Travels in Fairyland: Oz reread

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.


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