The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

By Murray Ewing. Originally published in Baleful Head #1, 1997. Illustrations by W W Denslow.

Dorothy & the Lion

There are some fantasies that take on a life of their own. They seem to step directly from their author's mind into the cultural imagination, and take on the status of myths. Dracula is an obvious example, as are Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

These, however, are just refinements of myths that had been around for a long time. Vampires and werewolves existed in fiction and folklore way before Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde were written, and Isis recombined and revivified the bodily parts of Osiris a few thousand years before Victor Frankenstein set about making his creature. But whether it was because they added a necessary modern slant to the old myths, or just because it was the right time for their resurrection, the new myths burned brighter in the public imagination than their old counterparts. And, once the public got their hands on them, they started to play with them, just as they had with the old myths. Frankenstein's creature changed from Mary Shelley's existentially tormented "motherless child" to the lumbering monster of filmland, and Dracula has become the decadent Lestat of Anne Rice's books. This isn't so much a process of refinement, as one of fine-tuning to modern requirements — the myths aren't made "better", only more relevant.


But if that is what happens to myths, what happens to fairy tales? In his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, Frank Baum set down his intention to reinvent that particular genre for the new century:

"...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 incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale."

His new "wonder tale" became an instant success, selling 90,000 copies in the first five months of its publication. It went on to produce over forty sequels, four stage shows, a good-sized handful of film versions, and has certainly entered the public imagination — there are few people in the western world who don't know what is meant by the yellow brick road, and why Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion followed it; or who wouldn't know what Munchkins are, or what a pair of ruby slippers are good for. But this is, in England at least, largely thanks to the 1939 MGM film, rather than Baum's book — particularly as far as the ruby slippers are concerned, which are silver shoes in the book. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz also underwent a process of "fine-tuning".

Dorothy alseep with a giant poppy

Lyman Frank Baum was born on the 15th of May, 1856, in Chittenango, New York, the seventh of seven children. A somewhat sickly boy, he dropped out of the Peekskill Military Academy, and soon started on a long string of careers. At the age of 22 he was an actor. But, as with his every endeavour, his creativity and head for business combined to take him further, and four years later he was the leading man and stage director of his own theatre company, touring with The Maid of Arran, one of his own plays.

In 1882 he married the daughter of a prominent suffragette, Maud Gage. His first son was born the following year, which found Baum working as head salesman for a family-owned firm that produced Baum's Castaine, an axle-lubricant. Two years later, he was running Baum's Bazaar, a "variety store", and when that failed, he took over The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer newspaper. When that failed he and his family moved to Chicago, where Baum became first a journalist for The Evening Post, then a buyer for the department store Siegel, Cooper and Co. Two years later, he was traveling around the country selling the glass- and chinaware of Pitkin & Brooks, but it was not long before he was working for himself again. He conceived the idea of producing a magazine devoted to the decorating of shop windows. Surprisingly, this was one of his ideas that didn't fail, and in 1897, he started up The Show Window magazine (as well as founding the National Association of Window Trimmers of America), which he only sold in 1902 because of his success with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Scarecrow

Oz was not his first book. That particular honour went to The Book of the Hamburgs, a treatise on "the mating, rearing and management of chickens", published in 1886. His first book for children, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897, also marking the debut of illustrator Maxfield Parrish.

Baum saw a book not just as text, but as an object that should sell itself, and made a point of working closely with his illustrators. W W Denslow illustrated The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, drawing at the same time as Baum wrote, in a relationship similar to that of Lewis Carroll and Sir John Tenniel's for the Alice books. Because of their demands for colour, Baum and Denslow had to pay the printing costs themselves, but were instantly rewarded.

The Land of Oz had started its life two years earlier. Baum enjoyed making up stories for the neighbourhood children, and the legend goes that, when telling the tale of Dorothy's adventures in a strange land, one girl piped up and asked what was its name. Searching for inspiration, Baum's gaze happened upon his filing cabinet, whose two drawers were marked "A-N" and "O-Z".

In 1903, Baum turned his bestseller into a stage musical, which only added to his success. The story was not exactly the same — characters were added, and a few vaudeville routines thrown in — but after 293 performances on Broadway it was still going strong enough to warrant a second tour, and was being presented even as late as 1911.

The Tin Woodsman

1904 saw the publication of the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (Baum having fallen out with Denslow, this book was illustrated by John R Neill, who would stay with the series for some time), and this, too, was turned into a musical, called The Woggle Bug. The success of the earlier musical was largely due to a vaudeville duo, David C Montgomery and Fred A Stone, who played the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman for 3 years. Baum dedicated The Marvelous Land of Oz to them.

By the time of the fourth Oz book, Baum had discovered a new medium. A 6-month holiday in 1906 had taken him to Paris, where he discovered the experimental "trick photography" films of Georges Méliès (the most well-known example of whose work is 1902's A Trip to The Moon, including the scene where a rocket is fired from Earth to land in the pie-like face of the Man in the Moon), and by 1908 he had made some of his own, which he took on tour. Calling them "The Fairylogue and Radio Plays", they featured Baum's narration (and occasional interaction with the films) and a live orchestral accompaniment. Despite their critical and commercial success, they left Baum in financial trouble.

The Oz books rescued him, and it was not the last time that they would do so. However, as with other creators who find themselves the victim of a runaway success (such as Conan Doyle with his Sherlock Holmes stories), Baum soon wanted to move on from Oz, and in 1910 attempted to end the series. He moved Dorothy to Oz permanently, along with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and claimed that an invisible wall had been erected around the kingdom, preventing the tales of their further adventures from getting out (Baum had named himself not the inventor of Oz, but its "Royal Historian"). He settled down in Hollywood, built himself a house, "Ozcot", and wrote, raised songbirds and grew chrysanthemums. But in 1911 he was reduced to bankruptcy, and again used the Oz series to bail himself out. Taking up the suggestion of a young reader, he declared that he was now in contact with Oz by radio, and so could continue to record the country's history, despite the "barrier of invisibility".

A third musical, Tik-Tok Man of Oz, followed in 1913, but this was not successful. Nor was The Oz Film Manufacturing Company, which Baum formed and ran in 1914 and 1915. It did, however, produce five (silent) films, two of which were set in Oz (The Patchwork Girl of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz). Again, he was rescued by the Oz books.

Frank Baum died in 1919, after several years of ill-health. But, as with Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Frankenstein's creature, the Land of Oz lived on.

Dorothy getting fitted with emerald glasses

The Royal Book of Oz was released in 1921, written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, supposedly from Baum's notes, but actually all her own work. She wrote all the Oz books until 1939, when the series' illustrator, John R Neill took over. After the brief interruption that was the Second World War, the books started again, but were only published intermittently. In 1954, an encyclopedia, Who's Who in Oz was published, and the latest two volumes, The Forbidden Fountain of Oz (1980) and The Ozmapolitan of Oz (1986) were published by The International Wizard of Oz fan club, which had been started in 1957, and which published a regular Baum Bugle.


Baum's son also tried to keep the flame alive. Unable to become the next "Royal Historian of Oz", as he had been away on military duty, Frank Joslyn Baum launched a campaign of mostly unsuccessful Oz-related business ventures. In 1924, he tried to produce a series of Oz dolls, and when those failed, he approached MGM to try and get them to make a film. The film that came out in 1925, however, was made by Chadwick, not MGM. Baum Jnr got a screen credit for the scenario, but this Wizard of Oz was very different from the book, reducing most of the memorable characters to brief appearances. 1931 saw the release of another Oz film at his prompting, The Scarecrow of Oz, which featured a children's performance group called the Meglin Kiddies, which a young Judy Garland had left earlier that year. Baum Jnr tried to follow it with an Oz cartoon series, but legal complications put an end to this — as they did with his only publishing venture, The Laughing Dragon of Oz, which was not reprinted or followed up with its intended sequel after Reilly & Lee, who were publishing his father's books at the time, sued him. In 1934, MGM paid him for the screen rights to The Wizard of Oz, but nothing happened until the book's most famous incarnation, the 1939 musical film version.

The MGM film has many differences from the book. It might be said to be a more streamlined version. But nevertheless, it is what really set up The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an international phenomenon. As well as propagating Baum's fairy-tale into the homes of millions of viewers each year, it has become something of a landmark in the film world. Its enduring influence can be seen in such films as David Lynch's Wild At Heart (where a Glinda-like fairy appears at the end to a beaten-up Nicholas Cage), and last year's Twister and Living in Oblivion.

In 1985, Disney made a sequel, Return to Oz. It is fitting that Oz and Disney should meet, for Baum had once thought of building an Oz theme park on an island off the coast of California, somewhat akin to, but way before, Disneyland.

The Wizard of Oz on his throne

At the time of its release, a review in the New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art said that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, "rises far above the average children's book of today, high as is the present standard." It went on to compare it with "the old English fairy tales that Andrew Lang or Joseph Jacobs [have] rescued for us", and says that, "The book has a bright and joyous atmosphere, and does not dwell upon killing and deeds of violence."

But despite its commercial success, the country's librarians seemed not to want to stock it. (And in this it was not alone — as Ursula Le Guin points out in her 1974 article, "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?"; when she asked for The Hobbit, she was told, "Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don't feel that escapism is good for children.") It also evaded any sort of critical attention for some years — and when it did get it, it was in the oddest form. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was read as a political allegory, perhaps because of Baum's Populist sympathies:

"...the silver shoes are a little like [1896 Democrat candidate] William Jennings Bryan's silver ticket to prosperity, the Scarecrow is, in a sense, the troubled farmer, the Tin Woodman can stand for the industrial labourer, the Cowardly Lion is a witty analogue of Bryan himself, the Wizard could be any ineffectual President from Grant to McKinley, and the band of petitioners are another Coxey's Army descending on Washington... Dorothy, bold, resourceful, leading the men around her toward success, is a juvenile Mary Lease, the Kansas firebrand who told her neighbours to raise less corn and more hell, or an Annie Diggs, the Populist temperance reformer..." (from Brian Attebery's The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature from Irving to Le Guin, 1980, explaining the view expounded by critic Henry Littlefield in 1964.)

The Lion

If anything, this says more about fantasy's ability to be used as a wide-ranging metaphor, than it does about Baum's (or the critic's) political ideas. It starts to fall apart when Attebery goes on to say that Oz is, "another America with its potential fulfilled...its people living in harmony" — precisely because Oz's people are not all living in harmony, nor have they fulfilled their potential, otherwise the series would not have been able to continue.

More recently, in her introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Susan Wolstenholme sees the book as an expression of another side of Baum's interests, his salesmanship:

"Immediately popular, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz clearly did 'please on the surface'... Published as the new century was born, looking towards that century's preoccupations with technology and its effect on consumer capitalism, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has come to enact its own concerns...has become a window dressed to lure its reader-audience with the glitz of twentieth-century American culture, precisely because its author believed in pleasing on the surface... Baum intuited consumer capitalism and implicitly described it."

This is one view of the book's success as a book, but not as a work of the imagination. A myth can only sell itself on what it is, it cannot pretend to be something it is not. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would not have survived as long as it has — nor translated itself into other mediums (including radio, where it has survived without the aid of the illustrations which were certainly a big selling point for the book) so often and with such success — if it had nothing beneath its "glitzy" surface.

The Lion roars

What, then, does it have beneath its surface? One of the important functions of fantasy — of all literature and art, in fact — is to provide new symbols, words and myths which enable us to understand ourselves and the world we live in a little better. Aside from being judged as a pure story, then, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz should be judged for the quality of its inventiveness.

Despite Baum's intention to create a modern form of fairy tale in which the "stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy" are done away with, in his first Oz book he does, in fact, borrow from the old fairy tales. The most obvious example is the Wicked Witch of the West, who might have stepped out of such traditional fairy tales as the Grimms' "Hansel and Grettel", and, in my opinion, in this case it is a good thing. Because Baum wanted to do away with "the horrible and blood-curdling incident", his Witch is not really up to much. The worst punishment she can inflict on Dorothy is to consign her to a life of housework, and so any fear she generates in the reader must surely come from their store of fairy-tale-lore witches, who at least threaten to eat the children they capture, even if they don't succeed in doing so.

The book's other fairy-tale borrowings are mostly limited to brief incidents. Characters such as the winged monkeys and the Kalidahs (although an original invention, being half bear, half tiger, they come from the long tradition of mixed-beast monsters that exist in myth and folklore) are examples, as are the silver shoes, which in the book take Dorothy home in three steps, in a similar way to the "seven league boots" of fairy-tale.

Another series of invented characters and incidents come not from folklore but from puns. Baum's puns are reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's (though not as prolific), but are some times almost too subtle to be noticed. For example, in the chapter entitled, "The Dainty China Country", the characters come across a land whose people, animals, houses and the very ground they walk on, are made of china, and whose people run away from the adventurers for fear of being broken. Around this land is a wall. A great wall of china, ho ho.

Other such puns include the Tin Woodman (what would a Woodman be made of, if not wood?), and the fact that, in order to give him brains, the Scarecrow's head is filled with pins (to make him sharp).

The Wizard fixes the Scarecrow's brains problem

But where the book really comes into its own is with its truly original characters and situations. The quest of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion for brains, heart and courage, only to find that they had them within themselves all along is a lively embodiment of a moral that has since found itself time and again in children's literature. The Wonderful Wizard himself, who turns out to be nothing but "a humbug", "just a common man", and whose rule of the Emerald City (itself partly an illusion caused by the fact that everyone who enters it or lives in it has to have green-tinted glasses locked onto their heads) is entirely founded on the fact that he was assumed to be a wizard and has so far never had to prove himself (fittingly, the wizard makes his exit from Oz on the very commodity which he lived by — hot air). But, being a "humbug", he is the perfect person for the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion to apply to for their desires, for, as he says, "How can I help being a humbug...when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can't be done?"

As well as a source of invention, the book must also be judged as a story. In his intro-duction, Baum stated that, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to pleasure children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out."

Baum was setting himself quite a task. If there is one thing that can be said about all stories in their most general form, it is that they must deal with some sort of confrontation, must tell of the surmounting of some sort of an obstacle. According to Christopher Vogler's interpretations of the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell, all stories can be read as confrontations with death. Baum, however, ruled out death as an obstacle, as he did pain, including emotional pain. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is lost and must find her way home, and this is all she has to overcome. Physical danger is done away with by the fact that Dorothy is, right at the beginning, kissed by the Good Witch of the North, and "no one will dare injure a person who has been kissed by the Witch of the North." (Also, the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, being made of non-living matter cannot be killed.) Getting lost is almost done away with by the fact that, to reach their destination, all the characters have to do is to follow the yellow-brick road.

Flying monkey and Toto

Baum's story relies primarily on episodic adventures. Each chapter is virtually a story unto itself. This is a good idea for a children's book, as its variety will help to keep young readers from boredom. Really, the only fact the reader is required to remember in between chapters is that Dorothy is trying to get home. Initially, this objective is to be answered by the Wizard of Oz, but when he proves to be a humbug, they head for Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, who tells Dorothy (as the Wizard did the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion) that she had the means to get home all along. (In his book about the film, Salmand Rushdie said that, "The power of illusory; the power of women is real", but it seems to me that it is more true of the book that a man (i.e., the Wizard) provides answers for the men (the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion), and that a woman (Glinda) provides an answer for the woman (Dorothy)).

Whether this solution to Baum's wish to avoid all "heart-aches and nightmares" succeeds can only be left to each reader to decide, depending upon their expectations of what makes up a good story. But it is worth noting that this approach is one that commercial American entertainment producers have taken a little too much to heart — for example, in the generic US family sitcom, where no problem or "heart-ache" outlasts the episode, producing an over-sanitised and sickly-sweet version of life.

My own reaction to the book was to think that the film was better. It does away with most of the more derivative and weak inventions (those borrowed from fairy-tales, and those based on word-puns, which wouldn't work in a film, anyway), thus tightening up the story. It also does away with Baum's lack of "heart-ache and nightmare", and makes the Wicked Witch the truly horrible creature she needs to be, whilst making her more central to the plot, so that while Dorothy is striving to reach the Emerald City, she is also trying to avoid the Witch. The film also cuts the action short after the Wizard is debunked, whereas in the book there are a few more adventures to be had, which gives it something of a trailing-off feeling. However, on the book's side, it does have the constant imaginative invention of the land of Oz.

Interestingly enough, one of the things the film is most remembered for — its starting off in a black and white "real world" and becoming colour in Oz — actually originates in the book. The Kansas of the first chapter is described as "gray" at least three times, and the illustrations were printed in a sober sepia. Each of the four lands of Oz (those of the Munchkins to the east, the Winkies to the west, the Quadlings to the south and the Gillikins of the north) has its own colour (blue, yellow, red and purple respectively) and had its illustrations printed in that colour.

The Lion smiling

What is it, then, that made the Land of Oz itself so popular? The characters could not go on the same quest again, nor could the Wizard be re-debunked.

I think it is simply that the Land of Oz equals the Land of the Imagination. It is identical to the fairyland of fairy-tales, only it has a little more definition in its geography, and perhaps a more modern feel. Before he settled on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a title (after the first printing, it was reduced to The Wizard of Oz), he went through several, including From Kansas to Fairyland, and The Fairyland of Oz. Like Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, Baum reinvented and modernised something that already existed — not a mythological or folkloric character, but a place, fairyland itself. The subsequent tales of Oz relied on Baum's (and the other Oz authors') invention of new ideas, characters and situations for their success. Oz was basically a license to tell a story, and one the reader knew would have a high degree of invention. In a way, the numerous "of Oz" additions to the title of the books fulfilled a similar function to the archetypal beginning of all fairy-tales: "Once upon a time..."

Oz, then, is not so much a place, as a state of mind.

A munchkin doffs his hat
If you’ve found this article useful, consider buying me a Ko-fi!