The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 23 Aug 2018

Frank Baum's uncomfortable relationship with Oz

L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a runaway success, and he wrote thirteen sequels. It's clear that he didn't want to write 13 more Oz books. He wanted to write fantasy adventure generally. And he did pretty well at this. His non-Oz books like Zixi of Ix and John Dough and the Cherub are considerably above average, but were not as commercially successful.

In the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard, titled The Marvelous Land of Oz, he brought back the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and Glinda, with the other characters being new. But the fans demanded Dorothy (who returned in every book thereafter) and the Wizard (from book 4 onward).

Book 3, Ozma of Oz, is excellent, definitely my favorite. It introduces the malevolent Nome King, whom Baum seems to have loved, as he returned over and over. Ozma of Oz has a superb plot with building dramatic tension involving a frightening magical competition. But by the fourth book, Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Baum had gone too many times to the well. The new characters (a workhorse, a farmhand, and a pink kitten) are forgettable and forgotten. There is no plot, just visits to a series of peculiar locations, terminating in the characters’ arrival in Oz. Steve Parker, whose summary review of the Oz books has stuck with me for many years, said:

The Oz books fall into two categories: Icky-cute twee travelogues (characters go from icky-cute place to icky-cute place. Nothing happens) and darned good stories (key feature: they have conflict).

Signs of this are already in The Wonderful Wizard itself. The original book is roughly in three phases: Dorothy and her associates journey to the Emerald City, where they confront the Wizard. The Wizard demands that they destroy the Wicked Witch of the West, which they do, but then abandons Dorothy. And then there is a third part in which they travel south to ask Glinda to help send Dorothy home.

In the 1939 MGM movie, which otherwise sticks closely to the plot of the book, the third part was omitted entirely. Glinda arrives immediately after the Wizard absconds and wraps up the story. As a small child I was incensed by this omission. But if I were making a movie of The Wizard of Oz I would do exactly the same. The third part of the book is superfluous. The four companions visit a country where everyone is a decorative china figure (nothing happens), a forest where the trees refuse to admit them (the Woodman chops them), another forest where the denizens are being terrorized by a monster (the Lion kills the monster), and a hill guarded by surly armless men whose heads fly off like corks from popguns (they fly over). Having bypassed these obstacles, they arrive at Glinda's palace and the story can get moving again.

But it isn't until Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz that the “twee travelogue” mode really gets going, and it continues in the fifth book, The Road to Oz.

By the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz, it was clear that Baum was sick of the whole thing. The story is in two parts that alternate chapters. In one set of chapters, Dorothy and her uncle and aunt go on a pointless carriage tour of twee locations in Oz, completely unaware that in the intervening chapters, the wicked General Guph is gathering armies of malevolent beings to tunnel under the desert, destroy Oz, and enslave the Oz people. These chapters with Guph are really good, some of the best writing Baum ever did. Guph is easily the most interesting person in the book and Baum is certainly more interested in him than in Dorothy's visit to the town where everything is made of biscuits, the town where everything is made of paper, the town where everyone is made of jigsaw puzzles, and the town where everyone is a rabbit. But Baum couldn't really go through with his plan to destroy Oz. At the end of the book Guph's plan is foiled.

Baum nevertheless tried to throw Holmes down Reichenbach Falls. Glinda casts a powerful magic spell to seal off Oz from the rest of the world entirely:

The writer of these Oz stories has received a little note from Princess Dorothy of Oz which, for a time, has made him feel rather discontented. The note was written on a broad white feather from a stork's wing, and it said:

You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.


But as for Conan Doyle, it didn't work. The public demanded more, and just as Holmes came back from the grave, so did Oz. After a delay of three years, the seventh book, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, appeared. By this time Baum had had an inspiration. This book is the sort of magical fantasy he wanted to write. People only wanted to read about Oz, so Baum has set it in the Oz continuity. Ojo and his uncle supposedly live in the Munchkin country, but must flee their home in search of food, despite the fact that nobody in Oz ever has to do that. They visit the magician Dr. Pipt. He is is stated to be the same as the anonymous one mentioned in passing in The Marvelous Land of Oz, but this is not a plot point. Until the second half there is no significant connection to the rest of the series. The characters are all new (the Patchwork Girl, the Glass Cat, and the Woozy) and go on a quest to restore Ojo's uncle, who has been accidentally turned to stone. (Dorothy and other familiar characters do eventually join the proceedings.)

Baum apparently felt this was an acceptable compromise, because he repeatedly used this tactic of grafting Oz bits onto an otherwise unrelated fantasy adventure. The following book, Tik-Tok of Oz, takes the pattern quite far. Its main characters are Queen Ann and her subjects. Ann is Queen of Oogaboo, which is part of Oz, except, ha ha, fooled you, it isn't:

Away up in the mountains, in a far corner of the beautiful fairyland of Oz, lies a small valley which is named Oogaboo … the simple folk of Oogaboo never visited Ozma.

Oogaboo is separated from the rest of Oz by a mountain pass, and when Ann and her army try to reach Oz through this pass, it is magically twisted around by Glinda (who does not otherwise appear in the book) and they come out somewhere else entirely. A variety of other characters join them, including Polychrome and the Shaggy Man (from the awful Road to Oz), and Tik-Tok (from Ozma) and they struggle with the perennially villainous Nome King, of whom Baum seemingly never tired. But there is no other connection to Oz until the plot has been completely wrapped up, around the end of chapter 23. Then Ozma and Dorothy appear from nowhere and bring everyone to Oz for two unbearably sentimental final chapters.

The ninth book, The Scarecrow of Oz, often cited as the best of the series, follows exactly the same pattern. The main characters of this one are Trot, Cap'n Bill, and the Ork, who had appeared before in two of Baum's non-Oz novels, which did not sell well. No problem, Baum can bring them to Oz, where they may find more popularity among readers. So he has them find their way to Oogaboo. Excuse me, to Jinxland.

“I'm sorry to say that Jinxland is separated from the rest of the Quadling Country by that row of high mountains you see yonder, which have such steep sides that no one can cross them. So we live here all by ourselves, and are ruled by our own King, instead of by Ozma of Oz.”

The main plot takes place entirely in Jinxland, and concerns the struggles of Pon, the gardener's boy, to marry the Princess Gloria against the wishes of King Krewl. The Scarecrow is dispatched to Jinxland to assist, but none of the other Oz people plays an important part, and once the plot is wrapped up in chapter 20 Ozma and Dorothy arrange to bring everyone back to the Emerald City for a party at which Baum drops the names of all the characters who did not otherwise appear in the book.

The excellent tenth book, Rinkitink in Oz, repeats the pattern. In fact, Rinkitink was written much earlier, around 1907, but Baum couldn't get it published. So in 1916 he appended a couple of chapters in which Dorothy and the Wizard appear from nowhere to resolve the plot, and then in chapter 22 Ozma brings everyone back to the Emerald City for a party at which Baum drops the names of all the characters who did not otherwise appear in the book.

Well, you get the idea. The last few books are pretty good when they are in the "not really Oz but let's say it is" mode of The Scarecrow or Rinkitink, and pretty awful when they are in "twee travelogue" mode of The Road to Oz:

  • The Lost Princess of Oz has a good plot with a new set of characters from Oogaboo (excuse me — I mean from the Yip Country) searching for a stolen magical dishpan, and a travelogue plot with Dorothy etc. searching for Ozma. The characters meet up at the end and defeat the evil shoemaker who has stolen both, and Baum recycles his “the enchanted person was in the little boy's pocket the whole time” trope from Ozma of Oz. Probably they all go back to the Emerald City for a name-dropping party, but I forget.

  • The Tin Woodman of Oz, generally considered one of the worst of the books, is almost entirely travelogue. There are no new characters of note.

  • The Magic of Oz sees the return (again!) of the Nome King and a new scheme to destroy Oz. Again, it takes place in Oogaboo. Excuse me, in Gugu Forest:

    In the central western part of the Gillikin Country is a great tangle of trees called Gugu Forest … home of most of the wild beasts that inhabit Oz. These are seldom disturbed in their leafy haunts because there is no reason why Oz people should go there, except on rare occasions, and most parts of the forest have never been seen by any eyes but the eyes of the beasts who make their home there.

    Dorothy and the Wizard do play an important part. The plot is wrapped up with the same device as in The Emerald City.

    Oh, and the book ends with a literal birthday party at which the omitted characters are mentioned by name.

  • Glinda of Oz, like the several that precede it, takes place in Oogaboo, this time called the Skeezer country. Ozma says:

    The Skeezer Country is 'way at the upper edge of the Gillikin Country, with the sandy, impassable desert on one side and the mountains of Oogaboo on another side. That is a part of the Land of Oz of which I know very little.

    Glinda, Dorothy, Ozma, and the Wizard do appear, but spend much of the book trapped in the underwater city of the Skeezers. Meanwhile the interesting part of the story concerns Ervic, a Skeezer who schemes and dissembles in order to persuade a recalcitrant witch to disenchant three Adepts of Magic who have been transformed into fish. For variety, the scene with every previous character sitting around a table is at the beginning instead of at the end.

Glinda was published posthumously, and Baum, who had died in 1919, was free of Oz at last.

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