The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not L. Frank Baum’s first fantasy, but it’s the one that made his name – the one he could never leave behind. More than 115 years later, we’re still reading it, adapting it, referring to it in regular conversation. For some, this could be seen as the mountain rising up like an obstacle on the horizon: the book we have to get over to assess Baum’s lesser-known, and perhaps better, works. Others, though, might consider this the very pinnacle of his talent and mourn the fact we’ll never see its like again. Either viewpoint is valid. Regardless, Wizard is the most significant work we’ll assess here – and so we felt it best to give its full, very thorough, due – in two parts.
A quick summary, for those who don’t remember it rightly:
Little Kansas farm girl is swept up in her house by a cyclone. Little Kansas farm girl lands in a magical country. In taking up her quest to get home, she finds a trio of unlikely friends and encounters adventures both familiar and new. There are sleep-inducing poppies, there are angry trees, and there is an encounter with a Wicked Witch, but there are also strange beasts called Kalidahs, the history of the Winged Monkeys, and an unusual sojourn into the Dainty China Country. Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that none of Dorothy’s adventures are a dream…
Well, Nick, says Sarah, here we are. It’s time to bring out the big guns: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! I have an admission, though, and it’s where I want to start our conversation. Whisper it softly, but…I’m actually kind of tired of The Wizard of Oz.
Let me explain what I mean. It’s not that I dislike it, more that I’ve reached a tipping point. I could probably tell the story – either Baum’s original, or the MGM film version – in my sleep. “Scarecrow, brain, blah blah blah. Tin Woodman, heart. Lion, courage. Kalidahs. Poppy field. Moving on now…” I just don’t feel like there’s anything new in it, and I’ve seen so many permutations of it throughout literature and film, from Gregory Maguire to Stephen King to Snowpiercer – that I’m just not sure there’s any more blood to wring out of this particular stone. Do you have that feeling?
Not really, says Nick. I suppose I should, after about twenty-five years of this story. But I was thinking about it this evening, and I almost think I’d be happy if this were the only Oz book!
You realize this is the part where I just shake my head in disbelief at your boundless enthusiasm, right? I couldn’t feel less like that if I tried.
Well, I think I probably did feel as you do for a long time. I’ve never truly rated Baum as a writer – more of an overactive imagination with fingers – but I happened to reread it last year and was really taken aback at what a great book it is.
That’s fair, and we’ll come back to it in just a minute, but first I want to explain the challenge I set before us for this particular reading. I was so anxious to bust up the “familiarity” of Wizard that I came up with an idea to make it seem as new as possible: I insisted on us each reading an edition with which we were not particularly familiar. So that meant no falling back on the original W.W. Denslow illustrations, no settling in for a cozy time with the Michael Hague edition which you and I both loved so much as children.
In the end, I think, we even wound up – as much by accident as anything else – with editions which we naturally would not gravitate toward. If nothing else, then, I think it’s been an interesting experiment.
For my part, I read a brand new edition illustrated by comic book artist Evan Dahm, who made it the subject of a Kickstarter last year (and you can see his art at greater length on his tumblr, Baum by Dahm). Each chapter opens with a full-page color plate, and there are various, infrequent color spot illustrations throughout the text. Dahm’s work has an odd flavor to it; he has a really beautiful color sense, but he keeps his figures in “crane shots” – overhead, fairly removed – and the illustrations usually pick up exactly where each chapter begins. The result is that you don’t often get the “obvious” scenes in the Wizard’s throne room, or among the poppies, or even finding the Tin Woodman in the forest. You get a lot of illustrations of Dorothy and her friends traveling. Endlessly traveling.
“Our little party of travelers awakened the next morning refreshed and full of hope. . . Behind them was the dark forest they had passed safely through, although they had suffered many discouragements; but before them was a lovely, sunny country that seemed to beckon them on to the Emerald City.”
As unusual as it is, Dahm’s technique helped me focus on Baum’s actual text, to see beyond the constructs you usually get in editions of Wizard, from Denslow’s detailed and organized page layouts on up. Sometimes I even went back and read a chapter over again in the Denslow facsimile edition, and yeah, it really did alter my reading. The Dahm book – which I did enjoy, very much – felt more straightforward, more sparse, and in a way, a lot more challenging.
What edition did you read, and do you feel like it changed your interaction with the story at all?
The only edition I could lay my hands on was a 2011 outside illustrated version by an Australian artist named Robert Ingpen, part of a series of children’s classics he did. He has an afterword where he says he was always disappointed by other people’s visions of Oz, particularly MGM’s, which didn’t look ‘real’ like the images in his head when he was a child. And he absolutely exercises his power as illustrator to put that right.
“They followed the bend of the river, and at last came upon their friend the Lion, lying fast asleep among the poppies. The flowers had been too strong for the huge beast and he had given up…
‘We can do nothing for him,’ said the Tin Woodman, sadly; ‘for he is much too heavy to lift. We must leave him here to sleep on forever, and perhaps he will dream that he has found courage at last.'”
It’s an incredibly heavily illustrated book, practically every scene is rendered, and it’s all done with an incredibly serious, even somber tone. I think there’s a melancholy at the heart of Wizard, and Ingpen really brought that out – but he also drew my attention to how carefully Baum describes his world, Dorothy excepted.
I think the experiment was a success, just because it forced us to engage with Wizard at a new and different level. And I, for one, was surprised: I enjoyed the book. A lot. It still feels very familiar, but I found myself focusing on the simplicity of Baum’s writing, the very practical storytelling – and that was eye-opening. I mean, that cyclone hits on page two. He doesn’t waste any time, does he?
His pacing is quite interesting, actually. We get quite a decent set-up at the outset, with some of the history of the household and the lives of Aunt Em and Henry, and then when the storm’s arrived, we get about a chapter of weirdness before we’re in Oz. Then a very, very longwinded and arduous journey. A long section about visiting the Wizard in his four guises. Then we get a big action-packed Wicked Witch chapter, but she’s gone very suddenly.
It’s almost cinematic, if you think about it. Especially when we end on that last scene, just one page, one image, one exchange of dialogue.
“‘Where in the world did you come from?’
‘From the Land of Oz,’ said Dorothy gravely. ‘And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be at home again!'”
Baum’s got a pretty strong three-act structure. Well…three acts and a coda. Perhaps that’s why, after a lot of faffing about, the MGM screenwriters settled on a relatively straightforward adaptation. Almost every adaptation I’ve ever seen of Wizard, actually, follows the book fairly cleanly up until the point where the Wizard takes off in his balloon (which feels like the end of the second act).
The usual complaint is that there’s a lot of fluff after that point – and pretty much every adaptation ever cuts to the chase and jumps straight from the Wizard’s departure to Glinda, one way or another. It’s certainly a delayed resolution – especially the sequence in the China Country – but I can’t say it’s ever really bothered me. You?
I was thinking about that too, this time around. I think it’s all about what makes you and me different from the ordinary folks, Sarah. If I may presume, I imagine you had a similar relationship to the book in that it took the movie experience that absolutely dazzled me and just gave me all the detail I wanted – including a whole extra series of adventures for Dorothy and her friends at the end!
It’s the reverse, actually, which is probably why I’ve always had a prickly relationship with the film. I saw it and went, “Erm, where’d half the story go?” I don’t think five-year-old me has ever really forgiven the film for that.
Looking at it with a cool eye, those adventures in the South are fairly perfunctory and each one is over pretty quickly. But it gives us more Ozziness, and that’s what I care about! I’ve always loved the Hammerheads, but nothing really happens there, it’s thrown away. I can see why other people don’t like it.
Nothing happens – this is true. But nothing happens with the Kalidahs, either. Or in the poppy field. Or in the various times Dorothy stops to eat. Or… you see the point I’m making, here. The journey is the texture of the story. Very little of it “counts” toward the actual machinations of the overarching plot. Like most journeys, actually.
I would disagree actually – the encounter with the Kalidahs and crossing the river and so on are all opportunities for the characters to use the things they say they’re after. They see around dangers, they risk their lives, they make things, they weep. In the chapters at the end, they generally just run very fast and then call on the winged monkeys.
That’s a really good point.
“‘That is a first-rate idea,’ said the Lion. ‘One would almost suspect you had brains in your head, instead of straw.'”
I think it’s just that Baum really starts to enjoy writing his characters, exploring that world, and can’t quite give it up. Having told a very good story, he suddenly gets excited at the potential of what he’s doing. It’s exactly the spirit that gives us thirteen sequels, and perhaps a reason why people who love the later books look more kindly on those chapters.
I think there’s definitely something to do the idea that liking the Oz books involves liking the idea of wandering around aimlessly in this environment. Most of the Oz books are, to one degree or another, travelogues.
The whole idea of the unintentional travelogue brings to mind an alternative to your “sheer enjoyment” theory, which is that Baum he really did tell Wizard as a kind of bedtime story and never edited it down later. It certainly does feel like a bedtime story, in episodic chunks. I’m prepared to entertain the possibility, at least, because Baum is nothing if not an undisciplined writer!
That’s certainly a good point, and the book has a certain charm which obviously derives from that sort of invention, just rolling out and going where it will. Equally, I think it’s a book that Baum knows really well before he even begins writing it.
He knows that the Wizard is going to be a sham before the Good Witch of the North ever sends Dorothy there. He knows that the Scarecrow can think perfectly well without someone giving him something. He knows that he’s writing about a girl who knows her own mind and a bunch of well-meaning but essentially misguided folks – which is pretty much everybody else in the book except Glinda.
I think the fact that it even has the plot of a novel – in contrast to pretty much all the other fantasy Baum wrote around this period – implies a certain amount of work on his part. It’s a bit sad we’ll never see his early draft work. I’d like to know what his process was in getting to this point, because there are various little clues that even if he has thought out his story, he hasn’t thought out his world.
The big example that I noticed this time around – never having twigged it before – is that the fighting trees don’t actually show any sign of sentience. It’s Denslow’s illustration that gives that impression. In the text, though, they act like Venus flytraps, which is really, intensely unlike almost every other intelligent life Baum ever depicted in Oz.
It could definitely do with at least one more redraft. I probably would trade in the hammerheads and fighting trees (who are conveniently ‘the policemen’ of the forest, and once you get past them there’s no trouble from the others) for Dorothy to zip back to Glinda with the winged monkeys. It’s quite clear that the only reason you wouldn’t go everywhere by winged monkey is if you were enjoying the slow route, as Baum so clearly (to my eyes) does.
“‘Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert,’ replied Glinda. ‘If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.'”
The journey is definitely more important than the destination. Baum drops us many, many hints before any of his “revelations”; they’re very gentle when they come. That probably helps to make it feel a sort of lackadaisical, episodic book. I don’t think there’s a reader or film-watcher alive who doesn’t separate it out into little encounters and interludes, i.e. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: you get “the part with the poppies,” “the part with the winged monkeys,” and so on, and I think there’s even a certain enjoyment for the reader in that kind of segmentation. For a re-reader, especially: “Oh, wow, my favorite part!”
Did you have a favorite scene or episode, as you re-read the novel?
I think I particularly like it when Dorothy has just met the Scarecrow, they’ve walked along together, and she has to tell him to look out for somewhere to sleep, because she doesn’t want to walk in the dark – and that she is tired. They find the deserted cottage (which, they later find out, belonged to the Tin Woodman) and of course, the Scarecrow doesn’t sleep, so he just sort of watches over her patiently in the dark. I don’t know what it is, but I find that little quiet moment very poignant. There’s a real sense that Dorothy is a child having to deal with stuff without adults – quite a familar trope of children’s literature – but here, with her literally resting at the start of a long, arduous journey, it seems particularly notable.
“The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweetly, and Dorothy did not feel nearly so bad as you might think a little girl would who had been suddenly whisked away from her own country and set down in the midst of a strange land.”
Intriguingly, my favorite sections dovetail yours – and those are the origin stories of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. They’re often changed or circumvented or plainly forgotten in adaptations, although here recently, the Tin Woodman’s story has had a lot of cultural cache. I’ve even found myself relating to it. You have these two contrasting stories: a man given life from leftover junk, who has never had life before, and another man who finds his life extended but irreparably altered – maybe even reduced – through the use of spare parts. Two very different sides of technology, although Baum wouldn’t have known to call it that. I like the idea that these are both very human characters, but also very othered – and that later, as one little boy wrote in one of my old Oz books, they become “Very Good Friends.” In comparison, the Lion is a bit of a thin character, and it’s maybe less of a surprise Baum never focused on him after this story.
It’s a small criticism, though, the sort of thing you only realize after being very familiar with the book and its characters for a very long time. There are enough shifting and surprising things happening, just about constantly, that any new reader is going to find a lot to delight them – and maybe even distract them from underwritten or hidden elements.
I can definitely picture the original draft unfolding, as you say, over several nights of storytelling. I think that’s where the terrific optimism in the first half of the book comes from, and the genius swipe of making it a story about disappointment.
Disappointment? Elaborate on that, if you will.
Absolutely. But just after a fresh cup of tea…
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