Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Adventure classics -- A very American fairy tale

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum


How did I manage not to read the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz until this very year? I’ve loved the 1939 movie version since it began showing on television in the 1950’s. Even though my family couldn’t experience the transformation from gray reality to Technicolor Oz until we got a color TV sometime in the ’60’s, everyone knew what the heroine Dorothy meant by her classic line, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I remember coming across an Oz book as an adult, probably in a used bookstore and not being impressed. I now realize it was probably one of the later sequels. Oz books were the Nancy Drew series of their day, with many of the sequels written by a variety of authors, including Baum’s son, Frank J. Baum.

But when considering examples of fantasy written before the genre’s clichés hardened, there was nothing like the original Oz¾ a fairy tale set in America, with farms and factories, and air travel by such relatively mundane means as balloons and cyclones. And then I was lucky enough to find a copy of the Norton 2000 centennial annotated edition, with not only scholarly fan Michael Patrick Hearn’s extensive notes, but copies of the original color illustrations by Baum’s collaborator, W.W. Denslow.

Would Oz have become an instant sensation upon its release in early summer 1900 without Denslow’s adorable illustrations? When I read Baum’s wife’s complaint that “(Dorothy) is so terribly plain and not childlike”, I knew the illustration for this post must be of Dorothy instead of the colorful title page of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. So iconic was Dorothy’s appearance by the time MGM filmed its movie version that actress Judy Garland was obliged to wear the style of hair and dress, and be accompanied by the same sort of small, scruffy terrier pictured by Denslow.

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t had the joy of either reading the book or seeing the MGM movie, now shown almost annually on U.S. television, young orphan Dorothy’s Kansas farmhouse is carried off by a cyclone (tornado) and set down, plop onto a wicked witch with magical shoes, in a land called Oz. Although Oz is a lot prettier than Kansas (at least the Kansas known to Dorothy), she longs to return home, worrying about her adoptive parents, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. The Ozites advise her to journey to the Emerald City, home of the Wizard of Oz, the only person they believe can help her get back to Kansas.

Putting on the dead witch’s magical shoes, Dorothy follows the yellow brick road leading to the Wizard’s city. Along the way, she and Toto rescue a scarecrow, a mechanical woodcutter, and a lion. All of these join Dorothy in her quest, hoping the Wizard will also give them their hearts’ desires: a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the woodcutter, and courage for the cowardly lion.

The Wizard, however, refuses his help until the friends have destroyed his archenemy, the Wicked Witch of the West. But when the friends return, triumphant, they learn the Wizard is a fraud, in fact, another chance visitor from America. At this point in the movie Dorothy’s quest is nearly over. In the book, she must journey still further, to the realm of another witch, this time a good one, before learning she already possesses the power to return home. It’s in her magical shoes. (In the book they’re silver. MGM turned them into ruby slippers to take advantage of its color technology.)

“All you have to do,” Good Witch Glinda says, “is to knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.”

But why, oh why, go back to Kansas, many people have wondered. As Hearn writes in his final notes on the text, despite its beauty and excitement, “Oz ¼ lacks the security and safety of being back home with the people Dorothy loves.” Truly, there's no place like home.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at another tale of a magical wanderer, P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins.)

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