart, brave, and responsible little girl, a sea captain with a peg leg, a mermaid royalty, and a wicked and powerful villain. One day, I would love to see the magic of this story captured on the big screen.


What a wonderful recap of a story I too have never read but have been aware of. Baum definitely was a talented author.
Cupcakedoll said…
This was one of my favorite Baum books back when I read them all. My top was "Tik-tok of Oz" which featured the fairies of different kinds of light, and a longer-than-usual appearance of Polychrome who was always my favorite character. Of course my fondness for the Oz books was partly because of the gorgeous art nouveau illustrations and Ozma's crown with the giant flowers on the sides.
Jill Stengl said…
Ooh, I must read this! It sounds lovely. I loved the Oz books when I was little. :-)

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