Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Part 2: Characters, Delight, and Imperialism

Brains, Heart, and Courage

Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion all have the same problem. They think they need something they already possess. Scarecrow insists he needs brains even though he's resourceful and shows common sense throughout the story. Tin Woodman says he doesn't have emotions, yet he is always crying. Seriously, he cries all the time, especially when Cowardly Lion says he is going to hunt down an animal for his dinner. Cowardly Lion supposedly has no courage, but we see he does when he protects Dorothy from the Winkies before being captured by flying monkeys.

When the Wizard gives Scarecrow what he asks for, it gets embarrassing. First he removes the straw from Scarecrow's head, then fills it with bran, and needles and pins. It's a big contrast from the MGM film where you feel like Scarecrow really did get a good deal from the Wizard when he gets the diploma. The illustration of Scarecrow with needles bulging out of his head creeped me out. I felt like something horrible happened to a childhood friend.

Tin Woodman and Lion's meetings with the Wizard are cuter. The Wizard cuts a hole in Tin Woodman's chest, and hangs a heart made of silk stuffed with sawdust inside. He instructs Lion to drink a green liquid that will become courage once it is inside him because "courage is always inside one." It's a cute lesson for kids, and, honestly, it was a good reminder for me.

I wonder why Baum didn't have them discover they had been the people they wanted to be all along. They've already discovered the Wizard is a fraud, yet insist he must still have the power to give them brains, heart, and courage. Baum might have just done it for comedy and symmetry (they had already each met with the Wizard individually when he told them to kill the Wicked Witch of the West).

Dorothy

Dorothy is not the selfless, sympathetic character she is in the movie. She rarely encourages her friends, and at one point narrates that she doesn't care whether or not her friends receive help from Oz so long as she gets to go home.

"...she decided if she could only get back to Kansas and Aunt Em it did not matter so much whether the Woodman had no brains and the Scarecrow no heart, or each got what he wanted."
~Chapter 5, The Rescue of the Tin Woodman

She has a child's blunt manner. In an earlier chapter when Scarecrow does not understand her desire to leave beautiful Oz for gray Kansas. Dorothy replies, "That is because you have no brains." You can see her disdain coming through in the accompanying illustration.


The original bitchface. This image makes me laugh every time I see it. Dorothy just looks like she's thinking, Ugh, Scarecrow you are so DUMB.

Dorothy is an odd main character for a book written to please children. In the movie, Dorothy expresses desire to escape somewhere over the rainbow, but realizes her mistake. In the book, she never talks about leaving Kansas, and wants to return as soon as she arrives in Oz. Neither the book nor the movie allow Dorothy to enjoy being in a magical land, telling us we are wrong to entertain our fantasies.

This problem isn't limited to Oz. Many portal fantasies literature television and even video games feature characters who want to go home as soon as they discover a land of magic even when they are tormented in the real world. Characters who want to stay in the fantasy worlds are often corrupted.

Dorothy is so focused on getting home she never explores the power she might have in Oz. I wouldn't want her to explore how she could rule the Munchkins if she chose, but it does show she has a one track mind. Though she is not a foretold Chosen One, Dorothy is still a foreign savior the people of Munchkinland praise and accept.

In her essay "Surrender (to) Dorothy: Imperialism and the subaltern of Oz of past, present, and future" Leow Hui Min Annabeth writes:

Baum's Wizard contains many tropes of the colonialist narrative. Dorothy, the young Kansas girl lifted by a tornado into the fantastical land of Oz, is the explorer/interloper, mapping territories that are "new" only insofar as they are new to her, yet permanently redefining the environment with her impression upon the local politics and culture. The simple minded citizens of Oz both require and celebrate the interference of Dorothy and her companions, imploring her to free them from the reign of their native rulers, and delighting in the eventual death-by-house of the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy's intrusion upon Oz is portrayed as ultimately desirable so much so that by the end of the story, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion have all been made its kings.

~Bitch Magazine, Issue 53, p. 36

As Leow says, the citizens of Oz require Dorothy's intrusion. Without it, they would have remained under the power of the witch, never trying to find their own way out of her grip. This is a common trope in stories that other people of color and native people. The people in need of a white savior are too peaceful to fight back, making it their fault they are enslaved. The Munchkins are slightly different, as they don't seem enslaved at all. Dorothy's unintentional slaughter of the Wicked Witch of the East is followed by Munchkins bowing to Dorothy as she passes their homes, inviting her to stay the night and partake in their feasts. Baum portrays life under tyrannical rule as becoming happy and carefree instantly once the tyrant is removed. Crops are plentiful in Munchkindland. It looks as though nothing was really wrong before Dorothy showed up--they just didn't like their ruler.

The Munchkins ignore Dorothy when she insists killing the witch was an accident, and reward her with the silver shoes. When Dorothy weeps because she does not want to stay in Munchkinland, the Munchkins weep with her. They cater to her whims, having no personalities of their own.

Later on in the story, Dorothy frees the Winkies when she melts the Wicked Witch of the West. Here the colonial narrative Leow writes of is even clearer. The Winkies have actually been enslaved and forced to do the witch's bidding for who knows how long. Baum blames their enslavement on the Winkies being cowards by nature. Once they are freed, rather than create a country without a monarchy or elect a government from their own countrymen, they invite Tin Woodman to rule them. I always find my head shaking at this part. They endure slavery only to make a stranger their ruler? A woodcutter who has no idea how the rule a country? The solution is plenty ridiculous, not delightful.

And doesn't Tin Woodman want to find his bride-to-be after he gets his heart back? I'm sad he never mentions finding her when he thinks she still lives with the awful woman who prevented their marriage.

What does Oz have to please children?

Okay, I've put Oz down enough for this post. I actually like this book, remember?

In the Introduction to Wonderful Wizard, Baum writes that the book "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."

Baum must have intended everything in his book to entertain children. Seeing the Tin Woodman become king probably is fun for children who grow attached to him. He has a gentle heart, and will perhaps be a benevolent ruler.

The existence of a magical land is itself a pleasure for children. Dorothy is every child reading the book, and so every child is loved and admired, not bullied or forced to forego education (thinking historically, here). Good people are beautiful (the witches of the South and North) and bad people are ugly (wicked witches). Life is black and white in Oz. It is a pleasant escape for children, a group of people who undoubtedly find the world complicated. Dorothy survives on her own for a bit, venturing out of Munchkinland without an Ozian to guide her. She's self-sufficient and offers relief to children who can't imagine navigating the world without an adult to care for them.

The conflict with the Wizard is resolved at the end of the second act. After he flies away in a hot-air balloon, Dorothy and friends must make another journey to see Glinda the Good Witch of the South in hopes she can get Dorothy back to Kansas. What follows is a series of encounters with the strange people of Oz, including the famous trees that throw fruit, and a lesser known city made of porcelain people. There is also a group of men called Hammer-Heads who have elastic necks. They're like jack-in-the-boxes with legs.
You said you left the nightmares out, Baum.


Baum obviously succeeded in delighting children with this book. Hundreds of children wrote to him asking for a sequel, which he delivered in 1904. More than one hundred years later movies are being made based on his books, and (what I'm most excited for) the anthology Oz Reimagined is set to come out at the end of February.

I still keep coming back to Dorothy not wanting to stay in Oz. I hear Dorothy moves to Oz in later books so it sounds like he fixed the problem. We'll see! One thing I'm sure of when it comes to pleasing the audience is that weird is entertaining, and Oz has plenty of weird.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Great and Powerful Oz Read Through: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Part 1

My goal in 2013 is to read all 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. You didn't know there was more than one Oz book? Well, there is, and they are weird and delightful. I've only read two of the books, though I know a bit about them from friends and essays. I missed out on this wonderful series during my childhood (too busy reading Peter Pan over and over again) so I'm reading them now, and adding my commentary, which ranges from squeeing over how enchanting the story is to going "what the hell, that is terrifying" to actual critique. Spoilers ahead for a book published in 1900.

The American Dream

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an American fairy tale. We see the good guys are hard workers, and hard work makes you successful. All the Tin Woodman wants is to earn enough money to build a home for his bride-to-be who has specifically told him she will agree to marry him when he can provide a home. He gets to work chopping the wood that will make his home. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears are going into this house he plans to build. And time! First he has to earn the money, and then he has to build the house. He's also obviously dedicated the woman he loves because building a home is no small condition. Doing it by himself is admirable. It's that American idea of getting everything you have without help from someone higher up the ladder, which of course isn't possible, but I think it is displayed in the story of the Tin Woodman.

The villains impede the rewards of hard work. Tin Woodman relates his story:

But the girl lived with an old woman who did not want her to marry anyone, for she was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework. So the old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, and promised her two sheep and a cow if she would prevent the marriage. Thereupon the Wicked Witch enchanted my ax, and when I was chopping away at my best one day, for I was anxious to get the new house and my wife as soon as possible, the ax slipped all at once and cut off my left leg.

Tin Woodman has the tinsmith make him a new leg, and then goes back to chopping wood. This makes the Wicked Witch angry because she promised the old woman she would stop the marriage. She enchants Tin Woodman's ax to cut off body parts until he is split in two, and must have his entire body made out of tin, which of course means he has no heart, and thus loses his love for the Munchkin girl. He supposes the girl still lives with the old woman, and waits for him. That's quite a romantic notion for a man without a heart who claims to have no emotion.

I wonder about the Wicked Witch's anger when the Tin Woodman keeps on going after he loses his leg. He says she is angry because she made a promise, but I don't see why an evil witch would care about promises. I also don't see why the ruler of Munchkinland would see two sheep and a cow as sufficient payment. To me it feels like a fairy tale trope turned around. Instead of a person in dire need making a deal with terms set by a witch, the old woman sets the terms of trade. The witch is the one held to a contract, so in fairy tale terms that means she should lose something if she can't keep her end of the bargain. There isn't any mention of the Witch having anything to lose, so I'll settle for it being a fun reversal of a fairy tale trope.

But the American Dream plays into this because nothing can get Tin Woodman down. Even after he loses his leg, he keeps going. His hard work gives him the money to fix his leg. Loss of his limb is a setback, but the ultimate goal is still in sight. It isn't until he loses his heart that he gives up. Without a heart, the pursuit of happiness doesn't have any appeal. Those who have read the book know Tin Woodman is a very emotional character even without a heart, and I'll address that in a future post.

The Wizard of Capitalism

When Dorothy and company approach Oz for help, he can provide something to each member of the party, but insists on payment. Dorothy and co. have individual meetings with Oz, and in turn all ask for their greatest desire. Oz asks each of them why he should give them what they want, and all four of them say it is because Oz is the only one with the power to do so. Our heroes believe Oz is divine. They think he should use his power for good, to help and heal, just because he can.

But it turns out Oz is an ordinary man. Perhaps less than ordinary because he is a liar and a coward. Instead of using his powers for good, he requires payment in return for his services. Appearing to Dorothy as a giant head, Oz says:

"Well," said the Head, "I will give you my answer. You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return. In this country everyone must pay for everything he gets. If you wish me to use my magic power to send you home again you must do something for me first. Help me and I will help you."

He implores her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, which she reluctantly agrees to when Oz will not grant any requests unless his is met. The Witch captures Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are torn apart and scattered far away by the flying monkeys. The Witch makes Dorothy a slave, and locks Lion up in a cage and starves him because he refuses to pull her chariot. Dorothy sneaks him food at night. This arrangement goes on for an unspecified length of time.

Dorothy went to work meekly, with her mind made up to work as hard as she could; for she was glad the Wicked Witch had decided not to kill her.

Dorothy still retains a strong work ethic even when she is a slave. She and Lion try to plan an escape, but they don't think they can get past the Winkies, the citizens the Wicked Witch has enslaved. They remain at the castle, growing more and more depressed, until the Witch steals one of Dorothy's Silver Shoes. (Dorothy's famous shoes are silver in the book. They were changed to red in the 1939 film to take advantage of Technicolor.) Dorothy finally reacts with anger.

The little girl, seeing she had lost one of her pretty shoes, grew angry, and said to the Witch, "Give me back my shoe!"

"I will not," retorted the Witch, "for it is now my shoe, and not yours."

"You are a wicked creature!" cried Dorothy. "You have no right to take my shoe from me."

"I shall keep it, just the same," said the Witch, laughing at her, "and someday I shall get the other one from you, too."

This made Dorothy so very angry that she picked up the bucket of water that stood near and dashed it over the Witch, wetting her from head to foot.

Dorothy shows more anger when the Witch steals a possession--something she earned--than she does when her freedom is violated. It is her desire to keep what she owns that allows her to free herself from the Witch. That American Dream is at it again.

The group returns to the Wizard, who turns out to be a fake, but eventually keeps his end of the bargain. I'll talk about his methods and results in my next post when I break down the personalities of Dorothy and friends.