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On Rereading the Oz Books

There is one genuinely funny sketch. When the Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead meet, they decide that since each comes from a different country, ” ‘We must,’ ” says the Scarecrow, ” ‘have an interpreter.’

” ‘What is an interpreter?’ asked Jack.

” ‘A person who understands both my language and your own….’ ” And so on. Well, maybe this is not so funny.

The Scarecrow (who had taken the vanished Wizard’s place as ruler of Oz) is overthrown by a “revolting” army of girls (great excuse for a leggy chorus). This long and rather heavy satire on the suffragettes was plainly more suitable for a Broadway show than for a children’s story. The girl leader, Jinjur, is an unexpectedly engaging character. She belongs to the Bismarckian Realpolitik school. She is accused of treason for having usurped the Scarecrow’s throne. ” ‘The throne belongs to whoever is able to take it,’ answered Jinjur as she slowly ate another caramel. ‘I have taken it, as you see; so just now I am the Queen, and all who oppose me are guilty of treason….’ ” This is the old children’s game I-am-the-King-of-the-castle, a.k.a. human history.

Among the new characters met in this story are the Woggle-Bug, a highly magnified insect who has escaped from a classroom exhibition and (still magnified) ranges about the countryside. A parody of an American academic, he is addicted to horrendous puns on the grounds that ” ‘a joke derived from a play upon words is considered among educated people to be eminently proper.’ ” Anna livia plurabelle.

There is a struggle between Jinjur and the legitimate forces of the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow’s faction wins and the girls are sent away to be homemakers and consumers. In passing, the Scarecrow observes, ” ‘I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.’ ” To which the Tin Woodman replies, ” ‘Spoken like a philosopher!’ ” To which the current editor Martin Gardner responds, with true democratic wrath, “This despicable view, indeed defended by many philosophers, had earlier been countered by the Tin Woodman,” etc. But the view is not at all despicable. For one thing, it would be the normal view of an odd magical creature who cannot die. For another, Baum was simply echoing those neo-Darwinians who dominated most American thinking for at least a century. It testifies to Baum’s sweetness of character that unlike most writers of his day he seldom makes fun of the poor or weak or unfortunate. Also, the Scarecrow’s “despicable” remarks can be interpreted as meaning that although unorthodox dreamers are despised by the ordinary, their dreams are apt to prevail in the end and become reality.

Glinda the Good Sorceress is a kindly mother figure to the various children who visit or live in Oz, and it is she who often ties up the loose ends when the story bogs down. In The Land of Oz Glinda has not a loose end but something on the order of a hangman’s rope to knot. Apparently the rightful ruler of Oz is Princess Ozma. As a baby, Ozma was changed by Mombi into the boy Tip. Now Tip must be restored to his true identity. The PTA went, as it were, into plenary session. What effect would a book like this have on a boy’s sense of himself as a future man, breadwinner and father to more of same? Would he want, awful thought, to be a Girl? Even Baum’s Tip is alarmed when told who he is. ” ‘I!’ cried Tip, in amazement. ‘Why I’m no Princess Ozma—I’m not a girl!’ ” Glinda tells him that indeed he was—and really is. Tip is understandably grumpy. Finally, he says to Glinda, ” ‘I might try it for awhile,—just to see how it seems, you know. But if I don’t like being a girl you must promise to change me into a boy again.’ ” Glinda says that this is not in the cards. Glumly, Tip agrees to the restoration. Tip becomes the beautiful Ozma, who hopes that ” ‘none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know; only—only—’ “

Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.

Essentially, Baum’s human protagonists are neither male nor female but children, a separate category in his view if not in that of our latter-day sexists. Baum’s use of sex changes was common to the popular theater of his day, which, in turn, derived from the Elizabethan era when boys played girls whom the plot often required to pretend to be boys. In Baum’s The Enchanted Island of Yew a fairy (female) becomes a knight (male) in order to have adventures. In The Emerald City the hideous Phanfasm leader turns himself into a beautiful woman. When John Dough and the Cherub (1906) was published, the sex of the five-year-old cherub was never mentioned in the text; the publishers then launched a national ad campaign: “Is the cherub boy or girl? $500 for the best answers.” In those innocent times Tip’s metamorphosis as Ozma was nothing more than a classic coup de théâtre of the sort that even now requires the boy Peter Pan to be played on stage by a mature woman.

Today of course any sort of sexual metamorphosis causes distress. Although Raylyn Moore in her plot précis of The Enchanted Island of Yew (in her book Wonderful Wizard Marvelous Land) does make one confusing reference to the protagonist as “he (she),” she omits entirely the Tip/Ozma transformation which is the whole point to The Land of Oz, while the plot as given by the publisher Reilly & Lee says only that “the book ends with an amazing surprise, and from that moment on Ozma is princess of all Oz.” But, surely, for a pre-pube there is not much difference between a boy and a girl protagonist. After all, the central fact of the pre-pube’s existence is not being male or female but being a child, much the hardest of all roles to play. During and after puberty, there is a tendency to want a central character like oneself (my favorite Oz book was R.P. Thompson’s Speedy in Oz, whose eleven- or twelve-year-old hero could have been, I thought, me). Nevertheless, what matters most even to an adolescent is not the gender of the main character who experiences adventures but the adventures themselves, and the magic, and the jokes, and the pictures.

Dorothy is a perfectly acceptable central character for a boy to read about. She asks the right questions. She is not sappy (as Ozma can sometimes be). She is straight to the point and a bit aggressive. Yet the Dorothy who returns to the series in the third book, Ozma of Oz (1907), is somewhat different from the original Dorothy. She is older and her conversation is full of cute contractions that must have doubled up audiences in Sioux City but were pretty hard going for at least one child forty years ago.

To get Dorothy back to Oz there is the by now obligatory natural disaster. The book opens with Dorothy and her uncle on board a ship to Australia. During a storm she is swept overboard. Marius Bewley has noted that this opening chapter “is so close to Crane’s (‘The Open Boat’) in theme, imagery and technique that it is difficult to imagine, on comparing the two in detail, that the similarity is wholly, or even largely accidental.”2

Dorothy is accompanied by a yellow chicken named Bill. As they are now in magic country, the chicken talks. Since the chicken is a hen, Dorothy renames her Billina. The chicken is fussy and self-absorbed; she is also something of an overachiever: ” ‘How is my grammar?’ asked the yellow hen anxiously.” Rather better than Dorothy’s, whose dialogue is marred by such Baby Snooksisms as ” ‘zactly,” “auto’biles,” ” ‘lieve,” ” ‘splain.”

Dorothy and Billina come ashore in Ev, a magic country on the other side of the Deadly Desert that separates Oz from the real world (what separates such magical kingdoms as Ix and Ev from our realer world is never made plain). In any case, the formula has now been established. Cyclone or storm at sea or earthquake ends not in death for child and animal companion but translation to a magic land. Then, one by one, strange new characters join the travelers. In this story the first addition is Tik-Tok, a clockwork robot (sixteen years later the word “robot” was coined). He has run down. They wind him up. Next they meet Princess Languidere. She is deeply narcissistic, a trait not much admired by Baum (had he been traumatized by all those actresses and actors he had known on tour?). Instead of changing clothes, hair, makeup, the Princess changes heads from her collection. I found the changing of heads fascinating. And puzzling: since the brains in each head varied, would Languidere still be herself when she put on a new head or would she become someone else? Thus Baum made logicians of his readers.

The Princess is about to add Dorothy’s head to her collection when the marines arrive in the form of Ozma and retinue, who have crossed the Deadly Desert on a magic carpet (cheating, I thought at the time, either a desert is impassible or it is not). Dorothy and Ozma meet, and Dorothy, “as soon as she heard the sweet voice of the girlish ruler of Oz knew that she would learn to love her dearly.” That sort of thing I tended to skip.

The principal villain of the Oz canon is now encountered: the Nome King (Baum thought the “g” in front of “nome” too difficult for children…how did he think they spelled and pronounced “gnaw”?). Roquat of the Rock lived deep beneath the earth, presiding over his legions of hard-working nomes (first cousins to George Macdonald’s goblins). I was always happy when Baum took us below ground, and showed us fantastic caverns strewn with precious stones where scurrying nomes did their best to please the bad-tempered Roquat, whose ” ‘laugh,’ ” one admirer points out, ” ‘is worse than another man’s frown.’ ” Ozma and company are transformed into bric-a-brac by Roquat’s magic. But Dorothy and Billina outwit Roquat (nomes fear fresh eggs). Ozma and all the other victims of the nome king are restored to their former selves, and Dorothy is given an opportunity to ham it up:

Royal Ozma, and you, Queen of Ev, I welcome you and your people back to the land of the living. Billina has saved you from your troubles, and now we will leave this drea’ful place, and return to Ev as soon as poss’ble.”

While the child spoke they could all see that she wore the magic belt, and a great cheer went up from all her friends….

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    The New York Review, December 3, 1964.

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