The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Remember this?  Back when I was full of steam to start a little “book section” in my blog? In all fairness, I wrote that blog a little over a week before my father’s death (a steam emptier if I’ve ever experienced one), and to this day it remains my third most read blog ever. Number two was a post with so many technical difficulties, I think the same five people read it a hundred times.  Number one is one of my earliest posts from the “Home Renovation” days, when people thought that’s really what they were getting…  Number three is an accident too, I’m sure.  People innocently looking to order a book for their child and instead falling into a pit of criticism… 

I stand by what I wrote, but now it’s time to move on to the “short, positive” posts I referred to at the end of my Ladybug Girl critique.  I thought I would start by sharing a much beloved book (at least in our family) that is oft ignored because of the Oh-So-Famous Movie that has come in its wake.  This winter (seriously–the whole winter; we renewed the book three times and it was still overdue when we finally returned it…) was the season for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

To be honest, before I read the book to Emerson (the first time through…of four) I was an Oz virgin myself.  I had seen the movie, knew all the songs, but never thought about the book until I was at an exhibit of Lizbeth Zwerger’s art a few years ago.  The art speaks for itself, but what I also found so impressive was how many classic children’s tales she had chosen to illustrate.  Although most of her books where a bit above my children at the time, I made a mental note of some of the titles to save for later.  One of these, of course, was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I–like many–thought was merely The Wizard of Oz (Lizbeth Zwerger uses this title as well), but no.  He is not just a wizard.  He is Wonderful.

Fortunately, instead of just hastily ordering Zwerger’s version from the library (which I did, too…), I decided to read a little bit about the original book itself–the story line, the history surrounding it, author’s biography, etc…  In doing this I found out the original copy of L. Frank Baum’s book was illustrated by a man named W.W. Denslow, and although that book was out of print, there was a facsimile of the original edition in circulation, and I could order one just as easily as I had ordered Zwerger’s version. (Maybe someday, if I live to an old age, I will pursue the satisfaction of having original copies in my hands, but for now I am thrilled with facsimiles!)  I wasn’t completely smitten with Denslow’s art the way I was with Zwerger’s (his drawings are a bit cartoony for my taste, which makes sense–he was an editorial cartoonist by profession), but I thought there was a warm quality to his depictions of the characters that would soften some of the more intense parts of the story for Emerson.  And after all, they are the illustrations that Baum, himself, chose for his tale.

So I ordered them both and waited to see which one would come first… Thankfully, it was Denslow’s.

The first thing that struck me when I picked the book up was its thickness.  We had never read such a long book before, and I wondered what I was getting us into, but Emerson happened to be with me at the library, and I had been telling her all about the arrival of “a book with witches” for days (both very bad decisions if you want to preview a book before reading it to your child, by the way), so we began right then, right there.

But how shall I get there?

You must walk.  It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible.

Emerson (and I, and Matt, and Ophelia when she could sneak a listen) loved the journey and chose to stay on it for three-plus-months.  (When Emerson saw the book in the return pile, she was dismayed, and she asked to read it again a few weeks after I had taken it back.)  My fears that it would be too complicated or too scary for Emerson disappeared as soon as I read Baum’s introduction.

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900.

Over the years, critics have claimed that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a political or monetary allegory; others have linked it to Antroposophy (which is very interesting to me…), but despite what Baum may or may not have been trying to awaken in adults through his writing, his true intentions–that the book serves to please children–are clear. In terms of leaving out the “heartaches and nightmares”, Baum was true to his word.  Although there was danger along the way (the witches and field of poppies, of course, but also Kalidahs–vicious predators with bodies like bears and heads like tigers–and Hammer-Heads–whose heads spring out of their bodies forcefully, knocking even the Cowardly Lion off his route), there is no real evil in this story–no character so vile that children are forced to doubt the inherent goodness of the world. 

The “fearsome moral” is indeed left out, but morality remains.  As we travel from the Land of the Munchkins to the Land of the Quadlings, and to all the places in between, the integrity of Baum’s main characters (Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and even Toto), and many of his minor ones (Oz, Glinda, the Winged Monkeys) shines through. Courage, endurance, loyalty, clemency, kindness, modesty–these are just a few of the virtues that appear so often they cannot help but sink into the soul of every reader who shares in this adventure.

As for the larger message–that we all carry inside us that which we think we lack most–this is not lost on a six-year-old either.  At one point in the story, when the Scarecrow was separated from the group and waving goodbye, Emerson noted, “it’s too bad they lost the Scarecrow…he’s the one who always has the good ideas…”

Great stuff…all of it.

Zwerger’s version arrived a couple of weeks later, at which point Emerson was already completely smitten with Denslow’s art.  She flipped through Zwerger’s version a few times, but thought the characters were “too puffy.”  I think they are both great–as long as they are accompanied by the words, I’ll take them both.

It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings.

…all the people seemed to think her a witch, and she knew very well she was only an ordinary little girl who had come by the chance of a cyclone into a strange land…
“But after all, brains are not the best things in the world.”
“Have you any?” enquired the Scarecrow.
“No, my head is quite empty,” answered the Woodman; “but once I had brains, and a heart also; so, having tried them both, I should much rather have a heart.”
“All the same,” said the Scarecrow, “I shall ask for brains instead of a heart; for a fool would not know what to do with a heart if he had one.”
“I shall take the heart,” returned the Tin Woodman; “for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”

…Dorothy, fearing Toto would be killed, and heedless of danger, rushed forward and slapped the Lion upon his nose as hard as she could while she cried out: “Don’t you dare bite Toto! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, a big beast like you, to bite a poor little dog!”

Once, indeed, the Tin Woodman stepped upon a beetle that was crawling along the road, and killed the poor little thing.  This made the Tin Woodman very unhappy, for he was always careful not to hurt any living creature.
“You people with hearts,” he said, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.”

“I am terribly afraid of falling, myself,” said the Cowardly Lion, “but I suppose there is nothing to do but try it.  So get on my back…”

” But you were strong enough to kill the Wicked Witch of the East,” said Oz. “That just happened,” returned Dorothy simply; “I could not help it.”…”I never killed anything willingly”
” I suppose we must try it; but I am sure I do not want to kill anybody, even to see Aunt Em again.”
The leader of the Winged Monkeys flew up to her, his long, hairy arms stretched out and his ugly face grinning terribly; but he saw the mark of the Good Witch’s kiss upon her forehead and stopped short.  “We dare not harm this little girl,” he said to them, “for she is protected by the Power of Good, and that is greater than the power of evil.”

At first the witch was tempted to run; but she happened to look into the child’s eyes and saw how simple the soul behind them was, and that the little girl did not know of the wonderful power the Silver Shoes gave her.
“I’m very sorry, indeed,” said Dorothy, who was truly frightened to see the Witch actually melting away like brown sugar before her very eyes.
“Didn’t you know water would be the end of me?” asked the Witch, in a wailing, despairing voice.
“Of course not,” answered Dorothy; “how should I?”

“I think you are a very bad man,” said Dorothy. “Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard, I must admit.”

“Can’t you give me brains?” asked the Scarecrow.
“You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on the earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

“But how about my courage?” asked the Lion anxiously.
  “There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”

“I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas.”
“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl.  “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home.”

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