The Sea Fairies (1911)

Sea Fairies 1911 CoverAfter The Emerald City of Oz (1910), L. Frank Baum felt confident that he had put a cap on the story of his most famous fairyland, and he was ready to depart on new travels of the imagination. Although, by this point, he had published a significant number of books under pseudonym for a variety of audiences, he had it in mind specifically to start a new series under his own name. These new fantasy adventures, featuring the team of the Dorothy-like young girl Mayre “Trot” Griffiths and her friend, the old sailor Cap’n Bill, would take Baum’s readers to new fantasy lands outside the world of Oz. Only two were published – The Sea Fairies (1911) and Sky Island (1912) – and a third partially completed before Baum and his publishers were forced to face the steep decline in sales. A Baum book did not, in and of itself, guarantee a hit – it had to contain the word Oz.

Here are BURZEE, our intention was originally to consider the two Trot and Cap’n Bill novels together. However, the more we read, the more we realized they were each deserving of their own discussion. Join us as we leave these familiar shores and dive, straight down, to the bottom of the sea . . . .

IMG_20170322_102504You’ve obviously never read this book before, Nick, says Sarah. Did you have any preconceptions beforehand?

IMG_8687Well, strangely enough, I did, Nick says. And for years, too! Although The Sea Fairies is a book I never even thought I’d get a chance to read, I always felt that I should. That’s because of Allen Eyles’ little reference in The World of Oz (1985) to its movie rights having been optioned. Obviously, Eyles was anticipating the critical and commercial smash that Return to Oz somehow never quite achieved. I don’t know if anything is actually known now about who wanted to make The Sea Fairies into a movie, why, and how they planned to go about it . . . .

That’s funny. Until you mentioned it, I misremembered that bit in World of Oz as referring to a film of Sky Island, which – to my mind, anyway – is a much more cinematic book than this one. Either way, no, I don’t think anything’s ever been said about these mystery plans. I almost can’t imagine what a film of Sea Fairies would be like, except perhaps a sort of 1980s Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Well, that’s just it! For a long time I was totally prepared for this to be a grand, exciting adventure, perfect for a 1980s multiplex audience, in the vein of any of the better Oz books.

sea fairies 1960s
Lois Axeman (1969)

I can’t say I expected a whiz-bang blockbuster, but my own expectations were thwarted, too. I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever read The Sea Fairies once before, thanks to my childhood library – their copy had the impossibly ugly 1960s cover shown here. I can’t say it really grabbed my interest, but it was Baum, so I read it. What’s interesting is that I only remembered it as a nice story where Trot and Cap’n Bill wander around and meet some fish – which does, indeed, adequately describe the first half. I have no memory of anything from the second half at all! Isn’t that strange?

Suspicious, I would say!

Mother Nature’s Son

Sea Fairies 1911 Frontispiece
John R. Neill (1911)

Something that’s a little bit interesting about Sea Fairies is that Baum starts it off by telling this old sailors’ tale about mermaids – a little fairy tale in and of itself – and then he spends the whole book working to undercut it. We have a new little girl protagonist, Trot – I don’t know where Baum comes up with these names – and her protector figure, Cap’n Bill. How does that strike you as the setup for a whole new series?

I think it fails, almost from the first page, because it doesn’t even try very hard. There’s no background for Trot’s character at all, and not very much for Cap’n Bill, which seems surprising given that he’s a sailor and this is a book about the sea! That’s one of the things that struck me as odd about the novel. In a funny sort of way, “sea fairies” seems to be a pun on “seafarers,” and heroic sea adventures were hugely popular at the time. Yet there’s a kind of incuriousness about sailors, and anyone else’s experience of the sea, beyond Baum’s imaginative one. It doesn’t feel interested in the romance of the sea at all.

I found myself wondering why Baum thought this could be the launch of a series. I haven’t sat and read them extensively, but by this point Baum had pseudonymously published a number of nature-oriented fairy stories for small children . . .

Isn’t Policeman Bluejay one of those?

Yes. They involve two little kids named Twinkle and Chubbins who are transformed so they can communicate with, and live among, birds, woodland animals, and so on. They’re supposed to be very environmentally-oriented for the early part of the 20th century, and I found myself wondering if The Sea Fairies was originally intended to be that kind of story – something shorter and more intended for a very young audience. Somewhere about halfway through, Baum decided to make it his next major novel and completely changed course. That’s my best guess, but admittedly, I have no direct evidence. I do think it’s a very thin book: perfectly pleasant to read, but it doesn’t linger long in the memory.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 3
John R. Neill (1911)

After a few chapters of, “Here’s the swordfish, and here’s the inevitable puns about them,” something clicked for me. I stopped expecting the multiplex summer smash of 1986 and decided it was part of the genre – now out of fashion, with good reason – of ‘fuzzy’ nature books, designed to play on the wonder and imagination of the child but not really to inform them at all. It actually reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s Book (1944), which I used to own. I loved both Blyton and Baum as a kid, and they weren’t all that different given their tremendous output and the sense of responsibility they felt towards their readers. In her nature book, Blyton tells you why buds are sticky, and why the tips of daisies are pink – but she says they’re sticky or pink because pixies painted them with glue or paint. Sea Fairies mostly felt like that: a didactic, well-meaning but shamelessly misleading sort of text.

I was reminded of favorite childhood author of my own. Mine is an American named Thornton Burgess, who made a career out of writing nature stories for children. He wrote a book called Old Mother West Wind (1910) and its many, many, many, many sequels, which are about the American woodlands and the creatures who live there – rabbits, foxes, raccoons, muskrats, possums, and so on. The difference is that Burgess was a naturalist who was very committed to depicting genuine animal behavior, although he dramatized it with anthropomorphic animal characters in fable-style situations. Most of his books are collections of short stories in that format: The Adventures of Peter Cottontail, The Adventures of Jimmy Skunk, and so on. There are a couple of books he wrote in the ‘20s and ‘30s, though, that are even more realistic and attempt to show real-world animal behavior and scientific understanding of the early-to-mid-20th century. This book reminds me strongly of that.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 9
John R. Neill (1911)

I really got lost trying to identify some of the fish Baum was talking about – the argonauts, the devilfish, and some of the others – assuming that those were archaic names for real animals. It only occurred to me about a week after I finished the book that a lot of it was probably stuff Baum made up! I should have been clued in by Neill’s highly fanciful art, but I got so wrapped up in the idea that this was a naturalist’s book that I forgot Baum wasn’t really a naturalist! Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely! A lot of the book feels like the “inhabitants of the underwater world” are portrayed in such outrageously unrealistic form that Baum and Neill let themselves off the hook: “This is just a way to get kids into the subject. We’re not going to try to make any claims, or be accurate, because then it will look bad…” Ultimately, I excused them a lot of the nonsense, because I thought there was an earnest feeling behind it somewhere.

The Underwater Menace

I am completely willing to believe that you and I have jointly discovered the entire reason for the first half of the book. I think if the whole book had been written in this way, I would write it off as a nice little exercise in getting kids interested in the ocean. The problem is that halfway through the book, Satan shows up – and that changes things entirely.

Well, you call that a problem; I call it merciful release! I was ready for something to happen and was grateful for whatever Baum came up with, which still isn’t all that much in the way of actual adventure. 

True! No, the villain isn’t really called “Satan” – he’s Zog – and very little happens even in the second half of the book, but wouldn’t you agree with me that the tone turns darker very, very suddenly?

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 10
John R. Neill (1911)

Yes, but first – am I getting mixed up? Who is this in the picture? Is he the incredibly beautiful boy, Sacho?

I think so – at least, I think that’s who he’s supposed to be. I had the exact same question. 

He looks just like Jikki, the servant from Queen Zixi of Ix. He’s not a boy!

It does make me wonder if something was altered in the text after Neill turned in the illustrations. 

That’s the only thing that would make sense of it, which is sad, because I like Baum’s creation of a strange, beautiful, bland optimist. There’s something a bit sinister about him.

I think Sacho may be the most sinister character in the book. He’s a waif who has been nearly drowned and then saved and indoctrinated by Zog. He reminds me very much of A Wrinkle in Time. Have you ever read that?

A long time ago.

There’s an episode where one of the protagonists, five-year-old Charles Wallace, has his mind taken over by an evil intelligence. He becomes the mouthpiece for that force. That’s what Sacho reminds me of – this small child speaking obviously nihilistic yet upbeat philosophies. Plus, the fact that he has gills in his neck is undeniably creepy. He’s the first real sign that the narrative is changing to something much darker, so I find him the most sinister figure in the book.

I do wonder if there was meant to be something satirical about him, and the way he isn’t just subservient or lacking in identity – he has capitulated and changed his entire worldview to be unthinkingly positive. It feels like it’s his own philosophy; he’s complicit. I don’t know in what sense that had any significance for Baum. 

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 6
John R. Neill (1911)

I don’t know either. What do you make of Cap’n Joe? That’s also quite eerie to me – that scene of Cap’n Bill meeting his dead brother under the sea, and . . . he’s a fish.

Yes, he does actually say, “I am a fish!” I would love to credit it with being sinister and macabre, but instead it just felt to me like a weird, boring gag that has the effect of making Cap’n Bill feel even less of an interesting character than he did originally. Despite Baum’s own history of seemingly siding with the working man, it seems that sailors – for him – are just comic figures.

What do you make of Zog himself? I see him so clearly as being Satan – or Lucifer – or whatever you want to call the Christian interpretation of the Devil. Particularly in the early scenes, every last bit of description of his appearance aligns with the typical iconography of the Devil. I’m curious why Baum decided to go this route, but more than anything, Zog proves that evil incarnate isn’t terribly interesting. The expression of Zog’s awfulness through a character like Sacho is far more effective than Zog himself, and the whole part-man, part-beast, part-fish revelation isn’t terribly surprising. I was far more shocked by Anko disposing of him by squeezing him into “jelly”!

There’s something so pathetic about his end, which you can either read as Baum’s comment on the banality of evil – that you can just knock the horrible man-thing on the head and he’ll be gone – or a lack of imagination. 

Yeah, I think Baum got bored. If this were a Disney film, Zog would escape to the surface, grow massively in size, and start shooting lightning beams from his eyes. That’s the end of The Little Mermaid! He wouldn’t just escape his palace to be squished. It’s an amazing anti-climax to the book, and it makes Anko a little more disturbing than we would have given him credit for otherwise. I’m getting used to this with Baum, you know? “Oh, I’m getting bored now. Time to end the book.”

I just find it really funny that there can be an anti-climax in a book where nothing happens! Nothing is built up and nothing ever comes of it. 

Would’ve been a hell of a movie, right?

Part of Your World

Zog is the closest that Baum has ever come to portraying a wholly evil, demonic force, and as much as there is a switch in tone, it is slightly foregrounded with some talk of this evil fairly early on. It fits quite well with the idea of the fairies as part of the mystic structure of Baum’s world. In particular, the idea of the mermaids as sea fairies is a kind of continuation of what he’s said about fairies in the past and his use of them in books like The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 11
John R. Neill (1911)

You mean the part where Dorothy and her friends see the Mist Maidens?

Yes. In that moment, it does feel sacred to see these creatures, and they’re not treated as imaginary beings as much as glimpses of something ethereal. That relates to the Phanfasms in The Emerald City of Oz; again, you get the impression Baum takes them seriously in a way he doesn’t take most of his creations. It feels like there is a kind of structure to Baum’s universe outside of this book, and bizarrely, Zog as a Satanic fish-goat fits into that perfectly.

Since you bring up mysticism, and fairies, what do you think of Baum’s use of mermaids?

Well, never let it be said I don’t prepare for these blogs of ours, Sarah. I turned to my trusty Dictionary of Fairies and Folklore (1976) by Katharine Briggs, and read the entry on mermaids. What’s clear is that in all their various manifestations in folklore, they are less kind and companionable than at any time in The Sea Fairies.

More than almost any other children’s author, we know that Baum was familiar with and influenced by Hans Christian Andersen, and I think it’s impossible to think about Sea Fairies without thinking about what he may have read of mermaids from Andersen. The Little Mermaid is a Christianized figure of piety; that’s the entire point of the story. Isn’t there an implication at the end that she receives a soul, unlike all the other mermaids?

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 5
John R. Neill (1911)

From memory, I believe she goes up to Heaven, basically, and she’s happy about that. I hadn’t really thought about that aspect of it. Mermaids are much older than Andersen, of course. They’re mythical – are they in the Bible?

I don’t think so. They do, however, appear in mythologies across the world, stretching back to the ancient Middle East. Somewhere along the line, Western culture has hodge-podged together attributes from a number of different distinct cultures into a single creature, including the sirens of Greece and the selkies of Celtic mythology. They lure you into the sea, usually, to your doom – it’s only from the Victorian era on up that there’s been a shift in how they are presented.

They’re intrinsically sexual beings, as well.

They’re sexual beings that will kill you. Yeah. The more you look at it, the more you wonder if Baum was inspired by mermaid lore at all. I wonder if he may have been thinking of another, more Victorian brand of watery fairy tale: Charles Kingsley’s famous novel The Water-Babies (1863) seems to hover on the periphery of our vision. He might also have been inspired by Edward H. Cooper’s now-forgotten Wyemarke and the Sea-Fairies, which was published in 1899 by the same British publishing house as Baum’s own Mother Goose in Prose; the two books were highlighted together in a number of print advertisements. Both Kingsley’s and Cooper’s works seem to focus on children who are turned into water-dwelling creatures to learn moral lessons and have adventures.

Making a Splash!

The question of the mermaids reveals some interesting assumptions about how we read these books and how they would have been presented on the market. A great deal of readers’ interest in mermaids would be visual; they are, after all, a particularly beautiful way of depicting the female form. They’re very easily aestheticized in that way. We overstate, perhaps, the role of Baum as author when these books are saturated with purely visual material. And when you look at the beautiful images John R. Neill came up with, it makes complete sense that we keep coming back to the mermaids. He was obviously, if you will, in his element with this kind of imagery. His work is just amazing.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 8
John R. Neill (1911)

I would say that I enjoyed this book twice as much because of Neill’s pictures. They are particularly lush. As you say, his obvious joy in depicting the feminine figure is given its full sway in this book.

It’s a bit like when we read Dot and Tot of Merryland. There was a sense that Baum had written to Denslow’s strengths in that book, even though the story wasn’t very strong. In this book, you could really think of Neill as a kind of co-author. Maybe we should think of him that way in future. They obviously worked well as a team, and whether it’s true or not, it feels like Baum is writing for his illustrator here – thankfully, compared to Dot and Tot, with much better outcome.

I don’t know what the exact circumstances were surrounding The Sea Fairies. I do know that Baum could still be annoyed by Neill’s work several years later and tried to get him off the books; it was only in the last few years of his life that he started complimenting Neill’s art, and perhaps he was simply resigned to it by then. Mostly, it was the publishers Reilly and Britton who insisted on pairing Neill with Baum for . . . reasons we don’t know, actually. Maybe he was cheap. Whatever the reason, I am inclined to think they had better judgment than Baum, because honestly? I don’t know how this book works without Neill.

The idea of setting an entire book underwater, in an entirely natural world, feels like a formula for creating a beautifully illustrated book, and in many ways that’s also its biggest problem. The Sea Fairies is really superficial – essentially, a series of tableaux – with nothing at the heart of it in terms of Trot and her friends.

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 8
John R. Neill (1911)

I think “a series of tableaux” describes it really well. Even Neill’s color plates are, far more so than usual, a series of tableaux! If you look at them, they are beautiful but resoundingly Victorian images, far and away beyond almost all of his imagery for the Oz books, and clearly intended to be more aesthetic works of art than they are depictions of storybook scenes. This is the perfect book for someone whose strength is in depicting movement through lines. All of his work for this book is breathtakingly Art Nouveau, very much a companion to The Emerald City of Oz in terms of the intricacy and ornateness of the art. It’s almost the last time we’ll see that from Neill, too.

Yeah. They’re more decorations than illustrations, aren’t they?

Oh, that’s exactly it. They’re more decorations than illustrations. Did I ever tell you I once made one of these plates into a picture postcard? It was perfect; I didn’t change a thing. The plates are so detached from the story, even though they purportedly depict moments from it, that they almost function on their own. The two-tone color, the metallic borders – it’s all beautiful, but it makes The Sea Fairies feel much more archaic than the Oz books we’ve read.

Yes. We’re going to see a sharp contrast with the art of Sky Island, which is very different.

I was also kind of struck by the fact that as much as Neill enjoys drawing fish – and women’s bodies, frankly – there are maybe two images of Zog in the whole book. They’re not even particularly striking ones. Anko is sort of a cartoon character, too, so you can tell where Neill’s interest really lay.

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 4
John R. Neill (1911)

Absolutely! The illustrations of Anko are bizarre, really, because they’re so carelessly done compared to everything else. He’s supposed to be the great sea serpent of the sea, you know – but he looks a bit like the Cheshire Cat.

He’s what I remember from reading the book as a kid, to be honest. Those giant eyes! He looks like a refugee from Sonic the Hedgehog!

Fishing for Compliments?

It’s fairly obvious why this book didn’t sell as well as the Oz books, right?

Sea Fairies 1911 Illo 1
John R. Neill (1911)

Lots of reasons. I mean, there’s the fact that the Oz books weren’t a series, really; they were a phenomenon. They were a great first novel, and they were a massive stage hit, and then they were something between the two, which is what we have left. There’s also the fact that the characters in the Oz books are invested with so much complexity and human quality, and oddness, and humor – but Baum doesn’t seem interested in any of these new characters beyond the pages of this book. What was your feeling?

I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it, because – well, I hadn’t been looking forward to it. I just because I remembered it as a series of encounters with fish! There’s something naturally in the way Baum writes that appeals to me and makes me want to keep reading, even when the story is so thin.

I understand that completely.

I guess I am surprised the sheer beauty of the volume didn’t sell more copies, but it was fairly well reviewed in the press; there was no great backlash. I think it simply took a hit from not having the word “Oz” in the title, and it probably wasn’t a remarkable enough book to rise above that. It’s obvious that whatever tricks Reilly & Britton tried to make it visually appealing to a buyer, they couldn’t overcome the fact that the audience just wanted more Oz.

I wonder if there was also more children’s fiction being produced at this time, and the competition was so high it needed to be a big brand like Oz to stand out. The Secret Garden was published in 1911, as was the novel of Peter Pan (Peter and Wendy), suggesting a growing children’s book culture.

sea fairies 1920
John R. Neill (1920 reprint cover)

That’s interesting. I can think of a whole slew of famous children’s novels that had come out within five years or so leading up to 1911 – The Wind in the Willows, Anne of Green Gables, The Railway Children, White Fang, and more – so it’s definitely a different landscape than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz faced in 1900. Are you pleased you read The Sea Fairies?

Absolutely. I was always curious about it and as it turned out, it’s a really weird book, and beautiful, too. I did enjoy it while it lasted – particularly once it went bonkers in the second half. How about you?

I think this is a case where I like the art better than I like the story, and . . . I understand, now, why I only read this once as a child and did not campaign for my own copy. I don’t think I saw a need. I enjoyed revisiting it, but – unlike the Oz books – I don’t see a strong reason to ever revisit it again. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does.

Would you give this book to a child?

Not a hope! It’s very of its time.

I agree.

Having said that, though, if you think of it as a game of two halves – a book as equally about its illustrations as its text – I would consider looking at the book with an imaginative child, one who was into mermaids and fantasy, and showing them the pictures. Neill’s work is extraordinary, and I think that in a funny sort of way, it’s one of the non-Oz Baum books I could see being reprinted in a nice edition just because the art is so good – which is really counter to everything I’ve thought about the other books we’ve read so far!

What a marvelous idea. Yes – wouldn’t The John R. Neill Coloring Book of Mermaids be a beautiful thing?

Yes, it would.

sea devilWell, that’s it, Nick. I feel we’re winding down. I would just like to say here that I’m very pleased we managed to get through this entire discussion without mentioning Zog’s henchmen, the nefarious Sea Devils. Why do they seem so familiar?

Evidently there are really things called sea devils, and probably the name – sea devils – inspired most of this book. Sea devils vs. sea fairies – a battle between the two! That’s kind of the story, so in a funny sort of way they are directly inspired by Baum looking at sea lore, and . . . wait . . . you just wanted to end this on a silly Doctor Who gag, didn’t you?

Yes, Nick.

Right, then. Carry on.

What would you do? Would you rescue The Sea Fairies from the vast ocean of forgotten books, or allow it to sink to the watery depths of lost memory? Tell us in the comments section below!

Next Time

Sky Island 1912 Plate 3SKY ISLAND

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Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.

The Emerald City of Oz (1910)

emerald-city-1910-coverIn 1910, Oz came to its natural end. Eager to write new stories about new fantasy lands, L. Frank Baum put a cap on the Oz stories with a tale that sees Dorothy move permanently to the Emerald City with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. At the same time, the Nome King – who holds a grudge against both Dorothy and Ozma – plots to conquer Oz by means of an underground tunnel and a host of evil allies. He nearly succeeds, thwarted only by some quick thinking from the Scarecrow and the Fountain of Oblivion that sits at the center of the Emerald City. Soon afterward, Glinda the Good arrives to announce her new plan to protect Oz from outsiders: an invisibility barrier. “We are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world,” writes Dorothy at the book’s conclusion, “but Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.” That’s it. That’s all.

. . . Or is it?

wp-1485833241872.jpgWell, Nick, asks Sarah, did you like this book when you were a kid?

It’s funny you should ask that, says Nick. I don’t really have much memory of it, but I do have a photograph of me with the book, which you can see on the front page of this site (and which I’m replicating here). In a way, it’s proof I did read the Oz books, and didn’t just dream it! I remembered odd things about the plot – and I actually remembered it being much more complex than it is . . . .

The only thing I strongly remembered about it – I mean, I knew what happened in this book, but the only strong specific memory of it – was the Nome King ordering his generals through the meat slicer. I genuinely remembered that from some 20 years ago: reading it and thinking, “Uhh, that’s dreadful.”

wp-1485833330822.jpgYeah, there’s more cruelty to the Nome King this time – and that’s before he takes on underlings who want to slaughter the people of Oz just because they’re happy.

I think if I had been reading some of the other Baum books carefully at the time I would have noticed similar scenes, but for some reason, I didn’t. Perhaps Emerald City was one of the last Oz books I reread before giving up on them as a teenager.

My childhood copy of Emerald City is physically warped – I must have left it out in the rain or something because it’s really swollen up and looks huge. I remember it being like War and Peace . . . which it is, I suppose! On the cover, it had the most dreary photo of Fairuza Balk standing next to a mirror, and I didn’t care; I suppose I saw it as a serious photo for a serious book.

That’s all right. My own childhood edition was the Dover one – you know, the one with the 1930s cover of a rather leggy Ozma riding the Sawhorse sidesaddle.

. . . And the Sawhorse is sort of sprinting – in a way that neither of them do, even a bit, in the novel?

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John R. Neill (1929)

That’s the one. That’s the cover I associate with The Emerald City of Oz! It’s funny what sticks in your brain.

Given that I’d probably only read the book once or twice as a child (on a trampoline, in the garden), I really clearly remembered Miss Cuttenclip and the Utensia trial. As in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, it seems like a real callback to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Well, the Utensia trial is just an unending series of puns. Each sentence could end with a “ba-dum-tish!” cymbal crash. It’s very funny, but it’s so rapid-fire it feels a little out of place with the rest of the book.

Dorothy basically wanders away, gets lost, goes to Utensia, Bunbury and Bunnybury, is threatened with death by most of them, eats a few of them and goes back, and everybody’s just like, “Oh, we knew you’d be all right,” and the plot resumes.

There is that great line from the Wizard: “Have you been having adventures again?”

I do like the thought that Dorothy even wanders away from the adventure we’re reading to have more adventures. Maybe in other books there are unseen moments where Dorothy just goes through a door nobody else noticed, has a book’s worth of adventures, and comes back in time for the next chapter to start.

emerald-city-1910-illo-10
John R. Neill (1910)

Well, here they’re utterly pointless adventures, and they have no reason to be there – except to give John R. Neill a reason to draw rabbits. He seems to have had a real affinity for rabbits – if you look at his other work in illustration and advertising, he often finds a way to work bunnies in, and they’re always lovely bunnies at that. We’ll see more bunnies from him in later books, too. In general, he seems to have really enjoyed drawing animals, although – like Denslow – he makes an odd assumption that a lion is about the size of an elephant.

At least with the bunnies of Bunnybury, Baum has provided him with justification for drawing animals in clothes, which seems to be his obsession. He puts a little jacket on the alligator that Guph has to jump over . . . .

. . . And there was Eureka and her tailcoat, back in Dorothy and the Wizard.

Yes, and her flamboyant court clothes. How strange!

The Talented Mr. Neill

An admission for you: when I was a kid, the much-beloved Books of Wonder editions came out at the rate of one a year, and I think by the time The Emerald City of Oz came out, I must have been getting into being a teenager, and maybe a little bit out of Oz, at least for a while. As a result, I never bought it. My collection ended at The Road to Oz for the longest time. 

Oh dear! That doesn’t sound like a good idea. Reverse that decision as soon as possible.

I did – years and years later, when I had to really hunt for it! That’s a very long-winded way of telling you that this is the first time I’ve ever read the book with color pictures, which has been an extra-special treat.

This is the first time I’ve ever read it with pictures of any kind!

Whoa. There you go!

emerald-city-1910-plate-5
John R. Neill (1910)

It’s interesting, actually. I quite enjoyed reading The Road to Oz in the edition I used to have, with no pictures, because I was obliged – or allowed – to imagine things for myself. Those more mannered Victorian illustrations can sometimes prevent you fully immersing yourself in the book, I think. (Editorial note: Sarah disagrees and is shaking her head.) This time, that just didn’t happen. I settled quite quickly on the Books of Wonder edition, and these illustrations are my favorite of all we’ve seen so far, by a long way.

It’s funny you say that! As I was about halfway through the book, I was thinking to myself, “This must surely be the nicest designed Oz book yet.” It has the nicest pictures, it has the nicest layout, it has a really strong balance of color and black and white. I especially like the little headings that Neill does for each chapter – it all adds up to a really nice aesthetic object.

Something about the way that the characters are depicted feels less stylized. Last time you told me how there was a bit of tension between Neill and Baum, that Baum was concerned that Neill’s pictures didn’t quite represent his characters, who are just so full of life. For me, these feel warmer – more likeable and more animated, I guess, than in previous books.

These have a nice fluidity about them, which I think combines Neill’s sheer penmanship with that sense of movement. He’s starting to strike a really nice balance, and I think as we go on, you’ll see him loosen up more and more and more and more, to the point where, somewhere in the middle of the Thompsons, he becomes very cartoony – which I don’t like as much. Normally, though, I would say that the late Baum period – Tik-Tok of Oz onward – is my favorite Neill period, too, because he’s weighing out a slightly more simplified look with a lot of nice illustrative detail. I think you’re right; this is the first time it’s really just firing on all cylinders.

wp-1485833888476.jpgIn a peculiar yet wonderful coincidence – and don’t those just keep happening to us, with this blog? – our conversation about Neill dovetails nicely with an experience I had just after Christmas. I was thrilled to discover that one of John R. Neill’s original Oz illustrations – the Chapter Three title heading for Tik-Tok of Oz, featuring Glinda – was up for auction in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. Fortunately, my parents still live there, so I was able to go back and get a short audience with the picture during the auction preview. It was rather like crashing a wedding: furtive, a bit illicit, and altogether very exciting. As you can see, I was pretty thrilled. How amazing to see the original work of one of my favorite artists, and in such a gorgeous character portrait, too.

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John R. Neill (1914)

I really love everything about this story: I love that you made that pilgrimage, I love that you defied the stuffy atmosphere to get your picture taken, and I love the look of excitement in your eyes. Also, of course, I love getting a (second-hand) look at Neill’s original artwork, how natural his line work is, and how perfect that composition. I really feel like we’re looking at Neill’s handwriting. He’s showing off his love of Art Nouveau, pre-Raphaelite imagery, and just the joy of making something modest in size but beautiful in effect.

What impressed me most was how few remnants there are of any pencil lines or pre-work; mostly, it’s just a collection of quick, sharp pen strokes that build up a beautiful picture. Comparing it to a 1920 edition of the book on site – and later, to the Books of Wonder edition – it’s startling what a drop in quality there is when his work is reproduced. And that leads into our next topic . . . .

Every Book a Wonder

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John R. Neill (1910)

Out of the entire design of Emerald City, my only complaint is that a couple of the watercolors, while very pretty, are so detailed, and seen at such a distance from their subjects, that I can’t always make out what’s going on. My eye just doesn’t naturally pick up all the detail. Take a look, for example, at the plate of Glinda, Dorothy, and Ozma. Let me know when you see the Nome King.

Are you sure you mean the picture I think you mean? He’s not…oh!

Yeah, there you are – exactly. One day, I just opened it up and went, “Good grief, there he is!” 

That is funny. I had a similar feeling about other pictures, and I did wonder if that was anything to do with how they’ve been printed in the modern edition. Take the illustration of Dorothy being apprehended by an army of spoons. Look in the tree above her; there are houses of some kind in the branches above the tree.

It’s very hard to make out. Honestly, it kind of gets lost in that sea of green that makes up the background.

There’s Billina in that picture, as well, and I hadn’t spotted her the first time.

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John R. Neill (1910)

Oh, she is, isn’t she! No, I hadn’t noticed her at all. They’re complicated pictures, and I’d say it’s likely Reilly & Britton never replicated them at the quality Neill painted them. If you look, for instance, at the 1939 Junior Edition – like last month, when we showed a few colored pictures from The Road to Oz? – they’ve replicated his paintings as horrible muddy washes of color that are very hard to look at. There are even differences in early editions; my first edition, first printing of Emerald City is a lovely book, but it’s falling to bits, and missing some of its plates. I have a much more stable copy from the 1920s, but by then, they had stopped using the metallic green ink – they simply leave it out, resulting in big white empty spaces. Sometimes it works out all right, and sometimes it ruins the pictures.

The very use of that ink is just an indicator that they were making this as special a book as possible. They saw it as the end of an era, the last in a super-popular series, and I think they envisioned young Oz fans rereading and looking back over it for their Oz “hit” for years to come. It’s not something you can exhaust in one or two readings, and that’s deliberate.

I think particularly with the early Oz books, they’re trying really hard to make each one an event. It’s like the childhood version of this year’s car: ooh, here are the features for this year’s book! This one’s got bright shiny green ink! And it’s got 16 plates instead of 12! And it’s got little chapter headings! That kind of thing. They give up on it really soon, though – perhaps because of rising costs and shortages in the years leading up to World War I. Before long, the books will have a standard presentation.

Targeting the Audience

There’s one other thing that I keep wondering about with these pictures. What age of child are these really addressed to? They are so visual that there is a kind of picture book aspect to them . . . . 

I have no idea anymore! I’ve been wondering the same thing, because logically I would think to myself, the age range should be reflected in Dorothy, right?

Yep, that’s reasonable, especially as she’s the only actual child-figure in this book.

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John R. Neill (1910)

That makes sense. At the same time, though, ten years have passed since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Ozma of Oz was 1907. . . can we assume that Dorothy was, perhaps, 8 years old at that time? If Dorothy is 8 years old in 1907, and there’s been one book a year since then, are she and the audience both maybe . . . 11 now? Is that even possible? Sorry, of course it’s possible. I just have such a hard time discerning who it’s intended for. I really don’t feel like it’s very, very small children, the way the first book might have been. Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely! In part, the question came to me because it feels like there’s a bit of a mismatch in this one between the level of complexity of the plot (which is nil) and the level of detail (how richly he describes the places and houses and events). So little happens in this book, really, that it feels most suitable as a bedtime story for that very young child – but then, there’s also the wordplay, the complexity, which really suggests something different. I found myself asking, who is this for, really?

Do you know whom I think it’s for? At this point, it’s mostly for L. Frank Baum. What I mean by that is: he knows if it has the word Oz in it, it’s going to sell, so he’s just going to do whatever he wants. I’ve already sort of told you I didn’t like this book much when I was a kid. The truth of it is, I thought of this book as the last in a trilogy of Really Boring Books. They’re Baum’s big three travelogues where very little happens. Now, as an adult, I think it’s the best constructed of these three books, because it doesn’t just STOP midway through . . .

Ha!

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John R. Neill (1910)

Baum seems to be telling fairly basic stories with a lot of padding, sometimes investing more of his skill in the padding than in the “plotline,” which suggests to me that he kind of woke up in the morning, and went, “Welp, I’ve got to write an Oz book this year, what should I put in it?” He just sat down and wrote whatever he wanted, and he was frankly a bit bored. So much so, in fact, that I’m fairly convinced the only reason he came up with an invasion of Oz – bear in mind, the first truly evil plan in these books since the Wicked Witch of the West – was specifically so he could block Oz off from the outside world at the very end. He could use it as an excuse to say, “Oh, we must put ourselves in an invisible bubble and separate ourselves forevermore from the great outside world…buh-bye! Buy my other books.”

Yes! I totally agree. I’m surprised, in fact, that the chapter with the Rigmarole people doesn’t go on pages longer, because it seems to me it’s purely an excuse to put a lot of words on the page without having anything actually happen at all. He even chooses to give us a weird cutaway: a zebra trotting up out of nowhere and having an argument with a crab about the outside world. It’s so peculiar that it feels it must be a heavily coded bit of satire, but I think it’s just stream of consciousness: looming deadlines and suppression of his internal censor. It feels like he just wrote it, huffed out the candle and went to bed, dusting his hands . . . .

 “Six pages down! Two hundred and forty-seven to go!”

Exactly. There are moments here that feel to me completely transparent about how little he cares about what he produces, so long as he produces it. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t produce great stuff sometimes, but he also doesn’t mind if he doesn’t . . . and neither do Reilly & Britton.

No, it’s pretty obvious they have L. Frank Baum the Celebrity writing a book for them every year with the word “Oz” in the title, and they don’t really care what’s inside the covers. He doesn’t care either! It’s too bad, because there’s some stuff in this book that’s really good. It’s just all in the first half, before he loses the will to live.

Meanwhile, the Legion of Doom . . . .

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John R. Neill (1910)

The initial sequence with the Nome King is such an interesting way to start the book. Baum’s never started an Oz book before without the focus firmly on a child character (usually Dorothy). For the first time, it’s set up as if you should already be aware of this world and all of its people – you know, it’s like the latest episode of your favorite TV show. In a fantastically grim teaser, the Nome King sends multiple generals off to the meat slicer and vows his revenge on the Oz people. Cue the title sequence!

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Skottie Young (2013)

It’s one of Baum’s motifs, isn’t it? “They’re expecting a meat slicer joke, so I suppose I’d better shove one in somewhere. Maybe I’ll suggest the characters get eaten in the last half. I hate having to put these bits in, but the kids go crazy for threats of cannibalism . . . .”

Well . . . yes, it’s cuddly old Uncle Frank, so there’s always going to be gags about eating people. Aunt Em will, of course, think it very unfortunate Billina isn’t offering up her young to be eaten. My favorite is the bit in Bunbury where Toto eats some of the citizens; not only is Dorothy indignant that the other buns dare to be offended, but Billina defends Toto’s actions by saying they dared him to do it. Dorothy and her pets are like the worst kind of guests who show up, eat all your food, and then blame you for not having any more. “You only gave us a wheelbarrow and a piano to eat. What do you want? You want us to be neighborly, too?”

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Skottie Young (2013)

Aside from the humorous references to killing and eating people that we’ve come to expect from L. Frank Baum, however, I also thought there were parts of it that do show how far he’s come. There’s a really scary bit when General Guph meets the Phanfasms.

I love that bit. Really to my taste.

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John R. Neill (1910)

That’s a great bit, right? There are all these eyes watching Guph that he can’t see but he can feel, and even when he gets brought into the hut, it’s obviously not really a hut – yet that’s all he can make out with his poor fragile Nome senses. I love Neill’s response to the description of Guph having the sensation of being watched by a thousand eyes: he draws the First and Foremost of the Phanfasms holding Guph by the neck and surrounded by about a hundred literal eyes.

I must admit, I did have to look at that picture twice to work out what was going on . . . .

It’s that, or the First and Foremost really likes bubbles.

I like all of those scary people that Guph meets. They’re all really vividly imagined, really inventive, particularly the Whimsies, with their giant papier mache heads and tinted wool for hair. The Growleywogs, who are motivated by a sort of resentment not because they are innately horrible, but that they are –

They’re different. They’re different, and it makes them nasty. It’s one of the rare times Baum says, “To be different from your fellow creatures is always a misfortune.”

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Skottie Young (2013)

Yes! It’s like an internal conflict, for the first time, between Baum’s idealism and his cynicism. Being different is a difficult life.

I made a note while reading that just says, “Meanwhile, the war. . .” I like how we keep cutting away from docile events to show the Nome King building his tunnel or entertaining his allies. It’s like a cartoon, with all the supervillains sitting around together, going, “Well, do we attack the good people NOW?” “Yes, we attack the good people at dawn!” “AT DAWN!” “AT DAAAAAAWN!”

It’s a bit He-Man, isn’t it? It’s also a little bit like someone chopped Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz and The Road to Oz up and weaved them together. It’s as if Baum went, “Okay, okay. So not completely ‘terrifying,’ then, but also not completely ‘nothing happens.’”

You’re right – this one is all very scary music, with interjections of sudden bits of fluffy childhood security. Dun-dun-dun-dun PAPER DOLLS! Dun-dun-dun-dun BUNNIES! Dun-dun-dun-dun…

Back and forth, back and forth. Every single Oz book we’ve read so far has been really different in tone from all of the others. There’s not two where you can go, “These are completely alike.”

The Old Folks at Home

A large portion of this novel is given over to the ending of things. Baum is lining everything up in a row so he can leave it there, and there’s one particularly odd way in which he makes that happen. What did you think about Ozma bringing Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to Oz to live?

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Skottie Young (2013)

I really, really enjoyed it. It’s always been one of my favorite things about this book – I suppose because it breaks the rules of all children’s books. I don’t think this happens in any other children’s novel, and really, you’re not supposed to even want this, because escapism is supposed to be temporary and good for you, but you’re supposed to grow out of it – it’s not supposed to be the long-term solution. I think there’s a variety of reasons why Baum does it here. Partly it’s another indictment of our heartless modern world. Partly it’s just for the comedy of having them there.

There’s comedy for sure. When they meet the Lion, he’s in on the joke, going out of his way not to embarrass Aunt Em.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Oh, I missed that detail! I just read it as the confrontation of two absurdities – two people who should really never have met, and the Lion saying, I was so frightened I was a step away from ripping you to bits. It’s funny because Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are so much more earthly than she is. Your reading is a lot lighter than mine, though. I saw it as Baum’s realist streak showing again: that’s how cowardice and fear sometimes manifests, as random acts of violence . . . . 

Your reading is valid, and it’s exactly how I read it when I was a child. This time around, though,  I noticed we actually get a description: “‘The human eye is a fearful weapon,’ remarked the Lion, scratching his nose softly with his paw to hide a smile.” He’s humoring the daft old lady. It’s rather sly, understated humor on Baum’s part.

Oh, I missed that bit! Maybe it’s because of Neill’s illustration, which I’d never seen before. In my head, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry look like the actors Clara Blandick and Charley Grapewin. from the MGM film. Here, though, they’re wearing these ridiculous Ozian garments, and they look kind of like they’re from the 18th century. . . .

I think their transition to life in Oz is rather sweet. It contributes to the “sunset glow” that makes everything feel like it’s coming to an end: Ozma’s going to find something for them to do, Aunt Em’s going to be the official darner of stockings, and Billina’s going to have a few thousand more children, and that’s how we’re going to leave them. By the way, I don’t know how they’ve kept the land of Oz from being overrun by chickens at this point – sort of like the cane toad infestation that took over Australia. These are the chickens that took over Oz – though as the book points out later, that may not be such a bad thing, insofar as it prevents invasion by Nome. As for Ozma…

Absolutely, Your Worship!

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20th Century Fox (1977)

Finally, we have a book where Ozma does things. I started this book just before Christmas, and I was right in the early section where Ozma is being very, very princessy and regal right as the news came out about Carrie Fisher’s death. With all the photos online and footage from Star Wars on news programs, it was really hard not to see Princess Leia in my mind’s eye as I was reading about Ozma. That really showed up an inconsistency for me between how I remember the books and how the books actually are, because I remember Ozma as a real Leia-type: this princess who is bright and spunky and a real go-getter. There are some hints of that in Emerald City, actually. Yet this is also the book where Ozma decides she’d rather just sit back and be invaded.

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John R. Neill (1910)

Again, I think that relates to what we’ve talked about before, briefly, about how Baum’s idealism relates to his pragmatism. As much as the sense of an epic invasion is really not given its due gravitas, there is a tragic theme to this novel: Oz is (by this point) the perfect place, an utopian, socialist state of emancipated women, and therefore, quite naturally, the object of attack. Whether it’s for material gain or to enslave its citizens, or purely out of resentment of its moral purity and happiness, any force that could have designs on an utopian state like Oz is presented as capable of destroying it. Oz can only survive by withdrawing. Baum’s utopian idealism has this one completely tragic condition: it just couldn’t exist against the cynicism and moral bankruptcy of the modern world.

Right.

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John R. Neill (1910)

In the scene with Ozma refusing to fight, we see him portraying what he sincerely considers a high ideal of pacifism, but as something ultimately romantic and impossible, perhaps even dangerous and naive. It’s part of the romantic tone to the last chapters of the book. In anticipation of the invasion at daybreak, we get this Garden of Gethsemane moment where four odd men, who have been made by the Ozian people and can’t technically die, gather together and lament for the passing of Oz. They actually weep in Neill’s illustration, which is just extraordinary, really. It goes beyond symbolism; it’s a weird collision of cultural mores of the time and the fact that Baum and Neill had more or less a free hand in whatever they did with this book, really, and weren’t even censoring themselves in what they presented. It’s kind of hard to judge it by any normal aesthetic measure, because it’s not even a political statement; it’s just a moment of two men having a kind of romanticist flamboyant episode, really. Almost hysterical, in a funny sort of way. Does that make sense? 

Yes, it does. I think L. Frank Baum was a complex beast and had a lot of facets. I’m a little worried what happens when we get beyond Baum, in fact, because I don’t think anybody treated his world with the same sincerity – well, Jack Snow, maybe. In the closing chapters of this book, though, I thought Baum was really talking about his view of death. Too much?

Go on.

Well, I found myself wondering if Baum’s romantic nature and his more pragmatic side ever had a little fight about the concept of death. It’s a strangely romanticized pragmatism right there at the end, isn’t it? Here we are, at this one brief shining moment, and soon, it will be gone . . . but there’s nothing we can do, so we might as well get up in the morning and face it full-on. It’s a very mixed message. I agree with you, there’s symbolism in those four characters standing around and talking and basically waiting to die – waiting to be invaded. They’re just going to watch the very spot where it will happen, until it bursts open and everything goes to hell! I mean, it’s lunatic.

Yeah, they’re resigned to their fate.

It’s a very optimistic resignation, though! Yes, well, it has been really nice, let’s have one more nice meal together, and get a nice sleep, and get up early in the morning so we can die.

I think it comes down to the fact that the Land of Oz is utopian – and we could get into all the intricacies of “okay, it’s a socialist utopia, but Ozma has so many servants she has nothing for Aunt Em to do, so…” – but Baum does present this as a perfect place, where you live forever so long as you’re good . . . .

Unless you die of the pip!

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John R. Neill

Oh, Baum allows himself to break with continuity for a death gag, obviously – I think he always will – but he presents that utopian situation as boring, frankly. He’s doing it on purpose, too – over the last few books, he’s slowly made Oz so perfect he can’t tell any more stories about it. What would happen if he did? People would wake up, have a nice day, go to bed, wake up, drive out of town, see some people made out of jigsaw puzzles, come back and go to bed again. If the Ozian people showed any violence here, or any capacity to destroy another person, that would mar their perfection, to the extent that he would have to write another book! They have to be perfect so that story is done. Baum ends by reassuring us that everyone in Oz has achieved that moral perfection, so we can let them be.

I get that: in not lowering themselves to violence, these characters remain perfect, so when the enemy is defeated, they’re more perfect still, and we leave them in a sort of idyllic existence. What’s particularly interesting to me is that there’s another figure yet who is more perfect than they are – and that’s Glinda.

Mama’s Gonna Help Build the Wall

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John R. Neill (1914)

Glinda shows up at the end to be everybody’s mom, and I just find that so fascinating. Instead of a God, Our Father symbol, Baum has decided on Goddess, Our Mother. It’s really driven home, I should add, by that plate Neill drew of Glinda as a very motherly figure with Dorothy under one arm and Ozma under the other. Glinda shows up to fix everyone’s problems, much as she did in the original book; she has complete intelligence, she has complete control, she can do whatever needs to be done, and because it’s Glinda, it’s going to be perfect and inviolate. It’s really comforting to have this Ultimate Mother figure, especially if you’re a child reading the book, but as an adult, I have to look at it slightly differently. Yet again, we are learning how much you don’t want to piss off Glinda. Actually, you don’t want to make her happy, either: if she decides she likes bunnies, she’s going to make a bunny city!

Whether they want it or not! Glinda is a very powerful individual, and she’s even outside of the situation of Oz being invaded. She knows that it’s going on, she doesn’t want to intervene –

That’s why she feels like God!

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John R. Neill (1910)

– And evidently, she doesn’t feel threatened by it, either. Why would she be? She really is a Mother Goddess. Big “G,” without any reservations. There’s not a minute where she’s implied as mortal in any sense. She’s not even a common-or-garden witch any more. By this book, she’s the only one with the designation of Sorceress, which is interesting in terms of the view of witchcraft that Baum might have had from Maud Gage. There’s something about the Sorceress: she’s mystical, rather than magical.

I’m positive – positive! – that Glinda is based on Baum’s wife Maud. I think she must be – or at least, to split a hair – she is based on the mother of his children.

Yeah, I can see what you’re saying.

Glinda is not a character we ever fully grasp, I think. She’s always a little bit untouchable. There might be one or two books where she becomes a little bit more human, but not by much. And that’s been an interesting thing for me to realize as we read these: just how powerful she really is. In the first book, she’s just a Good Witch; then she becomes a Sorceress and we never really look back. By this book, she can practically change physics, so . . . it’s quite astonishing.

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Skottie Young (2013)

She has everything written in her magic book, too, which is interesting. In effect, it’s quite like Ozma’s Magic Picture, but a book is so much more powerful a symbol than a picture – in terms of scholarship and religion and even this physical thing we’re discussing now, storytelling and authorship and Baum. You could say that Glinda is basically carrying out the role of the author at the end of the book, but she’s also like us, turning the pages, reading their adventures.  There’s something potently meta-textual about Glinda and her book.

Yes. As much as the Magic Picture can show you anywhere at any time, the Great Book of Records has everything that ever happens everywhere. Glinda is the keeper of the ultimate knowledge. One of my biggest annoyances with the MGM film is Glinda, because it so undercuts Baum’s concept of the character. She doesn’t really fit for me. She’s just Billie Burke playing a Billie Burke character. Admittedly, though, it does feel like she could have created Bunnybury. “I just love little rabbits! Poof! You have your own city now!”

The End of the Road . . . ?

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John R. Neill (1910)

It wasn’t quite as complex as I was expecting, but I did enjoy reading The Emerald City of Oz. It is teeming with weird ideas, weird inventions, and surprises. It’s a very unusual book, an easy read, and although it could’ve been dull in places, it had just enough momentum – Baum was just enough invested in it – that it held together and was fun.

Absolutely. I enjoyed the beginning very much, I enjoyed the middle quite a bit, and there’s a bit around 2/3s in where it feels like it’s got a bit of a lull, but it picks up again toward the end. I think I enjoyed the whole of it more than I did either Dorothy and the Wizard or Road. I still don’t think it’s one of the best in the series. For whatever reason, I have yet to encounter any of the books we’ve read so far where my childhood impression has been really off the mark. If we stick to the pattern, that means we have some good books coming up!

I’m looking forward to a book where people don’t just drive around for no reason. That’s a real downside, a real flaw to this book, that makes it pointlessly tedious at times.

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John R. Neill (1910)

There’s never going to be a time where Baum completely gives up on giving us a travelogue. For some reason, this is a man who is always destined to write 300 page books that should be 200 pages long. From here on out, though, he at least gives us reasons for this stuff, and I think he learns, eventually, to come up with stronger endings – or if not endings, stronger climaxes, to where you actually feel like you’ve read a book. That’s as opposed to really great beginnings that . . . just end, suddenly.

I do like the conclusion to this book, too, and the way that the invaders are redeemed rather than destroyed. That’s quite a nice ending, even if there’s a moral dubiousness to it about whether it’s better to die or have your entire personality erased.

We could talk for a while about Ozma basically lobotomizing people, but . . . .

I’d rather not dwell on it.

Me neither, at least not this time around. Would you give this book to a child?

Yes – more so than the other two that we’ve just read. I’d really enjoy reading this to a child, because it has some drama, it has some laughs, it has a clever ending…ish, and…yeah. I thought this was one of the best assembled and addressed to a child audience since Ozma of Oz.

I agree with that – it has a nice balance to it. It’s not over, though, Nick!  This can’t be the end. The best is yet to come!

Should Oz have ended right here and now? Tell us in a comment! 

Next Time

Sea Fairies 1911 Plate 5THE SEA FAIRIES

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Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.

The Road to Oz (1909)

road-1909-coverBy 1909, L. Frank Baum was ready to move on from Oz. He had hinted as much in the author’s note to his last book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and the note that opened his new offering, The Road to Oz, made it explicit: “I have received some very remarkable News from the Land of Oz, which has greatly astonished me . . . but it is a such a long and exciting story that it must be saved for another book – and perhaps that book will be the last story that is ever told about the Land of Oz.” In the meantime, Baum offered up another story that was both lighter and frothier than its predecessor, built almost solely around the journey through fairyland that formed the core of many of his earlier tales. In it, he said, he tried to “respect the wishes” of his young readers and provide them with “some new characters . . . that ought to win [their] love.” It’s hard not to read those as the vague, upbeat sentiments of a man who feels worn down.

Here at BURZEE, though, we are anything but worn down. A year has passed since our very first blog, and we’re really in the groove of it now. After a few slow starts, we’re feeling confident in our format and excited for the books to come. We’d like to thank you for coming along with us! Now, it’s time to celebrate: surprisingly, and by total coincidence, with a book that ends in a party – the blog comes full circle with a visit from the magical and immortal Santa Claus . . .

aI actually came to this book with very minimal expectations, says Nick. My only real memory of this book is a very clear image of being read it by my Mum. Everything about the memory is odd – furniture in the wrong places, and so on – so I wonder if this was around the time my sister was born, when I was five. Oddly enough, I still remember key points, like Button Bright’s facial reconstruction and the fate of the Love Magnet, but I was only vaguely aware, before reading it again, that the novel itself was a little slow. What were your memories and expectations, Sarah?

I don’t have a strong memory of my opinion of this book, Sarah replies, except that I always lumped it in with Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as one of the lesser Baum books. I think that’s just because of its relatively minimal narrative drive.

Let’s start with that, then, because I’d actually call it total lack of narrative drive. I was surprised, in virtually every chapter, by the wealth of things that do not happen and obstacles that fail to arise (or persist). After a book where characters were being chucked down pits or attacked by monsters every few pages, I almost couldn’t believe what I was reading. It’s a travelogue, essentially.

road-xmasHonestly, I felt like the first few chapters of the book worked pretty well. I like that Baum has given up on the “extreme weather” device of sending Dorothy to Oz, and instead, there’s the strong visual of her surrounded by endless roads; you can absolutely visualize how the cinematic version of that scene would look. The tone of the first few chapters works well, too. The trouble is that after you meet the last member of Dorothy’s company, there’s almost no danger whatsoever, and Baum starts to repeat himself almost immediately.

Unlike in Wonderful Wizard, there’s nothing personally at stake for the characters –particularly Dorothy, who is so confident about reaching the safety of Ozma so early on and keeps reassuring the other characters. They are so lacking in personal motivation themselves that there really isn’t anything for them to worry about, up to and including unexpectedly having animal heads.

Yes – they get concerned for a moment, and then it’s over. It’s too bad, because in most regards, I think this is actually a fairly strong set of diverse characters. The problem is that everyone happily decides go along with whatever happens, which does not make for an exciting story. Reading the two books right after another, I think I ended up with a hazy idea that if you combined the characters of Road and the incidents of Dorothy and the Wizard, you would end up with one really good movie. That pretty clearly indicates the deficiencies of both books.

The significant improvement on the last book is in the characters, definitely, which brings us back to one of Baum’s great strengths. Even though they have nothing to lose and even less to contribute, all the central characters here are really enjoyable. You want to spend time with them.

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John R. Neill (1909)

Right. There’s no “Zeb”-type here; nobody’s here just for their brute strength. Button-Bright is effectively useless, but he’s a realistic small boy who feels drawn from life, as if he was a child that Baum knew – maybe even once of his own sons. Polychrome doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the plot, but she’s a great character in that she’s so dainty and ephemeral, especially alongside the very grounded personality of Dorothy. It should be noted that Baum obviously liked these characters, too: he featured all of them as protagonists again, more than once!

It’s the combination of their differences that really works. Polychrome is so fluffy and Dorothy so down to earth; Button Bright so innocent and the Shaggy Man so worldly. The fact that there’s no hierarchy between them brings us back to what I think of as a sort of Muppet Show aesthetic: it shouldn’t work to have these characters together, but they form an entertaining gang, for all their extreme contrasts.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I think that’s an interesting point; essentially what Baum says again and again – at least, in his best combinations of characters – is that we’re all weirdos and that’s okay, which is surely a very Muppet Show idea. The scene that demonstrates that best is a great one in Dunkiton where everybody is given what they like best for dinner. The Shaggy Man is a man of the road, and he wants something portable and practical: a ham sandwich and an apple. Polychrome, meanwhile, has three dew drops on a plate. Button Bright, being a child, just wants pie, and Dorothy… I really liked Dorothy’s choice. Any other author would have given Dorothy something delicate and feminine and a little bit proper, like a fruit salad or a dish of ice cream, but Baum has her ask for a steak and some chocolate layer cake! It’s the most red-blooded American meal there could possibly be, and then – ever the good-hearted child – she shares some of the steak with Toto. That little scene alone shows you these characters in counterpoint to each other in a way that makes them feel vivid and alive.

Picking up on your point, there’s actually a scene near the end where they arrive in Oz, something of a repeat of that bit in Dorothy and the Wizard where everybody meets one another and tells their life stories. Here, they tell their life stories again – including Dorothy and the Wizard! – which is sort of funny and endless. Polychrome says (echoing Billina in Ozma of Oz), “You have some queer friends, Dorothy,” and Dorothy says, “The queerness doesn’t matter so long as they are friends.” That could almost be the motto of the entire Oz series.

King of the Road

Of course, not all of Baum’s homilies are so sentimental. Another striking one concerns Tik-Tok: “Perhaps it is better to be a machine that does its duty than a flesh-and-blood person who will not, for a dead truth is better than a live falsehood.” Reading between the lines, I think Baum resented being penned into writing endless sequels, but it’s still a very sincere and even personal novel.

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in the character of the Shaggy Man. In the Winter 1990 issue of The Baum Bugle, there’s a short piece by Hal Lynch calling this “the most dangerous Oz book.” Lynch rails against the idea that Baum starts a novel where Dorothy goes off with a strange man, saying that the most sacred rule of childhood has been violated: don’t go off with strangers. While I certainly take his point, the idea that you wouldn’t trust someone because you don’t know them yet is pretty much against everything Baum says in his books. The way a Baum story works, of course the Shaggy Man is somebody who is trustworthy, of course he turns out not to be a villain.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I wonder if there is any significance to be drawn from the fact that the Shaggy Man repeatedly refers to Dorothy as “my dear,” exactly how Baum refers to his readers. I’m not saying that’s deliberate insertion of Baum into this novel, but I do think there’s a real identification between Baum and the Shaggy Man, particularly in his relationship to trusting children like Dorothy. He’s not just romanticized; I feel that he is a figure of personal significance to Baum.

Sure. I also found myself wondering if there’s a little bit of Baum in the Shaggy Man, just the way that there’s a little bit of Baum in the Wizard: they’re both self-made men (well, to a point), and they’re both tricksters. I wonder if Baum at all styled himself as the Shaggy Man in that in 1909, he had travelled so much over the past few years.

All that said, at this point, Baum also functions as the opposite of the Shaggy Man. He has so many commitments at the time this comes out –  even grandchildren! The Shaggy Man represents a freedom about which a man like Frank Baum can only fantasize.

How do you feel about the Love Magnet? For me, it’s the one really dark thing in this book. I don’t mean scary – because the encounter with the Scoodlers is certainly that – I mean dark. Manipulation isn’t something that Baum tends to ascribe to positive characters. The Wizard was manipulative in his first appearance, and so was the Nome King; here, we have the major adult figure of the book manipulating the affections of child protagonists. That’s a fairly dangerous item.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Actually, I didn’t read any of those sinister overtones this time. In fact, I saw the Love Magnet as a rather melancholy object, perhaps even meant as an indictment of our own world, where someone like the Shaggy Man is going to be intrinsically unloved. Bearing in mind the possibility that Baum saw himself in the figure of the Shaggy Man, I couldn’t help wondering if the love magnet was symbolic of the Oz books themselves (my dears). It’s an object that wins him the love and admiration of many, but it’s artificial and it’s stolen, and to a great extent it’s even tawdry.

We’re returning to that idea of the most dangerous Oz book, I feel. It’s much less concerning to me that Dorothy goes off with a stranger, particularly in the context of 1909, than it is that Dorothy goes away with someone who is manipulating her.

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John R. Neill (1909)

What’s funny is that you can imagine the feedback coming in for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz: “Too much drama! Too scary!” The Love Magnet is a sort of guarantee, from the very first chapter, that our heroes will survive any dangerous situation; everyone will love them instead of trying to destroy them. The more you think of it, though, the more you realize how much Baum plays on this device – this artificial rosy glow. In the cities of Foxville or Dunkiton, people love our characters so much they want to remake them in their own image. It goes so far in the land of the Scoodlers that this symbol of love – this “safety guarantee” on the very narrative of the book – becomes comically inverted to the point of horror.

That’s a particularly funny moment. There might actually be a little bit of warning here, too, which is that you can’t force people to love you. The Scoodlers do say, “We love you!” but it’s “We love you in soup!”  

Behave Yourself!

I found it very enjoyable that, once again, we follow Dorothy on a simple, straightforward journey, just as in the very first Oz book. Dorothy and Toto, in fact. How nice is it to have Toto back? I’ve noticed that Baum anthropomorphizes all of his cats; whether they’re the Lion, the Tiger, or even Eureka, they’re all very human in their personalities. Toto, on the other hand, is a dog. Toto is the most doggish dog there could possibly be, and Baum writes him with the enthusiasm of someone who knows and enjoys dogs. Toto’s entire first scene in this book has the joyful glee of a dog’s irreverent behaviour and the sheer fun of chaos they bring to a situation. I, for one, enjoyed having Toto back with Dorothy as opposed to other, prissier companions.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I almost feel that Toto functions as the id to Dorothy’s ego. She’s the one saying, “We don’t do that, we’re well behaved,” and he just hares off after everything, barks at everyone, and openly shows his affection whenever he wants. In the banquet at the end, the animals dine with the people and Toto is actually in a highchair with a bib. There’s a line about how in Oz, animals are treated just the same as anyone, as long as they behave themselves.

In future books, Ozma will actually give that as her sole edict: the only rule in Oz is to “behave yourself.”

We don’t get that here, but we do learn that nobody dies in Oz except people who do bad things and are put to death. That’s a strong incentive to behave yourself! To me, Baum is working through a process in these early novels of solidifying and stabilizing Oz, getting it to where everything is such a perfect utopia, he couldn’t write another sequel if they beg him. Part of that involves a real moral absolutism, which is casually mentioned and lightly sketched but is, in fact, totally extreme. In the merry old land of Oz, if you don’t “behave,” you are as good as rejecting eternal life in paradise.

Yes – and a paradise without any money, too. Baum is quietly redefining Oz as a socialist utopia, which is interesting because it changes Oz from being somewhere you would like to visit but never live in to somewhere you would never leave.

It’s funny that in the opening book there was a gleeful note in the idea that “Oz has never been civilized,” but since Ozma came in, it’s less anarchic, more civilized and more morally authoritarian than ever before.

We’ve seen a few examples of Ozma’s style of governance by now. I think as a child I found it standard and very natural, but as an adult, I worry a bit more about what having Ozma as my ruler would be like.

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Skottie Young (2013)

It’s interesting to me that it is a socialist utopia in the vein of William Morris’ quietly radical novel News from Nowhere, but it still has an unelected, hereditary monarch. Everyone’s throwing roses at her feet, and she lives in a palace with a window to anywhere in Oz. There’s this weird sense of stasis, too, with these new ideas about (a lack of) death.  Again, we’re getting to a point where Baum can leave things and we’ll all trust that they go on forever: we’re moving towards an eternal summer and an eternal reign of Ozma. As a child that’s reassuring, but for an adult, it’s the opposite.

It makes Ozma’s rule feel like a benevolent dictatorship; it’s hard not to be reminded of Fidel Castro, who died just before we had this conversation. How much do tyrants freeze their countries in time, ultimately to the detriment of their people? What’s troubling for us is that in earlier books we’ve seen Oz as a much more complex place, where citizens are clearly being taken advantage of by governments, where certain members of the population have attempted to revolt. Now we’re being asked to accept that everybody is just fine with Ozma’s complete and unending oversight. Those two scenarios don’t gel very well, in my opinion.

I think it doesn’t help that at this point in the series, Ozma is kind of unknowable. Ever since she changed from a boy into a girl we’ve seen less and less of her. She’s a slightly faceless figure in the text. It’s only really in Neill’s illustrations that she becomes a person with a character.

It’s hard for me to separate, sometimes, because I’ve read the later Oz books and I know Ozma quite well. (In some of those, she becomes far more of a protagonist than we’ve yet seen.) Dorothy, however, already seems to know how great Ozma is: her gushing descriptions clearly make her out to be the new ruler’s biggest fan.

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John R. Neill (1909)

Dorothy’s love for Ozma is also emphasized by the illustrations. There’s a lovely picture of the girls sharing a chaste kiss, and the same image is essentially emblematized on the back cover. It’s almost as if this quasi-romantic love between the earthly farmgirl and her fantastical girlfriend represent the very character of the Oz books, where the down-to-earth meets the far-fetched. Perhaps for Neill that is more romantic, and for Baum it’s more childlike?

I think it’s clear – from, at least, Neill’s illustrations in this book and the previous one – that Ozma and Dorothy have what would have been called, at the turn of the century, a “romantic friendship.” It’s the kind of thing you see exemplified in books such as Anne of Green Gables, where Anne and Diana gush about one another endlessly and, even when they go off to be married, openly devote themselves to one another for the Remainder of Recorded Time. It’s something alien to our more sexually oriented mindset these days. No matter how you look at it, though, I can’t but think that Dorothy is influenced by her obvious love for the Princess Ozma, and as an adult it makes me wonder if she sees Ozma entirely clearly.

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John R. Neill (1909)

You mean that she sees her, perhaps, as a child as opposed to a head of state with all of the other, slightly worrying aspects you’ve described?

Well, I wonder if Dorothy sees Ozma as a much more innocent figure than she really may be. That isn’t helped by the fact that in later books Baum will play with how old Ozma is, and how much magical power she has. I have to question whether Ozma is simply a naïve but benevolent leader or whether she, like the Shaggy Man, is much more manipulative than Dorothy gives her credit. Even something as simple as Ozma having a giant birthday party gets called into question. As adults, we have to wonder if this is a child having the most outrageous birthday party ever or a queen who wants her courtiers to bow and scrape in an outrageous expression of ceremony.

For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow(?)

Potentially, it’s also a demonstration of statesmanship between the new ruler of Oz and, say, the Queen of Merryland or King John Dough. I must say that the cameos at the birthday party were a particular pleasure for me, having read and discussed all these books for the first time with you this year. All the awkwardness and oddness of those books has paid off in the uniquely weird joy of seeing all their protagonists sit down to dinner together at the end.

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Harry McNaught (1951)

Ah, and now you see the endgame to my cunning plan! Even I hadn’t read all of those other books when we started out a year ago, and I was always intrigued with the way Baum included the characters at the end of this book. What I realize now is how obvious his motive was: he was getting children to ask their parents to buy those books for Christmas, probably because they weren’t selling as well!

I’m so naïve that I didn’t spot that until afterward. Of course, it makes perfect sense, along with the “please read my other books, and by the way I’m ending the series next year” message that we get in the preface. What’s beautiful, though, is that I didn’t notice what was going on; these books are precisely the kind of place where you would have Santa Claus turn up at Ozma’s birthday party.

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Skottie Young (2013)

I think, inadvertently, Baum has just made his world much bigger and brighter because he’s linked all these stories together. Oz isn’t just one little place in the middle of nowhere anymore; it’s alongside the borders of all of these other countries. I think that’s enough to send any child’s head spinning with possibility, and it frees Baum up to do more of that in the future – which he will, of course.

Even the Braided Man turns up to say –

“Buy Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, kids!”

“Find out who this completely bizarre character is…”

“… for the three pages in which he appears.” Yep!

All the Colors of the Rainbow

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John R. Neill (1909)

This is a good place to talk about the John R. Neill illustrations. Although he’s depicted the John Dough and the Cherub characters before, he’s never drawn Queen Zixi of Ix – who looks very different from the version in her own book – or the Queen of Merryland or the Candy Man. I think this book is probably the candidate for Neill’s most delicate artwork. It’s very careful, it’s very layered, and it’s almost impossible to see at any detail if you reduce it to a smaller size. It’s very, very beautiful. At the same time, though, I have to be incredibly regretful that this is the one Baum book for which Neill provided no colour plates. Unlike the previous book, I think this one would have really benefited from some watercolors.

When you literally have the Rainbow’s Daughter in a book it would be nice to have her in color.

When she pops up again in a few books’ time she is very colorful indeed. Wouldn’t it be great to see the attack of the Scoodlers in color, too?

…Or Foxville, because they’re such fops and dandies, aren’t they? That would look wonderful.

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Harry McNaught (1951)

 

…Or the sailing of Johnny Dooit’s ship across the Deadly Desert, which seems to have inspired a number of cover artists. Michael Herring, for instance, used it on the cover of the Del Rey paperback.

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Michael Herring (1979)

It’s one of those books that has such incredible imagery – more than earlier Baum stuff, perhaps. Not much happens, but what does happen is unlike anything else. I must say, having looked around online, I wish I had a copy of the Little Golden Book. The artwork there is so charming and full of life, and there’s a great image of the desert ship in there full of pure joie de vivre.

How do you feel about the colored pages? (The earliest editions of The Road to Oz were published with subsequent sections of the book printed on different colored page stock, including tan, lilac, blue, orange, green and brown. All of the Neill illustrations in this blog are sampled from the first edition, first printing of the book.) In my opinion, they’re a neat effect, but I don’t think they do anything particularly useful.

Well, from the outside of the book they look great, but I don’t think they ever make Neill’s art look better than it would on white paper. Sometimes I think it’s the reverse, and the detail is not very clearly differentiated. There are some cases where it’s hard to make out what’s going on – like the image of Santa Claus in the bubble, where it’s hard to tell it’s Santa at all.

Part of that’s not having any color, which is improved, at least somewhat, in the 1939 “junior edition” of The Road to Oz. That reduced-size release “for little hands” colored some of Neill’s illustrations to accompany an abridged version of the story. Even there, though, I think any sort of reproduction of Neill’s pictures makes the quality slightly worse. The illustrations for this book are very delicate because they’re made up of so many fine lines.

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John R. Neill – Selections from the “Junior Edition” (1909, 1939)

The crowd scenes are incredible. Baum basically says, would you please draw a crowd of two hundred people, made up of scarecrows, animals, robots and giant insects, and Neill just delivers.

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Skottie Young (2013)

Throughout our blogs, I’ve been trying to find artists other than Neill to showcase – not because I dislike Neill (far from it), but because I’m aware of how much he owns the identity of so many of these characters from The Marvelous Land of Oz onward. In fact, he basically owns the illustrated Oz of the 20th century: although he died in the 1940s, his designs for the characters lived on through the work of prominent Oz artists Dick Martin (in the ‘60s and ‘70s) and Eric Shanower (in the ‘80s and ‘90s), both of whom intentionally drew in a style inspired by Neill. That means that for almost 100 years, the basic images of all the Oz characters have never really changed.

It’s only with Skottie Young, who did the Marvel Comics adaptations of the first six books, that I think time has finally moved on. I think Young is the significant Oz illustrator for the 2000s to date, and it’s with The Road to Oz, specifically, that I realise how much Young has left Neill behind. There’s no character who is more different and original than Young’s Polychrome. While on the one hand that’s a little bit heartbreaking for me – after all, the Oz in my head is and always will be John R. Neill’s – it’s also tremendously exciting to see Young so deftly demonstrate that there are still new approaches to take with these stories and characters.

An Experiment in Sweetness

I said before that my expectations were low for The Road to Oz because I knew that nothing of any note was going to happen; in fact, even less happens than I was expecting. I still really enjoyed the book, and every time I came back to it, I got something out of it. It’s so interesting to see references to books like Dot and Tot of Merryland, where Baum seemed to be experimenting with style and content, because he’s doing it again. It’s almost as if, like the rest of us, Baum just can’t figure out whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was mostly frightening or mostly reassuring. This time around, the Oz books are suddenly gentle and sweet and funny.

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John R. Neill (1909)

I think I was particularly not looking forward to it. I knew it was not one of my favorite Oz books as a child, and I had also heard other people say they gave up specifically on this book when they tried to read the Oz books in order. I knew, then, that this was not going to be an intrinsically great book, but I will say that I enjoyed reading it – and I think I enjoyed it more than Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, too. It certainly sags in the middle, around the time they get to the Emerald City, but it’s very far from being a bad book. There are simply too many interesting characters and too many clever little moments for me to entirely give up on it.

And would you give this book to a child?

Yes, but for an entirely different reason to last time, which is that I think most children will enjoy these characters and enjoy these jokes. What concerns me is the final half or so of the book is so based in your knowing and wanting to know the existing characters of this series that it might not make a good introduction to the world. (Several notable fans, however – including Eric Shanower – clearly disagree!)

It doesn’t work as an introduction, no, but for my part, I still cherish that childhood memory of being read the book. Of the first five so far, it’s in this one that Baum has hit on the same voice as that of Wonderful Wizard.

I agree with you, Nick – but we can’t get too comfortable. In the next book, everything changes…

Do you love The Road to Oz, or do you long for a more exciting Oz tale? Tell us in a comment! 

Next Time

emerald-blog-1THE EMERALD CITY OF OZ

Read along with us and send in your thoughts! Tell us what topics we should discuss! Be a part of BURZEE!

Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908)

dotwiz-1908-coverIt took most of a decade, but by 1908, the Oz books were officially a series, and L. Frank Baum was riding high on success. Ozma of Oz, the first book of his new contract, started the Oz books on a yearly track that would be maintained for the rest of the decade; alongside of those, under various pseudonyms, Baum was engaged in writing animal fairy tales for tiny children, adventurous stories for both older boys and girls, and an Egyptian thriller for adults. He had recently returned from a six-month voyage with his wife, Maud, that encompassed visits to Egypt and a number of European countries, and whether it was as the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz book or the Wizard of Oz stage extravaganza, he was considered a celebrity wherever he went. In 1908, L. Frank Baum truly had it made.

With all Baum had to look forward to that year, it may seem a little surprising that in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he chose to look back, tying up the original, eponymous loose end from his original breakout novel. Perhaps, though, he was already feeling the strain, for as he said in the note to his readers, “It’s no use . . . the children won’t let me stop telling tales of the Land of Oz. I know lots of other stories, and I hope to tell them, some time or another…”

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I’m ashamed to say I didn’t read this book in the fancy Books of Wonder edition you sent me, Sarah, says Nick. I have so much nostalgia attached to my original Del Rey edition. It actually has a little “This book belongs to…’ where I have written somewhat clumsily, “Nicholas Campbell, the biggest Oz maniac in Britain.” I vividly remember the shock and delight at discovering this book in the UK, presented so authoritatively with that bizarre cover. Do you remember reading Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a child?

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Michael Herring (1979)

I do, Sarah replies. A friend of my mother’s – a librarian – gave me a whole bundle of the Del Rey editions when I was quite small. She gave them to me at a pizza restaurant, I remember, one at a time. Whenever I left the table, I’d come back and there would be another book. It quickly became a game; I couldn’t refill my drink fast enough! And I remember specifically the very last one was Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. It certainly sticks in my mind, and I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old.

That’s really lovely. It’s like you shared my experience of discovery and surprise, even though she was arranging that for you.

It was very exciting and very silly.

Like this novel, perhaps? 

A Little Bit of History Repeating

img_8496For years, Sarah, I’ve been calling this one of my favorite Oz books. Compared to Ozma of Oz, there’s just so much stuff that happens. The Mangaboos, the Gargoyles, the Dragonettes, the Invisible Bears – there’s a chapter called “They Fight the Invisible Bears.” How can you not love that? Given that we were talking last time about Return to Oz being more frightening than Baum, did this book scare you as a child?

No.

Oh.

img_20161120_093755I’m afraid, Nick, I found this an absolutely boring bloody book as a child – but I can tell you why. As a child, my entire motivating interest in Oz was the amount of magical creatures involved, so a book primarily populated by “real-life” figures – ordinary American people and their animals – was automatically going to be less interesting.

I think I was also just a bit disinterested in the lack of a story. Things happen in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and there’s certainly a drive to escape things, but there’s not even the light semblance of a plot such as that you find in Marvelous Land, for instance.

I do know where you’re coming from, but at the same time, the book feels like it has a lot more atmosphere than its predecessors. It’s more inventive and there’s a lot more jeopardy. Compared to Ozma of Oz, there is also a much more natural narrative flow. It feels to me as if Baum was really coming into his own as a writer in terms of style.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Yes, I think I will agree with you on that. I noticed several times that this felt to me like the work of a more mature writer than any of the previous Oz books; Baum became more evocative in his descriptions, more able to engage the reader emotionally instead of presenting scenes as illustrative tableaus. There was less of a remove for me as the reader than in previous Oz books.

For the most part, there’s not even a suggestion that this novel could have become a theatre piece down the line, unlike the earlier books. It felt like a real engagement in writing a book where the most impossible things can happen, and the most impossible people, too.

Yes. As much as I like the previous books a lot, this one seemed the most like someone was trying to write a genuine novel since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Actually, I get the sense that he might have gone back and reread Wonderful Wizard following his readers’ requests for returning characters. There are countries made of glass and wood, just as the original has one of china, and the very last lines of the book are almost a re-enactment of Dorothy’s return to Kansas. It’s as if he hadn’t previously acknowledged the special pleasures of the book, distracted all that time by theatre.

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Dick Martin (1961)

If I were being cynical I would say that he’s trying to replicate certain dramatic incidents from Wonderful Wizard, at least. The sequence with the Gargoyles reminded me very strongly of the siege by the various creatures of the Wicked Witch of the West, especially the way the Wizard fends them off with the gas fire. When they finally do attack and fight our heroes, it made me think of the attack by the Winged Monkeys.

And Jim’s escape with the wings…

…That’s very much the Gump, yes. Again, were I more cynical about it, I might call Baum unoriginal here. However, by now, I also think he knows what works. It’s a little bit unfair to get too critical of him for it, because this book is eight years after Wonderful Wizard and theoretically, he’s writing to an entirely new child audience. A child who was four years old in 1900, and read Wizard by his or her parents, is now twelve years old and potentially reading Dorothy and the Wizard to a baby brother or sister.

Are Friends Delicious?

There are definite questions about how appropriate this book is for young readers. Wouldn’t you agree that it’s a rather disturbing read?

Oh, it is indeed. There’s an article by Marilynn Olson called “Roots of Oz” (which you can find in L. Frank Baum’s World of Oz: A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Suzanne Rahn), which is chiefly focused on Baum’s use of vegetable people like the Mangaboos. Right at the outset, Olson quotes Baum’s oldest son, who called Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz “the harshest, the sombrest, the furthest removed from Baum’s kindly philosophy of all the Oz books.” I found that quite striking. It’s a very violent, grim book, and I think, as a child, I always picked up on the general darkness of it. I remembered a lot of it taking place underground, in the dark, and I certainly always remembered the Mangaboo sorcerer being sliced in half, perhaps because there’s a very memorable color plate of that event.

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John R. Neill (1908)

I have a vague memory of thinking “Is this really happening?” and turning the page and seeing the illustration confirm it, in no uncertain terms. It’s certainly more violent than anything that’s happened since the very first book.

The darkness I did not remember is that which comes out in character interactions. There is conversation after conversation where characters discuss eating or killing each other. In particular, there’s a long strand about Eureka’s interest in eating the nine tiny piglets that goes well beyond the previous book’s joke of the Hungry Tiger, to the point where it forms the final act of the novel.

As if that’s not enough, the Hungry Tiger himself is back to have a completely passive-aggressive conversation with Jim the Cab Horse.  The Tiger’s conscience “would never permit” him to eat Jim; Jim’s conscience, on the other hand, apparently keeps him from kicking in the Tiger’s skull. “Some day I will let you try to crush in my skull,” says the Tiger, “and afterward you will know more about tigers than you do now.” It’s all very threatening – and a bit unsettling, too.

There’s a surprising amount of violence and threat of death, even for Baum. There are eleven uses of the word “death”; seven of “murder”; nine of “destroy”; and there’s a constant discussion of “Are we going die now?” Does it suggest some fixation on the part of Baum, or was death just so ubiquitous at this point? Because not all of this is serious conversation…

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John R. Neill (1908)

Particularly in the later part of the book, the discussions of death seem to veer uncomfortably from serious discussion to jokes and back again. Even when they’re discussing putting Eureka on trial, the Scarecrow keeps coming in with little pithy comments, as if to break it up with cues for audience laughter. That’s the one bit of the book that felt theatrical to me, in fact.

Well, perhaps that comes from the 1902 stageplay, somewhat. Isn’t Dorothy threatened with execution there?

In the final act, all of the heroic characters are going to be executed: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman.

Equally, though, in the actual book of Wonderful Wizard, Dorothy is ordered to “destroy” the Wicked Witch; she quite blithely accepts that instruction and carries it out.

Well, there’s always a very matter-of-fact attitude toward destruction in Baum’s work. For instance, he completely glosses over the moment where the Wizard creates a ring of fire and manages to destroy most of the Mangaboos.

I think that’s connected to a strange question mark over the nature of life itself, which Vivian Wagner discusses in a great article called “Unsettling Oz: Technological Anxieties in the Novels of L. Frank Baum” in the journal The Lion and the Unicorn. There are questions raised constantly about the nature of life. Here the Mangaboos are very dignified and we are just “meat people,” and the question is whether that removes some of the sanctity and identity of human life.

Tik-Tok, who is manifestly not alive, is another example of Baum’s continuous interest in the boundaries of life. Where this book seems to be different – and it reminds me more of John Dough and the Cherub than other Oz books – is the constant conversation, not so much about death, but of one character willingly destroying another. That, I think, is what makes it so grim.

Yes, I also read an article by Tison Pugh (“Food, Interspecies Cannbalism and the Limits of Utopia in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Books,” also in The Lion and the Unicorn) about the fear of civilized people eating one another. Baum raises the question of whether a talking, sentient animal could – or should – lose their animal nature and appetite by living among in a civilised manner among other people. The Hungry Tiger is the most optimistic version of that, but one of the arguments against Eureka’s execution in the concluding trial is that, well, she’s a cat, and it’s in her nature to eat small animals.

If I didn’t know anything about Baum, I would think he was trying to say something about vegetarianism. Really, though, I think he’s pointing out the absurdity of the logic we take for granted. In much the way he often does with authority and intellectual figures, he’s mocking the justifications we come up with for mere acts of survival. Mind you, I don’t know why it’s specifically coming up here, at this time, in this book; I might have expected it a little bit more one published ten years later, during or after World War I.

Ozma’s Divine Authority

Your point about Baum and the inherent absurdity of human logic seems one of many aspects that recalled Lewis Carroll’s Alice books to me: Dorothy having a kitten, falling through the earth, the trial. I can’t think of any other reason for things to turn so suddenly into CSI: Oz at the end.

Olson makes an interesting suggestion that the bulk of Dorothy and the Wizard is about human despair, with our heroes coming up against all sorts of roadblocks, obstacles, and ultimately, things they can’t get past. From that perspective, Ozma’s magic teleportation is seen as religious salvation as opposed to s simple plot device. Olson herself admits that’s a little bit of a leap – and I agree – but it is, at least, interesting to consider.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Yes, especially because so much of the novel is escapist. It’s about an inventor – a showman – continuously finding a way out of danger, admittedly sometimes by shooting at people or setting them on fire. In the final part of the novel, they almost reach the surface, but he can’t get them through it.

Right. Is the get-out Baum offers symbolic of salvation by God? Then, the Wizard becomes accepted in Oz but remains essentially powerless to stop the trial of Eureka. Does that represent the judgement of God? That’s a heady concept, and I’m not sure we can take it too far, but the trial of Eureka is so unusual and such a strange way to conclude the novel. It feels like our heroes are being punished in a way they simply usually aren’t in a Baum book. I don’t know what Baum was trying to do there, but it’s hard not to think he was trying to do…well,  something.

I missed the idea of a parable altogether; I would have said it goes back to Baum’s take-down of legal process by Carrollian means, as when the Woggle-Bug keeps talking about the image in his mind’s eye – piglet, no piglet, you must have eaten it – and the Scarecrow says, “I suppose, if the cat had been gone, instead of the piglet, your mind’s eye would see the piglet eating the cat…”

Let me offer you this. If Ozma represents a divine authority, is it possible that Eureka’s actions – first, accepting her own trial and then, refusing to be saved by the Wizard – are an implied criticism of the idea of divine authority? We know Baum was not Christian; he was a theosophist, which has aspects of Christianity in it but also (in a mass simplification) believes in reincarnation as opposed to a Heaven and Hell-type scenario. Could that be, through Eureka, his “showing up” of the ludicrousness of accepted religious systems?

The very idea of an ultimate judgement seems constantly critiqued in Baum – whether about Chick the Cherub as boy or girl, whether the Scarecrow is alive or not, Baum seems to be about ambiguities and borderlines. I wouldn’t necessarily have put that in a religious schematic, but if you see Baum as a man whose work is not underpinned by a sense of religious moral authority, you can see that manifesting here.

I think he’s criticizing something, for sure, but you’re oversimplifying. It’s not that Baum’s religious belief was free of the absolutes of morality. However, he is certainly interested in playing with ideas of moral relativism. The very fact that the Wizard is originally presented as a deceiver, a con man, and a pathetic figure without being linked to explicit evil is proof to me that Baum thought a little bit outside of the rigid box.

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Skottie Young (2012)

It’s interesting that of all the people his readers were asking to have back, he picks a character who is, if not overtly criticized in Wonderful Wizard, certainly morally questionable to a degree – and outright villainous in flashback in Marvelous Land. Here, it’s not that he’s wholly redeemed, it’s just that the aspects of him that were dodgy in the past are now useful in a tight spot.

Definitely. The Wizard has moved from being a pathetic loser to being a trickster character – and a heroic trickster character at that. There’s never any question that he might “pull a Dr. Smith” from Lost In Space and save his own skin at the expense of everybody else. When he returns to Oz he is openly hailed as a hero, which is, of course, consistent with how the Ozites felt about him in the first book. But he’s also greeted and welcomed by Ozma, who (you would think) wouldn’t be very happy to see him. Over the next few novels, Baum is going to subtly reshape the Wizard. Most obviously, he’s going to de-age him somewhat. His stated age here isn’t really reflected in Neill’s illustrations, but I think later books rework him to fit those illustrations better.

How to Appal an Author

I do want to talk a bit about Neill because his style seems to change quite drastically between Ozma of Oz and Dorothy and the Wizard, and it’s only been a year. I’d say personally, I didn’t like these illustrations as much as his previous ones. The color in the plates seems quite washed out and muddy, and all the characters except for Dorothy and Zeb look semi-grotesque. Although actually, that does suit this novel…

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John R. Neill (1908)

Neill is coming into his own in this book. That’s intended as an objective statement: I’m not trying to say that he’s becoming better or worse, just that he’s coming into his own style. I think in his first three books for Baum (remember John Dough?), he’s trying intentionally to imitate Denslow’s very flat, poster-like, graphic illustrations, and with each successive novel, he’s done it a little less. I feel like his own character is coming out more in Ozma of Oz, and now…here we are.

I really like the book’s last image of Ozma on a divan, looking forlornly out of the window. That seems to me a really interesting adjunct to the text, with the implication that Ozma is waiting for them to come back – she misses Dorothy. She does say it in the text, but without much feeling, whereas this is truly Romantic.

At his best, Neill romanticizes things in a way that Baum does not, and sometimes that’s very beautiful even though it doesn’t necessarily match the text. There’s a brilliant plate showing the fight with the Gargoyles, for instance. Neill’s fight with the Gargoyles is about a million times more dramatic than Baum’s; you actually see the Wizard being throttled.

It’s also quite modulated for a child reader, I think. Neill takes a scary scene and brings the Wizard right into the foreground, fending off the villains. Dorothy and Zeb are being attacked as well, but you really have to peer closely to see them. One Gargoyle is running away with Dorothy’s parasol, which is quite cute…

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John R. Neill (1908)

In this book, Neill has gone full-on Art Nouveau, and I think that was the style in which he was most comfortable. His comic page and advertising work is very much of this same style. There are lots of little lines, lots of natural shapes, lots of curves; it’s all considerably less stark than in his first books for Baum. I think it is absolutely beautiful line work if you can see it at its correct size.

I also love the color plates, but I see what you mean about them being muted. It is one of the only two Oz books where Neill painted watercolors, and therefore, it’s one of only two Oz books where Neill colored the plates himself. I can absolutely see why L. Frank Baum was appalled because it’s clear that Neill just read the book and did what he wanted.

Baum was appalled…?

I think early on he was appalled, yes – he didn’t think of Neill’s work as being humorous enough, which is fair. As a reader, I almost think “my” Oz is more Neill’s than it is Baum’s, because I read these books with these illustrations as a child and my brain sort of papered over all the inconsistencies. I love them wholeheartedly, and it takes me some effort to really dislike them at any level.

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John R. Neill (1908)

It’s true that only a couple of images are truly comic – I like Dorothy being stealthy, almost exactly like a Scooby-Doo character – but I don’t think Baum’s books were as funny as he thought they were.

When he said “humor,” I don’t think he necessarily meant “funny”; he meant that he wanted the art to be more absurd, whereas Neill’s art is filled with beauty and romance. Every time I see Neill’s work from these next few books – not just Dorothy and the Wizard, but The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz – I’m immediately reminded of Alphonse Mucha, whose posters were so prototypically Art Nouveau. Baum surely knew Mucha’s work, too – and probably wouldn’t have thought him appropriate to illustrate Oz, either!

The Stories We Tell

 

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Skottie Young (2012)

Some of my very favorite parts of this book are the little absurd images and moments that don’t last very long. The conversation with the Dragonettes is funny and dark and totally unnecessary in every way, but perhaps it’s the unnecessary aspects that stand out the most strongly. Another instance of that is Dorothy’s strange little interaction with the Gump, which reminds me of a fairy tale called The Goose Girl, where the heroine talks with a horse’s head nailed on a wall –

Yes, but it’s like The Muppets Meet the Goose Girl.

Yeah, exactly! I think this is the last time we see the Gump, or if not, very close. I can’t help but wish Baum had just included a little scene with him in every book.

“I’m still here! Hello!”

Right. There’s also an interesting moment that caught my attention where Dorothy talks about when Ozma “was a boy,” and Zeb says, “Was Ozma once a boy?” Dorothy’s reply is incredibly matter-of-fact, ending in “but she’s a girl now, and the sweetest, loveliest girl in all the world.” Zeb doesn’t comment on it any further, not even to say that it’s strange or that he finds it confusing. He just accepts it as given and moves on, and that feels like the single most progressive thing I’ve ever read in an Oz book.

There are pages and pages of people explaining their backstories to one another, and I think there’s something about the volume of that, and the rapidity of going through it, the funnier it becomes. “Hey, do you remember when you asked me to go and kill a wicked witch, and I did, but accidentally, and then you turned out to be a fraud…” It’s sort of lifelike, in a way, as when you meet someone ten years ago and say, “Oh, you know, I was in love with you, and you didn’t know or care, and then somebody died…”

 

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Skottie Young (2012)

Yeah, there’s a sequence where Dorothy and the Wizard go through their entire history like that, and at the end, you think they’re going to high-five one another or something, like fast-talking teenagers in a modern TV show. It does become increasingly absurd and, thus, increasingly realistic in that you often can’t reduce the relationship of one person to another in one concise sentence; it’s weird and convoluted and doesn’t always make sense. The interesting thing here is that Baum completely ignores the opportunity for Ozma to display benevolent compassion and forgiveness toward the Wizard. Instead, Baum just rewrites history again. Things no longer happen the way they did in Marvelous Land, where the Wizard was shown to have kidnapped Ozma and left her with Mombi. We’re denied the chance to see Ozma come to terms with someone who usurped her throne and radically altered her childhood.

 

Instead, we suddenly get this whole new history for the Land of Oz with witches at war and the Wizard in the middle. That actually sounds like quite an exciting novel; it’s a shame he didn’t go back and write the prequel himself.

Oh, that’s okay; seventy-two billion film and TV projects are vying to do it for him. Oz the Great and Powerful, for instance, takes some definite cues from this book (including the use of the Wizard’s full name). 

In this novel, it does feel like Baum’s trying to, in a surprisingly clumsy way, put together a structure for the county and its history – to stabilize it and make it a safe place. My memory is that in a lot of the coming books, Oz becomes “some place like home,” where Ozma’s realm is sanctified and solid, and this whole sequence seems to be shoring up that space.

Two Horses Enter, One Horse Leaves

I think it’s at least fair to point out that one thing we see as adults and missed as children is what a bizarre, inconsistent, naïve, and rather autocratic ruler Ozma is. She was extremely naïve in dealing diplomatically with the Nome King in the previous novel. Here, she inflicts justice in a way that simply doesn’t make sense – and she will do that again, in a later book, too.

She’s not very interesting here, either. She’s not funny or clever or adventurous. She doesn’t seem to do very much except to ask, in a lordly way, for a maid to bring her her piglet.

She also oversees a gladiatorial contest for her own amusement – not to mention a horse race.

One of the problems with the race – and the whole novel – is that Jim the horse is so very unpleasant throughout that chapter and the ones before and after. Much as I do enjoy this novel up until, perhaps, the last quarter, I don’t think Baum’s characters here are charming or likeable, whereas that was the real strong point of the previous three books.

I agree with that, and as we’ve said, some of his characters have even been made vaguely threatening. The Sawhorse is somewhat sanctimonious, the Woggle-Bug is even more pompous than ever before, and the Lion and the Hungry Tiger feel peculiarly like Ozma’s enforcers.

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John R. Neill (1908)

Zeb and Jim don’t enjoy being in Oz from the minute they get there, and it’s understandable. Oz feels genuinely alien. It doesn’t have any horses, cats or chickens – it’s like a completely other world.

Can we talk about that for a minute? How is it that there are sawhorses in Oz but no horses? How does that even happen? How does anyone ever manage to do fieldwork or farming, and why is there a scarecrow at all in a country where there are no chickens and no horses…?

In a weird way, it feels like the human world is almost a contradiction to Oz, upsetting it when humans visit. It’s as if our world can’t co-exist with the fantasy world and constantly causes discord and confusion. There are people from our world who prefer it in Oz, like the Wizard and Billina – but there are also people like Jeb, who constantly say they’re not happy here and want to get home.

Like Dorothy in the first book.

Is that a class thing?

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Dick Martin (1961)

Possibly. I think Baum might be saying something vague about people functioning best in their own spheres. If so…he doesn’t carry through on it very well. I think Baum wants very much to say that Oz is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there, but with each passing book, he finds that harder and harder to keep up.

It’s almost as if, rather than painting it as a great utopia, Baum is still working through some issues with Oz, and for the moment he’s sort of ambivalent about it. What seems uncanny about the novel might come out of Baum’s indecision about magical solutions – whether that’s analogous to technology or industry or even gender emancipation. He’s really excited by them but also really uncomfortable, and he doesn’t subscribe to them personally.

I think it’s reasonable to cast L. Frank Baum as what a friend of mine would call socially liberal but personally conservative, where he believes in these progressive ideas as a whole, for society, but doesn’t subscribe to them necessarily himself. Does that make any sense?

Absolutely, although you could also say the reverse, I suppose: he inherits these very conservative impulses, but there’s something in the times that makes him continually doubt them.

The Verdict

Did you enjoy revisiting Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Sarah?

Yes, I did. I had been worrying about whether or not I would like the book as an adult; I enjoyed it more than I did as a child, but I still think it is one of the weaker of the Oz series. Bear in mind, of course, that when I call it one of the “weaker Oz books,” I mean my childhood self only read it twenty or so times as opposed to thirty or forty! Did you enjoy it?

Yes, I really did. I was prepared not to not like it, because over the years I’ve told people, “Oh, it’s one of my favorite Oz books,” and I know you’ve always raised an eyebrow at that, and the people I’ve recommended it to have gone, “Hmm, I didn’t really like it…” I actually felt it was really, very well written up to a point, but it was just lacking in charm, and the plot is like someone whipping the needle off a record.

 

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John R. Neill (1908)

What I’d say is that there are a lot of good moments in the book, but it’s lacking momentum.

If you knew a child who had read the first three books, would you give them this one or just skip straight to The Emerald City of Oz?

I think If I knew a child who had enjoyed the first three, I would give them this book – because they’re going to be hooked by now, and at the very least, they’re going to enjoy meeting the Wizard again, and they’re going to enjoy these new strange adventures with Dorothy. Where I diverge from previous books is that I wouldn’t give this book to someone who hadn’t read any of the others. It doesn’t make a particularly strong “first Oz book.”

Haven’t we crossed that line already? It’s become a series now. Would any of the future Oz books stand by themselves?

Actually, yeah – I think there are a few still to come.

I guess we’ll be testing that theory from month to month.

Absolutely, Nick. As you say, we’ve crossed the Rubicon, and there’s no turning back now. It’s a long road ahead – in fact, somewhat literally…

Are you Team Nick or Team Sarah? Where do you stand on this month’s book? Tell us, please

Next Time

road-preview-2THE ROAD TO OZ

Read along with us and send in your thoughts! Tell us what topics we should discuss! Be a part of BURZEE!

Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.

Ozma of Oz (1907)

It’s time to return to the land of Oz – not just for us, but for Dorothy, too!

ozmacoverFollowing one book set entirely in the Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum brings back the Kansas heroine of his original big success. In his author’s note, Baum tells of the many “sweet little letters” from young readers who pleaded “to know ‘more about Dorothy’; and they ask: ‘What became of the Cowardly Lion?’ and ‘What did Ozma do afterward?’” If he were to answer all their questions, Baum says, he would be “obliged to write dozens of books to satisfy their demands.”

We know now that dozens upon dozens of books did follow Ozma of Oz; what his readers did not know then was that Baum had already signed a contract to provide the first two. After a wonderful fable and a marvelous cash-in, Baum was preparing to take Dorothy down a gold-paved road to the Emerald City and beyond: the Oz books had become a series.

Episode III: A New Hope

wp-1476752796264.jpgThis is usually the last Oz book anyone in mainstream culture has even vaguely heard of, says Sarah, but the really weird thing is that this is the first true Oz book. Right?

Not for me, says Nick. I definitely knew Wizard and Land before I even found a copy of this book. I’m sure I also saw Return to Oz a few times before I came to the book it was based upon. How about you?

Well, I genuinely don’t remember which Oz book I read first. I know it wasn’t Ozma. This is the first Oz book I can put a date on, though, because my mother wrote it on a bookplate for my birthday in 1989. I would’ve been six.

Documentary evidence! This is why people should write in books.

I agree, but what I’m saying about Ozma has nothing to do with when I read it. I meant that it’s the first in the “series,” the first that is recognizably the Oz we fans know.

That’s so true. It’s the first book that treats Oz as a place which is truly escapist, even idealized: a place we might wish to – and can – return to without breaking the mode in which we read it.

All the elements are in place now for the long haul. This is the “pilot” for the series in a way that Wonderful Wizard is not, and it’s the first Oz book Baum wrote with the specific intention of perpetuating a series.

nick-meets-ozma-of-ozI must admit it sometimes felt weird to read it as it makes that transition. It’s the first book where you need prior knowledge to prevent your head spinning round every other page.

I’ve always found it a hard book to gift for that reason. Often, I will give a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to friends with young children, but I don’t think – good as it is – that it’s really the book I want to be giving. I want to give them a “real” Oz book. I want to give them a copy of Ozma of Oz, but I can’t.

Baum does deliver quite a lot of backstory, in a very funny way, I thought. Dorothy keeps telling her new friend Billina about the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and Billina – a talking chicken – is like, “Yeah, right. As if!” Reading in sequence, though, you do feel a significant shift. The world created for the fable of Wonderful Wizard – the girl who arrived so satisfactorily “Home Again” at the end – is suddenly on the move again.

Will the Real Dorothy Gale Please Stand Up?

Well, that’s the other thing that’s a little peculiar – this is the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the novel, as opposed to The Wizard of Oz, the musical extravaganza from 1902. Baum’s actually writing a fairy story again – not a theatrical satire – and he’s clamped down on a lot of the elements that made Land of Oz feel so stagey. He’s already reworked a lot, too.

Are you thinking of our heroine?

I am indeed. Blonde Dorothy is not Brunette Dorothy. Brunette Dorothy lives in a shack on the Kansas prairie, with her dull-as-ditchwater aunt and uncle. Blonde Dorothy has an uncle who takes a sailing ship to Australia! She’s fashionable! She speaks in catchy slang! She’s almost totally different in every way!

I’ve never understood that weird thing John R. Neill shows her wearing. Baum mentions her gingham dress, but Neill has her in some (supposedly fashionable) unflattering bag-type thing and impeccable shiny black shoes.

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Detail from The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck by W.R. Bradford and John R. Neill (1909)

I think it probably was fashionable; the female heroine of Neill’s contemporaneous comic page, The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck, is dressed in exactly the same style of clothing Dorothy wears in this and the next few books. His art really emphasizes the shift in Dorothy’s character, though. Did you, like me, have a weird disconnect, as if you were reading the adventures of an entirely different child?

In my head, this Dorothy is a little older, which explains the way she talks.

Her age would account for a bit of it, sure, but where did Uncle Henry get his money?

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Dick Martin (1961)

Through these hitherto unknown relatives in Australia, of course! The Gales of Canberra! I’m sure we’ll hear lots more about them in the next book.

Well, apparently they’re a huge, spread-out family. They’re off to Australia at the start of this book, and the next one finds them with other relatives in San Francisco. It begs the question: why was Dorothy ever placed in the care of destitute relatives?

Did you like Blonde Dorothy more or less than Brunette Dorothy? Could you blur them together somehow?

Yeah, if I squint. I think I like Brunette Dorothy better, because she has sheer determination on her side, but I’m more familiar with Blonde Dorothy. She’s definitely less attractive, though; she’s grown rather haughty in her old age.

Oh yes; she doesn’t approve of Billina! She point-blank refuses to let her to call herself Bill.

Billina’s really taken on the role of Brunette Dorothy as the one who’s not going to be put down, the one who’s not going to just roll over and play dead, the one who’s got all sorts of common sense. She’s the hero of this book. It should be called Billina in Oz.

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John R. Neill (1907)

She’s almost a successor to Chick the Cherub, in more than one way.

Oh no. Not again!

Don’t worry, I’m not about to claim Billina as a trans icon of the early 20th century – but she is another character who really doesn’t care whether she behaves like a girl or a boy and has an androgynous name because, well, she was born a chick: gender neutral. For me, her big line is, “I don’t care what you call me, so long as I know it’s me!”

It’s a good point. There is, actually, a stage version of the book out there – Ozma of Oz: A Tale of Time, by Susan Zeder – which uses the story as a springboard for inter-generational understanding, of all things. I haven’t seen it performed, but one of the major features is Bill – not Billina, Bill – who is played as a “human-sized chicken.” Yes, really.

Goodness! It’s funny, though, because Billina gets a lot of Classic Baum on Broadway Repartee in this book. I was thinking: if he did plan on adapting this for the stage, would he have actually had her onstage as a giant chicken?

The mind boggles.

She wouldn’t have fit under the Nome King’s chair in that case, but I’m getting ahead of myself….

Scary Movie Double Feature

Indeed, we digress. In our version, there will be no inter-generational understanding, as Uncle Henry is left on board while Dorothy is washed overboard. Then we find ourselves in the land of Ev with Dorothy and her new pal Billina. These are, I think, some really lovely scenes that I’m not sure I appreciated as a child.

Yes, the pair of them just head out to explore their new surroundings. It’s extremely satisfying to have neither of them shivering and wishing they were home.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Absolutely. All the initial material in Ev is classic Baum, too: wandering around, examining the place, having an ethical discussion about food sources. There are such nice details: the contents of the dinner pail, Dorothy having to dry out her socks, Billina hunting for insects. It really keeps the reader in the moment.

Suddenly: the Wheelers! Now, because I found them so terrifying in Return to Oz, I’m never sure what we’re supposed to make of them when they turn up here.

Exactly. I am aware that my entire interpretation of the Wheelers (and indeed, huge chunks of this book) comes from Return to Oz, and that’s not an association I can shake. They’re definitely unnerving in the book, even as they’re also wacky and nonsensical. Their wheels are made out of keratin, apparently. Think about that.

The fact that they’re beautifully dressed, in straw boaters and ruffs – even though they live on the coast, spend their time shouting abuse at people, and have no fingers or toes – makes them truly surreal and unlike any of the other magical occurrences in Ev, which maintain a sort of Zixi-ish, fairy tale aura. That being said, Princess Langwidere…

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John R. Neill (1907)

…is satire. She’s satire, right? She’s every modern lady who has to buy this week’s new hat. Not to mention, she’s probably a slightly teasing judgment on moody women.

Yes, her hall of head-cabinets actually resembles a hat shop full of mannequins, doesn’t it? I like the way she can’t quite be bothered to be villainous; Return to Oz makes her more frightening than Baum intended. Dorothy is never expressly afraid of either Langwidere or the Wheelers. They’re just rude people who get in her way.

Again, we’re getting into how Return to Oz coded this for us, but I’m not sure Baum or his audience realized how bloody creepy it would all look on film. These characters are just meant to be weird, not truly scary.

It’s worth remembering that Baum’s generation hadn’t road-tested the effects of this sort of material on child readers. Over in Britain, E. Nesbit has just written the Psammead trilogy, and The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables are still a year away. This is children’s literature in beta.

Guaranteed to Do Everything but Live

We’re overlooking what is surely one of the weirdest and most imaginative characters in Baum’s entire oeuvre, though, and that’s probably because he’s just not that strange to us today. I’m talking, of course, about Tik-Tok.

Yes, the marvelous mechanical man who does everything but live!

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John R. Neill (1907)

I always liked Tik-Tok; I think it’s quite hard to not like Tik-Tok. On rereading the book, though, I was taken with how much Baum hovers on his manufacturedness. It’s so beautifully presented. I love the engraved plates Dorothy reads: “Things, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything But Live.” “Guaranteed to Work Perfectly for a Thousand Years.” “Manufactured Only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev.”

Yeah, I love that too. We get a rich backstory for him and for his creators, and Baum keeps adding to it, bit by bit. You can feel Baum’s enthusiasm flowing as he writes – essentially about inventors like him. It’s far more than the plot demands, but it’s where the Oz books come alive.

Right. Tik-Tok doesn’t actually do very much. In the second half of the story, he really only pops up to be wrong, again and again, but he solidifies in your mind because of all that detail and backstory, right at the first.

One disappointing thing about this book for me is that we don’t get so many of those funny, cod-existential conversations from Marvelous Land. We only have a minute or two of random bitching: “Well, we may both have been manufactured, but I’m alive.” Tik-Tok doesn’t care about any of it. It’s amazing to me how many similar characters Baum has created after only three books, but they each have incredibly strong identities.

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Skottie Young (2011)

I agree, and Tik-Tok is probably the next-to-last character to really catch the public imagination. He still works today, too: bring up Return to Oz, and someone’s going to give you a half-formed memory of Tik-Tok. There’s a whole slew of tiktoks in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, and a version of him even pops up in the Disney videogame Epic Mickey 2.

It’s true that he doesn’t really do anything, though. It’s almost as if, in the last third of the book, Baum goes “Whoops, too many characters, better make thirty of them inanimate…”

Here Comes Everybody

Similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this book has an awkward three-act structure. Up to now, it’s been all action, but the entire second act of the book is pretty much just people having meetings. Dorothy is sprung from the tower almost immediately by Ozma and her retinue, we learn that the royal family have been enchanted by the Nome King, and it’s off to the Nome Kingdom.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Yes! Lots of chatting and mingling and some business with a completely superfluous new talking animal, the Hungry Tiger, who admittedly gets a lot of fun lines.

He does. He’s actually more of a presence than the Cowardly Lion, whom Baum will sideline from here on out. Will no one stand up for a Cowardly Lion?

Actually, I was glad to see the Cowardly Lion back. He was never my favourite character as a kid, but here I think he’s absolutely adorable and somewhat important. Baum seems to imply a comparison between him and all those captains and generals who are always running away.

Ah, yeah – the army of Oz. Why are they in this book? They’re the one holdover, I felt, from the theatre, as if they’re supposed to break into comic song somewhere.

Actually, I think they’re important. They’re Baum working through more issues of masculinity and the military and his own ill-health. One general even uses the excuse of heart disease at one point, which would be quite pointed coming from Baum.

Oh, I don’t think I buy that. I think Baum’s just being rascally and showing up authority, as usual. The Tin Woodman makes nearly the same joke about heart disease in Wizard.

But that’s the Tin Woodman talking to the Lion. Here it’s a general excusing himself for letting others risk their lives before him.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Returning to the second act, we do get Dorothy’s first reunion with her old friends, but curiously, we never really see her meet her future bosom pal, sole confidante, and possible girlfriend, Ozma – the eponymous hero of the book!

Oh yes, I hadn’t noticed! It’s like the first meeting of the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart!

Why is Ozma of Oz the title of this book, anyway? It sounds good – for once – but it’s hardly representative of the story. Ozma doesn’t make her first appearance until page 103 out of 270, and she’s a terrible, naive leader! She just waltzes in and proclaims and expects people to… what, tremble? Realize they were wrong and apologize?

Baum mentions fan letters about her in his preamble, so I’m assuming she must have had some popularity after her fleeting appearance in Marvelous Land. Perhaps it’s simply because she is a heroic little girl, like Dorothy, but Baum himself doesn’t seem interested in her the way he is in, say, Dorothy. When they come to the gates of the Nome King, they only get inside because Dorothy has the humility to ask if they can come in.

Quite. And there we have our third act – and our big confrontation.

Make Ev Great Again

I’m more used to the openly villainous Ruggedo of the later books, but I love the Roquat of the Rocks version of the Nome King that we first meet here. He’s not a mastermind villain: he’s a businessman. In her article, “Beneath the Surface of Ozma of Oz” (The Baum Bugle, Spring 2002), Suzanne Rahm points to turn-of-the-century moguls like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as inspiration, and I think that’s exactly right. The Nome King is all about the monopoly of power, the hoarding of things. It is – I’m sorry, Nick, I’ve got to say it – an amazingly appropriate book to be reading in the final days of the candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

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Dick Martin (1961)

I thought exactly the same thing, Sarah, although the Nome King is rather more charming and articulate and fun to be with.

Oh, definitely; the Nome King’s someone you could actually tolerate at a dinner party. As with any business mogul, though, he prides himself on his manipulation and gamesmanship.

Yes, there’s something a bit Alice in Wonderlandish about the way he plays with language. “Oh, it would be cruel to enslave these people, so I turned them into tableware.”

Right. I like that bit – it’s funny, and it’s logical, but it’s totally without compassion. The cunning trick of the King of Ev’s “long life” is pretty good, too.

There’s something very sinister about the idea that Evoldo was given a long life – and if he throws it away, it’s not the Nome King’s concern.

Of course, we’ve only recently been reading an earlier appearance from the Nome King. We both entered a contest run by the Oz Club to finish Baum’s novel King Rinkitink , originally abandoned in 1905 and awkwardly rewritten as Rinkitink in Oz in 1916. Nobody really knows how much of it became Ozma, but we know it did have at least some influence. Did the contest give you a different perspective on the Nome King?

Apart from the fact that Ozma of Oz is far more elegantly structured than the adventures of Prince Inga, I do think the Nome King changes in emphasis depending on the villains with whom he shares the narrative. King Rinkitink features two bad guys so incredibly unpleasant that there’s no way Baum could resolve things without Inga running them through. There, The Nome King takes the role Langwidere has here: a minor obstacle for the characters. Ozma works so much better – for me and for Baum, I think – in making him the opponent most important to the narrative.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Oh gosh, I just totally disagree.

Oh!

I think he fulfils almost exactly the same role, to the point where I’m relatively convinced that King Rinkitink originally ended with the “game” in the ornament room, and that it was lifted almost wholesale into this novel. The Nome King of Rinkitink and the Nome King of Ozma are, to me, fairly indistinguishable. They’re both businessmen, and they’re both fond of eliminating their opponents in creative ways. Neither of them is openly villainous.

I think my point is that Baum switches to a different, less earthly kind of villainy because it would mean pushing his heroes into more conventional, military heroism than he wants from them.

Perhaps I’m resisting a certain interpretation of the Nome King because I’m worried that it’s simply my “Return to Oz brain” talking. It’s hard; as much as I love the ornament room sequence, for instance, I can’t resist thinking that the film does it better, in a more streamlined fashion.

Yes, it’s hard to deny that movie’s influence on the way we see the book, and perhaps the Nome King in particular because he is so radically re-envisioned, including the way they defeat him. Maybe we should do a blog post just about the movie…?

Hmm…. The end of the book is actually the downward slope for me, because the Nome King just kind of gives up. It’s the latest, and perhaps least guilty, entry in a long line of books that Baum doesn’t quite seem to know how to finish.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Perhaps Baum wanted to keep Roquat as a returning villain? It’s not just that he doesn’t know how to finish; he basically resolves the book by recycling bits from the first two, which doesn’t bode well. Royals in enchanted disguise; someone in disguise who gets picked up by mistake; Dorothy getting everyone home with the villain’s magic article of clothing; and the Scarecrow re-enacting the Wicked Witch’s demise with an egg thrown in anger.

Yes, but Return to Oz – and even later Oz books – makes a far bigger deal of eggs being poison to Nomes. Here the Nome King basically acts like a wet cat. Last I checked, it’s hard to wipe corrosive acid out of your eye!

Ozma of Oz: A Good Egg

To be honest, Sarah, we had so much fun getting to this point, I really don’t care about the flaws. There are so many good characters in this book. Add the improvement in plotting – on Marvelous Land, as well as King Rinkitink – and I really enjoyed Ozma of Oz. How about you?

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Unpublished cover by John Romita (1976); colors by Eric Shanower (1987)

Oh, yes. I think it’s a wonderful book and probably one of the strongest in the series. To return to that idea of it being “the first real Oz book,” I feel like this is possibly Baum’s best standalone fantasy story, just as an entertainment. No overwhelming morals, no adherence to fairy tale tradition, just Baum being Baum and sort of relaxed about it. It’s possible, of course, that this is the first book he really felt secure about ahead of time because of his contract. If so, I think that security shows. 

I would definitely buy this for a child today, and I think it would still be loads of fun to read aloud. How about you? 

Oh, absolutely. I think we should all make that our goal. In the next calendar year, give a copy of Ozma of Oz to at least one child you know, or read it aloud to them, and do all the voices.

Mission accepted. Oh, and I’m really looking forward to next month’s book; I loved Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a small boy, and we finally get to see the Wizard back in action.

Before that, though, we’ve got a Halloween treat for you. It’s a special podcast we’ve recorded about the film mentioned so many times in this month’s blog: Return to Oz. Let us know what you think – or follow us on Facebook!

So, gentle reader: what do you like about Ozma of Oz? Tell us in the comments! 

Next Time

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DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ

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Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.