#Ozathon24: A Land of Life

For this month’s Ozathon posts, be sure to visit The Book Stop, where Deb will be hosting the wrap-up.

The Marvelous Land of Oz was L. Frank Baum’s follow-up to his breakout success, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As a child, I was always a bit puzzled by how different Book 2 was from Book 1. Dorothy does not appear, the Cowardly Lion also plays no role, while the Scarecrow and Tin Man get much more attention. The central character is a boy named Tip, who brings a number of other comical characters to life with a magic powder, and undergoes a surprising transformation himself. The overall tone has changed from ironic fairy tale to slapstick comedy, with another new character, the Wogglebug, supplying verbal humor with his terrible puns. An army of pretty girls who want to take over the Emerald City is another new element.

I didn’t object to the difference because I enjoyed the humor and adventure. The scene where the Scarecrow and Tip’s creation Jack Pumpkinhead decide they can’t understand each other and need an interpreter, even though they’re speaking the same language, always makes me laugh out loud. (How often I’ve found myself in that situation!) But I had no idea of the context in which the book arose. I didn’t know the girl army was a parody of the suffragettes then agitating for votes for women. Nor was I aware that during the four years between the two books, a hit musical had been produced based on Wizard in which the actors playing the Scarecrow and Tin Man were the big stars. Baum, whose true love was the stage, was trying to reproduce the success of this show in the sequel.

From the musical came the “lost ruler of Oz” idea that also becomes a new element in this book; the first time around we heard nothing about the Wizard wrongfully taking over the throne and abducting a child. But that becomes the main quest here, to discover the true ruler of the land and put her back on her throne.

Her? Yes, the ruler of Oz, it transpires, is a girl. Not the girl army, who prove themselves to be vain and petty and cruel. This might be interpreted as criticism of the suffragette cause, but as Baum was a supporter of women’s suffrage himself and married to the daughter of one of the major feminist activists of the era, I think his parody was directed at the idea of suffragettes in the popular imagination. It also simply gave him a way to work in a large chorus of beautiful women, which would be useful if this book became a musical, too. The transformation scene at the end was also a common feature in drama of the time.

Those who critique Baum’s “anti-feminism” have to take into account that the girl army is overcome not by an army of men, but by another army of women, led by the powerful sorceress Glinda the Good. The opposition is not between male and female, but between the forces of unbridled self-interest and the forces of disciplined loyalty to a higher wisdom. Traditional “women’s work” is also valued as more difficult than men’s, as when men have to take it on they quickly become exhausted. And the Wogglebug remarks that girls are as intelligent and fit for education as boys, which was not at all the prevailing notion in Baum’s day. All of this had changed so much by the time the book reached me, that it passed me by.

But now I can better appreciate how unusual Baum’s centering of female power was. As the series continued and grew in popularity, I wonder how many of us were influenced by his images of women as wise and powerful, adventurous and brave. His imagined world of Oz might have helped in changing the real world, in unexpected, underground ways.

Male characters also play an important role, but the values they embody are often also different from those of the usual masculine culture. In this book, for example, Tip creates a wooden figure with a jack-o-lantern head to scare his cruel foster mother, the witch Mombi. Although it is Mombi who animates Jack Pumpkinhead with a magic powder, he hails Tip as his parent; Tip has given him birth, in effect.

Giving life to inanimate objects is a recurring motif in the series. In the first book, the Scarecrow came to life with no explanation, becoming conscious of his own creation as a farmer made him. Perhaps the land of Oz itself sometimes lends its magic forces to some of its inhabitants. The Tin Man, in an opposite process, was once a living human whose parts were gradually replaced with metal, but retained life and consciousness.

Tip steals the magic powder from Mombi and uses it to animate two more creatures: besides Jack, a Sawhorse is brought to life as a steed for Jack, along with the Gump, a strange conglomerate born of the necessity to escape from the girls who have taken over the Emerald City, usurping the Scarecrow’s throne (he was appointed by the Wizard to replace him in the first book). All three were originally made for the use of humans, but take on a life of their own beyond that usefulness, and eventually have to be considered as people in their own right.

The Sawhorse is a willing steed, but requires those who make use of him to be mindful of their words; for example, if they tell him to “go” he’ll run until he falls into a river, not having been told to stop. Meanwhile, when the Gump’s purpose is finished he wants to be taken apart again, and his request is honored. His head once belonged to a noble animal in the forest, and he feels humiliated by being attached to an assortment of household objects. That head retains the ability to observe and speak, though, and sometimes startles visitors; once life has begun, you have to take the consequences.

The theme of sentient beings deserving autonomy and self-determination is another one that will develop through the series, though it’s not quite mature yet in this one. I was sometimes taken aback by how impatient and dismissive the other characters were of Jack, whose guileless remarks are derided as stupid, even by his “father,” Tip. He is often taunted with the fact that his head will spoil and his life will come to a rotten end, something that will change later in the series when Baum decides to confer immortality on Oz. In this book, though, morbid humor abounds, perhaps also intended for the stage.

Oz was not a coherent creation, and the early books are particularly full of inconsistencies, but for readers who love them, their imaginative energy makes up for a multitude of literary sins. Gore Vidal, who was reportedly rereading The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time when he died, encapsulated their appeal when he wrote in a 1977 New York Review article that they have the potential to make readers “imaginative, tolerant, alert to wonders, life.”

In a world subject to increasing mechanization, I still look for the ways that anything, even dead wood and metal, can come to life, and I’m sure that quest can be traced back to my hours spent in the Land of Oz.

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5 thoughts on “#Ozathon24: A Land of Life

  1. I encountered the sequels before the first book — my mom had some lovely old copies — and the difference in tone made the original book very dull to me. I should try it as an adult and see if I can enjoy the irony.

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