Nov 19 2009 1:00pm

Invading Utopia: The Emerald City of Oz

After five Oz books, L. Frank Baum longed to write something else—almost anything else. He had already written a few other fantasy books (Queen Zixi of Ix, John Dough and the Cherub, and The Magical Monarch of Mo) and he had a new heroine in mind, a young girl named Trot.  His last Oz book had been filled with cameo appearances from these other books in the hopes of attracting new young readers for them. When that failed, exhaustion—and perhaps a sneaking suspicion that his Oz books were cannibalizing sales of his non-Oz books—led him to make a sweeping end to Oz in The Emerald City of Oz— with an invasion.

The Emerald City of Oz starts on a dark note as the irritable Nome King, still smarting over his defeat in Ozma of Oz, plots a way to invade Oz and regain his Magic Belt. Meanwhile, Dorothy is facing major troubles of her own.  The mortgage on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm is up, and they have no place to go. Dorothy turns to Ozma for help, and for once, the ruler of Oz provides immediate and practical assistance, if in an annoying way, transporting the two completely unprepared elderly people to her throne room in a flicker of an instant without a single warning.  (It’s a miracle they don’t drop dead on the spot.) As the Nome King and his evil general continue to build a tunnel to Oz, finding ever more and more terrible allies, and Ozma tries to figure out how she can give Uncle Henry and Aunt Em something useful to do, Dorothy and her relatives and friends take a little destructive tour of their own to some of Oz’s touristy spots, giving Baum a chance to release some of his best sarcasm.  Tour completed, Dorothy and company arrive at the Tin Woodman’s palace to be told of the approaching invasion. They sadly head off to the Emerald City. Their sadness turns to stark horror when they realize that Ozma has done exactly nothing to head off the invaders or prepare Oz for an invasion: 

Ozma laughed with genuine amusement.

“Why, that has not troubled me a bit, dear Princess,” she replied. Then, looking around at the sad faces of her friends, she added: “Have you all been worrying about this tunnel?”

“We have!” they exclaimed in a chorus.

“Well, perhaps it is more serious than I imagined,” admitted the fair Ruler; "But I haven’t given the matter much thought. After dinner we will all meet together and talk it over.”


Sure, don’t like, hurry or anything, just because evil creatures who would give Stephen King nightmares are about to arrive the following morning. Eat first!

Eeeeevvvvveeeennnnntuuuallly, the Oz gang persuades Ozma that really, something must be done, and with a bright idea from the Scarecrow and a final deux ex machina bit, all is saved. However, and fortunately enough, somebody else, unlike Ozma, has actually been thinking about the future.  To protect Oz from future invasions, Glinda decides to turn Oz invisible and cut it and all communications off from the world.  Which not coincidentally will prevent Baum from ever writing an Oz book again.  

(Until he runs out of money again, but I anticipate.)

The dual plots give this book a rather schizophrenic feel, not helped by the very different tones of each.  The invasion plot is as close as Baum got to pure horror in the Oz books: the Phantasms, master illusionists who revel in evil, are particularly effective.

But if the Phantasms provide Baum’s most obvious and ghastly horror, some rather wretched stuff is going on in the See Oz and Eat Some of Its Inhabitants Along the Way Plot. (And I’m not just talking about Ozma finding an imminent invasion dreadfully dull.)  Ozma has Dorothy visit some seemingly delightful places—a village of living paper dolls, a second village of living jigsaw puzzles—but both places are frighteningly fragile. A single sneeze from the Shaggy Man nearly topples the paper dolls. As for the jigsaw puzzles—if no one comes along to solve them, they must remain on the ground in tiny pieces, completely unable to move. (This totally freaked me out when I was a kid.)

But the worst is to come after Dorothy meanders off with Toto and Billina and finds herself in Bunbury, where her two companions eat some of the inhabitants (made of bread, they are sentient and can talk.) Back on track, Dorothy and company visit two towns created as Defense Settlements of Oz—Rigmarole Town, whose residents cannot stop talking, and Flutterbudget Center, where Oz sends its paranoid citizens, presumably so they can chatter to one another and become even more paranoid.  Oz citizens displaying either tendency are exiled immediately, to prevent the insane from becoming a bother to the more mentally stable.

While Baum clearly meant to make fun of long winded speakers and those who get freaked over nothing, the presence of both towns is somewhat disturbing. Why does no one in Oz—a fairyland ruled by people with magical powers, a land that constantly claims to embrace the odd and the queer—think of even attempting to help or cure or embrace these people?

But this is almost minor compared to Ozma’s other failures in this book.  (Yes, she, not the Wizard, established these towns.)  Her high handed refusal to follow Dorothy’s advice on how to welcome Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to Oz, resulting in their humilation in front of the entire court, is bad enough; her response to the invasion crosses into criminal negligence.  A massive army of pure evil bent on enslaving every one of her subjects is on its way, and her response is to sigh and think that watching their approach is kinda dull? UGH. Her excuse for failing to prepare even the most basic defense is that no one has the right to harm any living creatures, which is fair enough, but surely she could do something to defend her country—cast an illusion, put up an magical barrier, contact Glinda for advice, distract them with a strip tease, something.

Oh well. Apparently, competent rulership isn’t one of the components of a utopian fairyland.

I can’t, however, leave the discussion of this particular book without directing your attention to the visit to Utensia. If you have any fondness for puns at all, you need to read it.  If you don’t have any fondness for puns at all, you need to read it. It’s probably the most shining and concrete example of Baum’s word play, and can easily be read as a solo short story.

Mari Ness isn’t quite sure that she’d be up to performing a strip tease to save Oz, but she thinks she’d think of something. She lives in central Florida.

Teka Lynn
2. Teka Lynn
Wasn't this the first time the Fountain of Oblivion was introduced? That was to become a fairly popular solution to nasties in later books.

When I first read the books, I knew it was a series of forty, so I couldn't understand why the authorial insistence of "Good BYE. The END, dammit." Neill's ending-page illo of a weeping Scarecrow (IIRC) broke my heart. I thought the Phantasms were very cool. Jack Snow expanded on the idea in Magical Mimics, to great effect.

Emerald City marks a turning point in the series. The subsequent books have more energy than the previous two or three, and we start moving out of the capital and really exploring the world in a less twee fashion.
Sean Arthur
3. wsean
Ah yes, the Holmes-goes-over-the-cliff moment of the series.

Funny, that always bothered me too, even after I'd read the later books.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Teka Lynn - You know, even though I happily tracked down the Ruth Thompson novels, and The Merry Go Round in Oz became my all time favorite Oz book (it still is), I didn't find out that the series had 40 official books until years later - not until I was in my 20s.

I still haven't read the Jack Snow Oz books, but I do plan to hunt them down.

The Forbidden Fountain makes an appearance in The Magic of Oz, which tends to be a retread of plots from earlier books in the series. (It will also be my shortest blog post in this series.)

@Teka Lynn and wsean - the "this is the end of the Oz books" didn't bother me too much when I first read it, since I thought it was a sensible solution to the Evil Invaders problem. Paradoxically, I was bothered by the end of Tik-Tok of Oz where Ozma discusses the American immigration wave and decides that she can't let in any more Americans. I was like, but what about ME! You can let ME IN!

These days the insistence that "THIS IS THE UTTER END" still doesn't bother me that much, partly since I know more books are coming, partly because I still think it's a sensible solution, and mostly because I now get what it's like to be utterly sick of your job, or at least part of your job.
Teka Lynn
Thanks for this post.

This was the only Oz book that I couldn't find in the library when I was a kid. I knew that Uncle Henry and Auntie Em ended up living in Oz, but I never knew how or why.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
Now _this_ one I don't remember at all, and I think I'm glad of it. Yesh.
Teka Lynn
7. Princess Ozma
Easily my favourite book in the series, once again it's really fun to examine Ozma... I'm a little less harsh on her then you are, but I've got my own idea for what was going through her head.
Teka Lynn
8. Matthew Daly
My thought has always been that, being a fairy, Ozma has always been singularly attuned to the impenetrable plot armor that surrounds Oz and all of her friends, but does not always realize that she is sometimes to be the means through which they are to be saved. Plus, she likes adventures more than paternalism for her friends, which is a big plus in my book. But being intransigent about the welfare of Aunt Em and Uncle Henry was the one bit of Ozma Fail that even I will agree to.

Now that I reflect on it, it is somewhat distressing how they go virtually unmentioned in the remainder of the books. I imagined they enjoyed their comfortable retirement in the socialist utopia, but Dorothy seems to never give any future thought to her foster parents. It would seem that the evil creatures weren't the only ones drinking from the Fountain of Oblivion.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@Matthew Daly -

Uncle Henry and Aunt Em return in the John R. Neill books (admittedly in a somewhat confusing and chaotic fashion, but that's true for nearly everything in the Neill books) and also in the Jack Snow books.

They are rarely mentioned in the Ruth Plumly Thompson books, but that's true for pretty much all of the working class characters that Baum introduced to Oz - Thompson typically focused on aristocrats. I think the issue there was more that Thompson either felt that these older characters (Uncle Henry, Aunt Em, the Shaggy Man and Cap'n Bill) wouldn't appeal to kids and/or should only appear in mentor roles, or, more likely, that she just wasn't interested/good at portraying working class characters.
Teka Lynn
10. elsiekate
i just reread this one. i have never liked uncle henry and aunt em's introduction to Oz--ozma's stubbornness about doing what will please her rather than what will make them more comfortable--to me this is worse than her stubbornness about dealing with the invasion because it's a situation that we all can relate to.

and usually there isn't too much dorothy-fail, but dorothy's reaction when toto eats some of the inhabitants of bunbury and then insists that it was mean of them not to allow themselves to be eaten--what was that all about?!?!

that said, i liked this one a lot better than _the road to oz_ which i reread right before it--man, that book is dull, dull, dull, once they hit oz.

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