Nitpicking in Oz, part III

So we’ve finally gotten ’round to The Emerald City of Oz. Obviously intended as a series finale, in which Dorothy moves with her aunt and uncle to Fairyland and Glinda quite literally slams the door shut behind them (also on the new threat of ‘flying machines’ that will be able to cross the Deadly Desert surrounding Oz at will).

Except, oops, they may have ticked off one powerful magic being too many. Scenes of Dorothy and company touring odd corners of their new home are intercut with the Nome King first recruiting other powerful magic beings to ambush Oz and the subsequent tunneling under the desert.
To pass the time they hold various frank discussions about who’s going to be who’s slave once the country is razed — Dorothy and Ozma being the grand prizes. The Nome King figures they’ll make pretty china bookends for his mantlepiece. Baum’s idea of what constitutes light relief from the ‘bloodthirsty’ traditional tales continues to amuse.

This is a much more adult and ambitious plotline than any he had attempted before, and it shows… unfortunately, it shows mostly in how klutzily it’s handled.

He does achieve one great Moment: asking what’s in it for them, the Phanfasms, most powerful of the evil races, point out that no common plunder is going to impress magic beings. The Nomes counter that there remains above all the exquisite joy of making people unhappy. He has to say ‘unhappy’, ’cause this is a kid’s novel, but we’ve already heard the debates over who gets Dorothy. The Phanfasms are sold.

Savour that moment of competence, kids, because we’re about to begin the guided tour of Stuff That Really Bugs About this Book.

Completely unjustified snarkiness about a kid’s novel under the cut…


Nitpicking in Oz, part II

As was previously mentioned — and if you haven’t been reading my lit-crit masterpieces in order, why not, may I ask — at any rate, Oz was consciously designed as a very practical Fairyland. You notice, when the characters stop for supper on their nigh-endless journeys, how often milk is mentioned?

In other words: Tolkien, Baum was not. This is part of the reason I don’t buy into the idea of the first book as a political allegory; there’s just no evidence of that much conscious planning in the rest of the series. Really, the very idea of designing intricate languages and mythologies and making sure Celaborn was pronounced correctly would’ve seemed vaguely unwholesome, to a middle-aged Midwesterner at the turn of the 20th century.

Thus Oz grew into a truly American fantasy concept: sturdy and free and self-reliant and… not making a lick of sense, really. On the plus side, at least he didn’t attempt to turn the whole thing into a religious allegory.


He did, however, have to deal with the effects of magic — yes, even in kiddy books. This posed a special problem for Baum, since — as TVTropes explains in their splendid page on the subject — you don’t really need rules, but you do have to have internal logic. If it’s been established that the Enchanted Whatzis can get you out of a situation, it’s bad form to repeat that situation sans Whatzis.
‘Cause you just know some random critic is going to turn it intosnark fodder. Or, as in the case of Star Trek, you have to reboot an entire decades-old franchise at least partly because there was literally no way left to get the crew in trouble that couldn’t be solved by previously demonstrated tech.

Baum seemed to have an especially unfortunate gift for granting omniscience. In Oz, after the third book, there is the Magic Belt, worn by Ozma, which functions as a shameless deus et accessory. Ozma also has a Magic Picture (noticing a trend here?) which shows her anything she wants to see the instant she asks.
There is also Glinda the ‘powerful Sorceress’, who possesses the Great Book, on which everything that occurs everywhere in the world is instantly recorded. There is the Wizard, on his return, who becomes her apprentice. There is even a frelling Powder of Life that can grant sentience to whatever it touches. All this, without even mentioning the winged monkeys.

So basically the remaining Oz stories should all be about two pages long. Instead, the characters go on quests like the one in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, in which the title characters get trapped in the centre of the Earth and held captive by vegetable people, who declare their intention of ‘planting’ the visitors.
After several days of fobbing them off, Dorothy and party escape via a steep cave path up towards the surface. It’s a long, hard climb. Along the way they get attacked by bloodthirsty invisible bears and captured by wooden Gargoyles, wander unaware into a dragon’s den and get annoyed the hell out of by a crazy man half-way up who won’t let them leave without a box of his High-Grade Artificial Flutters and Rustles.

All of which is splendid fun; nobody ever accused Baum of a dearth of imagination. The kicker comes when they find themselves trapped in a cavern juuuuuust too far below the surface to reach. Even the Wizard starts lamenting their fate, until…
…Dorothy calmly announces that they’ll be OK, because she’s made a deal with Ozma: At four o’clock every day, Ozma will look for her in the Magic Picture, and if Dorothy is making a ‘special signal’, she’ll use the Magic Belt to transport her and her companions out immediately. So she does, and she does, and they do.

Right. Let me just remind the reader, this is several days later. It’s explicitly mentioned in the text.

Apparently Ozma has ethical qualms, or something, about using the thing indiscriminately; at one point in Road to Oz she tells Dorothy that she was on the verge of rescuing her, but Dorothy et al got out OK by themselves. That can-do frontier spirit in action again, I guess. But it still leaves everybody else wondering why Dorothy’s companions didn’t raise even the eensiest little question about why the @!$@#%#$ she DIDN’T MENTION THIS BEFORE THE GIANT INVISIBLE KILLER BEARS. Or, for that matter, have some choice words for Ozma’s ethics.

Nitpicking in Oz, part I

So OK, I realise that The Wizard of Oz was originally a one-off deal. The first sequel was intended as a cash-in once the original became a  hit stage play, and the others were written pretty much as a favour to the fans (partly because, frankly, Baum needed the money too much to refuse them).

All that said… you do sometimes wonder, coming back to the original, if Baum ever bothered to reread it himself before embarking on the embellishment. Oz in the first book is — in keeping with the preface — a determinedly mundane fairyland, designed deliberately as an antidote to the vivid and grotesque European classics. (We will skip lightly over the fact that Wizard nevertheless has a body count in the dozens, largely of animals who get their heads chopped off by the Tin Woodman. It’s entirely possible that in Grimm, he would’ve carefully kept the severed heads to put in the Wicked Witch’s bed later, where they would recite doggerel predicting her gruesome demise. So it works out.)

In Oz the original, then, there is death. There is aging. They use money. The Tin Woodman’s retro-hilarious backstory involves him staying with his mother after his father’s death, until she too dies and he decides to get married on his inheritance.
There is suspicion, fear and stinginess. The Emerald City — in a bit that always struck us as goofily random, even at ten — is one gigantic fake, involving green glasses perma-locked to everyone’s head. (Couldn’t have called it, say, the Rose Quartz City and been halfway-clever with the glasses, noooooooo, it has to be green.)
There is no mention of a ruling dynasty of Oz. While trolling Wikipedia we were surprised and amused to note that the bit in the second book, that has the Wizard overthrowing same and sneaking the true heir away to be hidden by a Witch, is a direct offshoot of the decision in the original play to drop the Wicked Witch and go with the Wizard as the villain. The play also has a dancing cow named Imogene replacing Toto, so you can guess which version stuck in the popular imagination. In that version, of course, the Wizard is genial and loveable and please, Mr. Baum, can’t you bring him back to Oz again?
Thus Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, and the famous ‘What did the Wizard know, and when did he know it?’ conudrum was born. So was Ozma of Oz. We have already made it pretty clear what we think of that decision.