The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
I know that I read several of Baum’s Oz novels when I was in elementary school, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first and most famous one. I certainly enjoyed them at the time, but this go around… Well, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I disliked the novel, I did find it less enjoyable than any of the other children’s classics I’ve revisited in the last few years. It strikes me as simpler than, say Finn Family Moomintroll, containing characters who are types, or elements of a person, rather than complete personages in and of themselves. Dorothy might perhaps be the exception.
Baum’s stated objective was to create a modern sort of fairy-tale, free of the ugliness of the Grimms and meant to entertain rather than moralize. His tone certainly feels like that of a fairy-tale: plain and matter of fact. But his removal of the “horrible and blood-curdling incidents” also seems to lesson the danger, lesson the stakes. I am never truly convinced of the wickedness of Baum’s Witch of the West–or at least of the danger she poses the traveling companions. They might have been battered or enslaved, but it doesn’t feel real, more that if Dorothy were to take it into her head (which doesn’t seem likely, as it doesn’t seem that Dorothy is actually capable of this much thought) to just give the Witch a good whack with a broom, the West would have been spared her menace just the same as when Dorothy employed the bucket of water. Baum has made his story bloodless, and his removal of danger’s teeth might provide a story entertaining enough, but without any true heft.
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Anderson have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.
Reading Baum’s thoughts, I recall my reading of J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1947 essay, “On Fairy-stories”:
Children as a class – except in a common lack of experience they are not one – neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do; and no more than they like many other things. They are young and growing, and normally have keep appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them… it is certainly one that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.
Given that Tolkien was an academic, and Baum a working writer, I have a feeling that Tolkien is more accurate on this one. Certainly, not everyone enjoys reading fantasy tales or fairy tales. I am also struck by this contrast: Tolkien kept the stakes high in his work: death is a very real thing, even in The Hobbit which is a children’s book. Which perhaps might go a ways towards explaining why Tolkien’s actual novels seem to have had a longer appeal than Baum’s–would we remember Oz today were it not for the 1939 movie?