Friday Fictions: The “Wizard of Oz” series by L. Frank Baum

This week’s Friday Fiction is the “Wizard of Oz” series–the portion by L. Frank Baum. I don’t mean that I dislike the books written by other authors, but rather that I’ve never read any of them.

All are free to read at Project Gutenberg.

I find it impossible to sum up the series because the books are so different from each other, but they’re mostly fantasy adventures of Dorothy Gale, a young girl from Kansas, who gets transported to the wacky magical Land of Oz. Over the course of the stories she becomes a Princess, makes loads of friends, solves magical problems, and so forth. They’re written for kids but you can find political/socio/economic jabs in there if you’re paying attention.

I think most Anglo readers encounter the first book, the musical, or the movie through cultural osmosis by age 10. The first book, while very fun, is very different thematically from the rest of the books. Which is probably why I didn’t know until I was a teen that there was a whole series after! Baum essentially expands on the world of Oz and its magical inhabitants and all their weird adventures.

It must have helped that Baum was untroubled by the notions of “continuity” and “consistency” and pretty freely either retconned or wholesale ignored contradictory bits in his earlier books as he went on. He also, like Doyle, attempted to can the series at one point but was convinced to retcon that as well after a massive outpouring of written protest from kids.

As a kid, what I loved about the books was the completely nutters “magic” “system” of Oz, which was basically whatever tf Baum felt like making up–BUT he apparently had occasional fits of fans-arguing-on-the-internet levels of specificity:

“The very fact that Dorothy lived in Oz, and had been made a Princess by her friend Ozma, prevented her from being killed or suffering any great bodily pain as long as she lived in that fairyland. She could not grow big, either, and would always remain the same little girl who had come to Oz, unless in some way she left that fairyland or was spirited away from it. But Dorothy was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed” in other ways by evil magicians, were she not properly protected.”

I also must say that I wouldn’t have liked it half as much without the gorgeous illustrations of John R. Neill, whose Ozma went through several evolutions to become a Gibson Girl swathed in impossibly, gorgeously flowy robes. I don’t actually like Ozma that much as a person or a ruler, but she is one of my Princess Aesthetics Ideals. It influenced me hugely (right up there with Sailor Moon!) as a scribbling teenager. In fact, looking back, the fact that the series was so girl-centric is probably a large reason that I loved it so much. There are a number of dudes in the books but they’re … honestly … mostly set-dressing. Girls do the majority of the fighting and the magic.

As an adult, I still enjoy everything above–especially the art–but when I do a reread, I find myself interested in the fairly unvarnished ways that his brains made it into the books. For instance, in The Road to Oz, the Tin Woodman goes on a rant about how money does not exist in Oz and is a terrible thing (one wonders how he would know that, if money didn’t exist in Oz …) and we should all be making transactions with love and kindness. And in a later book, Baum has Ozma (who is quite magically powerful, although insistently not ALL-powerful) deliver a lecture about how life would be pointless and sad if you had everything magically come to you and that the only joy in life is serving others and making their lives better.

Whatever you think of those two opinions, Baum held some indisputably shitty ones. He wrote two very nasty pieces about Native American genocide. Like, even for the time, I think they were astonishingly awful. I wouldn’t say this really comes through in the books, but there is a pretty stark omission of non-white shades of skin, whether it’s for the humans or the fairies.

And on a far pettier note, it always annoyed me that Ozma outlawed the practice of magic other than for herself, Glinda, and the Wizard. It rather seems pointless when the entire land of Oz is … magical … and seems unnecessarily hierarchical when you’ve got an essentially socialist country. But I guess if everyone can have an emerald the size of a sofa in their living room, then you need something to distinguish the ruler …

But you know what, we can do better. In fact I like to think that Baum predicted that we would. Here is a quote from his foreword to The Emerald City of Oz:

Perhaps I should admit on the title page that this book is “By L. Frank Baum and his correspondents,” for I have used many suggestions conveyed to me in letters from children. Once upon a time I really imagined myself “an author of fairy tales,” but now I am merely an editor or private secretary for a host of youngsters whose ideas I am requested to weave into the thread of my stories.

These ideas are often clever. They are also logical and interesting. So I have used them whenever I could find an opportunity, and it is but just that I acknowledge my indebtedness to my little friends.

My, what imaginations these children have developed! Sometimes I am fairly astounded by their daring and genius. There will be no lack of fairy-tale authors in the future, I am sure.

About that, he was certainly correct.

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