Witch Week Day Four: An Appreciation of Oz

Posted November 3, 2016 by Lory in events / 20 Comments

WITCH WEEK 2016-200At 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.

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An Appreciation of Oz

by Deb of The Book Stop

L. Frank Baum, 1905
L. Frank Baum, 1905

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.

Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz
Illustration by WW Denslow from The Wizard of Oz

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.

Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
Illustration by John R. Neill from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

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.

Map of the Land of Oz
Map of the Land of Oz

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.

glinda-bookThere 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.

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20 responses to “Witch Week Day Four: An Appreciation of Oz

  1. Deb

    Thanks for posting Lory, and I love the additional graphics. I have the Loncraine bio and also one by Katherine Rogers. I don’t read a lot of biographies but he’s pretty interesting (of course I’m also a little biased).

  2. What a great post! It’s so long since I read the Oz books that I’d forgotten the Nome king and the ornaments, which I loved. I read most of the books as a kid (for some reason, the movie wasn’t much of a thing in our house and I only saw it when I was older, though I did go to see Return to Oz and thought it was terrible) and enjoyed them a lot. My favorite was General Jinjer–I wanted a uniform like that and didn’t quite get the part where he was poking some fun.

    • I didn’t get those jokes at all in childhood either, which is probably a good thing. I found it interesting to learn later that The Land of Oz was written as a follow-up to the success of the stage musical of Wizard (totally different from the MGM film), and that having an army of girls was basically an excuse for a chorus line. Plus it provided big roles for the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, who were the stars of the first production, and left out Dorothy entirely.

    • You might find them quite uneven if you read them first in adulthood — some are better than others, and for some readers the magic doesn’t last past childhood. But I hope you will give them a try!

  3. Deb

    Thanks Jean, Laurie and Pam for the nice comments and for hanging in with a very long post – Lory knows I could have gone on and on. It’s nice to hear some of it was interesting and new. These books may not be the best fantasy out there today, but they probably inspired a lot of it! And the original books are absolutely gorgeous.

  4. As a child, I didn’t discover all the Oz books, but we read many of them to our children. (They are a bit uneven, as you say.)
    I loved the original book and the movie, but our kids had seen LOTR before I dared let them watch what I remembered as a very scary movie. I waited too late, and they thought the animatronic owls were so funny that the flying monkeys didn’t even scare them.

    • When I watched it with my husband, who never saw it growing up in Europe, he was befuddled by my love for the movie. Maybe you have to catch it at just the right “sensitive period” a la Montessori.

  5. Growing up without a TV meant I only saw the movie once as a child, on a special night out with my dad to a second-run theater. I read many of the books and still have a soft spot for Ozma of Oz in particular. There’s a rather good graphic novel version of it out. I did NOT like Dorothy Must Die, not because of its revisioning (after all, that’s kind of the point of retellings); I just didn’t find it a very good book.

    • I think Ozma of Oz is the most well-constructed of all the books; it was always one of my favorites too.

      I haven’t read any revisionings, or even any of the non-Baum sequels. I just find they take away from my original experience. But other people may enjoy them, and that’s fine.

  6. What a lovely post, thank you both! I had no idea there were so many Oz books. They sound intriguing. If I wanted to read more, which ones would you recommend? Thanks. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you are interested, Helen. If you’ve read “Wizard,” I would definitely recommend the next two, The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. And do make sure you locate editions with the original John R. Neill illustrations — when I read a text-only version I realized how much they contributed to the experience.

      • Thank you Lory! That’s really helpful. There do seem to be bazillions – well, 13 or so – Oz books and it’s a bit daunting to a novice (especially as many of them are extremely difficult to find in the UK).

        Also I’ve just noticed Jeanne’s comment about the film and children’s sophistication; I had better show it to my daughter straight away! Ah, the duties of a parent. 😉

        • Some of the later ones are definitely more obscure here as well, but I hope you might be able to locate those two at least. If you do ebooks, they’re also available that way as they’re in the public domain – but quality can be spotty and illustrations missing.

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