For those of you who remember, Nick and I were due to finish our discussion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz some months ago. Fortunately, we were able to do so, but real life got in the way directly thereafter; we had to put our conversations, and this blog, on the backburner for a little while. The result is that you are getting the second half of a conversation long after it should have been posted! Feel free to refresh your memories with Part I right here, and prepare for far more regular updates in the near future…
You were saying, Nick, that this is a story about disappointment.
It is! It’s not quite consistent, because – well, Glinda – but it’s about pinning your expectations on a great man, on a wonderful wizard, and about seeing through the facade of him. I think that’s pretty rare in children’s literature, ’til perhaps the more cynical stuff in the 1970s and 80s; even E. Nesbit’s Psammead (from Five Children and It) does real magic.
The moment when Dorothy calls the Wizard out – and the little moment later on, when she quietly forgives him – are what really make this a special novel and Dorothy one of the great hero figures in children’s literature.
“‘Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.'”
I think it fits in with the idea – again, Glinda aside – that nothing is what it seems. Perhaps Baum’s just talking about the America he lived in: a world where the rules were being written anew. You’ve got a Scarecrow who doesn’t scare crows, a Lion who isn’t much of a frightening beast, a Wizard who can’t do magic, a Witch who is afraid of a household material…it’s all sort of turned on its head.
The Witch is afraid of the dark, too.
Right! It’s interesting that Baum is deliberately using certain fairy tale tropes – wizards, witches, jeweled cities – to be at least somewhat satirical. He doesn’t do that very much later on. He creates this anti-fantasy world, and later, he’s content to let it just sort of relax and become a more traditional, idyllic fairyland.
Glinda – who, you will note, is never called a Good Witch again after Wizard – is the beginning of the decline, so to speak. She’s exactly who she appears to be: an all-powerful, all-knowing, matriarchal magician. That’s very cool, but it’s in total opposition to the looking-glass logic of the rest of the book.
That might save it from the burden of a labored message, though, unlike Mother Goose in Prose. Baum really believes in powers like Glinda’s, and really finds them exciting, even frightening. Glinda and her child soldiers are almost spooky here.
Are they children? They look like young women, not children – at least to me.
I’m probably being led by Robert Ingpen’s illustration there. They look like something out of Village of the Damned.
And I’m being influenced by Denslow, so that actually brings up a really good point: how incredibly straightforward, pragmatic, and almost non-descriptive is Baum’s prose? He doesn’t do a whole lot of detail…ever. He describes the Scarecrow’s face in some detail, and the Witch’s one eye, and Dorothy’s gingham dress and pink bonnet. Most things are sort of hand-waved, though. You never get a real description of the Tin Woodman, for instance. He could look like anything.
And the landscape itself is still hard for me to visualize. It’s beautiful, of course, but I’m not sure what particular kind of beauty Baum had in mind. Is it an American landscape or what?
Despite the Wizard’s assurance that he is “a very old man” – well, what does that mean? He might be forty, fifty, sixty, seventy. And how old is Dorothy, anyway? Six, eight, twelve?
That’s definitely a point. We know barely anything about Dorothy, perhaps so that we can project ourselves onto her. We must presume she’s an orphan, but thankfully, Baum doesn’t go heavily sentimental on that point.
There’s an opportunity here for the illustrator to completely change the reader’s perspective of this book and these characters. One thing that occurred to me: are any of these people even necessarily white?
“When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also.”
That’s a really good observation, and of course the answer is, not at all. Baum is very clear on circumstances. These are all working people, from Dorothy through her friends to the Wizard himself – and that’s it.
With very little squinting, these people and their culture could easily exist in many poorer regions of America today. Rest assured that there are still one-room farmhouses in this country; There are still scarecrows, and people who go out to chop their own wood. There are markedly fewer balloonists and traveling circuses, but even those aren’t totally extinct.
Really, this should be the ultimate reprintable, re-interpretable children’s novel. You could do so many different things with it – and two or three small puns aside, it isn’t reliant on the subtleties of the English language, unlike, say, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The human characters could be any ethnicity, and the story could reflect any culture. (Perhaps this is why Alexander Volkov’s “appropriation,” The Wizard of the Emerald City, had such success behind the Iron Curtain despite little significant change from Baum’s original.) Is it, then, the sheer universality of the story – even in the more popular form of the 1939 MGM film – that keeps it alive today?
It certainly has a fairy tale’s DNA, with the resilient simplicity that comes with that. In many ways it’s extremely historically specific. I read somewhere about it reflecting the commodification that is part of the American dream – and how relevant it is that Baum used to be a shopkeeper. I think one of the saddest things about the novel – something that makes me uncomfortable but also seems true and human – is that the Scarecrow and the others are told (by the Wizard himself!) that they don’t need to be given the things they’re looking for. They just don’t believe him, and he has to give them those things anyway.
If the Witch had been a little more innocent, perhaps the price – marching off to exterminate her on behalf of this scared little old man – might seem rather high.
Well, there’s a certain cynicism about it, to be sure, which is probably pretty clear-sighted. It really is depressing that Dorothy’s friends insist on those totems to feel satisfied, but I think it’s a pretty savvy reading of how people really are. And the fact that the Wicked Witch actually seems kind of pathetic and washed up is surely the starting place of Wicked and its many, many imitators. I can’t say it’s ever interested me, overly, to know more about the Witches or their history, but that idea appeals to a lot of people. It doesn’t take much doing to see the Wizard’s actions as fairly monstrous. He comes in, sets up shop, insists on his own superiority and takes over. End of discussion. Baum knows how wrong that is, too – it’s the setup for the second book’s big revelation.
I think one of the main reasons I’ve never really cared much about Wicked is that it suggests it’s a revisionist reading of the novel – but it’s all there in the original book.
It is. What’s a little weird is that the stage musical of Wicked (which I prefer) actually has the less revisionist, and more believable, take on events. In the novel, the Wizard is evil – pretty thoroughly villainous in every way. In the musical, he’s certainly not a nice man, but his actions are clearly those of a man trying to keep ahead of the game. He’s intensely, unimaginably misguided, but he’s not actually, you know, laughing maniacally like some supervillain. That, to me, feels more like Baum’s Wizard: a man who is using every trick at his disposal to keep from being “found out.”
Right – and the musical certainly speaks to that. The Wizard is handed power on a platter; they call him “wonderful,” and he decides to live up to the name. I think Baum would appreciate that take on the character.
“Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?'”
Is it too moralistic? Or is the moralistic aspect of it, as we’ve kind of been exploring, just another smoke-and-mirrors trick? Baum makes it all seem very settled by the end… It’s only when you step back and sort of look at it sideways that you realize it’s all still pretty skewed.
Again, I am pretty sad that the novel ends without them finding out the truth – and with the Scarecrow, of all people, in charge. Depending on how you look at it, that could be seen as an overly cynical conclusion.
I feel absolutely certain that Baum, with his sense of humor, intentionally left a strawman figure in charge. It’s just too perfect a pun.
And the Tin Woodman gets his heart – and completely forgets about his Munchkin bride!
They all get a little taste of power which they can’t resist.
This is why, to put it mildly, I wouldn’t quite settle for this as the one and only Oz book.
I don’t know what I would think if there weren’t a string of sequels, but what it feels to me is that the story is essentially a fable. Every plot beat, twist and revelation suggests that. Oz is a land of color and Kansas is grey, but at least in Kansas you see what you’re getting (or you do if you’re smart). Baum tells his story so well, though, that we – and perhaps the author himself – can’t help but like the Scarecrow and Company. Even the Wizard is somewhat sympathetic. So we’re caught between thinking, “Yes, how true this rings to me,” and also thinking, “No, it can’t possibly end there.”
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. And it is, I think, possible that Baum got as much enchanted by his vision as the child readers did. At least, at first.
Did you ever hear the story that Maud Gage Baum told about her husband getting frustrated with his characters “not doing what I want them to do”? I loved that story when I was a child, and perhaps it meant a lot to me when I was thinking about writers and writing my own stuff, even then. I’ve since wondered, though – when was that happening? If it’s true. What does it refer to?
I don’t know, but it probably says a lot about Baum’s process. I keep harping about him being an undisciplined writer, but I don’t even mean that as a criticism. (I’ll be the first in line to admit that I am an extremely undisciplined writer.) It’s just a fact. The idea of Baum getting up in the middle of the night and scrabbling on some wallpaper doesn’t seem at all unusual.
Precisely. I really want to see those drafts that Maud burned now!
“‘This must be the Land of Oz,’ said Dorothy, ‘and we are surely getting near the Emerald City.'”
So here’s a pedant’s question: how big is Oz here? Is Oz even the name of the entire country?
I don’t think Baum has really thought about that. Doesn’t he call the land around the Emerald City “Oz”? But Munchkin Country is also “in the land of Oz, my dear!” It certainly takes ages to get around in it. Where is Oz? For you?
I have no idea. This is a continuous problem with Baum’s Oz. He never locates it. He seems to imply that it’s on Earth, somewhere, at least…whereas later, Ruth Plumly Thompson is going to put it on a distinctly different planet.
Is it another dimension? A lost city? Is it fairyland? Dorothy really goes there because Uncle Henry’s had to rebuild the house since it blew away. That feels, to me, like a statement of intent: “This is not an imitation of Alice in Wonderland.”
Here’s my pedantic question. Is Glinda meant to be Gayelette? The woman who created the Golden Cap in the first place. Does that even make sense? I spotted it this time around but it’s never occurred to me before.
I’ve actually had that vibe before. If it’s not intentional, I do find myself wondering if Baum considered going that route and abandoned it before the published version. Possibly, he just decided it was too tidy a move.
Yes, maybe he just amended Glinda to Gayelette in a late draft. I can’t imagine Glinda with a husband and I’m pretty sure neither could Baum – just lots and lots of beautiful girls in military outfits.
We’re definitely going to have to talk about Glinda’s army of beautiful girls when we get to The Marvelous Land of Oz, Nick. First, though, it’s a little side-step into the realm of Baum’s other fantasies…
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