Oct 8 2009 1:00pm

Fabulous Journeys: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared a little over a century ago, spawning at least 200 sequels (some authorized, some not, some with marvelous titles like The Haunted Hot-Tub of Oz); a little film you might have heard of; several other films of greater or lesser inspiration; a couple of musicals; plenty of comics; a delightful collection of toys, calendars, games and more.

And still, more people are familiar with the movie than with the book, which is a pity, since the original book and series are among the most original works in American literature. And phenomenally lucrative, for everyone except L. Frank Baum, the creator, helping to establish the commercially successful genres of fantasy and children’s literature. The books also inadvertently helped to spawn the production of long running fantasy series—inadvertently, because Baum had no plans to create a series when he sat down to write the first book. (This helps account for the myriad inconsistencies that pop up in later books.)

So what’s in the book, you might ask?

You probably know the story: small girl gets snatched from the dull, grey, poverty stricken prairies of Kansas (Baum may actually have had the Dakotas in mind) to a magical land of color and wealth and above all, plentiful food, where she meets three magical companions: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the talking Cowardly Lion. To return home, she must gain the help of the Wizard of Oz, which he will give only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West. She does so, only to find that Oz cannot help her. She takes a second, somewhat anticlimactic journey to another witch, and finds that she only needs to click her heels and the shoes she is wearing will take her home.

It’s a classic Quest story, clearly influenced by Grimm’s fairy tales, where the hero receives aid from talking animals or magical friends after receiving some kindness from the hero. But right from this first book Baum begins to subvert the old tales. Most of the fairy tale helpers Dorothy meets along the way are neither wise nor able to tell her how to destroy her enemy. Although they join her quest, they do so for their own goals—the brain, the heart, and courage. And while they do protect her, killing multiple animals as they do, she must rescue them from the Wicked Witch, unlike in Grimm’s tales, where after their original rescues, the magical animals and helpers generally remain on the sidelines, but safe.

And, of course, in a major twist, Dorothy is just an ordinary young farm girl, not a princess, without even the comfortable upper class confidence of Alice in Wonderland, and rather than become a princess or queen, her reward is a safe return to her barren Kansas home. A few books later, Dorothy would become a princess, and Oz a comfortable socialist paradise ruled by women—about as subversive as an early 20th century American kids book could get—and while A Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not quite there yet, glimmers of that direction are there.

Nonetheless, rereading this book after reading the other Oz books can be a bit startling. Certainly, some of the best known features of Oz are already present: the talking animals, the strange concern for the pain and suffering of insects, the trend towards human vegetarianism (Dorothy eats only bread, fruits and nuts on her journey, even after the Lion offers the possibility of fresh venison), the puns, the fantastically improbable characters, the wealth and abundance, and the division into different territories each marked by color (blue for the Munchkins, Yellow for the Winkies, and so on.)

But the rest is decidedly different. Not merely the absence of Ozma (the later ruler of Oz) but the presence of two elements later removed from the world of Oz—money and death. Children pay for green lemonade with green pennies. And while in later books Baum would claim that no one, human or animal, could age or die in Oz, in this book the death toll is astounding, even apart from the Wicked Witches: several wolves, a wildcat, a giant spider, bees, birds, and—offscreen—the Tin Woodman’s parents and whatever the Cowardly Lion is eating for dinner that the Tin Woodman does not want to know about. And before most of these deaths are dismissed as, “oh, well, they were just animals,” bear in mind that these are talking animals, and the Lion, at least, is accepted as a complete equal.

But perhaps the greatest difference is Baum’s focus on the power of the ordinary over the magical here, and the way ordinary things—bran and needles—can be substitutes for genuinely magical items, like brains for a living Scarecrow. The Wicked Witches are destroyed by the most ordinary of things: a flimsy one room claim shanty from Kansas and plain water.  The brains, heart and courage  the Wizard gives Dorothy’s companions are all things that Dorothy might have found anywhere in a Kansas store. (Well. She might have had to sew the silk for the sawdust heart together.) The Wizard uses a balloon, not a spell, to escape. And although occasionally Dorothy and her gang resort to magic to escape various perils (summoning the Winged Monkeys as a kind of Ozian taxi service), for the most part, they use ordinary tools: logs, axes, hastily assembled log rafts, and so on.

This elevation of the ordinary would later be changed. But in this book, Baum was content to reassure readers that magic wasn’t everything, or necessary for happiness.

I’m leaving out several bits that make this book wonderful: the way the text bursts with color, the way the tale is structured to allow for perfect bedtime reading (nearly every chapter presents a small mini story, with a climax and happy resolution, and the book reads wonderfully out loud), the tiny details (the green hen laying a green egg) that make the book come alive, the magic of reading about a talking Scarecrow and a man made from tin. (Although I’ve often wondered—where do all of those tears the Tin Woodman is continually weeping and rusting over come from, since supposedly he never eats nor drinks?)

Oz was supposed to end there, but Baum found himself chronically short of money, and continuously turned to his one reliable cash cow, Oz, whenever he felt financially desperate, which was most of the time. In upcoming weeks, I’ll be looking at the slow transformation of Oz from the land of pure marvel to early feminist utopia. And possibly examining the puns. Oh, the puns. But we’ll save that pain for now.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near a large lake infested with alligators, who so far have refused to confirm that they have the ability to speak. When not thinking about Oz, she spends her time futilely trying to convince her cats that the laptop is not a cat bed. She keeps a disorganized blog at

Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread: index | next ›
Daniel Cole
2. zaldar
Of course as has been discussed earlier utopia's are impossible and a femminist nazi socialist one even more so. (To me the difference between a femminist nazi utopia is one where the women RULE and are above men, which is what many modern femminists seem to want, and one where they are equal to men.)

To get people to get off their behinds and do anything money and scarcity are nessecary evils as Heinlien explored in his books time and time again.

You are correct though until five years or so ago when I saw another oz movie that was majorily darker than the first one I didn't even know there were oz books.
James C. Wallace Ii
3. Lynnet1
I've always loved the Oz books, and I'm incredibly excited to read the rest of the posts in this series.

Rereading the books as an adult, I've found discovered that they are a perfect example of how kids will just accept things that adults think are incredibly creepy. I mean, the princess who steals people's heads? The Love Magnet? *shudders*
Torie Atkinson
4. Torie
@ 2 zaldar
where the women RULE and are above men, which is what many modern femminists seem to want

Please don't spout sexist propaganda here--your references to "feminist nazis" are really excessive and inappropriate, and political rants like that won't be tolerated.
James C. Wallace Ii
5. James C. Wallace Ii
I wasn't asking you to buy my book. I would have sent you a copy. I'm merely seeking those who love Oz and might find my story of interest. Why call me a spammer?
Tudza White
6. tudzax1
Don't forget, in the book the journey is *not* a dream. It really happened.

Also, while you can buy the book or borrow it from the library, it is also available free:

I carry this around on my PDA in Esperanto. A very nice electronic version with the original illustrations.
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
Zaldar: Well, Baum does note that Oz's utopian system works only because Oz is a fairyland, and adds that he doesn't think its economic arrangements would work for us in real life. And he skirts around the economic incentives - as I'll discuss later - by assuring us that everyone just happens to be doing jobs they love, apparently by magic, since this is a fairyland. It's definitely problematic though, for a number of reasons, which again I'll look at later.

(I'm going to jump over the "what women want," since although this is treated sarcastically in the second Oz book, it's really not a focus of most of the Oz books.)

Lynnet1: Oooh, I found Princess Langwidere of the multiple heads creepy right away -- where did she get the heads? It really bugged me. But I agree that the creepiness of the Love Magnet went right over my head when I first read The Road to Oz.

Tudzax1: My least favorite part of the movie is the realization that it was only a dream. I wanted Oz to be real (well, barring the movie Winged Monkeys who scared me to death) and I was so happy to find out that in the book it was.
Mary Aileen Buss
8. maryaileen
(#7) "the realization that it was only a dream" utterly destroyed the movie for me.
James C. Wallace Ii
9. Jim Henry III
There are some cool bits in the 1939 movie, but the dream framing ruins it for me, as well. (There are other annoying things about it -- Judy Garland is as unlike Baum's Dorothy as an actress can be -- but the "it was a dream" ending is the worst.)

Some of the major inconsistencies between this and the later books can be explained by the fact that Ozma and Glinda acquire some very powerful magic (such as the Magic Belt) and may be using it to make Oz into a utopia, stopping people from aging etc., besides just generally having stronger central government than Oz had under the Wizard and the four Witches. As the books progress, there are fewer and fewer wild, uncivilized regions of Oz where adventures can happen, and more and more of the later stories take place in neighboring countries or in isolated regions of Oz that barely know about or recognize Ozma's rule. But most of the inconsistencies are undoubtedly just sloppiness.

By a wonderful coincidence, I have just re-read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and am planning to re-read all the other Baum Oz books (and the Ruth Plumly Thompson books I own, and whichever ones I can find at the library or as etexts when I'm done with the Baum books). I have Geoff Ryman's Was in my to-read queue and will read it at some point, as well.
Kate Nepveu
10. katenepveu
phenomenally lucrative, for everyone except L. Frank Baum

Was he imprudent, did he have overwhelming fiscal responsibilities, did he get a bad deal, or something else I'm not thinking of?

I read a ton of these when I was a kid and remember very little, and of course the bones of the Oz part of the story is so familiar from the movie that it took you saying it to realize, yes, it _is_ subverting a lot of fairy tale conventions. Fascinating.
Madeline Ferwerda
11. MadelineF
I remember that the Oz books were full of crazy ideas of a sort that just don't appear today; a different flavor of crazy interesting ideas. I'm also pretty sure the illustrations in them fixed my love of Art Nouveau.
James C. Wallace Ii
12. Teka Lynn
@10: Baum, sadly, while a lovely person, had very little financial sense. He tended to fritter away what money came to him on beautifully artistic, but impractical, affairs. After the Oz books became popular, he spent much of his money on movies that didn't go anywhere, and the one movie that *was* (eventually) a hit didn't come out until years after his death.
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
@8 and @9: I have conflicting feelings about the movie, partly because of the "it was all a dream" which I hated, and partly because I was about five or six when I first saw the movie, and I honestly thought those Flying Monkeys were going to come out and eat me. I actually don't think I've ever been as scared by a movie since, which at least speaks well to its ability to terrify small children. But at the same time I also wouldn't let my dad turn the movie off since I absolutely had to know what happened next and also I really liked the songs. And I remember being very impressed, the last time I saw the film, at how well it was put together, and how well so many of the visuals and effects still work, especially for a film made back in the 1930s. I still like the musical numbers.

As far as the inconsistencies are concerned, my own little mental explanation is that the fairy Lurline can cast memory spells on everyone so that they forget Oz's past history, or remember it differently, and she keeps changing which memory spell she's using. (No, nothing in the books supports this. I just made it up.)

@10. Partly improvidence and a complete lack of financial sense and a tendency to invest in really, really bad ideas and get incredibly enthusiastic over said really bad ideas, both before and after writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Also, Baum never owned the full copyright to the original Wizard of Oz - it was split with his illustrator. The other books never earned the same money. What I find kinda inspiring is the way he and his wife remained utterly devoted to and in love with each other despite the ongoing financial disasters. He had the rest of his life put together, even if he could never quite figure out the money part.
Corey Parker
14. gandalfinafrica
I'm really looking forward to the rest of these posts. The 14 original Oz books were my first introduction to fantasy literature, and I have been hooked ever since. Oddly enough, my interest in Oz was rekindled by an L. Frank Baum MySpace page run by Hungry Tiger Press.

I also remember reading about Baum's financial difficulties but can't recall where. Does anyone know more about this subject?
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
Oh, and I forgot: Kage Baker chatted about some of Baum's most questionable financial decisions in her posts about the Oz silent films that he worked on:

The Wizard of Oz

The Patchwork Girl of Oz

The Magic Cloak of Oz

His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1925 version)

Most of the biographies of Baum at least mention his lifelong financial difficulties and his ability to spend money the second he got it. I think his development as a writer came more from being a parent - all of the books have the decided touch of a parent well accustomed to telling bedtime stories - but his financial issues affected his writing as well.
James C. Wallace Ii
16. J. L. Bell
L. Frank Baum’s post-Wizard financial problems came after he invested a lot of his book money in a stage show called “The Wizard of Oz Radio-Plays,” which combined slide talks by him, short films, and live performances. It was said to be entertaining, but it just cost too much. He kept out of formal bankruptcy by diverting the revenue from many of his early books to his creditors.

Baum later moved to Hollywood, California, and got back into movie-making as the American film industry began to concentrate there. But this time he was more careful with his money. His investments in the Oz Film Manufacturing Co. were the dramatic rights to his stories and his creative input, but not his cash. As a result, while that studio failed and didn't make him money, it didn't cost him much, either.
James C. Wallace Ii
17. J. L. Bell
I agree there are major differences between L. Frank Baum’s first Oz book and the sequels. Wonderful Wizard has a different pace: it takes place over an unspecified number of weeks instead of a few days. Almost all the characters Dorothy meets are archetypes lacking formal names: the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch of the West, the soldier with the green whiskers, the queen of the field mice. While there are puns, the dialogue reads less like vaudeville crosstalk than later books; often each of Dorothy’s three companions speaks in turn in his archetypal way.

I'm struck by the comment about each chapter having a satisfying rise and fall in itself, appropriate for bedtime reading. Baum reportedly created Wonderful Wizard for just that purpose, while his later Oz tales seem to have been created first on paper, with the knowledge that they could become top-selling books and perhaps even hit stage shows. Wonderful Wizard has a remnant of oral storytelling and simplicity that the later books lack, though they bring many other qualities instead.
James C. Wallace Ii
18. Jim Henry III
MadeleineF @11: Indeed, the Oz books have a charming weirdness that few if any other fantasy novels, then or now, have. Some modern fantasy (Jeff Vandermeer, China Mièville...) has a similar degree of weirdness, but it's usually darker than in the Oz books (although the Oz books, especially the early ones, could be really creepy in spots). And they've got cool thinky bits, with sometimes an almost science-fictional approach to the fantasy elements; Langwidere in Ozma of Oz with her collection of different heads, has a hot temper when wearing one particular head; the invisible people of the Valley of Voe in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz talking about how they aren't vain about appearance or dress -- sort of a precursor of Ted Chiang's "Liking What you See"; the tunnel through the Earth in Tik-Tok of Oz, with almost if not quite realistic physics... Lots of neat stuff like that.
James C. Wallace Ii
19. Mark Hunter
It says something about Baum's universe that we're still having such lively discussions a century later.
Ron Garrison
20. Man-0-Manetheran
Even as a child and loving the movie, I hated the ending. "No place like home" indeed! Home was boring, sad, lonely. I always wanted to be someplace else.
James C. Wallace Ii
21. Glitchie
I prefer to make my own ebooks - as time consuming and difficult as it can be having ADD and that the words swim on the page if I read too long - as opposed to going to Project Gutenberg because I've noticed missing sentences from their Oz books. So I've been checking them out from the library and typing them from the actual hard copy text. Unfortunately, at the moment due to copyright laws I can only do that with Baum's own works and some of Thompson's. I have recently posted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to Webook as they allowed me to post it there since its under public domain. One of the things that makes it hard is keeping track of what words he uses... I've had to create a four page excel spreadsheet just to keep track of characters, places, things, and first spellings used to try and keep some form of consistency. I'm not submitting them to Webook for publication, just making them available to Oz fans. One thing that made it hard to keep consistent was the fact that he didn't use notes; in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz trees and dirt and grass were normal world color, even in the divided lands, it was the paint on the houses, fences bridges and the color of their clothes that told what land you were in, and yet, in The Marvelous Land of Oz Tip says the trees, grass and even mud bear the color of the land you're in.
Mari Ness
22. MariCats
@17 At least two of the later Oz books - Tik-Tok of Oz and The Scarecrow of Oz were actually adapted from stage and film material. And all of the later books seem to have a lot more puns.

(One major change in my own reading style: when I was a kid I LOVED the puns and thought they were just awesomely clever, and as an adult, I find myself groaning, even as I have a greater appreciation for other bits.)

And of course, when Baum was writing the first book he had no guarantee of success - much less thoughts of great success - whereas with the later books he could be fairly sure that anything he wrote with "Oz" on the cover would sell. I'm not sure what effect that knowledge would have on his writing, but I think it may have contributed to some of the more tired feeling of some of the later books.

@18 What's particularly remarkable is the way all of the characters - including the American arrivals - just take all the weirdness in stride. (Oh, you have a collection of 17 heads? That's nice. Can I have lunch now?) They are often awed by beauty, especially the beauty of the Emerald City, but not strangeness.

I still want to know where Langwidere got her heads.

@21 I may be wrong here, but I got the impression that Baum never even bothered to reread his previous books in the Oz series, much less take notes on them. Clearly consistency wasn't one of his main concerns as a writer. And yes, he does seem to change spellings a lot, doesn't he?

The inconsistencies never bothered me much as a kid, even though now I'm a lot more critical of this sort of thing in my book series and television shows. It's probably that childhood tolerance that lets me continue to accept the vast inconsistencies in the Oz books. Plus, as a writer, I can recognize that a disdain for consistency can allow imagination to flow. Even if I don't think I could allow myself to do that...
James C. Wallace Ii
23. HelDC
Doesn't Dorothy find a lunchbox tree, and have a ham sandwich? Or is that not in the first book, but one of the sequels? I clearly remember the lunchbox tree.
James C. Wallace Ii
24. Glitchie
@22 Yes, I'm a writer, or working toward that goal anyway. Starting in Fan fiction with Lord of the Rings and then going to Harry Potter and following up with Tin Man as my big three with some minor 'where the heck did that come from' fandoms here and there. I fell in love with Oz with Tin Man, even though I'd seen the MGM Wizard of Oz at various times over the years, there was just something about Glitch and Cain; not to mention that I don't write for kids (not normally save for posting the Oz books on Webook) and write mainly for the gay community. I'm currently working on a story that combines Oz and Greek Mythology.

@23 That was in one of the later books where she first meets Tik Tok. I believe that was Ozma of Oz though I might be mistaken. I also didn't know that there were books until just recently, and have quickly made a decent sized dent in my collection having most of Thompson's books though I still need Baum's and the others of the Quazi-seven.
James C. Wallace Ii
25. Jim Henry III
The lunchbox tree is indeed in Ozma of Oz.
James C. Wallace Ii
26. Scraps
I hated the ending. "No place like home" indeed!

Well, though the dream was not true to the book, the "no place like home" theme was true. Dorothy kept fighting to get back home, not only in The Wizard but in several more. Finally in The Emerald City of Oz (the sixth book), Uncle Henry and Aunt Em get to come to Oz and live there.

(I love the Oz books; they were my favorite books as a child. I took to naming my aliases online after the Oz books, and my name on the Well community stuck as my nickname. My friend Gavin, also an Oz fan, said good thing I didn't name my Well persona Tittiti-Hoochoo.)
James C. Wallace Ii
27. Glitchie
Not sure if this is allowed here or not, so if its not, I will not complain if someone deletes it so long as I can still post, as this isn't something I'd usually post, but I run a LiveJournal community called The Old Road that encompasses ALL of Oz from the MGM movie to Syfy's Tin Man, from Baum's books to McGuire's. It is set up for G rating if someone is just browsing, and higher ratings behind cuts. I am looking for any stories or art you might have with a Halloween theme to the 31st. The age rating for the group is 14+, and we accept all ratings and pairings. If you'd like to check us out, you are welcome to do so at the link below.

Once again, I hope this is okay to post, and I apologize if it is not.
James C. Wallace Ii
28. Gary Robertson
What a great Oz resource!!

Found my way here via the Wonderful Wizard of Google. Reason being -- trying to figure out if I want to read any of theNon-Baum Oz books. Jury still out. (Sorta agree with Alan Watts that some places are best left unvisited. Watts thought that if the magic path were followed too far -- followed all the way through the magic woods and beyond -- would -- like as not -- end at a shopping mall in Pismo, Pomona or Pittsburg. So to speak.)

But anyway -- so stumbled searchingly in here -- and must add -- what
an outstanding web resource you have! Classic, insightful, witty. (In the best spirit of Oz.)

But -- want to add -- never read any Oz books when growing up. Then recently thanks to a joust with the flu, ran smack into Baum's mythological Oz universe. (Via audio books over at Librivox.) Armed with only a mild fever, sore throat and stuffy nose -- and almost zero knowledge of Baum's famous series (aside from intermittent exposure to the 1939 classic movie) -- in the space of a week listened to almost all of Baum's original Oz classics. To my astonishment, the tornadic enchantment of Baum's ancient writings blew me away.

Transported unceremoniously back and -- to willfully, woefully misquote and otherwise mangle Francis Thompson's "Know You What It Is to Be a Child" classic -- found the magic again -- to be able to turn a pumpkin into a Pumpkin Head. A Sawhorse into a forest steed. To see a princess in nutshell. (Apologies to Francis.)

Mari -- looking forward to your next (hopefully) entry in this series -- i.e. -- your thoughts about Disney's soon-to-be-released movie -- "Oz The Great and Powerful" -- as well as -- maybe -- your reflections on the Google/Chrome "Find Your Way to Oz" tie in.


"Only to children children sing,
Only to youth will spring be spring."
-R.W. Emerson

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