Monday, October 7, 2013

Pumpkinification VII: Three Great Pumpkinheads

To call someone a pumpkin-head is of course to say that he is a fool or dunce; to imply that his head is as large or as empty as the garden gourd. But there have been three great pumpkin-headed figures that, if all foolish in their own way, have proved to be lovable and popular in literature and popular culture, and they all seem to be in an ancestral line.

"The grandfather of all [pumpkin-heads] in fiction is Feathertop, published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1852. Feathertop is a scarecrow constructed by the witch Mother Rigby, who animates him by having him puff on a pipe fired by a coal supplied by her imp, Dickon. This not only gives him life but makes him appear human to those that see him: the harder he puffs the more real he appears, and when he slacks off the straw begins to appear. Mother Rigby sends him into the world, where his handsome illusory appearance makes him prosper, and he falls in love with a beautiful girl and almost marries her.
But a chance glance at a mirror shows Feathertop in his true form, and the distraught scarecrow hurries back to Mother Rigby, choosing to throw away his pipe rather than live as the sham he has been revealed to be. The witch sadly gathers up his remains, remarking that many fine successful men of the world are made up of worse remnants than her poor creation, whose moment of love made him see his shabby existence too clearly.*"
Feathertop has proved to be a compelling tale through the years, and has been adapted into a play and at least five movies (three silent, one TV special, and an animated film). Here is a rare picture from the 1928 version, Puritan Passions:
Jack Pumpkinhead was the next great pumpkin-head; he appeared in 1904, in L. Frank Baum's The Marvelous Land of Oz, his first sequel to The Wizard of Oz. He was put together with a jointed wooden body and a large pumpkin head and dressed in old clothes by the boy Tip to scare the witch Mombi.
Instead of being frightened, Mombi tests a magical powder on Jack and brings him to life. Deciding she can use the simple pumpkin-head to do all the work the troublesome boy does for her, she declares she will destroy Tip by turning him into a statue. Tip and his creation flee, starting an adventure that leads to a surprising end and launches Jack Pumpkinhead on a career as one of most striking characters in all the Oz books.
Because of his rather flimsy construction, he rides around on the Sawhorse (another creation of Tip's, using the Powder of Life) to save wear and tear of his joints, and the two are constant companions. He is not a very bright fellow (his intelligence depends on the freshness of his pumpkin and the number of seeds inside), but his very simplicity often allows him to make observations that more complicated intelligences may miss. Because of the perishable nature of his head, he has taken to farming a large pumpkin patch for replacements, and has a new one carved periodically. He lives in his own pumpkin-shaped house in the Winkie Country.
Jack had to wait until 1929 to get his own book in the series, written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, Baum's literary successor:
He has appeared in at least three "sequels" to the movie The Wizard of Oz, and has been drawn by many artists of Oz; most lately by Scottie Young for Marvel's continuing adaptation of Baum's original Famous Fourteen:
The third in the ancestral line is Mervyn Pumpkinhead, first introduced in 1989 in Issue #5 of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. He works for Morpheus, the Sandman, the Lord of the Dreaming, as a sort of janitor and handyman, responsible for clearing away old stories and dreams and putting up new ones.
He has a generally jaded, acerbic personality, complaining and cracking wise about his boss behind his back, and in fact thinks of himself as "some pumpkin" (as the old phrase for someone convinced of his own importance has it); he is usually deflated by those wiser and more powerful than he.
Still, he is extremely loyal, taking up arms to protect the Dreaming against the Furies, though he is destroyed in the battle. He is re-created by the new Dream, however, and "Merv" continues on with his cockiness unabated.
Mervyn Pumpkinhead appears in an earlier incarnation during Shakespearean times as Merrow Turniphead, in keeping with the earlier English tradition of "turnip-ghost" lanterns as precedents to the American jack o'lanterns:
Mervyn has appeared a few times since The Sandman saga concluded, once in his own spin-off Mervyn Pumpkinhead: Agent of DREAM (2000).
Whether Merv will appear in the prequel story of Morpheus (The Sandman: Overture) soon to start publishing this month, remains to be seen. **UPDATE!** Vertigo's website confirms Merv returns!

*quoted from my own post on Scarecrows.

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