We are delighted to present you with our first foray into the world of podcasting: just in time for the festive and frightening season, it’s Sarah and Nick, breaking down national barriers and joining each other in time, space, and virtual reality to talk about one of their favorite movies: Return to Oz (1985). We’ve been planning it for some time – did you catch Nick’s hint in the last blog? – but we weren’t sure it was going to work. Believe it or not, it’s been almost as much of a surprise to us as it is to you!
If you grew up with the movie – or if you were there when it opened over three decades ago – leave us a comment and tell us what you think. Did it deserve its critical mauling? Is it true to the spirit of Baum’s Oz books? And most important of all, which Baum characters have you found in that coronation scene?
Have a great and safe Halloween, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, where we’ll be releasing exclusive content at the end of the week. See you in November for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz!
This month, we turn again to adventures by L. Frank Baum that take place in the “borderlands” of Oz. Published between The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) and Ozma of Oz (1907), these lesser-known stories provide surprising perspectives on their author and introduce characters who will later visit Oz. In addition, one of these is a book neither of us has ever read before…
Queen Zixi of Ix is Baum’s last pastiche of a European-style fairy tale before he devoted himself to Oz. The Fairies of Burzee weave a cloak that bestows a single wish on its owner. They gift the magic cloak to a young orphan named Fluff just as her brother, Bud, unexpectedly becomes King of Noland through a bureaucratic quirk. News of Noland’s misadventures with the cloak draws the attention of Zixi, the Witch-Queen of Ix. She will do anything to get the cloak – even go to war – but the worst threat is yet to come in the strange form of the rubbery Roly Rogues…
John Dough and the Cherub provides a very different approach to an old folktale. Brought to life by an ancient elixir, life-sized gingerbread man John Dough is on the run from those who want to eat him, including Ali Dubh, the tyrannical Kinglet, and the hideous Mifkets. Allied with Chick, the “original Incubator Baby,” he visits islands of romance, pirates and princesses. But where does his destiny lie…?
I read Queen Zixi of Ix several times as a child, Sarah says. In fact, I think it’s the only non-Oz Baum book I could say I read with the same rotation that I read the actual Oz books, and in fact, more than some of those. I clearly thought it a superior story. Have you read this one before, Nick? Or is this your first time round?
I’ve never read it, Nick says. I often wondered what those odd creatures with knitting needles are doing on the front cover. It turns out they’re giant angry “soccer” balls! I wasn’t prepared for them at all, after the gentleness of the rest of the book.
Oh, the Roly Rogues were probably my favorite part as a kid. Until this rereading I’d recalled them being far more present throughout the book! There was clearly a fad for India rubber balls around this time – or Baum knew children liked them, anyway, because he has another “bouncing ball” character in John Dough and the Cherub.
I wonder if Baum, not a physically robust child, is expressing a vague contempt for sportsmen and organized games, which I can identify with. Later, Para Bruin – John Dough‘s bouncing bear friend – will take some pleasure in smashing up “Sport.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What did you make of the Zixi storyline, particularly the way she changes from a villain to an ally? That felt to me almost more addressed to an adult reader than a child.
That was probably the biggest surprise to me as an adult reader, because it’s not at all how I remembered it: for some reason, I remembered Bud and Fluff coming to Zixi and begging for the cloak, and her being cruel and saying “No.” Instead, Zixi realizes her folly and pledges to be helpful.
On the one hand, Zixi’s a typical Baum antagonist – selfish, instead of evil – but she seems very normal, very human. I really like that she comes to a self-realization, instead of having the fairies show up and prescribe it to her.
Yes, it’s a part of the book that feels more like an actual folktale than a fairy tale: there are lots of other parts of the book which overtly use folktale tropes, such as the strict rules about the wishing cloak, and it all fits together.
Reading QueenZixi, I found myself coming up with a theory as to part of why The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was so enormously successful. Of course, we’ve discussed a few reasons already: the universal themes, Denslow’s design and collaboration. I’m wondering now, though, if its success came in part because unlike so many of these early Baum books, Wizard has a real story: beginning, middle, (delayed) end.
Thinking about that, Queen Zixi is often called the best of his non-Oz books, and Baum really liked it himself. I wonder if it’s because Zixi has a story, too: a simple one, but a structured story, nonetheless. The publishers obfuscated that a little by renaming the book Queen Zixi of Ix, when Zixi is only a major player in the middle third of the book; instead, all of the story threads lead back to The Magic Cloak – the original title.
Absolutely. I had exactly the same thought. Wizard has a beautifully tight structure, a mixture of fairy tale and picaresque adventure. Apart from the odd bit of Hammerhead-bothering, it does everything very carefully and economically. Zixi‘s success seems to derive from a similar use of old narrative tropes, consciously borrowed from fairy tales.
Right. I think we were also reading something earlier about how Zixi is one of the few times Baum actually had fairly heavy editorial guidance – and who knows, it might have started as bedtime stories, just like Wizard. It’s still a little bit piecemeal, three stories linked as one – the Bud-as-King story, the Zixi-and-the-cloak story, and the Roly Rogues story – but “gluing” them together creates a surprisingly good children’s novel.
It works a lot better than you’d expect, given this is Baum with a fairly straight face throughout. It gets heavily moralistic, with Zixi’s epiphany, but I didn’t even dislike that! It’s no surprise that Baum came back and filmed this book ten years later (as The Magic Cloak of Oz), because the story is so strong. Characters make actual choices and change as a result of their experience.
What surprises me is that nobody has filmed Zixi since. There was a lot of good-hearted but rather cheap and saccharine trash made for kids in the 1950s and ’60s, both in movies and on TV, that were based on classic stories and fairy tale tropes. Disney’s Babes in Toyland comes to mind, as do the popular Cinderella and Pied Piper of Hamelin TV specials. The basic story of the magic cloak, the boy king, and Zixi’s vanity would have been perfect for that era – you know, pretty much everything minus the Roly Rogues part.
Ironically, this feels like a rare Baum book of the period that wasn’t written with an eye to adaptation. Maybe Zixi’s change of heart has just been too nuanced for filmmakers.
Well, that’s assuming potential filmmakers even read it. It might have been lost in the sheer morass of fairy tale-type stories.
It’s easy to look at Baum’s increasing output of Oz books and assume that everything else was inferior, rather than simply less popular. I would say that in some respects, Baum’s deliberately old-fashioned story has dated better than other children’s books of the time. E. Nesbit’s Psammead trilogy has a similar theme of “be careful what you wish for,” but those books belong very much to Edwardian England. I don’t think there’s anything in Queen Zixi about American life in 1904, except perhaps a cautionary note on consumerism.
Yeah, it’s pretty free of any direct reference to the present day – unlike John Dough and the Cherub, which stunned me out of left field with a little speech about the Pan-American Exhibition and incubator babies.
Yes, I found some of the gags at the start of John Dough completely baffling. I read that there are some in-jokes in there that nobody can really explain now, like the name of the frustrated Lady Executioner.
You can tell that neither of us has read this book before. I do think it’s…vaguely…interesting that the drive of the story is based on the old folktale “The Gingerbread Man.” Do you have that one in Britain? (Many people will know a version of it as Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man.)
Yes, it’s very popular (and Scieszka, too). I think it’s interesting that Baum takes the central character of the story and the idea that he’s being pursued because he’s edible… and that’s it. What a difference from the focused fairy tale structures of Wizard and Zixi!
Right. It very, very quickly turns into a wacky travelogue. In fact, probably the best way I can damn this book with faint praise is to say it feels like an Oz book… by Ruth Plumly Thompson. And not one of her stronger ones, either.
It’s funny that you talk about the halfway point. I think I was slogging through this bugger by the halfway mark too, but the funny thing about it is that because of the way I assume Baum wrote it – ex tempore, inventing on and on – I actually found it hit its stride in the last third.
One thing I really admire about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is that strange sense of melancholy that runs throughout: Dorothy yearning for home, her friends’ yearning to be something else, and then that sense of disappointment. Quite unexpectedly, we get a big dose of existential melancholy on the island of the Mifkets, when John has to agree to be eaten.
…Which I found genuinely disconcerting. All the dismemberment / being eaten stuff, throughout the whole book, was more off-putting than any other time I’ve seen Baum play that card.
Yes, it’s a very creepy theme and I really don’t know what Baum intended us to make of it. The scene where John’s nibbled by a Mifket is very unpleasant, and the fact he’s not resigned to his destruction – the way the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman usually are – gives it a strange dramatic weight.
This all appears to be coming from an unusually dark place. It probably doesn’t help that John Dough’s obsession with being eaten/falling apart is very nearly his only defining characteristic.
On the Isle of Phreex, there’s a soldier who consists entirely of his prosthetic replacements. I guess this comes from a time when amputation was more common in cases of extreme injury, which relates back to one of Baum’s themes: whoever you are, that’s who you are, you can’t really change it and you shouldn’t try.
Let’s talk about the Isle of Phreex, because I think it represents an unusual reversal on a conversation we had last month. I might be taking this a little bit badly, because for me “freaks” is a word loaded with negative connotations, but the Isle of Phreex – which basically anticipates Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer‘s Island of Misfit Toys – feels like Baum having a snipe at “unusual” people.
There’s not even an attempt to give these people character. In last month’s book, Jack Pumpkinhead wasn’t just a nice character, he was a little selfish, a little nervous, a little rebellious, a little sentimental. These “freaks” are just puns with dialogue, aren’t they?
Yeah, they’re walking puns. The entire book is basically puns. John Dough’s name is a pun. Chick’s name is a pun. Sport, the terrifying sports equipment man, is a pun. Endless, endless puns.
I have a very clear image of Baum inventing Sport. It mostly involves him staring at a typewriter saying, “There must be something. There must be something.” Over and over. Possibly drinking coffee at two in the morning. Drinking something, anyway.
None of the Phreex except Chick the Cherub – and we’ll get to Chick in a minute – is presented all that well. They all seem a bit insane, and hey, they all got exiled to an island for being themselves. That’s, erm…great…
Yes, the novel as a whole is lacking in compassion for the outsider. I don’t know if we need to go into it much, but Ali Dubh…
You know, at first I was prepared to defend Ali Dubh, the Arab. I really was.
I liked him in the opening chapter, where he seems more or less like a nice guy on the run.
Initially, I think Baum’s really only guilty of some very generalized stereotyping. He calls Ali Dubh a “child of the desert,” which is a very turn-of-the-century phrase, and of course he’s got a fake “ethnic” name, but otherwise? He’s pretty much okay. Even Neill’s art – pretty much okay.
Skip forward most of a book, and you’ve got Baum suggesting the Arabs are descended from the Mifkets, who are described as “neither an animal nor a man.”
I think I groaned involuntarily at that moment, like I’d been hit in the stomach.
I may actually have done the same thing. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised, but out-and-out racism is so rare in Baum’s work for children that it really does feel like that: a physical blow. Broad, ethnic humor plagues The Woggle-Bug Book from around this same time, and it’s hard not to believe, in both cases, that Baum was pandering to the adult audience.
Speaking of audiences – what’s your theory on Chick the Cherub? Is Chick another theatrical “turn,” like the Tip/Ozma transformation? Is it all just to promote the book through the contest (to determine if Chick is a boy or a girl)? Does Baum even care?
I think this is probably sort of complex. Ultimately, it is just a gimmick, really, but it may be inspired by some fairly major changes in perception of gender at the time. Baum is obviously invested in the idea that women can possess many of the virtues typically ascribed to men. The fact that Chick could be a girl dressed as a boy doesn’t seem to be a very troubling prospect, at the very least. Baum isn’t scared by progress.
I don’t feel that Chick the Cherub meant much more to Baum than a fun character, but the fact s/he is a fun character, a happy, strong, engaging character and very modern, certainly suggests a similar open, optimistic attitude to such ideas. This character deserves a ton of historical context and queer theory to really gauge his/er significance.
I guess I would argue that I don’t think Chick has much significance, except in some pretty extreme hindsight, but I agree with you that a socio-historical approach might reveal something very different. Might.
I guess my possibly overly simplistic question is this: Chick – boy or girl?
Hmm! I think the great thing about reading this book today is that we can confidently say Chick is neither. That’s a valid gender identity today – and even in 1906, Baum didn’t care. The contest prize was apparently divided between two children, each arguing for a different gender.
See, for me the whole question about the Cherub is a massive distraction. This is a young child – indicated as being six when abandoned on the Island of Phreex – with no parents and no social concerns, and thus, pretty much tabula rasa. I think that’s a far more relevant way to look at Chick than any sort of queer theory, because while it’s loosely reflective of some aspect of the women’s rights movement, the whole idea that a child is anything but a miniaturized adult was still quite new in Baum’s time.
I disagree with you, though, that the Cherub is confidently genderless – which is, perhaps, why I don’t see Chick as especially significant in any way. To me, it’s abundantly clear Chick is a boy. What really hammers it home for me is Neill’s art. Chick is wearing trousers! Neill’s little girls never do that. All in all, the character looks an awful lot like Button-Bright, whom we’ll meet in a few books’ time.
I think the fact that Chick’s gender is not remarked upon by anybody, including Chick, is the powerful thing. For what it’s worth, I would have expected most of Baum’s readers to see Chick as a girl. Like I said, this is the beginning of female emancipation, whereas I’d imagine the prospect of an overtly feminine boy being much less appealing to audiences.
Apparently, Baum added Chick to his John Dough manuscript because Ladies’ Home Journal refused to serialize it without a child protagonist (and they never did, anyway). To me, that shows. Chick has no character; Chick is proactive, I suppose, doing the things John Dough probably did for himself in the original version, but that’s about it.
In fact, I’d say that proactive nature is just about the only hint toward Chick’s being a girl, just because Baum’s girls are always far more proactive than his boys.
There you go. Conclusive proof! Now can we talk about the fairy beavers?
I love that Baum sat around and decided the two species of “fairies” and “beavers” belonged together.
I started to wonder if Baum was taking something, you know, for his heart – perhaps something with powerful hallucinogenic qualities.
Nobody writes absurd fantasy like Baum, and that’s one reason I am glad John Dough exists, even if he did (food metaphor!) over-egg the pudding in the final pages. You can’t argue with a princess in a glass submarine carried by fairy beavers, and that’s my final word.
Yeah, I guess I’m glad it exists, too. I think I’d have liked it as a child – not loved it, but liked it. As I said before, it’s extremely pleasant, but it’s forgettable, too. I wouldn’t buy a gift copy for a child today. I would, however, gift a child a copy of Queen Zixi.
I do think it says something that Dover brought Queen Zixi back to print as a paperback in 1971 – that’s the edition both you and I have been reading – and with a slight cover redesign, they’re still publishing it today! In sharp contrast, their 1974 paperback of John Dough was out of print a decade later. Maybe quality really does out.
That’s great, but I’m anxious to get back to this blog’s raison d’etre, and the creation that displaced Zixi and Mo and, thank goodness, Sport of Pirate Island.
I think we’ll both be happy to get back to Oz – and with a vengeance, too. Next time, it’s an old favorite. Is that a chicken in there with you?
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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.
And now it’s back to Oz! This is a very special book for both of us, filled with fond memories and favorite quotes. As children, we probably both loved this even more than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And so it is with a slight sense of trepidation that we venture on to the Gillikin country, to adventures with Tip, Jack Pumpkinhead, and the Saw-Horse, and ultimately, to the coronation of Princess Ozma herself…
The first Oz sequel hasn’t a thing to do with Kansas, sparkly shoes, or “no place like home.” Instead, it follows the adventures of Tip, a young boy living in Oz, as he escapes the witch Mombi and works to thwart an invasion of the Emerald City – by women! Along the way, he makes new friends, including his creation, Jack Pumpinhead; the highly magnified and thoroughly educated Professor Woggle-Bug; and those venerable heroes, the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. But will Glinda the Good help them restore the Scarecrow to power? Or is there another, more deserving heir to the throne?
So Sarah, says Nick, it’s The Land of Oz. Or The Marvelous Land of Oz. Or even The Marvellous Land of Oz.
Enough of your double-L, limey! winks Sarah. Seriously, though – isn’t this the most boring title for a book ever?
I think it sounds particularly bad when they start taking the “marvelous” out of it, at which point it means almost nothing.
Oz: The Book! I’ve always found it quite amusing how terrible Baum is at titles. I mean, really, really, really bad. This is the man who wanted to title a book Three Girls in Oz. (That’s The Lost Princess of Oz, for what it’s worth.) “…From the author who brought you such stunning titles as The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, and The Land of Oz. Could be anything, really.”
I’m glad it didn’t end up with its original title, The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, which is like saying, “You know that fun night out at the theatre last July? Here’s the tie-in novel.”
Apparently, even his publishers didn’t have the bright idea to put “Oz” in the title until late in the day, which seems so strange now.
In a funny sort of way, the title makes sense. We really do visit every corner of Oz – and fly over the edge of the map at one point, too. And it’s a novel about the state, its ruler, and their people.
That’s an interesting point. It’s also a book, unlike Wizard, without a starting or ending point outside of Oz itself. Eventually, Baum wrote quite a few of those, but not until the series was well and truly bedded-in, about ten years later.
Does that change how we, as readers, approach the story? Is it tangibly any different to have Tip as our lowly protagonist instead of Dorothy, at least at the beginning? Quite a few adaptations, after all, have gone out of their way to insert Dorothy into a version of this storyline – sometimes replacing Tip, sometimes alongside him.
I think it makes a huge difference for Oz not to be an elsewhere or an escape. In the first book, there’s a major statement in the fact that Dorothy wants to come home to the grey real world: most of the audience want to return to Oz, I think. Here, it’s not somewhere that you leave and look back on and really want to be: it’s a crazy place that people have to live in and govern and make work.
The story is about a restless populace, and a ruler who can’t govern them. It’s about something being wrong with the place you live that has to be put right, even if you do have magical instruments with which to achieve that.
“‘But why need I wear spectacles?’ asked Jack.
‘It’s the fashion here,’ said the Soldier, ‘and they will keep you from being blinded by the glitter and glare of the gorgeous Emerald City.'”
Can you reconcile this Oz with the Oz of the first book? It feels like Baum has trouble: the Wizard is clearly a bad guy now instead of the genial fraud of the original. The Emerald City is a real Emerald City this time, but for some reason, we still need green glasses. Glinda is a sorceress, not a witch, and so on – these aren’t huge changes, but they do change the perspective somewhat, and some of them will influence the rest of the series.
The Wizard is the really interesting figure for me. I feel like Baum is saying here, “No – hang on, I don’t think I quite got this right last time. This man ruled the country based on intimidation, made people live by his dictates, sent a child to kill the witch he was too scared to face. The novel was about him – but I made him too nice. You liked him.”
What Baum suggests about the Wizard here, with regard to Ozma and her father, is really sinister. As for installing the Scarecrow as king, that’s a sign of his contempt for the people. He sows the seeds of Jinjur’s coup. If we’re talking about almost-titles, His Majesty the Scarecrow is an interesting one, because it really points up how the situation at the end of Wizard is inherently absurd, unstable, and ready to fall into chaos.
Yes, I see what you mean. Baum appears to be using the success of the stageplay – where the Wizard was, distinctly, a villain, and the former ruler of Oz was named Pastoria – to wipe the slate clean and start again. That’s not too unusual for Baum; he never really let any sort of continuity get in his way. What’s so uncomfortable about it, I think, isn’t just that the Wizard seemed nice (if rather pathetic) in the first book, it’s that you and I also know with hindsight that he’ll be back in a few books, and he’s going to be a nice guy again. That makes all the things people say about him in this book feel so awkward and wrong!
The same kind of instability can be found in the depiction of Oz itself: in Wizard, it was a magic fairy tale land, albeit a topsy-turvy one. Later, it’s going to be a total fantasy utopia. This is the one story where it appears to function on modern, American lines, more or less, with money, workers, and politics. Again, it’s the stage extravaganza’s influence at work – at least, I think so. Baum saw how successful the “topical satire” approach was and ran with it. Am I right in thinking that dates the book far more heavily than some of the others?
“…Tip was fully justified in staring at the gown for some moments before his eyes were attracted by the pretty face above it. Yes, the face was pretty enough, he decided; but it wore an expression of discontent coupled to a shade of defiance or audacity.”
I think a lot of the book has dated pretty well; it’s not moralistic or patronizing. The magic isn’t wrapped up in the same sort of mysticism as other children’s books of the time: it’s closest to E. Nesbit, if anything. I think there are some legitimate targets in the book: we still have bad rulers only in it for power, profit or status. We still have people installed without election into power and trading on their personality.
The presentation of Jinjur and her radical feminist knitters looks ridiculously crude and old-fashioned, though. It’s surprising, given what we know about Baum’s personal life, and of course, the fact that the land of Oz is a matriarchy by the end of the book, but what might have been read as satire in 1904 is just naff parody to a modern reader.
Ah, the Army of Revolt. I know as a child, I thought they were funny. As an adult, I find them…less funny, and a lot of that’s to do with how lazily stereotyped they are. Yep, they’re girls, hooray. They’re also apparently only interested in having jewels, reading novels, and eating bon-bons – and they’re frightened of mice, too. I know that Baum was probably teasing his wife, Maud, who was the daughter of the famous suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage, but I’d be curious to know if she actually found it funny or if she just found it tedious and boorish.
I think of Baum as one of those guys who’s basically on your side but is always slightly pulling a face at the word “feminist,” and saying, “Why do you have to be so militant about stuff? Coming on so strong doesn’t help your cause at all!”
Yeah, I agree with that, actually. You certainly couldn’t do the Army of Revolt this way today, although I personally think there’s plenty about militant feminism (or, indeed, militant anythingism) that’s well worth satirizing. I wonder, though, if Baum isn’t all about the last laugh. Could the awfulness of the Army of Revolt be authorial intent? After all, he leaves Oz completely under matriarchal control at the end of the book, and even if you dismiss Ozma as young and naive, Glinda (once again) has all the power. Glinda could crush you.
“Glinda had been carefully considering what to do, and now she turned to Mombi and said: ‘You will gain nothing, I assure you, by thus defying us. For I am determined to learn the truth about the girl Ozma, and unless you tell me all that you know, I will certainly put you to death.'”
The women in his books are naturally clever, strong, dependable people – and Glinda, as you say, could turn herself into a griffin in two seconds and eat you alive. But woe betide they actually mobilize, protest or bring about change. After all, it makes them look so unattractive. I suppose it’s part of Baum’s wider critique of rulers and those who seek power for its own sake.
It is, and that’s probably a lot of why Jinjur is such a spoiled child; Baum rarely writes about truly “evil” people. Instead, he likes to make fun of the things he sees wrong with society, whether that’s selfish materialism or intellectual pomposity, as in the case of the Woggle-Bug. The difference, of course, is that Jinjur’s a genuine problem; the Woggle-Bug’s just a bit irritating, like someone’s uncle who can’t stop telling old and groan-worthy jokes.
It’s funny to think how easily their roles could be exchanged. You could have an infestation of bureaucratic Woggle-Bugs moving into the palace, and Jinjur teaming up with the other characters to try, as they rather ineptly do, in-between squabbling, to save the day.
Oh, that’s an interesting idea! Baum very rarely presents a situation that, from the outset, has to be solved in a specific way. Often, he seems to simply enjoy the character creation process: he props these figures up in his world, winds up the metaphorical keys in their backs, and watches them go.
I feel like there’s a continuing trend in the Baum we’ve read this year, where his ultimate aim is a sort of parable or satire or just a gag, but he writes character so well that they become too human for us to dismiss just as a cartoon. The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, for example, both seem meant as bumptious and naïve, but they’re also utterly adorable. You can see why readers demanded more of them.
I’d like to think this is all down to Baum’s love for the stage. Particularly at the time, a good stage entertainment involved showcasing different characters and giving them all “things to do,” often in lieu of an actual plot. The Marvelous Land of Oz has about ten distinct and highly individual characters, and it’s no surprise that Baum wrote this book not just to be a sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but so he could adapt it and put it on the stage.
I absolutely agree. Wizard still had that strong sense of a fairy tale mixed with the picaresque, but the influence here is mostly “a good night out.” You open the book, you watch some characters dash about and have funny conversations. They escape, come back, escape, come back, fly in the wrong direction for a whole chapter, and finally land at Glinda’s palace in Chapter 20. And that’s where the plot really begins. I’m almost surprised there isn’t a chapter where the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman sing a duet.
You mean like this?
Precisely! It’s not as if Lewis Carroll’s Alice books weren’t a model for Wizard, and they’re packed full of songs and rhymes. This book is mostly played for laughs. Thankfully, they always feel like genuine laughs coming from actual comic characters and how they get along, or don’t. Does this book make you laugh?
“‘I beg your Majesty’s pardon,’ returned the Pumpkinhead; ‘but I do not understand you.’
‘What don’t you understand?’ asked the Scarecrow.
‘Why, I don’t understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner.'”
Yeah, I have to admit – it does make me laugh. My father came to visit while I was reading this book, and he found me chortling away over one of my favorite sections: the “interpreter” sequence between the Scarecrow and Jack. It’s very low humor, of course – I tried a few paragraphs of it out on my dad, and he just gave me…a look. But that’s exactly what Baum was going for, I think: the low joke for the populist audience. Make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh!
It makes me laugh, too – well, not the puns, but… I do think these characters make a fantastic team, perhaps because they’re all egomaniacs of some kind, which can be hysterical if played right. I do laugh when the girls invade, and Jack says: “We need to figure something out or they’re going to cook me!” And the Scarecrow just says, “Nonsense! They’re too busy to cook, even if they know how!” It’s that absurd, bathetic approach to an absolute crisis, and the fact that everybody’s looking to keep his own head.
Baum is probably remembering his reader there: most kids, like these characters, are rigidly self-centered.
I think it’s undeniable that this is a book intended to be cast, later, with actors; the jokes are meant to be told out loud. I sent you the video above because it’s an actual, staged production of the story. When I found it, I wondered, “Does this material actually work on stage?” And having watched it now – you know, I think it does.
For me, the book evokes the earlier Carry On films: it’s an ensemble piece, and it’s about high drama being handled by a bunch of good-natured but completely unheroic characters. What was somewhat poignant about Wizard is played very broad here.
We’re coming back around to our original conversation about the satirical qualities of the novel. It’s the big blockbuster story of the invasion of the land of Oz, but the people trying to defend it are the wrong people. They’re out of place. They muddle through. Goodness, isn’t this virtually the scenario for Ghostbusters? Or Duck Soup?
…Or the original Star Wars.
There’s a running joke throughout the book about whether the Scarecrow or the Tin Woodman is better off for the thing they received from the Wizard, and at the end, Ozma steps in diplomatically to talk about the riches of content. There is something wonderful about how content these poorly constructed, ungainly, ridiculous people are. Jack and the Scarecrow bond over their unlikely origins. “And so,” says the Scarecrow, “as we differ from all ordinary people, let us become friends.” And I’m saying, “Yes, yes! Me too!”
The idea that Oz is defended by a rag-tag group of friends is probably my favorite part of the entire thing – and I don’t just mean the book, I mean the entire series. I’m one of those rare people who, as a child, really never cared about Dorothy. Dorothy’s the little goody two-shoes I had to put up with so I could get to the interesting people. When I was about eight years old, I would very likely have told you that The Marvelous Land of Oz was my favorite Oz book, and that’s completely because of all the strange and unusual characters.
Yes, I think we’re totally agreed on that. I never identified with any of the human characters, beyond the fact that I wanted to have weird and wonderful friends like Jack.
It doesn’t hurt that, for me as a gay boy reading through my own gay lens, there’s something really special about Jack and the Scarecrow going off arm in arm and, of course, the Scarecrow’s undying (ahem) bromance with the Tin Woodman. Oz is a modern, queer world: the characters don’t occupy any orthodox role assigned to gender. That’s even literal with Tip, whose transformation into Ozma poses more questions than it answers. I really feel this is the queerest children’s novel of the twentieth century, and that makes me happy.
“‘I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.'”
I think it’s almost stunning how little gender really means to these characters. None of the male characters acts in a traditionally masculine way, except possibly for Tip; that’s quite interesting, if you sit and think about it. They’re all nice, kind people, occasionally a little pompous or doddery, but essentially very loving. And then there’s Glinda, who – as I said before – could crush you with the power of a thousand suns. None of these people act as a reader in 1904 would expect. Like we’ve seen in almost all of his fantasies up to this point, Baum delights in topsy-turvy; for the first time, though, that aspect of his world isn’t played for laughs or shocks or even basic wonderment. It’s just a fact: this is Oz, and the people are different here.
As for seeing Oz through a gay lens, it’s a topic we’ll definitely need to come back to later, because I think it’s part of how we both read the Oz books now (we are, after all, both openly gay adults). Unlike you, though, I never identified as a gay child or a gay teen. I was, instead, a child with a disability; that impacted my experience of the world, and the behavior of others around me, every single day. At a very basic level, then, you and I both grew up queer – and it’s telling that this is the fantasy world we both found so attractive. Regardless of who you are, what you look like, how you speak, who you love – there’s a place for you in Oz.
“‘Pardon me if I seem inquisitive – are you not all rather – ahem! rather unusual?’ asked the Woggle-Bug, looking from one to another with unconcealed interest.
‘Not more so than yourself,’ answered the Scarecrow. ‘Everything in life is unusual until you get accustomed to it.'”
So what’s your final assessment, Nick? Did you enjoy returning to The Marvelous Land of Oz? Or are you hankering for the return of that little pipsqueak from Kansas?
I was really pleased to come back to The Marvellous Land of Oz. Like you, it was one of my favourite Oz books as a kid and the one I re-read the most, back in the day. I thought it might be all bad puns and rushing around, but it made me laugh, it made me smile. I look forward to seeing Ozma actually “in play,” if you know what I mean.
Absolutely! It’s not, perhaps, a game-changer the way that Wizard was, but it’s a comfortable and endlessly pleasant book, filled with old friends and familiar jokes. Before we come back to Oz, though, you and I have another little tangent to take, right?
Yes! I finally get to meet Queen Zixi of Ix, who I must say sounds fun. I hope some Oz fan somewhere has named either an animal or a child after Zixi.
And after years of waiting, I finally get to meet John Dough, the Gingerbread Man, and we’ll both debate the gender of Chick, the Incubator Baby!
All sorts of new friends and discoveries await us, Sarah!
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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.
After our long and expansive discussion of 1900’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we knew it was going to be hard to move straight on to the next Oz book, which was published a full four years later. Having already exposed ourselves to The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, we decided to look at the other two full-length fantasies L. Frank Baum published before 1904. One was a book both of us had read a long time ago; one was a book we had never read before. What we discovered was an author who hadn’t quite found himself yet: still experimenting with his craft, trying to determine what made a good fairy story…
Originally published as A New Wonderland in 1899, The Magical Monarch of Mo was retitled and slightly revised in 1903 following the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Either version of the book is a collection of loosely linked fairy tales that focus on the royal family of a topsy-turvy fantasy country where it only rains lemonade, candy grows on trees, and nobody ever dies. Among the “surprises” included are the loss and recovery of the king’s head; the invasion of a cast-iron giant; the peculiar punishment of a fruit-cake island; and the bravery of a prince against the monstrous Gigaboo.
In Dot and Tot of Merryland, the initial followup to the success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the final partnership of L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow, recuperating rich girl Dot and gardener’s boy Tot take an impromptu journey by boat to Merryland, through seven magical valleys, and into the unknown beyond. Along the way, they encounter mixed-up clowns and talking cats, find out how babies are delivered by stork, discover the last resting place of things that are lost, and are crowned prince and princess of Merryland by its fairy queen.
Perhaps, says Sarah, we should begin at the beginning. We made a conscious decision to read two of Baum’s non-Oz fantasies together, in part because we thought we wouldn’t have as much to say, or as much personal nostalgia, as we would with an Oz book. Do you think that was a good decision? Were the two books different enough from each other?
Yes, says Nick, for me it was very interesting. These books really shine a light on Baum at the time he was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I think I’ve got a really clear idea in my head of what Baum was trying to get at around this time. He seems to be experimenting with different approaches to children’s books, from really larky to really lazy and even patronizing.
I think the thing that struck me the most is he’s still sort of working his way out of the fairy tale tradition. The Mo stories – sorry, surprises – are very thinly linked fairy tales, and Dot and Tot is incredibly episodic, even more so than Wizard.
Baum isn’t really constructing novels yet. He’s still telling loose stories of varying tones and styles, which is actually quite fascinating. For my money, the Mo stories (or at least, how they appear in the 1903 revision) are the closest to resembling Baum’s later work. They have a lighter, less moralistic touch, and they exhibit quite a bit of Baum’s trademark punning humor. They’re still transitory – they’re incredibly violent compared to his later stuff – but I at least recognize the Baum “voice” in them, if that makes sense.
I agree, and I think his influences are clearer than ever in those stories. They start off with stuff that feels more like Alice in Wonderland mixed with some ultra-conventional, Land of Cockaigne fantasy stuff, which is inevitably parodied because – as we know – Baum wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky sort of person.
That’s actually a good point; we’re still in a period when Baum’s writing about princes and princesses and dragons, and he’s only just starting to flip those stereotypes on their heads.
I think there’s a really strong feeling of Grimm and Hans Andersen here, too, and he’s really only undercutting them a little bit, usually through tone. The idea of eternal life, which is quite a major religious theme, is played through all sorts of comic possibilities where people lose their heads or get cut into bits.
Yeah, one thing that really struck me is how offhand his violence is; that pops up again in certain Oz books. People are run through grinders and it’s no big deal!
Yes, some of these surprises are sort of nasty – but you’re not quite supposed to see them that way.
I actually think the treatment of violence is relatively unique to Baum. Roald Dahl, for instance, plays with violence in a similarly casual way, but there’s always something mischievous or a bit sarcastic about it. Baum is sort of…magical-pragmatic about it, if you will. People lose limbs – and then they pick them up and put them back on. Bears are made into sausages and retain a measure of sentience. It’s all done in this, “Well, why not?” sort of tone, like a sort of narrative shrug. “Oh, yeah…I guess he did lose his head. Huh. Moving on now…”
I’d forgotten about the dancing bear sausages! I think the idea that they are still self-aware, even after they’ve been made into food, is the kind of thing even Dahl would hesitate to do. It suggests a complete breakdown in meaning and being that is actually quite disturbing if you linger on it.
I agree! But it’s very…non-nightmarish, just because of the way Baum describes it. He’s so straightforward. “Well, yeah, of course they still like to dance.” It slips by you as a child reader because he never dwells. It’s only as adult readers, I think, that we go, “Waitaminnit…”
Some of it really is genuinely funny, too. All the stuff about the king’s different new heads follows a wonderful magical logic that feels very Baum. There’s even some antecedent to the Tin Woodman in the king’s wooden head, I think.
Of course, it’s all in those fairy tales that are his source material. There’s definitely a talking sausage in Hans Christian Andersen, as well as a talking bean that gets over-excited and explodes. In Oscar Wilde, there is a rocket that is incredibly vain and literally goes off on one.
I don’t know my Andersen as well as I should (the only ones I know are the heavy hitters like Snow Queen and Little Mermaid), but my impression of both his and Wilde’s fairy tales is they’re so moralistic as to be, in many cases, depressing, or at least incredibly pious. Baum does not do that here, which I appreciate. I know I’m simplifying it, but he just seems to enjoy having fun. Once again, I get the impression of a man who told bedtime stories – and reveled in them.
Andersen and Wilde are both taking a new approach to the fairy tale as a literary form that is suddenly full of Christian mysticism and heavy morality, unlike, say, The Town Musicians of Bremen.
I think Baum’s just continuing the evolution of the fantasy story – away from Victorian morality and toward something distinctly American, as well as distinctly “of the new century.” It’s no accident, in my opinion, that something like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is coming out of the turn-of-the-century American mid-west. This is an era of P.T. Barnum, of Harry Houdini, of Thomas Edison… We talked about it a little bit before, but I think Baum’s writing increasingly reflects this new culture. Part of that transition is the kind of trope-flipping you see starting to emerge in the Mo stories.
Right. It’s metropolitan and snappy. It’s moving folk culture into city culture.
Dot and Tot, on the other hand… Well, it’s less obvious what that book is trying to do. Cynically, part of me thinks it’s a simple cash-in on the success of Wizard. There are, actually, some good parts to it, but it just isn’t as inventive as Wizard or Mo, and it doesn’t hang together as a novel. At least, that’s my opinion.
Cynical or otherwise, though, I definitely get the impression in that Baum let Denslow pull his weight in Dot and Tot. I’m not sure if that’s laziness or just a simple admission that half of Wizard‘s success was Denslow’s design. I mean, why not try to repeat it?
Yours is an opinion that I share. The whole book actually has quite a heavily design-led construction, in that it’s sort of linear and symmetrical and quartered up.
Good point. I do think I missed something not reading an edition with Denslow’s design. I had to go back and look at a digital version for that. Admittedly, his duo-tone illustrations for the book are lovely. They make the whole thing more attractive. In contrast, the edition I read is the ’90s reprint with Donald Abbot’s illustrations. Abbot’s clearly talented, but his entire style is based on imitating Denslow. His illustrations for the book are fairly few in number and entirely black-and-white, so…what was the point? Why not reprint Denslow’s art, which is surely in the public domain?
Well, quite. I read the Project Gutenberg version and the simplicity of the story feels like it’s tailored for Denslow: lots of vignettes, odd conversations, and round things. In Wizard, you feel like they keep going off the beaten track and deviating from the path and getting lost in the woods and the flowers. Here it’s like progressing through a series of dioramas.
You know what I kept thinking of?
Giving up? Me too.
Ha! Well, besides that. I kept being reminded of old video games on Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, “platformers” where you have different “worlds.” You know, one level might be an ice world, one level might be a jungle world… I can even think of one or two games where the player-controlled character hops from one magical island to another.
Oh yes! Gosh, the characters even look a bit like the Mario Brothers – and there’s a princess in the middle.
It’s so segmented, so episodic it almost hurts. I was struck by how easily you could lift whole sequences out; “The Watch-Dog of Merryland” actually was excerpted later, in one of the Reilly & Britton Baum readers for little kids. The whole sequence with the storks and the babies felt like it could be a very sweet picture book on its own.
Dot and Tot also reminded me of Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo comics, which would have been starting just a couple of years later. They are similarly fragmented, depending a lot on their art for their appeal. Clearly audiences of the time were okay with this type of brief fantasy vignette.
I think it’s interesting that in Wizard the journey is really quite arduous – there’s a lot of detail about how Dorothy gets tired and hungry every evening. I think we both singled out references to that in our chat about the book. Here, though, the protagonists just drift from place to place like holidaymakers on the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland.
They’re just sightseers. They have no motivation; they don’t even paddle the boat, as far as I can remember. And apart from a very exciting bit at the middle of the book where it looks like something is going to happen, they change nothing at all.
That’s exactly right! They have an experience and then they go, “Well, that’s very nice, but we must be going.” There is, truly, no plot at all. Plus, there’s a very strange inversion with Wizard that this “Dot,” unlike the one from Kansas, is a massively entitled, spoiled little rich girl. Baum obviously figured out that approach doesn’t appeal to audiences, because he never (to my knowledge) used it again.
Worse, the working-class boy is a sub-human idiot grotesque. I mean, you’re supposed to like him – but in the way that you might come to like a dog, perhaps.
…And I’ve just choked on my coffee. Thanks for that, Nick, old sock. No, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, no one took Baum to one side and told him that Tot’s lisping slang is incredibly annoying; it’s going to return with a vengeance when he brings Dorothy – our Dorothy – back to Oz. Prepare yourself now.
I think Dot and Tot are emblematic of the struggle Baum had with his protagonists for the rest of his career. You can tell, in inventing characters like Betsy, Trot, and Cap’n Bill, that he knows his audience responds well to characters they relate with. Yet he just can’t resist taking these normal people and making them, basically, insanely rich royalty. That’s not just the Oz books, either – it’s a common theme in his pseudonymous adventure stories for boys and even the Aunt Jane’s Nieces stories for girls. He cannot resist giving these people fortunes.
The funny thing about all this is that it kind of makes sense to have a spoiled girl enter the book at the start, so long as she experiences some emotional epiphany halfway through. Dorothy doesn’t actually have any more character development than Dot, though – she’s just steadfast and tough throughout.
Even Dorothy eventually becomes a Poor Little Rich Girl in reverse: the next time we’ll meet her, she’ll be on a ship going to Australia. Where did Uncle Henry come up with that kind of money? Before long, Ozma basically sets her up in a palace! So much for “Home Again.”
The impression I usually get – and I think this is generally accurate – is that Baum himself came from the upper-middle-class, it’s just that at the time he wrote Wizard he was hurting for cash. Whenever Baum has money, he tends to very quickly give his protagonists money (or the equivalent of “riches,” anyway). Dot may very well be based on his own family – he certainly put her in Roselawn, which was his childhood home. For all we know, Baum was a spoiled little kid who befriended the gardener’s subhuman troll child. We’ll never know for sure. (Okay, I’m being facetious with that last bit.)
Well, he was an ill child, with some sort of heart condition, which is like Dot at the start of the novel. And didn’t his father set up a newspaper for him to run? There’s definitely something to what you’re suggesting, I think.
It’s obvious at this point that neither of us was terribly enamored of Dot and Tot of Merryland. I would say I found it readable, but it’s not a story I really want to read again, which is quite unusual for a Baum book.
What’s interesting to me is it’s one of the very rare Baum fantasies that hasn’t stayed in print at all. It looks like the last of the original publisher’s editions was printed in the 1920s – and then that’s pretty much it until a mid-’90s reprint by Emerald City Press. Unlike Mo, or Queen Zixi of Ix, or even American Fairy Tales, there’s no Dover paperback edition keeping it in print. So my question for you is this: does the book deserve to fade into obscurity?
I think you can probably give a better answer to this than I can, because I don’t know Zixi or American Fairy Tales, but I have to say, if any work of a great writer like Baum deserves obscurity – and we are so lucky to have things like Project Gutenberg, where if you really want to experience this book, including the Denslow illustrations, you can – I personally think this book has nothing to offer a casual reader. I thought it was dreadful for the most part, lazy and cliched and boring and stupid, and even worse for following a novel with lots of nuance and invention like Wizard. Just to be clear, mind you.
I’ll say one thing for Dot and Tot, though. I would really like to write a sequel to it.
Really. Baum spends ages seemingly buildlng up this really exciting mix of sci-fi and horror and fantasy at the center of the book, with the tyrant and her “thinking machine” and the oppressed dolls. I really want to send Dorothy and Scraps and the Wogglebug into that scenario and find out what’s really going on there. If they can release the Watchdog and shove Dot out of her boat into the water, so much the better.
I was so convinced that something of the sort would actually happen in the novel itself – and then it just petered out. I feel like, at this point, Baum is attracted to really crazy, somewhat beautiful images but not necessarily interested in telling stories about them.
Unlike Dot and Tot, The Magical Monarch of Mo is still very much available as an illustrated paperback in this country, and you can pick up the Dover edition for cheap, too. Yours has 14 stories, right?
Yes – or rather, 14 surprises.
Quite. I ask mostly because I can’t find my old Dover paperback, and one or two of these stories felt absolutely unfamiliar to me.
It’s funny, I experienced much the same thing. I remembered them as much lighter and frothier.
I do know that the Dover uses the color plates from A New Wonderland, which was the original version of the book; there are more of them, and they’re printed in duo-tone. I don’t have as many in my Bobbs-Merrill Mo, but mine are in “full color,” if you will. It’s an interesting distinction.
I think the two-color plates are nice; they have a sort of elegant, simplified art nouveau quality. I’m not quite so impressed by the majority of the illustrations. A lot of them feel rather thrown away and insubstantial compared to Denslow and Neill, but maybe they suit the more ephemeral style of the Mo stories.
I rather like them – despite Denslow’s obvious skill at design, I actually like these more romanticized figures better. The Purple Dragon is great, too. Still not as good as my beloved John R. Neill and his full-on art nouveau style, but quite pleasant, overall, and probably my favorite Baum illustrations by another artist. There’s a lot of really nice topsy-turvy imagery in the stories, and I think that’s reflected in the art.
So do we keep The Magical Monarch of Mo in print? Is it worth it?
I’m going to turn that question back on to you, Grand Inquisitor, and ask: if Mo is read today, who is its audience? Would you read it to a child? Do you think it was a good children’s book even in its day?
Well, I quite like the stories – and I quite liked them as a child, too, which probably proves something. Whether they have an audience today, however, I’m not entirely sure; I think if the Oz books appeal to a child, it’s fairly likely Mo will, too, even though the stories are considerably more bitty. If anything, the stories are more child-friendly now than they were 25 years ago, when I first read them; young kids are exposed to so much more violence now on a regular basis.
A while ago, you sent me this piece about a Magical Monarch of Mo sitcom starring Groucho Marx, where he’s an ordinary guy daydreaming about a crazy fantasy world. I see a lot of Tom and Jerry and even Ren and Stimpy in these stories, and I wonder whether some of them might make really good TV cartoons.
I had a similar thought, actually. I found myself wondering why they’d never been adapted, unlike so much of the rest of Baum’s output. They do feel more than a bit like Looney Tunes.
Is that an American tradition, perhaps? That kind of manic violence where people knock each other down and then get up and go home?
Yeah, I suppose it is, really. That’s all The Three Stooges was, in a nutshell, and you see it in film comedies from Buster Keaton to Jim Carrey to The Hangover and on up. You have a physical comedy history in Britain, too, but it’s rather less about the theater of physical pain. Noel Coward we are not, I’m afraid – even the 1902 stage Wizard of Oz has comedy violence in the “Football” song, which I believe was originally performed with the football made to look like the Scarecrow’s head.
I must say, I find it sort of bizarre that there was such a long gap between Wizard and The Marvelous Land of Oz, even allowing for Dot and Tot and a marvelous reprint of Mo. You’ve just reminded me, though: he was a little bit busy with this thing called a major stage musical!
As it happens, Nick, that’s an excellent place to stop and come back later. Soon, we’ll be examining Mr. Baum’s attempt to catch theatrical lightning in a bottle twice – or as most people know it, the second Oz book…
The Magical Monarch of Mo illustrations are photographed from the book collections of Nick Campbell and 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.
For those of you who remember, Nick and I were due to finish our discussion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz some months ago. Fortunately, we were able to do so, but real life got in the way directly thereafter; we had to put our conversations, and this blog, on the backburner for a little while. The result is that you are getting the second half of a conversation long after it should have been posted! Feel free to refresh your memories with Part I right here, and prepare for far more regular updates in the near future…
You were saying, Nick, that this is a story about disappointment.
It is! It’s not quite consistent, because – well, Glinda – but it’s about pinning your expectations on a great man, on a wonderful wizard, and about seeing through the facade of him. I think that’s pretty rare in children’s literature, ’til perhaps the more cynical stuff in the 1970s and 80s; even E. Nesbit’s Psammead (from Five Children and It) does real magic.
The moment when Dorothy calls the Wizard out – and the little moment later on, when she quietly forgives him – are what really make this a special novel and Dorothy one of the great hero figures in children’s literature.
“‘Just to amuse myself, and keep the good people busy, I ordered them to build this City, and my Palace; and they did it all willingly and well. Then I thought, as the country was so green and beautiful, I would call it the Emerald City; and to make the name fit better I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.'”
I think it fits in with the idea – again, Glinda aside – that nothing is what it seems. Perhaps Baum’s just talking about the America he lived in: a world where the rules were being written anew. You’ve got a Scarecrow who doesn’t scare crows, a Lion who isn’t much of a frightening beast, a Wizard who can’t do magic, a Witch who is afraid of a household material…it’s all sort of turned on its head.
The Witch is afraid of the dark, too.
Right! It’s interesting that Baum is deliberately using certain fairy tale tropes – wizards, witches, jeweled cities – to be at least somewhat satirical. He doesn’t do that very much later on. He creates this anti-fantasy world, and later, he’s content to let it just sort of relax and become a more traditional, idyllic fairyland.
Glinda – who, you will note, is never called a Good Witch again after Wizard – is the beginning of the decline, so to speak. She’s exactly who she appears to be: an all-powerful, all-knowing, matriarchal magician. That’s very cool, but it’s in total opposition to the looking-glass logic of the rest of the book.
That might save it from the burden of a labored message, though, unlike Mother Goose in Prose. Baum really believes in powers like Glinda’s, and really finds them exciting, even frightening. Glinda and her child soldiers are almost spooky here.
Are they children? They look like young women, not children – at least to me.
I’m probably being led by Robert Ingpen’s illustration there. They look like something out of Village of the Damned.
And I’m being influenced by Denslow, so that actually brings up a really good point: how incredibly straightforward, pragmatic, and almost non-descriptive is Baum’s prose? He doesn’t do a whole lot of detail…ever. He describes the Scarecrow’s face in some detail, and the Witch’s one eye, and Dorothy’s gingham dress and pink bonnet. Most things are sort of hand-waved, though. You never get a real description of the Tin Woodman, for instance. He could look like anything.
And the landscape itself is still hard for me to visualize. It’s beautiful, of course, but I’m not sure what particular kind of beauty Baum had in mind. Is it an American landscape or what?
Despite the Wizard’s assurance that he is “a very old man” – well, what does that mean? He might be forty, fifty, sixty, seventy. And how old is Dorothy, anyway? Six, eight, twelve?
That’s definitely a point. We know barely anything about Dorothy, perhaps so that we can project ourselves onto her. We must presume she’s an orphan, but thankfully, Baum doesn’t go heavily sentimental on that point.
There’s an opportunity here for the illustrator to completely change the reader’s perspective of this book and these characters. One thing that occurred to me: are any of these people even necessarily white?
“When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also.”
That’s a really good observation, and of course the answer is, not at all. Baum is very clear on circumstances. These are all working people, from Dorothy through her friends to the Wizard himself – and that’s it.
With very little squinting, these people and their culture could easily exist in many poorer regions of America today. Rest assured that there are still one-room farmhouses in this country; There are still scarecrows, and people who go out to chop their own wood. There are markedly fewer balloonists and traveling circuses, but even those aren’t totally extinct.
Really, this should be the ultimate reprintable, re-interpretable children’s novel. You could do so many different things with it – and two or three small puns aside, it isn’t reliant on the subtleties of the English language, unlike, say, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The human characters could be any ethnicity, and the story could reflect any culture. (Perhaps this is why Alexander Volkov’s “appropriation,” The Wizard of the Emerald City, had such success behind the Iron Curtain despite little significant change from Baum’s original.) Is it, then, the sheer universality of the story – even in the more popular form of the 1939 MGM film – that keeps it alive today?
It certainly has a fairy tale’s DNA, with the resilient simplicity that comes with that. In many ways it’s extremely historically specific. I read somewhere about it reflecting the commodification that is part of the American dream – and how relevant it is that Baum used to be a shopkeeper. I think one of the saddest things about the novel – something that makes me uncomfortable but also seems true and human – is that the Scarecrow and the others are told (by the Wizard himself!) that they don’t need to be given the things they’re looking for. They just don’t believe him, and he has to give them those things anyway.
If the Witch had been a little more innocent, perhaps the price – marching off to exterminate her on behalf of this scared little old man – might seem rather high.
Well, there’s a certain cynicism about it, to be sure, which is probably pretty clear-sighted. It really is depressing that Dorothy’s friends insist on those totems to feel satisfied, but I think it’s a pretty savvy reading of how people really are. And the fact that the Wicked Witch actually seems kind of pathetic and washed up is surely the starting place of Wicked and its many, many imitators. I can’t say it’s ever interested me, overly, to know more about the Witches or their history, but that idea appeals to a lot of people. It doesn’t take much doing to see the Wizard’s actions as fairly monstrous. He comes in, sets up shop, insists on his own superiority and takes over. End of discussion. Baum knows how wrong that is, too – it’s the setup for the second book’s big revelation.
I think one of the main reasons I’ve never really cared much about Wicked is that it suggests it’s a revisionist reading of the novel – but it’s all there in the original book.
It is. What’s a little weird is that the stage musical of Wicked (which I prefer) actually has the less revisionist, and more believable, take on events. In the novel, the Wizard is evil – pretty thoroughly villainous in every way. In the musical, he’s certainly not a nice man, but his actions are clearly those of a man trying to keep ahead of the game. He’s intensely, unimaginably misguided, but he’s not actually, you know, laughing maniacally like some supervillain. That, to me, feels more like Baum’s Wizard: a man who is using every trick at his disposal to keep from being “found out.”
Absolutely – he’s a fundamentally pathetic figure. But as with the “Christmas morning” scene with the Scarecrow and friends, he’s also surrounded by people who want to be commanded and infantilized. The people of Oz have never taken off their green tinted glasses and looked at their own city!
Right – and the musical certainly speaks to that. The Wizard is handed power on a platter; they call him “wonderful,” and he decides to live up to the name. I think Baum would appreciate that take on the character.
“Oz, left to himself, smiled to think of his success in giving the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion exactly what they thought they wanted. ‘How can I help being a humbug,’ he said, ‘when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?'”
Is it too moralistic? Or is the moralistic aspect of it, as we’ve kind of been exploring, just another smoke-and-mirrors trick? Baum makes it all seem very settled by the end… It’s only when you step back and sort of look at it sideways that you realize it’s all still pretty skewed.
Again, I am pretty sad that the novel ends without them finding out the truth – and with the Scarecrow, of all people, in charge. Depending on how you look at it, that could be seen as an overly cynical conclusion.
I feel absolutely certain that Baum, with his sense of humor, intentionally left a strawman figure in charge. It’s just too perfect a pun.
And the Tin Woodman gets his heart – and completely forgets about his Munchkin bride!
They all get a little taste of power which they can’t resist.
This is why, to put it mildly, I wouldn’t quite settle for this as the one and only Oz book.
I don’t know what I would think if there weren’t a string of sequels, but what it feels to me is that the story is essentially a fable. Every plot beat, twist and revelation suggests that. Oz is a land of color and Kansas is grey, but at least in Kansas you see what you’re getting (or you do if you’re smart). Baum tells his story so well, though, that we – and perhaps the author himself – can’t help but like the Scarecrow and Company. Even the Wizard is somewhat sympathetic. So we’re caught between thinking, “Yes, how true this rings to me,” and also thinking, “No, it can’t possibly end there.”
I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. And it is, I think, possible that Baum got as much enchanted by his vision as the child readers did. At least, at first.
Did you ever hear the story that Maud Gage Baum told about her husband getting frustrated with his characters “not doing what I want them to do”? I loved that story when I was a child, and perhaps it meant a lot to me when I was thinking about writers and writing my own stuff, even then. I’ve since wondered, though – when was that happening? If it’s true. What does it refer to?
I don’t know, but it probably says a lot about Baum’s process. I keep harping about him being an undisciplined writer, but I don’t even mean that as a criticism. (I’ll be the first in line to admit that I am an extremely undisciplined writer.) It’s just a fact. The idea of Baum getting up in the middle of the night and scrabbling on some wallpaper doesn’t seem at all unusual.
Precisely. I really want to see those drafts that Maud burned now!
“‘This must be the Land of Oz,’ said Dorothy, ‘and we are surely getting near the Emerald City.'”
So here’s a pedant’s question: how big is Oz here? Is Oz even the name of the entire country?
I don’t think Baum has really thought about that. Doesn’t he call the land around the Emerald City “Oz”? But Munchkin Country is also “in the land of Oz, my dear!” It certainly takes ages to get around in it. Where is Oz? For you?
I have no idea. This is a continuous problem with Baum’s Oz. He never locates it. He seems to imply that it’s on Earth, somewhere, at least…whereas later, Ruth Plumly Thompson is going to put it on a distinctly different planet.
Is it another dimension? A lost city? Is it fairyland? Dorothy really goes there because Uncle Henry’s had to rebuild the house since it blew away. That feels, to me, like a statement of intent: “This is not an imitation of Alice in Wonderland.”
Here’s my pedantic question. Is Glinda meant to be Gayelette? The woman who created the Golden Cap in the first place. Does that even make sense? I spotted it this time around but it’s never occurred to me before.
I’ve actually had that vibe before. If it’s not intentional, I do find myself wondering if Baum considered going that route and abandoned it before the published version. Possibly, he just decided it was too tidy a move.
Yes, maybe he just amended Glinda to Gayelette in a late draft. I can’t imagine Glinda with a husband and I’m pretty sure neither could Baum – just lots and lots of beautiful girls in military outfits.
We’re definitely going to have to talk about Glinda’s army of beautiful girls when we get to The Marvelous Land of Oz, Nick. First, though, it’s a little side-step into the realm of Baum’s other fantasies…
Read along with us and send in your thoughts! Tell us what topics we should discuss! Be a part of BURZEE!
All illustration images 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. Please don’t steal them; go buy their books instead.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not L. Frank Baum’s first fantasy, but it’s the one that made his name – the one he could never leave behind. More than 115 years later, we’re still reading it, adapting it, referring to it in regular conversation. For some, this could be seen as the mountain rising up like an obstacle on the horizon: the book we have to get over to assess Baum’s lesser-known, and perhaps better, works. Others, though, might consider this the very pinnacle of his talent and mourn the fact we’ll never see its like again. Either viewpoint is valid. Regardless, Wizard is the most significant work we’ll assess here – and so we felt it best to give its full, very thorough, due – in two parts.
A quick summary, for those who don’t remember it rightly:
Little Kansas farm girl is swept up in her house by a cyclone. Little Kansas farm girl lands in a magical country. In taking up her quest to get home, she finds a trio of unlikely friends and encounters adventures both familiar and new. There are sleep-inducing poppies, there are angry trees, and there is an encounter with a Wicked Witch, but there are also strange beasts called Kalidahs, the history of the Winged Monkeys, and an unusual sojourn into the Dainty China Country. Most surprising of all, perhaps, is that none of Dorothy’s adventures are a dream…
Well, Nick, says Sarah, here we are. It’s time to bring out the big guns: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! I have an admission, though, and it’s where I want to start our conversation. Whisper it softly, but…I’m actually kind of tired of The Wizard of Oz.
Let me explain what I mean. It’s not that I dislike it, more that I’ve reached a tipping point. I could probably tell the story – either Baum’s original, or the MGM film version – in my sleep. “Scarecrow, brain, blah blah blah. Tin Woodman, heart. Lion, courage. Kalidahs. Poppy field. Moving on now…” I just don’t feel like there’s anything new in it, and I’ve seen so many permutations of it throughout literature and film, from Gregory Maguire to Stephen King to Snowpiercer – that I’m just not sure there’s any more blood to wring out of this particular stone. Do you have that feeling?
Not really, says Nick. I suppose I should, after about twenty-five years of this story. But I was thinking about it this evening, and I almost think I’d be happy if this were the only Oz book!
You realize this is the part where I just shake my head in disbelief at your boundless enthusiasm, right? I couldn’t feel less like that if I tried.
Well, I think I probably did feel as you do for a long time. I’ve never truly rated Baum as a writer – more of an overactive imagination with fingers – but I happened to reread it last year and was really taken aback at what a great book it is.
That’s fair, and we’ll come back to it in just a minute, but first I want to explain the challenge I set before us for this particular reading. I was so anxious to bust up the “familiarity” of Wizard that I came up with an idea to make it seem as new as possible: I insisted on us each reading an edition with which we were not particularly familiar. So that meant no falling back on the original W.W. Denslow illustrations, no settling in for a cozy time with the Michael Hague edition which you and I both loved so much as children.
In the end, I think, we even wound up – as much by accident as anything else – with editions which we naturally would not gravitate toward. If nothing else, then, I think it’s been an interesting experiment.
For my part, I read a brand new edition illustrated by comic book artist Evan Dahm, who made it the subject of a Kickstarter last year (and you can see his art at greater length on his tumblr, Baum by Dahm). Each chapter opens with a full-page color plate, and there are various, infrequent color spot illustrations throughout the text. Dahm’s work has an odd flavor to it; he has a really beautiful color sense, but he keeps his figures in “crane shots” – overhead, fairly removed – and the illustrations usually pick up exactly where each chapter begins. The result is that you don’t often get the “obvious” scenes in the Wizard’s throne room, or among the poppies, or even finding the Tin Woodman in the forest. You get a lot of illustrations of Dorothy and her friends traveling. Endlessly traveling.
“Our little party of travelers awakened the next morning refreshed and full of hope. . . Behind them was the dark forest they had passed safely through, although they had suffered many discouragements; but before them was a lovely, sunny country that seemed to beckon them on to the Emerald City.”
As unusual as it is, Dahm’s technique helped me focus on Baum’s actual text, to see beyond the constructs you usually get in editions of Wizard, from Denslow’s detailed and organized page layouts on up. Sometimes I even went back and read a chapter over again in the Denslow facsimile edition, and yeah, it really did alter my reading. The Dahm book – which I did enjoy, very much – felt more straightforward, more sparse, and in a way, a lot more challenging.
What edition did you read, and do you feel like it changed your interaction with the story at all?
The only edition I could lay my hands on was a 2011 outside illustrated version by an Australian artist named Robert Ingpen, part of a series of children’s classics he did. He has an afterword where he says he was always disappointed by other people’s visions of Oz, particularly MGM’s, which didn’t look ‘real’ like the images in his head when he was a child. And he absolutely exercises his power as illustrator to put that right.
“They followed the bend of the river, and at last came upon their friend the Lion, lying fast asleep among the poppies. The flowers had been too strong for the huge beast and he had given up…
‘We can do nothing for him,’ said the Tin Woodman, sadly; ‘for he is much too heavy to lift. We must leave him here to sleep on forever, and perhaps he will dream that he has found courage at last.'”
It’s an incredibly heavily illustrated book, practically every scene is rendered, and it’s all done with an incredibly serious, even somber tone. I think there’s a melancholy at the heart of Wizard, and Ingpen really brought that out – but he also drew my attention to how carefully Baum describes his world, Dorothy excepted.
I think the experiment was a success, just because it forced us to engage with Wizard at a new and different level. And I, for one, was surprised: I enjoyed the book. A lot. It still feels very familiar, but I found myself focusing on the simplicity of Baum’s writing, the very practical storytelling – and that was eye-opening. I mean, that cyclone hits on page two. He doesn’t waste any time, does he?
His pacing is quite interesting, actually. We get quite a decent set-up at the outset, with some of the history of the household and the lives of Aunt Em and Henry, and then when the storm’s arrived, we get about a chapter of weirdness before we’re in Oz. Then a very, very longwinded and arduous journey. A long section about visiting the Wizard in his four guises. Then we get a big action-packed Wicked Witch chapter, but she’s gone very suddenly.
It’s almost cinematic, if you think about it. Especially when we end on that last scene, just one page, one image, one exchange of dialogue.
“‘Where in the world did you come from?’
‘From the Land of Oz,’ said Dorothy gravely. ‘And here is Toto, too. And oh, Aunt Em! I’m so glad to be at home again!'”
Baum’s got a pretty strong three-act structure. Well…three acts and a coda. Perhaps that’s why, after a lot of faffing about, the MGM screenwriters settled on a relatively straightforward adaptation. Almost every adaptation I’ve ever seen of Wizard, actually, follows the book fairly cleanly up until the point where the Wizard takes off in his balloon (which feels like the end of the second act).
The usual complaint is that there’s a lot of fluff after that point – and pretty much every adaptation ever cuts to the chase and jumps straight from the Wizard’s departure to Glinda, one way or another. It’s certainly a delayed resolution – especially the sequence in the China Country – but I can’t say it’s ever really bothered me. You?
I was thinking about that too, this time around. I think it’s all about what makes you and me different from the ordinary folks, Sarah. If I may presume, I imagine you had a similar relationship to the book in that it took the movie experience that absolutely dazzled me and just gave me all the detail I wanted – including a whole extra series of adventures for Dorothy and her friends at the end!
It’s the reverse, actually, which is probably why I’ve always had a prickly relationship with the film. I saw it and went, “Erm, where’d half the story go?” I don’t think five-year-old me has ever really forgiven the film for that.
Looking at it with a cool eye, those adventures in the South are fairly perfunctory and each one is over pretty quickly. But it gives us more Ozziness, and that’s what I care about! I’ve always loved the Hammerheads, but nothing really happens there, it’s thrown away. I can see why other people don’t like it.
Nothing happens – this is true. But nothing happens with the Kalidahs, either. Or in the poppy field. Or in the various times Dorothy stops to eat. Or… you see the point I’m making, here. The journey is the texture of the story. Very little of it “counts” toward the actual machinations of the overarching plot. Like most journeys, actually.
I would disagree actually – the encounter with the Kalidahs and crossing the river and so on are all opportunities for the characters to use the things they say they’re after. They see around dangers, they risk their lives, they make things, they weep. In the chapters at the end, they generally just run very fast and then call on the winged monkeys.
That’s a really good point.
“‘That is a first-rate idea,’ said the Lion. ‘One would almost suspect you had brains in your head, instead of straw.'”
I think it’s just that Baum really starts to enjoy writing his characters, exploring that world, and can’t quite give it up. Having told a very good story, he suddenly gets excited at the potential of what he’s doing. It’s exactly the spirit that gives us thirteen sequels, and perhaps a reason why people who love the later books look more kindly on those chapters.
I think there’s definitely something to do the idea that liking the Oz books involves liking the idea of wandering around aimlessly in this environment. Most of the Oz books are, to one degree or another, travelogues.
The whole idea of the unintentional travelogue brings to mind an alternative to your “sheer enjoyment” theory, which is that Baum he really did tell Wizard as a kind of bedtime story and never edited it down later. It certainly does feel like a bedtime story, in episodic chunks. I’m prepared to entertain the possibility, at least, because Baum is nothing if not an undisciplined writer!
That’s certainly a good point, and the book has a certain charm which obviously derives from that sort of invention, just rolling out and going where it will. Equally, I think it’s a book that Baum knows really well before he even begins writing it.
He knows that the Wizard is going to be a sham before the Good Witch of the North ever sends Dorothy there. He knows that the Scarecrow can think perfectly well without someone giving him something. He knows that he’s writing about a girl who knows her own mind and a bunch of well-meaning but essentially misguided folks – which is pretty much everybody else in the book except Glinda.
I think the fact that it even has the plot of a novel – in contrast to pretty much all the other fantasy Baum wrote around this period – implies a certain amount of work on his part. It’s a bit sad we’ll never see his early draft work. I’d like to know what his process was in getting to this point, because there are various little clues that even if he has thought out his story, he hasn’t thought out his world.
The big example that I noticed this time around – never having twigged it before – is that the fighting trees don’t actually show any sign of sentience. It’s Denslow’s illustration that gives that impression. In the text, though, they act like Venus flytraps, which is really, intensely unlike almost every other intelligent life Baum ever depicted in Oz.
It could definitely do with at least one more redraft. I probably would trade in the hammerheads and fighting trees (who are conveniently ‘the policemen’ of the forest, and once you get past them there’s no trouble from the others) for Dorothy to zip back to Glinda with the winged monkeys. It’s quite clear that the only reason you wouldn’t go everywhere by winged monkey is if you were enjoying the slow route, as Baum so clearly (to my eyes) does.
“‘Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert,’ replied Glinda. ‘If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.'”
The journey is definitely more important than the destination. Baum drops us many, many hints before any of his “revelations”; they’re very gentle when they come. That probably helps to make it feel a sort of lackadaisical, episodic book. I don’t think there’s a reader or film-watcher alive who doesn’t separate it out into little encounters and interludes, i.e. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: you get “the part with the poppies,” “the part with the winged monkeys,” and so on, and I think there’s even a certain enjoyment for the reader in that kind of segmentation. For a re-reader, especially: “Oh, wow, my favorite part!”
Did you have a favorite scene or episode, as you re-read the novel?
I think I particularly like it when Dorothy has just met the Scarecrow, they’ve walked along together, and she has to tell him to look out for somewhere to sleep, because she doesn’t want to walk in the dark – and that she is tired. They find the deserted cottage (which, they later find out, belonged to the Tin Woodman) and of course, the Scarecrow doesn’t sleep, so he just sort of watches over her patiently in the dark. I don’t know what it is, but I find that little quiet moment very poignant. There’s a real sense that Dorothy is a child having to deal with stuff without adults – quite a familar trope of children’s literature – but here, with her literally resting at the start of a long, arduous journey, it seems particularly notable.
“The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweetly, and Dorothy did not feel nearly so bad as you might think a little girl would who had been suddenly whisked away from her own country and set down in the midst of a strange land.”
Intriguingly, my favorite sections dovetail yours – and those are the origin stories of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman. They’re often changed or circumvented or plainly forgotten in adaptations, although here recently, the Tin Woodman’s story has had a lot of cultural cache. I’ve even found myself relating to it. You have these two contrasting stories: a man given life from leftover junk, who has never had life before, and another man who finds his life extended but irreparably altered – maybe even reduced – through the use of spare parts. Two very different sides of technology, although Baum wouldn’t have known to call it that. I like the idea that these are both very human characters, but also very othered – and that later, as one little boy wrote in one of my old Oz books, they become “Very Good Friends.” In comparison, the Lion is a bit of a thin character, and it’s maybe less of a surprise Baum never focused on him after this story.
It’s a small criticism, though, the sort of thing you only realize after being very familiar with the book and its characters for a very long time. There are enough shifting and surprising things happening, just about constantly, that any new reader is going to find a lot to delight them – and maybe even distract them from underwritten or hidden elements.
I can definitely picture the original draft unfolding, as you say, over several nights of storytelling. I think that’s where the terrific optimism in the first half of the book comes from, and the genius swipe of making it a story about disappointment.
All other illustration images 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. Please don’t steal them; go buy their books instead.
We decided to start our project by jumping a little bit ahead to Baum’s 1902 fantasy, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. For one thing, it was a seasonal choice – we would be reading it at the end of December – and for two, Sarah felt that it provided the backbone to much of Baum’s fantastical world-building. Plus, it wasn’t the obvious choice. And Nick had never read it before…
But first, a brief summary.
In the forest of Burzee, where the Immortals live, a human child is found by the Master Woodsman Ak and raised by the nymph Necile. Named “Claus,” or Little One, he grows to realize that he comes from mortal men, and he leaves Burzee to try and do some good in the time allotted him. Though thwarted by the villainous Awgwas, he helps and becomes a friend to all the local children, crafting them toys and eventually establishing traditions now attributed to Santa Claus. In time, though, he comes to his deathbed, and Ak is forced to call on the Council of Immortals to grant Claus the Mantle of Immortality so he may continue his good work.
So! says Nick, I had really wanted to have this discussion at midnight on Christmas Eve – when people all over the world (or at least Great Britain) are breathlessly trying to sleep in order to allow a certain jolly chap in red fantastical egress to their house. At one point I was in that number too – were you also encouraged to believe in Father Christmas?
Oh yes, says Sarah, of course I was encouraged to believe in the Big Man. We don’t call him Father Christmas in the United States, naturally. But there was always a slightly winking, tongue-in-cheek quality to it… I think I knew by five or six years old that he was “real” but not “true,” if you know what I mean.
I have my own personal theory – because I don’t remember finding out the truth at one specific time – that it’s fantasies like The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus that help children process the idea of Father Christmas as a fiction. I remember enjoying writing my own silly stories about him, for instance, lighting the Northern Lights like candles.
I…did not do that, at least not that I remember. But I also think I was quite a cynical child, reasonably early on. I was very willing to suspend my disbelief and play the game – I’ve always been like that, I have a very high tolerance for nearly any sort of fantasy or imaginative play – but I do think I was fairly quickly aware it was a game, even if it wasn’t totally spelled out for me. Do you know what I mean?
Yes. Did you read The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus as a child? Did it influence the way you think of Santa Claus?
I definitely read it – I have my childhood copy here, in fact. I don’t think it really influenced me, though. I was never really a child who loved fairy tales – I mean, I read them, I liked them, but they weren’t anything I responded to emotionally – but I was getting very, very heavily into Greek and Egyptian myths around this age, so I treated the book in very much the same way. It’s a piece of mythology. It explains things you have no natural answer for, exactly the way myths and legends do, in an entertaining way that is far from guaranteed to be accurate.
That leads very naturally into a question I have for you. We kicked this whole project off, in a somewhat low-key manner, by reading Mother Goose in Prose, Baum’s first published fantasy work (1897). And I know neither of us liked those stories very much; some of them were rather didactic, and their reason for existence seemed simply to function as “explanations” of the famous nursery rhymes. I kind of set us up intentionally, because Santa Claus functions in a very similar way: it’s a giant explanation, beat by beat, of all the familiar Santa Claus motifs and details – why he makes toys, why he uses a sleigh, where he got the reindeer, etc. It’s also quite moralistic, far more so than most later Baum books. But I still found I enjoyed it tremendously more than Mother Goose. What about you?
I didn’t think much of Mother Goose, it’s true. I think if you’re reducing the cow jumping over the moon to an optical illusion, you should hand in your pen. I guess the Baum of Mother Goose feels part of a joyless, bloodless brigade of writers – in the line of Anna Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth – who actively disapprove of whatever special quality fantasy has. He doesn’t subvert fantasy or play against it, he just encourages cynicism in his readers – and not with a laugh, either. I mean, where does a book like Mother Goose leave a child?
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is almost of the same ilk in that its treatment of fantasy, though semi-mystical, is so venerable and austere that we are never allowed to be seduced by it. You can’t quite believe in Burzee and its pious fairy folk. And there is so much explanation that the imagination is never tantalised or prompted as the fantastic usually does. In an ideal world, though, I’d put a bit of both books in a Christmassy fruitcake – the roughness and irreverence in the characters of Mother Goose and the high fantasy of Burzee. Potentially I’d really like the man who was Claus to be more like the roguish King Cole.
It’s a book that feels very Victorian, there’s no denying it. I think Baum is consciously attempting to write a long-form European-style fairy tale, and it’s not the first time he’s tried that, either – though it’s very nearly the last. Personally, I don’t really have trouble with it, though I find it more interesting as a piece of world-building than I would ever say, “This is a helluva good read.” And I’ve read any number of fantasy and science-fiction novels in that vein. Ursula K. Le Guin is pretty much the grand master of the type: brilliant world-building, highly didactic, the less said about characterization the better.
What I think I would probably offer up as counter to your argument, however, is the opinion that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn’t really all that different. It’s more American-flavored, and there are some moments of inventive ingenuity like the origin of the Tin Woodman and the revelation of the Emerald City as a giant charade, but by and large, it is also a didactic, rather pompous, Europeanesque fairy tale. The punning, theatrical style most Baum fans really remember him for doesn’t develop until later.
What I see in Mother Goose – and it completely surprises me coming from Baum, and doesn’t necessarily feel authentic – is a lack of interest in the very idea of fantasy or the fantastic. In Santa Claus, which should be the complete opposite, the world of fantasy and the mystical is so far from lived reality that we are untroubled by it. It’s inauthentic and flat.
…I did enjoy this book, honest!
I’ll agree with you that it may not be authentic. Baum was always a man who looked to be able to sell his work, and he may have reckoned something consciously rather “Hans Christian Andersen” in tone would sell very well. When his style does change to something…looser…it does so fast, which implies he switched gears intentionally.
The fact that Mother Goose, Santa Claus, The Wizard of Oz and (for example) Ozma of Oz are so different from each other is, in itself, very interesting.
Well, and as I say, a teensy bit suspicious. This isn’t a man who “grew into” a writing style – he changed styles like ladies changed hats with the season.
The Oz books feel as if they become steadily more personal creations than Mother Goose or Santa Claus, which seem studiedly – oh, what’s the word I want to use? Commercial? They are stories which practically sell themselves from the title on! I don’t believe at all that he was sincere about the ideology of Mother Goose – and the Great Ak fascinates me a great deal. He feels very much a figure of the time – a Pan figure, almost. (Not as far as Michael Hague is concerned, though.)
I think you’re touching on what I actually find the most interesting about The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Hint: it’s not Santa. The best parts, for me, are when Baum allows his imagination to run riot a little instead of just problem-solving. So I quite like the Forest of Burzee, the Nymphs, the Ryls, the Knooks, the Great Ak, and especially the big Council at the end of the story. None of those things are part of the established Santa Claus lore. It’s pure Baum. And I’d love to know how he even came up with the idea, for instance, that the world is governed by three figures who control…I believe it’s the farms, the woods, and the seas, yes? Three areas of industry.
Then, of course, there’s one chap we’ll meet again, in a pretty big way – or perhaps it’s one of his children who rules the (G)Nomes by Ozma’s time.
I loved the names for all the invented creatures. Baum is genuinely inspired by the idea of other orders of being – fairy, goblin, pixie, (g)nome – which is a lot more of a Victorian preoccupation than that of the people who first told those old European ‘fairy’ tales, which tend not to feature fairies much at all. I mean, the odd folk tale will feature a goblin or fairy who tricks the hero, but they might as well be a devil or somebody from the tribe who lives in the next forest.
It’s very of its time. Spiritualism and the elements, etc. Baum’s little world of immortals – IMMORTALS! – like something out of Marvel Comics. And I’m fairly sure this is the only Baum fantasy to mention either Heaven or the afterlife. I think. Perhaps.
Yes! What we’re talking about is also a feature of certain aspects of Christianity, of course – the orders of the cherubim and so on. Baum is working out how all these magical beings rub along, what the rules are, when they argue what they do about it. He doesn’t go very far down this path and have a magical being philosophise about not being human – about wanting to think rationally or love a human girl or overcome their fears.
The 1985 Rankin/Bass stop-motion adaptation goes out of its way to show off all of the Immortals in a long, extended sequence, with an incredibly portentous chant that sounds like it’s summoning the damned from their graves (very Christmassy, I’m sure you’ll agree). In fact, the entire story is told in flashback at the Council meeting.
So is this the same world as Oz? What do you think? It might not be. Perhaps the better question is this: is this our world’s Santa Claus?
The only Father Christmas I can truly bring myself to believe in is the one depicted by Raymond Briggs. And I can just about believe that someone who was having a great time as an immortal in the early days of creation would also be a bit fed up of things by 1975. So, by my logic, I could say yes.
The things I really didn’t like about the book were the idea of Claus inventing the first toy and the first Christmas tree. There’s a neatness and homogeneity to that – as much as it makes Claus the originator of children’s play, a bit like Orpheus and poetry, and therefore very much one of Baum’s household gods – which makes me reject the whole thing, lock stock and bauble.
Is this pre-Oz for you? Is it part of the pre-history of that world or something separate?
I think I loosely subscribe to the idea that Something Happened. Much as we are told that Ozma descends from Zurline/Lurline, the Fairies seem to have departed…somewhere…or at least sequestered themselves. Burzee is still a functional place in Queen Zixi of Ix, but the Fairies no longer seem to be in charge of very much at all, and the Great Ak is nowhere in evidence.
It certainly seems as if Ozma is, if not The Last Fairy, at least the only fairy in Oz. And their magic – I seem to remember — is carefully distinguished from witches’ magic and conjuring. Conversely, though, the mantle of immortality that is such a big deal in the age of Ak and Co. appears to have been bestowed on every man, woman and puppy in the land of Oz, which suggests either a slipping in standards or perhaps a degree of difference in worlds between that and this.
That’s Lurline’s doing, though. It’s actually explained in one of the last Baum Oz books, and it’s not an enormous stretch to pin it down to the period shortly before or after Glinda cut Oz off from the outside world. Perhaps it put the Fairies into self-imposed exile.
It seems a shame that we never meet Mrs Claus. Santa, Ozma, Glinda and even Ak (to list them in terms of increasing divinity) seem essentially lonely figures. Or rather, solitary figures – as none of them seem to mind their situations very much. The whole land of Oz is happy in isolation. Santa is happy to basically exist as a story, a visitor at night.
We’re back to the idea of story, and so I have to ask: how did your edition of the book affect your read? I’ve got the original 1902 book here, and it’s lovely, but the layout and especially the illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark just cement it as very, very Victorian indeed. I find myself curious if a more modern edition influences things at all.
Well, mine has pictures by Michael Hague: not in Arthur Rackham mode. He’s brighter and prettier than ever! He has lots of fun with the various gremlins and such, and there’s one particularly fab picture of Santa Claus realising he’s alive when he expects to be otherwise. It’s very respectful of the dignity that Baum gives all of his characters. Nobility, even. Claus, the fairies and Ak are all depicted as the serious figures Baum wishes them to be. Ak himself, with his beard and white wings, is even more celestially noble than I imagined from Baum’s text.
For Clark, he’s just a tall guy with a beard, which is totally underwhelming. In Rankin/Bass he looks something like an aged Herne the Hunter! And as far as books go, there are some other nice editions out there. Charles Santore did an equally reverent – and quite lush – storybook abridgment, while Mike Ploog turned the story into a graphic novel. His adaptation explicitly sets it in Oz, or near Oz, because the whole thing is framed with a visit to the Gnome King – who appears as a face emerging from the side of his mountain, as per Return to Oz (for which Ploog drew concept art). They’re both nice, but particularly with Santore’s deletion of such elements as the Awgwas, they do show up the relative frailty of the actual story. The more closely you render the plot, the more it becomes pure explanation. Ploog actually rewrites whole chunks of event, and it’s impossible not to conclude he thought that might make it – well – more entertaining.
I’d like to think that later in his career, Baum himself might have treated Claus, those absolutely sickening children, and the dastardly Awgwas a touch more playfully. I’d just like Claus to be a little saltier. Just a little. Someone who enjoys the tot of brandy we leave out for him and depends on the carrots we leave for his reindeer…
Where to next, then, Nick? Do we jump back in time and make our way to Oz?
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All illustration images are photographed from the book collections of Nick Campbell and Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators. Please don’t steal them; go buy their books instead.