At the center of Witch Week this year, I wanted to place a set of books that were central to the development of American fantasy: the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. They’ve also been important in my own reading life, as you can perhaps tell from the title of my blog.
I knew that Deb of The Book Stop was a fellow Oz fan (we were both using a picture of Ozma as our avatar at one point), so I asked her to share some thoughts about what these books mean to her. Her eloquent words express much of what I myself would say about Oz, and I hope will strike a chord with you as well — whether or not you have already fallen under the spell of that magical land.
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
An Appreciation of Oz
by Deb of The Book Stop
I was so happy to write about the Oz books for Witch Week, because those books literally changed the way I grew up, in much the same way Harry Potter has changed the lives of many young readers. The Oz books were published between 1900 and 1920, and just like Harry Potter, many young Americans of that time grew up anxiously awaiting their next Oz book.
It’s sad that so many people know only The Wizard of Oz, and then only the movie. There are 14 Oz books, with a huge cast of characters, and they featured some of the strongest female characters to be seen in fantasy literature. In Oz the women aren’t just witches, they are rulers, explorers, and sorceresses. When I was growing up, I found few fantasy books where women and girls played such a leading role. Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda (and Betsy and Trot and the Patchwork Girl) were my heroes.
Lyman Frank Baum was born in 1856 in upstate New York. He was born with a weak heart and spent much of his time as a child reading, growing up with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. As an adult, he tried many different careers, from managing an opera house, to opening a department store, to editing a newspaper. After a series of failed ventures, in 1891 he began to write down the nursery rhymes he had invented for his children. His first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose, was published in 1897, and he published Father Goose: His Book, in 1899. In 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.
Baum meant for The Wizard of Oz to change our perception of fairy tales, from horrible and moralistic to something more positive. Baum set out to create a fantasy world full of adventure but with less fear. Most of his characters can’t die or feel pain (although elements of these books are genuinely scary) and the books are written in a light-hearted, often humorous tone. One of the first fantasy books to be set in the United States, Oz is grounded in America’s spirit of individualism. The characters in Oz are unique, and a frequent theme in these books is the importance of accepting others’ differences and seeing what makes them uniquely valuable.
Significantly, Baum challenged the perception of witches from the Grimm and Andersen fairy tales as horrible, ugly, wicked women.
“Oh, gracious!” cried Dorothy; “are you a real witch?”
“Yes, indeed;” answered the little woman. “But I’m a good witch, and the people love me. I am not as powerful as the Wicked Witch was who ruled here, or I should have set the people free myself.”
“But I thought all witches were wicked,” said the girl, who was half frightened at facing a real witch.
“Oh, no; that is a great mistake. There were only four witches in all the Land of Oz, and two of them, those who live in the North and South, are good witches. I know this is true, for I am one of them myself, and cannot be mistaken.”
Glinda, the good witch of the South, helps Dorothy find her way home, and becomes the reigning Good Witch of the series. The second book, The Land of Oz, introduces Ozma as the ruler of Oz and establishes Glinda as her benevolent guide.
Baum believed that women are powerful, and his witches exemplify the notion that magic isn’t inherently bad or good, but depends on the person using it. He was heavily influenced by his educated wife and her mother, Matilda Gage, who was an intellectual, a political radical, and a feminist. Gage published a book in 1893 on women’s oppression by Christianity, in which she discusses the persecution of women as witches, and it was Gage who encouraged Baum to write children’s stories. Baum’s stories feature strong, wise, magical women, although he has plenty of characters (male and female) who are wicked and foolish. The Wizard, for example, is a humbug who controls the people of Oz through fear. He hides in the Emerald City because, he explains to Dorothy, “while I had no magical powers at all I soon found out that the witches were really able to do wonderful things.”
Magic in the Oz books comes from knowledge and tools more often than inherent ability, and a magical artifact can be evil in the hands of one character but used for good by another. In Baum’s world, magic doesn’t just happen; it requires learning and effort, and power brings responsibility. Glinda doesn’t just use magic, she studies her Magic Book, and the Wizard learns the art of real magic from her. Dr. Pipt in The Patchwork Girl of Oz follows a meticulous recipe and spends six years stirring four kettles with both feet and both hands, just to produce a tiny amount of the Powder of Life.
The Oz books wouldn’t be much fun if Ozma and Glinda were all-powerful. In several of the books they face serious challenges to their magical abilities. In Ozma of Oz, Ozma and her friends are turned into ornaments, doomed to decorate the Nome King’s shelves for ever. In The Lost Princess of Oz, Ozma is kidnapped and hidden away, and in Glinda of Oz, Dorothy and Ozma are trapped under water in a city under a dome. Those are some of my favorites in the series, for exactly that reason. When magic is easy, it’s not nearly as interesting.
Why is Oz important to me? I can’t say for sure if it began with my family’s annual viewing of the movie, or if it began with the books themselves. Whichever came first, once I began reading I couldn’t stop until I’d absorbed every one, and while I liked some better than others, they still felt like home to me. Like Dorothy, Oz became the place I escaped to, the place where magic came to life. His stories and characters are relevant to me every day, from the exuberant spirit of the Patchwork Girl, to the Woozy who thinks he has a terrifying growl (but it’s really just a squeak), to the Bunny King who wants to live free of responsibilities, but is afraid to give up his material possessions.
There are theories about what Baum meant when he wrote The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t subscribe to most of them, nor do most Baum scholars. I don’t think he’s writing about the gold standard or Communism, although he clearly has views about politics. His books are about being kind, and honest, and working together, and being yourself. And if Baum didn’t set out to teach any lessons in his books, he did anyway. For me the greatest one was this: if you keep your eyes open, you never know what world you might stumble into.
And I think the best fantasy children’s books are about exactly that. It’s the door to the wardrobe, the rabbit-hole, the cyclone on the prairie. Children’s fantasy is about discovering you’re stronger and more powerful than you thought you were, and that the world is a more magical place than you believed it to be. For me, Oz was the perfect place to start that journey.