Completed: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Wonderful Wizard of Oz RAL 300w

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum
1900, U.S.

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.

(Author’s Introduction)

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?

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9 Comments

  1. Interesting post! Although I’d never considered it before, I agree with your comparison of Tolkien and Baum.

    Reply
    • Thanks! If I’m fully honest though, it’s not really a fair comparison as Baum and Tolkien were trying to do different things with their works. But the bit from Baum’s intro about basically ‘white-washing’ fairy-tales to be ‘safe’ bothered me a bit. I suppose it may have been a common enough idea in his day, and there are still debates over what we should or shouldn’t expose children to, but the idea of making everything ‘safe’ seems a bit over-protective to me. (I say, even though I recall that the first scene of the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film was scary to four-year-old me. I guess it’s a balancing act.)

      Reply
  2. As someone who does enjoy reading fairy tales and fantasy stories, I value Baum’s books not for characters or stories, but for their invention, for the purity of their invention. The free play of the imagination. I mean, they obviously make no sense whatsoever. In this way, and maybe only this way, they do have a lot in common with Jansson’s books.

    Now, I say this as someone who read all 14 Baum novels and as many of the subsequent Ruth Plumly Thompson sequels as I could find. So I obviously found Baum’s inventions imaginatively appealing. Woggle-bugs and Tik Tok men. Crazy stuff, descended from Carroll’s Wonderland as much as from fairy tales.

    Reply
    • You challenge me to read Baum differently! I know that part of my problem was actually reading this so close on the heels of the Jansson, which I found so full of delight, while here I didn’t personally find so much delight. Right book, wrong time or something. I think I’ve only ever read three or four of the Oz books (whatever my library had), but when I was little, I did prefer Ozma of Oz to the original, so there’s that too.(The princess that changed her heads is an image I have never forgotten!) Given your like for the books–and that I didn’t actually dislike this, I just wasn’t enchanted–I think I shall try again at some point with some of the sequels.

      Reply
  3. I was so obsessed with the Judy Garland’s adaptation that I even told my mom I wanted a pair of red, sparkly shoes and from that moment on, she’d beter call me “Dorothy”. Having said that, I haven’t read the book as an adult, yet, but it is something I will definitely do.

    Reply
    • How cute! I don’t think I saw it more than once when I was little (actually, I can’t remember if I’ve seen it more than once, period), so I never developed an obsession, but I can certainly see the attraction. Do read it! It’s different from the movie (especially the end, which in the book has quite a few more scenes), but I always enjoy comparing book and film.

      Reply
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