Books

Suspicion, Fear and Stinginess ala Brothers Grimm in the Original 'The Wizard of Oz'

The very idea of designing intricate mythologies and elven languages and pronouncing Celeborn correctly would've seemed vaguely unwholesome to a middle-aged Midwesterner at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the orginal Land of Oz was not a place of winged monkeys.

Publisher: George M. Hill Company (original)
Book: The Wizard of Oz
Author: L. Frank Baum
Publication date: 1900-09
Publisher: Reilly & Britton
Book: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
Author: L. Frank Baum
Publication date: 1908-06

In order to understand Oz fully, you have to realise that L. Frank Baum did not by any means set out to create the jewel-toned MGM utopia that is his legacy.

The Wizard of Oz was originally a one-off -- a determinedly mundane fairyland, designed deliberately as an antidote to the vivid and grotesque European classics. (We will skip lightly over the fact that The Wizard of Oz nevertheless has a body count in the dozens, largely of animals who get their heads chopped off by the Tin Woodman. It's entirely possible that in Grimm, he would've carefully kept the severed heads to put in the Wicked Witch's bed later, where they would recite doggerel predicting her gruesome demise. So it works out.)

The first in the sequel was intended as a cash-in once the original became a hit stage play, and the others were written pretty much as a favour to the eager little fans -- partly because, frankly, L. Frank Baum needed the money too much to refuse them.

In The Wizard of Oz original, then, there is suspicion, fear and stinginess. There is money, there is aging, there is death. The Tin Woodman's retro-hilarious backstory involves him staying with his mother after his father's death, until she too dies and he decides to get married on his inheritance.

There is no mention of a ruling dynasty of Oz. The plot twist in the sequel that has the Wizard sneaking the true heir away to be hidden by a Witch is is a direct offshoot of the decision, in the theatrical adaptation of the original, to drop the Wicked Witch and go with the Wizard as the villain. The play also has a dancing cow named Imogene, replacing Toto. Not surprisingly, this version didn't resonate with the eager little sequel-requesters.

The other key to understanding Oz is: J.R.R. Tolkien, Baum was not.

This is the reason I don't buy into the idea of the first book as a political allegory; there's just no evidence of that much conscious planning in the rest of the series. Really, the very idea of designing intricate mythologies and elven languages would've seemed vaguely unwholesome, to a middle-aged Midwesterner at the turn of the 20th century. (On the plus side, at least he didn't attempt to turn the whole thing into a religious allegory...)

Thus, the transformation of Oz into one of the great enduring fairylands of literature poses far greater problems for the adult connoisseur, accustomed to being told exactly how to pronounce 'Celaborn', than just rehabilitating the Wizard. Magic doesn't really need rules, but it does require at least some internal logic. If it's been established that the Enchanted Whatzis can get you out of a situation, it's bad form to repeat that situation sans Whatzis.

Baum seemed to have an especially unfortunate gift for granting omniscience. In Oz, after the third book, there is the Magic Belt, worn by Ozma, which functions as a shameless deus ex accessory. Ozma also has a Magic Picture, which shows her anything she wants to see the instant she asks, and a wand, with which she wields her inborn fairy powers. On the off chance the situation is really awkward, she can call on Glinda the 'powerful Sorceress', who possesses the Great Book, on which everything that occurs everywhere in the world is instantly recorded; and Glinda in turn is assisted by the Wizard, who on his return becomes her apprentice. This is a world in which a random Munchkin can stumble upon a Powder of Life that grants sentience to whatever it touches.

All this, without even mentioning the winged monkeys.

So basically the remaining Oz stories should all be about two pages long. Instead, the characters go on quests like the one in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, in which the title characters at one point escape the earth's centre via a steep cave path up towards the surface. Along the way they and their party get attacked by bloodthirsty invisible bears and captured by wooden Gargoyles, wander unaware into a dragon's den and get annoyed the hell out of by a crazy man half-way up who won't let them leave without a box of his High-Grade Artificial Flutters and Rustles.

All of which is splendid fun; nobody ever accused Baum of a dearth of imagination. The kicker comes when they find themselves trapped in a cavern juuuuuust too far below the surface to reach. Even the Wizard starts lamenting their fate, until...

...Dorothy calmly announces that they'll be OK, because she's made a deal with Ozma: At four o'clock every day, Ozma will look for her in the Magic Picture, and if Dorothy is making a 'special signal', she'll use the Magic Belt to transport her and her companions out immediately. So she does, and Ozma does, and they do.

Right. Nota bene, the text makes clear this is several days later.

Apparently Ozma has ethical qualms about using the thing indiscriminately; at one point in The Road to Oz she tells Dorothy that she was on the verge of rescuing her, but in that case Dorothy et al. got out OK by themselves. That can-do Midwestern spirit in action again, I guess.

However, it still leaves everybody else wondering why Dorothy's companions didn't raise even the eensiest little question about why she DIDN'T MENTION THIS BEFORE THE GIANT INVISIBLE KILLER BEARS. Or, for that matter, have some choice words for Ozma's ethics.

And all this is before The Emerald City of Oz, in which Baum attempts a full-scale magical invasion, and inadvertently raises the question of just why Dorothy never brought any of those jewels back to Kansas...

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