The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of those books that has had a gigantic impact on twentieth-century culture without anyone quite knowing why. The impact comes as much from a specific filmed version as from the book - more so, probably - though as with Peter Pan the film in question emerges from a theatrical tradition initiated by the author. But the book itself was also phenomenally successful, and unlike Peter Pan seems to have been viewed with suspicion by critics and teachers. Ever since I first read it (aloud, to my daughter) I’ve wondered why I was told as a youngster that it wasn’t much good. There are a number of possible reasons: Baum’s explicit disavowal of instructive intentions (though Nesbit and Barrie disavowed these too); the fact that it’s a fantasy, completely fabricated by the author, without one foot in reality (Nesbit), a wryly sardonic tone (Nesbit, Barrie, Carroll), or impeccable scholarly credentials (Tolkien’s Hobbit); or that the central character is a young girl (though it shares this with Alice in Wonderland). Yet in spite of the opinions of experts, the book did so well that Baum gave up his many other enterprises to concentrate on entertaining children. And the basic story, as relayed in book, play or film, has continued to feed into American culture ever since. What has made it so Great and Powerful?
There’s a beautiful clarity about the book which is matched by Denslow’s original illustrations. The territories Dorothy travels through are colour coded (grey for Kansas, blue for the Munchkins, green for the Emerald City and so on), the successive encounters she has are neatly arranged each in its own chapter, and the style is amazingly economical: it made me think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or the literary retellings of old fairy stories Baum mentions in his preface. There’s something almost geometrical about the way adventures come in threes or fours, as they do in fairy tales, and about how the story itself is constructed in two halves: a single journey to the Emerald City followed by two journeys away from it, first to the Wicked Witch of the West, then to the Good Witch of the South. This clarity and precision could be mistaken for crudeness and simplicity; but I don’t think it’s simplicity that we find in either version of the story, film or book.
There are three things people tend to remember about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that get carried over into its adaptations. The first is Dorothy’s companions on her adventures; the second is the wizard; and the third is Dorothy herself, who is often dismissed as a cypher. (The Wicked Witch of the West is memorable too, but only in the film.) None of these would stay in the mind, I think, if they weren’t capable of eliciting a range of readings and emotional responses. The companions could be said to personify certain personality traits intelligence, sensitivity, courage like allegorical figures. But they themselves don’t believe they stand for these qualities, despite displaying them on many occasions before being ‘given’ them by Oz himself. And they’re a wonderfully improbable trio: two simulacra and a talking animal. Each of them isn’t what he seems: the scarecrow isn’t a man, though he looks like one, and we’re reminded of his non-humanness repeatedly, since he doesn’t sleep or eat and can’t be harmed by events and creatures that threaten Dorothy. The same is true of the tin man, except that unlike the scarecrow he was once human, so that his most inhuman quality the substance he’s made from masks the fact that he knows what it is to be made of flesh and blood. The lion looks and sounds like the King of Beasts from Aesop’s Fables, but is full of self-doubt which means he is effectively no lion, since in Aesop the King of Beasts is defined by his confidence in his own power. At the same time, all three companions already possess the thing they think they lack. The scarecrow’s intelligence saves the travellers repeatedly; the tin man’s sensitivity constantly threatens to rust him; and the lion leaps over abysses and fights appalling monsters without a qualm. So they’re neither what they resemble nor what they think they are. The sense that they’re displaced, that they have no fixed identity any more than they have any fixed abode, is what makes them the ideal companions for a little girl far from home.
The second memorable element in the book is the Wizard, the charlatan or humbug who benignly terrifies his subjects into submission with ingenious displays of special effects. He’s the perfect monarch for the land that spawned the companions, since he’s even less what he seems than they are. In the book he seems to be many things in quick succession: a bodiless head, an angelic woman, a monster, an invisible presence, a raging bonfire, so that his resemblance to the shifty God of the Old Testament is obvious; he even tests the faith of his people by demanding a sacrifice, sending them to kill a Witch who has never been defeated. But he’s no God: just an ageing balloonist from Omaha, a salesman (like Baum himself) whose previous job was to announce to the world that the circus, that festival of trickery, skill and illusion, had come to town. As a salesman his gift is to change not things but people’s perceptions of them. He changes the colour of the Emerald City by making its citizens wear tinted glasses. He fills the scarecrow’s head with needles to show him he’s sharp, gives the tin man an ersatz heart to reassure him he possesses a real one, and doses the lion with Dutch courage to reinforce his bravery. And he bestows these gifts on the companions after they’ve exposed him as a charlatan. This shows how much his subjects want to be conned. He is the product as well as the orchestrator of their imaginations, and his subjects take every opportunity to thicken the air of mystery that surrounds him.
Outside the Emerald City, his rule is ineffectual. Anything that doesn’t respect his power can flourish in Oz: Wicked Witches, dangerous animals, carnivorous trees, narcotic flowers. He’s too benign to interfere with anyone who will not listen to his grand pronouncements or be seduced by his shows. But these are not personal failings - merely demonstrations of the extent to which he’s a construct of his people, who also construct themselves, as the companions testify.
Oz, in fact, is the ultimate democracy. Every ruler gets elected, with the exception of the despotic Witches, and all of them come from humble backgrounds (you can’t get much humbler than a man of straw and a walking tin can). There’s no individualism in the country; cooperation is the natural reaction to every problem. Even Oz and his subjects have to co-operate if his magic is to work. And as representatives of artificially segregated human traits, Dorothy’s three companions depend entirely on teamwork. As they encounter each new challenge they begin by determining which of their talents is required, and all are required with equal frequency, while their possessors show an equal willingness to sacrifice themselves for all the rest. And they’re as ready to rely on random passers-by as on each other: a stork and an army of mice are recruited to deal with problems for which they themselves are ill-equipped. In this they appeal to the communitarian impulse of fairy tales; few fairy tale heroes or heroines win through without a team of unlikely accomplices. They are aware of this, perhaps, because they themselves are such accomplices, the first of their kind to get rewarded for their services with kingdoms.
It’s not surprising, with this example in front of her, that when Dorothy gets separated from her companions she responds by showing all the qualities they represent. Her intelligence and affection emerge when she secretly feeds the lion, who is held captive by the Wicked Witch of the West, and her courageous defiance of the Witch ends in the Witch’s death. It’s also no surprise when at the end of the book the Good Witch of the South reveals that Dorothy, like her companions, has all along possessed what she thought she lacked: in her case, the means to get back to Kansas. She wears the magical silver slippers needed to get there; but she also desires to get there, which means that the grim one-roomed farmhouse with its joyless occupants who never smile or laugh was always a home to her, despite its greyness. In other words, she had what she thought she didn’t have in Kansas as well as in Oz.
So Dorothy, like her companions and the Wizard, both is and isn’t what she seems: a little girl lost, from a miserable background, with no special powers. She and Toto contribute to the Kansas farmhouse what it lacks: joy, life and colour; and the book’s ending confirms this when Toto barks ‘joyously’ as he runs towards the barn, and Aunt Em embraces Dorothy with an emotion we’ve not seen in her before: ‘My darling child!’ she cried, folding the little girl in her arms and covering her with kisses’. By the time this reunion takes place Kansas has in any case been imbued with colour by its constant presence in Dorothy’s mind throughout her adventures. Anywhere that’s longed for so passionately can’t be colourless. So Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry could be said to co-operate, like Dorothy’s companions, despite their apparent incongruity. Together they make a mutually supportive community, and the lack of any one of them affects the rest. Baum gave his book a moral, despite his claim to offer his readers ‘only entertainment’.
But it’s no triumphalist celebration of the individual’s victory over impossible odds. There’s something melancholic about the situation of all its main characters, and that melancholy lingers on at the end as they go their separate ways albeit into new and welcoming communities. That’s the other thing that lingers after you’ve finished the novel, at least for me: its mournful tone, packed as it is with people who remain somehow displaced and unsure of themselves even after getting what they wished for. No wonder it inspired some decent music.