Monday, August 6, 2018
'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' by L. Frank Baum
This is my choice in the Classic Travel or Journey category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge. Most of the adventure takes place on the road, including fierce wolf-cats, gaping chasms, a deadly poppy field and tiny brittle folk made of china. The photos are from a sand sculpture exhibition we visited this year. (You might like to compare it to last year's, on Alice in Wonderland.)
Anyway, this plot is a legend of course. Dorothy and her dog Toto are alone in the house when it's sucked up by a cyclone, and after several hours, it touches down in a land which is cut off from the rest of the world. Dorothy sets off following the Yellow Brick Road to consult the Great Wizard, who appears to be her only chance to return to Kansas. She picks up a group of new friends along the way with needs of their own. The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman longs for a heart, and the Lion would give anything for a dash of courage. It's clear that it isn't really physical organs they're after, but the traits they represent.
Maybe it seems like an unfair demand on the Wizard, to expect him to supply what ought to come from within, but this actually makes it easy for him to fudge his 'answers' later. We've all probably heard the theory that belief in ourselves has to come first, before results can be set in motion. No story exemplifies that more than The Wizard of Oz.
Dorothy is one of the luckiest characters you could come across. It's the flukey sort of luck similar to beginner card players. She is the source of two wicked witch deaths, both total accidents. She acquires a pair of golden slippers and a magical cap without having a clue of their immense power. And she gets a protective kiss from a person whose lips carry klout. Her three travel friends believe they owe their own good fortune to their chance encounters with her, which is probably true, because she's a luck charm on legs. But when you look at Dorothy's character, you can't begrudge her good fortune. She has no personal ambition whatsoever, but is famous for wanting her simple life to carry on just as it was. That's refreshing when so many people, including book characters, are after something. Could that be the spirit we all need to activate 'luck'? All she wants is to get home.
Baum's description does no favours for the Kansas tourism industry though. It's a flat, dry dust bowl that gradually infuses its colour (or lack of) through everything living in it, including Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. They are grey, sober people who match their environment. No wonder the old Judy Garland movie made the most of this, keeping those moments black and white and saving their full colour spectrum for Oz. I understand why other characters tell Dorothy in effect, 'We don't get why you'd want to go back, but we respect that you do.'
It's great fun to see her three travel companions each use the attributes they think they lack. The Scarecrow is the greatest problem solver, wriggling them out of sticky situations many times. The tin man is a big softie, who sobs even when he accidentally steps on ants. The Lion is always the front man in moments of danger, putting his life on the line. So it's clear this isn't a story about character development, but more about tapping into what we've had all along.
For that matter, I never remembered the Scarecrow and Tin Man being so kick-ass. Between them, they made short work of all the wicked witch's evil minions. The Tin Man massacres her savage wolf pack with his ax, and then the Scarecrow wrings the necks of a fierce murder of crows. I'll bet the farmer who originally stuck him on a pole hated to see the back of him. Finally, the Tin Man bears the brunt of a swarm of bees. Dorothy might have been their good luck charm, but meeting them was certainly in keeping with her trademark luck too! All this happened while she was sound asleep. That girl certainly knew how to chill out.
The mystique surrounding the great wizard sucks us in. But he turns out to be a fraud, or 'humbug' as they tell him. He's just a little bald-headed, wrinkled guy from South Dakota, who's mastered the art of smoke and mirrors, not to mention the placebo effect. Some readers might think that does qualify him to be ruler. His successful misrepresentation proves that he's even smarter than the Scarecrow, which is saying a lot.
But notice how much of the hearsay about him has connotations of deity. Here are just a few.
'He rules over the city wisely and well, but to those who are not honest, or approach him with curiosity, he is most terrible.'
'Few have ever dared ask to see his face.'
'If they don't wear the spectacles, the brightness and glory of the Emerald City will blind them' (which is a load of hogwash, by the way.)
And then there's his own line, 'I am everywhere, but to the eyes of common mortals, I am invisible.'
I think the extent to which he pushes his own deception crosses a line into very dodgy territory. This might be a light-hearted story for kids, but any guy who lets his subjects believe he's a god is going too far, and when it's happened in history, it's never ended well. He may call himself Oz the Great and Terrible, but I think Dorothy the Small and Meek is a far more noble and honest character. I'd go so far as to question the final consensus that he's a good man but a terrible wizard. We seem to be expected to swallow his goodness without a thought, but I'm not a big fan of his.
Perhaps people love him by default, just because his alternative, the Wicked Witch of the West, is worse. At least he's content to live and let live, but she's a public menace. She enslaves the poor Winkies and sends vicious attacks as soon as her one powerful eye detects strangers in her land. In all fairness, they are on their way to attempt to kill her, but they have good reason. Not only is she a cruel tyrant who pushes her subjects around like pawns, but she doesn't even bleed when she's bitten by Toto. We're told she's so wicked, the blood in her had dried up many years before. Whoa, that's one mean dame. Her final demise, with a bucket of water must be one of the more unusual deaths in literature, but we are in Oz and she is super nasty.
Overall, it's great vintage magical fantasy with its share of Steampunk vibes, shown in details like the hot air balloon. It's incredibly corny in spots. How about the spell that must be used to summon the winged monkeys? 'Ep-pe, Pep-pe, Kak-ke, Hil-lo, Hol-lo, Hel-lo.' Whoa, Harry Potter, eat your heart out! But I think the story's timeless reputation endures because it's so easy to put in an inspirational frame. Take for example the witch's, 'I can make her my slave because she doesn't understand her true power.' I can fit that into my Christian world view whenever I feel battered around by circumstances. As a little kid, I read the book on face value for the thrill of the story. As an adult, I found myself reading it more as one of those self-help fables that form a genre of their own. It's a pretty good, and fairly quick read, however you approach it.
I once saw a great bit of dialogue on social media, which I wish had made it into the real story. It went something like this.
Dorothy: You say you have no brains, yet you can talk.
Scarecrow: Oh, people with no brains talk all the time.