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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Companions One Too Many?

I’ve had an idea bouncing around the old noggin recently and I wanted to try ricocheting it off your heads for a while to see where it leads.

Recently I’ve been reading a fair number of fantasy and sci-fi (mostly sci-fi, curiously enough) quest novels that follow in the Wizard of Oz rather than Alice in Wonderland vein.  You can tell the difference because in an Alice in Wonderland quest novel the protagonist is almost always on his or her own (Coraline‘s a good example of this) with maybe a random helper companion that flits in and out of the action. Wizard of Oz quest novels consist of picking up companions, whether willingly or unwillingly, over the course of the story’s plot.

After reading two Oz-like books in a row, I started to notice a strange pattern.  Is it just me, or do most Oz-like stories have the same number and type of companions in a row?  Here’s what I mean.  In a fantasy novel your hero acquires three different types of fellows:

1. The Cowardly Lion type – This is a large, potentially ferocious beast of some sort that turns out to be just the sweetest thing and allows the hero to ride him/her/it at some point.  Ell the Wyvern in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente would count.  So too would Protein the woolly mammoth in Greg Van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World.  They’re usually big critters with hearts of gold.  Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for the nice people they befriend.  It’s a thing.

2.  The Tin Woodsman type -The heartless companion who grows a heart.  In Zita the Spacegirl that would be One, the battle orb who starts out prickly.  In The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi that would be Muthr, the robot parent companion to the heroine Eva Nine.  And in The Boy at the End of the World it’s Click, the robot parent companion to the hero Fisher and . . . huh.  All robots.  Whodathunkit?

3.  The Scarecrow type – The native with the brains.  I’m stretching a bit here, but that’s generally the type of character you get in these books.  So if we go back over some of the books I’ve just mentioned it would be Saturday in Valente’s book, Zapper in Van Eekhout’s, Rovender Kitt in DiTerlizzi’s, etc.

Obviously these aren’t hard and fast, but the consistency is intriguing to me.  Why do authors again and again turn to these types?  Sometimes it’s because the books are a purposeful homage to Baum’s classic (as with DiTerlizzi). Yet they’re not all that way.  The number three for companions is interesting as well.  Even the movie Labyrinth outfitted Jennifer Connelly with only three companions and her dog.  Mute pet companions of the Toto variety don’t really weigh into all this, being fairly superfluous to their stories.

Of the books I’ve read recently, only Zita the Spacegirl broke this magic number three by giving its heroine no less than five stalwart companions, not even counting the friend she’s questing to save.  Do graphic novels allow for greater numbers because the visual edge allows them to tell a story more quickly and succinctly than prose?

What do you think?  Is this a consistent trend or am I just detecting repetition where there is nothing to detect?  After all there are books like the Prydain series that throw this theory to the wolves (unless, of course, you consider Gurgi the Scarecrow and Llyan the Cowardly Lion and . . . okay, I’ll stop now).

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I’m jealous of this post — I’ve been cooking up a piece on this very same topic (using Lloyd Alexander, no less), and you went and wrote it so much more eloquently than I ever could! In regards to your “Why three?” question, I wonder whether it’s less about the supporting cast and more about the protagonist. In the scenarios you mention, the traveling companions all function as different projections/aspects of the protagonist’s own personality. To break a character into only two parts leads to an overly-simplistic good/bad binary. Four creates the same problem because then you just have two teams of two. Three, however, allows for sort of endless interplay between competing values. Plus, I’m pretty convinced that with a little work, every idea in the universe can be distilled into three equal parts — if it’s good enough for the Trinity, it’s probably good enough for Dorothy.

  2. First of all, Jonathan, that last sentence probably says it all:) But taking off on it, isn’t there something very old and powerful about the number three? There are lots of sets of threes in fairy tales, myths, and such. So I wonder about Baum and then those writing homages to his stories are picking up on this by having three companions. (And tying into that fairy tale number I can thing of a number of recent books with three siblings — The Emerald Atlas, The Kneebone Boy, etc.)

    Secondly, and this isn’t about your question, but while Wizard of Oz is certainly a quest novel, I’d hardly term Alice in Wonderland one. In fact, it is one of the points my students have just been making in writing blog posts comparing the two books. Alice simply wanders around sorta wanting to get to the garden, but mostly just goes here and there to see what will happen. It is this lack of urgency, of…er… plot..if you will that make it, I think, so hard to film and for anyone to follow-up on in a way that isn’t twee or creepy or otherwise not in keeping with the original.

  3. (I was tickled that you left out riding in huge, armored polar bears …) Michael Chabon’s Summerland breaks this bigtime by accumulating nine companions — but hey, nine is, bingo, three threes. I laughed out loud and scared the neighbor’s dog when I realized that’s where we were heading — and that Tolkien had chosen to go for the same number — but it makes sense in a book where baseball is the core image. In the final stages our heroes are only allowed to cross various kingdoms by playing the local baseball team, and it’s one of the sorrows of my literary life that they never took on the Rivendell Sluggers (I’m sure Aragorn would pitch, and Gimli would be — what else? — shortstop.)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Huh! Now I’m looking at Zita the Spacegirl again and . . . yup. Six companions. Three plus three. Well I’ll be damned. Jonathan, my post is so brief that I would greatly appreciate it if you did one of your own on the same topic. Seems to me that there’s much to be said for this. And I agree with Monica that your last sentence is gorgeous.

      And Monica I’d definitely agree that Alice is the anti-quest novel. But a lot of folks these days sort of combine the Alice formula (single person in strange land wandering about meeting odd folks) with the quest formula that I had to sort of rule it out as an option. There’s no formal term for fantasies where you pick up random companions that I know of, though my formal academic training in this area is lacking.

      Alternate titles for this piece: “Gimli was shortstop.” “If it’s good enough for the Trinity, it’s probably good enough for Dorothy.”

  4. Have you read Diana Wynne Jones’ “Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel”? This book goes into a lot of depth in short, travel guide-like passages about quests and heroes and the like. Very funny, but also, dead-on accurate at defining the genre.

  5. Colleen says:

    Symbolism aside, I think three is an easy enough number to keep track of. More than that and it becomes harder for the reader to differentiate the characters. Of course, how and when the companions are introduced makes a big difference.

    But even Tolkien, in LOTR, divided his characters up so that (for the most part) each thread dealt with four or fewer main characters at a time. And in the Hobbit you’re often dealing with the one or two Dwarves at a time or the group a collective instead of as 13 individuals.

  6. This topic is a delight for a certain breed of compulsive personalities. I keep lists of threes, fours, fives, etc., in literature and pop culture, but never went beyond to analyze.

    Now I’m wondering if there was something deliberate in having three Darling children in the Peter Pan stories and four Pensevie children in the Narnia stories?

    Why four in “Bremen Town Musicians” and “Ghostbusters”?

    Why called “Three Musketeers” when there technically are four? (I probably once knew and am just forgetting the answer to that one.)

    I think Jonathan is onto something with the Trinity: three Harry Potter kids, the big three at DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), Charlie’s Angels, Earth, Wind, and Fire…

    See what I mean about compulsive?

  7. Genevieve says:

    Gimli’s more the Cowardly Lion type, isn’t he? At first they think he’s dangerous, but he’s sweet, scared of everything, not too bright, and occasionally helpful.

    Legolas plays second base and is lightning-quick with a throw to first to tag the runner out. Boromir plays first and is the closing pitcher, but is annoyed that Aragorn always gets to lead off pitching. Whenever anyone else wants to pitch, Boromir says “It takes doughty MEN to throw a fastball.” Pippin stands in left field, miserably holding a glove while hoping no balls come near him, wishing he’d never joined this team.

  8. Genevieve says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean Gimli, I meant Gurgi.

  9. Interesting–and in Harry Potter, of course, there are the 3 main characters (although if you’re thinking of it as protagonist + sidekicks, then you just have 2, Hermione & Ron).
    What I’ve noticed, actually (although I’m sure I’m hardly the first), is how often there are 4 children–at least in realistic fiction.
    The four Pevensies (okay, that’s actually fantasy).
    The four Melendys
    The Penderwicks
    All-of a Kind family (until the baby is born)
    The Boxcar children.
    Shoot, I’m missing something.Others?

  10. D’oh, someone else mentioned Harry Potter already. Missed that.

  11. Going along with what Jonathan is saying, I’ve heard moms say you should have 2 or 4 kids in a group to play–never 3 because somebody gets left out. So 3 in a book would be a good, unstable number of companions. But if the protagonist were more of an equal to the companions, as in Harry Potter, it would make sense to have 3 total.

  12. Rachael says:

    Star Wars too, eh? Chewbacca, Han, robots.

  13. I’ve always considered Hagrid to be the Cowardly Lion-type of the Harry Potter series.

    There are quest stories with just two characters — they are called buddy comedies. Although, I’ve noticed that mystery stories often rely on having just one companion/sidekick for their protagonists (like Sammy Keyes).

  14. Later Oz books sometimes have more companions on the quest. For example, the second ends up with Tip, Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman (no S in the books), the Woggle-Bug, and the Gump. I suppose that’s six companions for our young hero, but it’s also a whole lot to keep track of. When there’s such a huge crowd, the central protagonist can get lost from view. So I endorse @Colleen’s theory that three is a workable number for storytellers.

  15. Erika, you pretty much brought up what I was going to say. I think of the Wizard of Oz folks not so much as three companions, but as another Group of Four. Edward Eager’s books usually have four children having magical adventures. I think perhaps E. Nesbit’s books, too — and the Pevensies, of course.

    I think it’s a practical matter. In a book, it’s hard to keep track of more than four main characters. I’m from a family of 13 siblings, and there are very few such in literature, with the exception of retellings of the 12 dancing princesses. It’s just too many to individualize. Books that do deal with large groups (even Tolkien) usually have to break them up and focus on a few at a time.

    I think it’s interesting that I’ve heard the Star Trek crew (any series) described as “The Magnificent Seven.” In a series, you can focus on individuals from the group in any one show. In a movie, or a book, not so much.

  16. I should also add that in LIFE it’s hard to see people in a group of 13 as individuals. Probably a big part of why I get a big thrill when I get noticed in any way. The 13 of us siblings all blend together in people’s minds. You don’t want that with your characters.

  17. There’s an “official” writing principle known as the Rule Of Three… You can read more about it here:

    Once you start looking for it, you see the Rule of Three everywhere. It’s a fun activity for kids to see if they can find examples – they’re great at it… Dara the Explorer anyone? :

  18. Mark Flowers says:

    Sondy, I’m sure you’ve heard it many times, but “cheaper by the baker’s dozen”?

    I agree with Erika, Sondy, and others that it is probably more a matter of pragmatics than mystical numbers. Smaller groups are easier to differentiate. And 4 definitely seems to be as common as three.

    That being said, The Three Musketeers and The Ghostbusters are interesting examples, since both are cases of groups of 3, with an extra one tacked on at some point. Possibly we can argue the same thing about the Penderwicks (with Batty being the late addition), and maybe the Pevensies (Edmund being detached from the group)? So maybe there’s something to this 3 thing after all . . .

    Also, don’t forget the Snickets.

  19. Mark Flowers says:

    The Snickets? Who are the Snickets?!? I of course meant the Baudelaires.

  20. The Grey Griffins are four companions (three guys and a girl — come to think of it, just like The Wizard of Oz).

    When Derek Benz and Jon Lewis stopped by the bookstore recently to graciously sign their newest book, they told me they deliberately chose four characters so they wouldn’t be compared to Harry Potter. They also said if they were doing it all over again, they’d go with only two characters. They said four main characters are a lot to juggle.

    But how many fantasy books have only TWO companions battling evil?

    Love this post, Betsy!

  21. There are so many amazing things being said in these comments — I will definitely be putting up something on The Scop! I think with all the books being bandied about, there are two TYPES of narratives emerging:

    1) Straightforward stories about a *group* of equally-balanced protagonists (plural). In those cases, the primary number rule seems to be that there shouldn’t be so many characters that the reader can’t keep track. I would include the Baudelares and Pevensies in this category. They are all meant to be seen as equally-signifigant characters in the plot.

    2) Metaphorical stories with a clear central hero who is supported by a cast of accomplices. In these cases, there is often an idea that the side characters each represent a flawed version of some virtue that the central character will learn from and then perfect within him or herself. Dorothy is such a perfect example of this — SHE is the one who exhibits brains, courage, and heart. Similarly, over the course of his story arc, Harry Potter becomes a brave fighter (courage), a master of spells (brains), and a loyal friend (heart) — traits that Hagrid, Hermione, and Ron all exemplify in flawed forms.

    A final thing that occurs to me is that this rule of Three can even work in situations with larger casts. Sondy’s mention of Star Trek is a prime example. Yes, there is a big crew, but the only characters with metaphorical significance are Spock, Kirk, and McCoy (as observed by Matt Bird:

    To my thinking, the most fun activity is finding out how many different configurations of three exist. I have to believe that heart/brain/courage is only one breakdown. Any others come to mind?

  22. FIVE girls in All-of-a-Kind Family: Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, Gertie. The baby, Charlie, makes it six.


    I think we could easily come up with lists of classic books about five children, four children, three children, two children, or one child. Not sure I see the point!

  24. Mark Flowers says:

    Jonathan – I think you’ve hit on a great paradigm for looking at these stories. Some thoughts:

    1) Star Trek is interesting because Kirk is clearly the central character, but he is still represents one of the values – courage to Spock’s brains and McCoy’s bones (I mean heart).

    2) Interesting that the Brains element seems to be going to a lot of female characters: Hermione, Annabelle from Percy Jackson, Eilonwy, maybe Princess Leia.

    3) I can’t think of any other configurations of three off hand, but in your Category One of non-metaphorical groups, you get a lot of different configurations of the group members’ talents

  25. I’m finding this a fascinating discussion, and not only because my book is one of the ones offered as an example.

    I think the folks who commented that three (or four) is a workable number of characters are on target. I actually don’t introduce the fourth companion until later in the book, and her purpose is to upset the balance already established by the other three and to kick things into a different gear, which is important once you reach the middle part of the book where it’s so easy to get bogged down by the notorious “muddle in the middle” problem.

    But, before that, why three characters instead of two? I’d say it’s because if it’s fun to write about a boy and a robot, it’s even more fun to write about a boy and a robot and a mammoth. But my last middle-grade book also had three companions. It’s probably just a number that feels right. It’s not so many that it becomes laborious to give everyone something to do, but it’s not so few that all the banter gets used up by the third chapter. I dunno. It’s just *feels* right.

  26. Rebecca Donnelly says:

    I can think of one story (well, two stories, really) with a duet against evil: Hansel and Gretel, and of course Adam Gidwitz’s heroes of the same name. I wonder if the stark contrasts of two, represented by opposing pairs like good/bad, light/dark, etc., work better in folktales than in longer fiction.

  27. Rebecca Donnelly says:

    I mean, that may be one reason that threes and fours seem to be used more often in longer fiction; I didn’t mean to imply that it doesn’t work in A Tale Dark and Grimm.

  28. “…if it’s fun to write about a boy and a robot, it’s even more fun to write about a boy and a robot and a mammoth.”

    There’s your third sentence for the day, Bets. Because, ya know, things go best by threes…

  29. Denise Dorn says:

    Being a huge Oz fan, I was very interested in this topic.

    The identifying of the 3 companions to various personality aspects brought to mind a Star Trek: Next Generation episode where a deaf/mute protagonist had a verbal “chorus” that represented him. Thinking about it, they also seem to go along with the “courage/brains/heart” trilogy as well.

  30. Oh, damn, MR, you’re right about All of a Kind. That’s what I get for relying on memory…

  31. Kathryn says:

    Four Swallows: John, Susan, Titty and Roger; but, of course, 2 Amazons, 2 D’s and, hm, 6 Coots. (One coincidence that always amuses me: John and Susan as the two eldest Walker children as well as the two eldest Pevensie children)

    And on Nesbit: Enchanted Castle (3 siblings and Mabel)–and the Five Children included a baby who is more of a prop than a player (except when he is unexpectedly aged); but then, there were only 3 Railway Children. . .and a full 6 Bastable children.

    Three children (I misremember their names) in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”

    Like so many patterns, I think this pattern is primarily discernible by eliminating examples that don’t fit–but then, one has to ask WHY they don’t fit.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I’ll just interject briefly to mention that the three companion rule seems to be most closely linked to Oz-like quests. The whole of children’s literature is not meant to follow.

  32. Stephanie Whelan says:

    I realized I’d commented on how something was an Oz like quest lately, but couldn’t remember the book title, mainly because it wasn’t a book. The most recent thing was “The Princess and the Frog” which, while I didn’t love, definitely follows an Oz-like quest. And . . . yup three companions: Louis, the gator (a softie who likes music), Our Prince turned frog (starts out heartless, looking to marry for money and flits from lady to lady) and Ray, the firefly (native guide, smart cookie).