Jan 21 2010 1:00pm

Sinking in Fairyland: Glinda of Oz

 Glinda of Oz, L. Frank Baum’s last Oz book, was written during World War I and published posthumously shortly after its end.  Perhaps influenced by that conflict, it focuses on the dangers of technology, with a great domed city that can be both protection and trap, and the limitations of magic and magical assistance. Further echoes of that conflict may be seen in the use of submarines to wage war, the appearance of firearms (in earlier books, characters disliked guns since they could go off by mistake and scare people), unhinged leaders dragging their peaceful subjects into unwanted wars, and futile peace missions where neither side is particularly interested in peace. Countering this: a welcome introduction of science fiction elements and cameo appearances from nearly every Oz character except Billina the Chicken.  (She is presumably left out since she would solve the chief dilemmas far too quickly.)

It’s not as depressing as I’ve made it sound. Honest.

The book begins when Dorothy and Ozma decide to make an unplanned visit to Glinda the Sorceress, since although the Sorceress is busy, they have nothing else to do. (Ruling Oz: unlimited wealth, food, jewelry, and bad decision making, with plenty of time left over to interrupt your busy friends.) Dorothy, still bored, decides to read Glinda’s Great Record Book, which details every event happening in the world, if in rather truncated fashion.  (It’s like an early version of Google’s news feed.)  She reads that two small countries within Oz, the Skeezers and the Flatheads, are about to head to war, which immediately leads to the first of many examples of this book’s Ozma Fail, when Ozma squeaks that these guys are breaking her “do not practice magic unless I like you” laws and therefore she needs to head directly to them, regardless of any potential danger:

“Perhaps I shall be in no danger at all,” returned Ozma, with a little laugh. “You mustn’t imagine danger, Dorothy, for one should only imagine nice things, and we do not know that the Skeezers and Flatheads are wicked people or my enemies. Perhaps they would be good and listen to reason.”

Yes, because, you know, a war zone never has any potential danger or anything and is always filled with reasonable people. Undeterred by wiser counsel (and it says something that one of the “wiser counsel” is a mere kid), she heads off to the war zone with only Dorothy as a companion.

At least the trip allows her to face still more of her failures. Although, as she herself says, one of her specific jobs and duties is to tour the country to get to know everyone and rout out unauthorized magic users, she admits that she’s been too focused on her need to make the exceedingly wealthy, parasitic people of the Emerald City even more wealthy and parasitic to do any such touring. The point is only emphasized when, right after this confession, she and Dorothy are almost immediately kidnapped by giant spiders who are, natch, not only unauthorized magic users, but also failing to send off their proper goods and taxes to support those Emerald City parasites. See, Ozma, everyone could have been even wealthier if you’d just been doing your job. (In the great Oz tradition of protecting insects and other creepy crawly things, nobody squishes the spiders.) Dorothy offers a nice word of comfort: since she and Ozma are destined to live forever in Oz, they’ll see everything eventually. Ah, immortality! Best excuse for slacking ever.

So, buoyed by the knowledge that immortality means you don’t need to hurry, Ozma and Dorothy take a moment to do a little camping with the assistance of Ozma’s wand. Dorothy thinks everyone should have magic wands. Ozma disagrees:

“No, no, Dorothy, that wouldn’t do at all. Instead of happiness your plan would bring weariness to the world. If every one could wave a wand and have his wants fulfilled there would be little to wish for. There would be no eager striving to obtain the difficult, for nothing would then be difficult, and the pleasure of earning something longed for, and only to be secured by hard work and careful thought, would be utterly lost. There would be nothing to do you see, and no interest in life and in our fellow creatures. That is all that makes life worth our while—to do good deeds and to help those less fortunate than ourselves.”

“Well, you’re a fairy, Ozma. Aren’t you happy?”asked Dorothy.

“Yes, dear, because I can use my fairy powers to make others happy. Had I no kingdom to rule, and no subjects to look after, I would be miserable...”

This might be just a tad more convincing if Ozma weren’t currently sheltering a group of people actively avoiding work. (We later see them happily working at a game of croquet.) 

So after this decision to let the mortal world continue to struggle with poverty and hard work, they continue to the lands of the Flatheads, who live on top of a mountain and keep their brains in cans (ewww!) and the Skeeters, who live on a technological marvel: an island domed with glass in the middle of a lake. (Nothing is said about their air conditioning bills.)  Unsurprisingly, Ozma’s best peacekeeping efforts do nothing to stop the war, led by the evil Supreme Dictator (who has stolen other people’s cans of brains to make himself smarter...again, ewwwww!) and Coo-ee-oh, the world’s one and only Krumbic Witch. (Apparently, the term means, “Witch with the power to cause instant dislike.”) At the end of their fight, Coo-ee-oh has been transformed into a glorious and uncaring Diamond Swan; the Flatheads have scurried off clutching their brains (again, ewwwww!); and the island city and its glass dome have sunk to the bottom of the lake, trapping its inhabitants inside—including Dorothy and Ozma.

Surprisingly, the Skeezers, instead of demanding Ozma’s head, suggest that she take over the city. She does so, trying but failing to discover how the city’s technology—a combination of science and magic—works.  Even more surprisingly, even though none of the inhabitants can die, no one suggests either swimming or just walking across the bottom of the lake and climbing out.  Really and truly surprisingly, although Dorothy is wearing the Magic Belt, solver of all problems great and small, no one suggests using it, either. Instead, they remain trapped. Luckily, Dorothy is able to warn Glinda that something is up, and after a short council, Glinda leads most of the familiar Oz characters off on a rescue mission. (In a revealing statement, Baum admits, “They were all ready to start at a moment's notice, for none had any affairs of importance to attend to.”  About that working to earn your happiness, Ozma...)  And one of the Skeezers stuck outside the city does a little rescuing of his own, returning with three more magic workers—the beautiful Adepts of Magic.

(Sidenote: one small touch that I loved about this book was that with Coo-ee-oh, prior to swan transformation, we for once had a female magic worker who was not either extraordinarily beautiful [Ozma, Glinda, Polychrome, the Adepts] or ugly [Mombi, the Wicked Witches] but just ordinary looking. A pleasant change.)

But even the combined mental power and magical knowledge of all of these magical experts fails to bring the sunken island back to the top of the lake.   Help finally comes from the girls of the party—the Patchwork Girl, Dorothy, Trot and Betsy—who together manage to save the day with some actual thinking.  Just in time to let the magical women of Oz kick the evil (and male!) Supreme Dictator off his throne—and solve that icky brain problem.

By this book, the ruling triumverate of Oz—Ozma, Glinda and Dorothy—were fully established; absolute rulers of an utopian paradise. It was here that Baum would leave his beloved series, in their capable—and very feminine—hands.

Oz did not end with Glinda of Oz. Rather, it expanded. Baum’s publishers, unwilling to lose their most lucrative literary property, hired other writers to continue the series, adding more characters and more tiny countries hidden within Oz. As the original Oz books entered the public domain (along with some of the Ruth Plumly Thompson novels) other writers seized the opportunity to joyfully pen new Oz books.  Books of Wonder and other small presses continue to print many of them today, and apocryphal Oz e-books abound.

But credit must go to Baum for first creating this brilliant, colorful land where anything could happen and often did; where premade meals (and sometimes cream puffs!) literally grew on trees; where anyone would have a lovely adventure complete with a nice warm meal and a soft bed and dinner parties. (I particularly liked the food part. And the cream puffs part. Oz, whatever else can be said about it, sounds absolutely delicious.)

And, best of all, it was a land where both boys and girls could have adventures, without worrying about traditional gender roles. Here, the girls get to do the rescuing, and never once have to apologize for being girls. Not that the boys are left out—Baum brings them along and gives them their own adventures and quests. But by the end of the series, girls are running the entire country, and lot of the little interior countries as well. And it’s a land where differences are not only accepted, but embraced: we are explicitly told that Ozma and Dorothy love their friends precisely because of their peculiarities.

It’s no wonder I fell so much in love with a series with adventuring girls and unexpected magic, where a girl made of patchwork could be brought to life with a shaking of powder, where a man made of tin could weep over insects, where merry farmers could grow vast fields of cream puffs and chocolates, and fairies could fall off rainbows.  Oz, above all, bursts with imagination and word play, and if it occasionally falls short in a few places, its colorful brilliance continues to shine.

Mari Ness is still hoping that a whirlwind or an earthquake will bring her to Oz. In the meantime, she lives in central Florida, along with two cats, who were of no assistance whatsoever in writing these posts.

Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Michael Burstein
1. mabfan
Thank you for all of these analyses of the Oz books. They have been most enjoyable.
Greg Morrow
2. gpmorrow
Please continue on through the rest of the Famous Forty!

And a guide to the best of the rest, I'd consider that invaluable. I'll contribute a recommendation for the Shanower graphic novels -- truly masterful visuals, and stories both interesting and faithful to the Oz standards.
Francesca Forrest
3. Asakiyume
Glinda of Oz was one of my favorites as a kid. I could find a link to just one of your earlier read-throughs, of Magic of Oz. Is there any way of finding the others? I'd love to read your thoughts on them!
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Mabfan and @gpmorrow Thanks for the kind words. As it happens, I will be continuing on with the rest of the Famous Forty here at, after a two week break (to give me time to track down the rest of the books.)

And a solid YES to the Eric Shanower graphic novels. Highly recommended. And although they're not at all Oz related, I also like Age of Bronze, although Eric Shanower and I have very different visual images of Helen of Troy.

@asakiyume I think the easiest way to find the previous Oz posts is to click on either the L. Frank Baum tag or the Oz tag at the bottom of the post. The upcoming Oz posts will be tagged with the names of the respective authors to make them a little easier to find.
Francesca Forrest
5. Asakiyume

Thanks Mari! Enjoyed your essays very much, though it was strange to be reading an adult's adult criticism (and to be, myself, an adult) and yet at the same time have all my childhood memories rising up. I remember sitting and drawing the Oz characters endlessly....
Tansy Rayner Roberts
6. Tansy Rayner Roberts
Thank you for these, Mari! I have read every one of them and enjoyed revisiting Oz immensely. (and the new perspective of Ozmafail made me giggle throughout)
Tansy Rayner Roberts
7. JaredDavis
Hey, where's your take on "Rinkitink in Oz"?
Tansy Rayner Roberts
8. seth e.
Thanks from me too for the re-reads, which have been informative and fun. I'm glad you're going through the Ruth Plumly Thompson books, which I can't remember nearly as well; I have all of Baum's, but I never see hers for sale. Vague individual images are all I recall from her stories. I'm looking forward to possibly seeing them again here.
Mari Ness
9. MariCats
@Tansy Rayner Roberts: You're welcome! I think Ozma's failings become more apparent when you reread the series as a grown-up.

@JaredDavis: The review of Rinkitink in Oz is here:

The commentators all loved the book more than I did - I love the first 3/4ths of the book, but the Dorothy interference seriously grates on me.

@Sethe: Ruth Plumly Thompson's books are still in print and available from the store:

I think Del Rey is continuing to print these as paperback books on demand, thus the comparative price, but, hey, they're in print. The Del Rey editions contain black and white images of the Neill illustrations (which alas never reach the quality of the ones in Road to Oz) but for some reason leave out the introductory letters from Thompson and Maud Gage Baum. (I don't know why) Some of the Thompson books (but not all) are also available as free ebooks, and these ebooks do contain the introductory letters, but this only applies to the ones in the public domain. (For some reason Thompson, or her estate, only renewed the copyright on some of her Oz books, not all. I have no idea why.)

The Thompson books, like the Baum books, do vary wildly in quality - I think it took Thompson a little while to feel truly comfortable in Oz, and she took a more traditional, fairy tale approach, although she still plays with certain aspects. (Kalumpo of Oz, for instance, is in part a reversal of the traditional "Beauty and the Beast" tale.) Like you, I remembered some elements very clearly, and others less so.
Tansy Rayner Roberts
10. houseboatonstyx
Ozma's attitude in many of the books is mysterious. Perhaps as a fairy, she sees things differently.

It's boggling -- but can be read as a sort of magical leavening of probability. Maybe she's some sort of relative of Bing of Xanth.
Tansy Rayner Roberts
11. erinlb
Glinda of Oz was one of my very favorites of the later Oz books!

I haven't read any of the Ruth Plumly Thompson Oz books (they were pretty hard to find when I was an elementary-age Oz fan in the late 80s); perhaps some of your recaps will inspire me to try to find them!
Tansy Rayner Roberts
12. elsiekate
i've been thinking a lot about ozma fail and it seems to me that it's mostly a highly targeted example of what roger ebert identified as the "idiot plot" syndrome:

"A plot that requires all the characters to be idiots. If they weren't, they'd immediately figure out everything and the movie would be over."

the problem with being an powerful fairy ruler with far-reaching magic powers is that in order to have a book that isn't just "ozma sees problem in magic picture and nips it in the bud with magic belt," ozma has to act like an idiot so that another solution becomes necessary and a book can occur. one wonders whether baum spent so much time telling us how beloved she was because he knew that in order to have a source of income, she had to be rather ineffectual.
Mari Ness
13. MariCats
@elsiekate (Sorry for the late response; I didn't see your comment until today!)

I think there's a certain truth to your observation. I'll also add that Ozma, in her original incarnation, was meant to be a very young girl - Tip is only about ten when he's transformed - and some of her early failures can certainly be blamed on inexperience. Later, when she is depicted as a wise and all powerful fairy (starting at around Patchwork Girl), this becomes a bit more difficult to reconcile with what she's actually doing - but as you correctly note, any "ozma sees problem in magic picture and nips it in the bud" wouldn't be much of a book.
Tansy Rayner Roberts
14. elsiekate
hmm--i tried to post yesterday about GlindaFail, but it doesn't seem to be here so sorry if some of this turns into a duplicate. anyway, i am rereading some of these (i blame you) and in the very first chapter of glinda of oz, there is major GlindaFail:

" "But they ought to know, Ozma, and we ought to know. Who's going to tell them, and how are we going to make them behave?"

"That," returned Ozma, "is what I am now considering. What would you advise, Glinda?"

The Sorceress took a little time to consider this question, before she made reply. Then she said: "Had you not learned of the existence of the Flatheads and the Skeezers, through my Book of Records, you would never have worried about them or their quarrels. So, if you pay no attention to these peoples, you may never hear of them again." "

what kind of advice is that?

but i came back because i had another comment after finishing the book--the last chapter is called "glinda's triumph" but really, they all would still be sitting there in that sunken island if dorothy hadn't figured out the magic words. all glinda did was pour the powder from a pre-measured scoop into a basin and say a word someone else had thought of.

just sayin'.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@elsiekate - Sorry for taking so long to respond to this!

Glinda here seems to be representing an isolationist, but practical, perspective - very similar to the way numerous Americans responded to the outbreak of World War I, with an "it's their problem" attitude. Even after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, often seen as one of the causes for U.S. involvement, the U.S. did not declare war until 1917.

My reading is that Glinda thinks any interference from Ozma and her allies would either land Ozma in danger (correct), not cease hostilities (also correct) or potentially worsen them (debatable - it seems clear from the text that the two groups were going to war anyway, whatever Ozma/Glinda did.) If you honestly believe that war is inevitable, and your interference can only worsen matters, advising non-interference makes sense.

But you're absolutely right about the Glinda triumph moment ;) Glinda's main usefulness appears to have been alerting the Emerald City crowd to the danger, thus getting the Patchwork Girl there in time to make her useful suggestion, and to help lower the water level of the lake (although from the text and illustrations, it seems the Adepts could have done that as well.) Otherwise, much of the actual work - restoring the Adepts, lowering the water, opening the dome, going down into the dome, and well, figuring out the magic word, was all done by others. Go Dorothy!

I suspect that last was more to restore the general sense that yes, children can have adventures and a genuine impact on the fairyland - in contrast to Tin Woodman where the focus, more unusually, is on the adults.
Tansy Rayner Roberts
16. Laughing Dragon
I loved your hilarious critique of Baum's final book. It's refreshingly straightforward in regards to the book's strengths and, especially, its failings. When I first began reading his entire Oz series, I was struck by how much his writing changed, and sadly, deteriorated as time went on. Take Dorothy, for instance; she starts out as this goodhearted but hardheaded Kansas farm girl who faces the most outrageous creatures and outlandish occurrences with down-to-earth practicality. I like that Dorothy a lot. Unfortunately, by the time she returns in the book Ozma of Oz, she has turned into an unrecognizable urchin of icky adorableness, predating Shirley Temple by at least a couple of decades. Her practical pigtails are gone, replaced by short blonde hair and a big floppy bow. Worse, she lisps. Gahhh. As a sad result, Dorothy, more than any other character, dates the Oz books terribly. She's way too early-20th-century in her mannerisms and speech. I'd take Baum's original version of Dorothy, and W.W. Denslow's illustrative depiction of her, over the later cutie-fied version any day.

As for the books themselves, the best in the series, in my opinion, are the first two, The Wizard of Oz and the Land of Oz. My fave is The Land; it's unlike any other Oz book in its use of humor, which is so cleverly written that it holds up remarkably well even for the modern reader. I remember laughing out loud at some of Baum's witticisms, and his characterizations of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Sawhorse and the Woggle-Bug constitute his best writing ever. Unfortunately, none of the other Oz books have that level of charm, humor, and eccentricity. The Land stands alone in the Oz series when it comes to originality and satire. It's a pity that a movie has never been made based on it. Possibly the reason is that the book does not feature Dorothy or the Cowardly Lion; but it would not be much of a stretch or sacrilege to insert them into a screenplay, in my opinion. Incidentally, there are currently about a dozen Oz-based films in the works by various studios, including Disney. But not one of them is based on ANY of the Oz books. Pretty darn weird if you ask me...
Tansy Rayner Roberts
17. Laughing Dragon
Oh, and I wanted to add something about Ozmafail. In my opinion, the greatest example of Ozmafail really has to do with Baum himself; call it Baumfail, if you will. When Ozma first appeared in the book The Land of Oz, she was just an ordinary little girl - who, admittedly, had spent much of the book as an ordinary little boy (I hope the guy who desecrated Oz in that deplorable book Wicked doesn't read The Land of Oz. I can only imagine what he'd do with THAT little turn of events. :P) And later, in Ozma of Oz, she's still an ordinary little girl, albeit a little girl who rules a fabulous enchanted land full of magic and impossible creatures. I liked that Ozma; I identified with her, and even envied her. She had no special abilities, yet she ruled a wonderful Magicland. Cool! But then, in his later books, Baum had to go and spoil it all by suddenly making her a freaking fairy with magical powers. Immediately, I lost interest in her. Mind you, I liked fairies as a kid (especially Tinkerbell), but I never identified with them much. Ozma lost a lot of charm IMO when she became a fairy. And similarly, when Oz stopped being a rural Magicland and instead became a Fairyland established by Lurline and her band of fairies (I'm surprised I remember that) it lost a lot of its American flavor and acquired a European tone, which was most unfortunate. Prior to that rather radical revision of its history, Oz had been quite different from Wonderland, Neverland and other European inventions. To this day I wonder why Baum made such a major blunder. And it, along with Ozma's Fairyfication, still bum me out a little.
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
@Laughing Dragon - STRONGLY seconded on deploring the disintegration of Dorothy's grammar/language skills as the series continues. I find it immensely irritating, especially since she speaks perfectly good English in the first book, where she's presumably younger, and since she's continuing to hang out with people such as Ozma, the Wizard, the Scarecrow and even, I guess, the Woogle-bug, who also speak perfectly good English, I see no reason for this, especially after she comes to live in Oz.

One thing that I do appreciate is that all later Oz authors in the canonical series dropped this trait and allowed Dorothy to speak normally.

I don't deplore the growing European tone as much as you do, but I'm not sure it's as strong as you're suggesting in the Baum novels, which present a fairly radical social structure. It's definitely extremely strong in the very conservative Thompson, with her countless tiny aristocracies and approval of imperialism (even if it's a bit at odds with the low tax rates she argues for, something I don't tend to associate with traditional European monarchies) and present in the McGraw books, but the utopian economics Baum hurriedly paints in Oz don't strike me as particularly or uniquely European.

But yes, Ozma does seem to weaken as a character once she becomes a fairy - even if her judgement is still terrible.

Why? Well, my guess is that, after the first two books, he grew less and less interested in the series, especially in writing new material. You see this in Road to Oz, where he basically just trots out characters from other books, and Tik-Tok of Oz, Rinkitink in Oz and Scarecrow of Oz where he just recycled other material to get an Oz book out the door. He was still writing good books, but his heart was no longer in Oz, and it shows in the last, generally weaker books of the series. (Although, for all of my criticisms, I do think Glinda of Oz is one of the better later books.)

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