I’ve lately been slowly rereading the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. This is at least my third or fourth time through, over the span of…maybe 18 years. Everyone knows the first one: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s less well-known that there are another thirteen books in the series–and even more if you count the non-Baum ones, which I don’t.
Fourteen would be a bit many to tackle in one review 🙂 but I’ve been discovering that it’s surprisingly easy to divide the series into sections, mostly trilogies. So today let’s look at the first three–I’d like to call them the “Welcome to Oz” Trilogy. Though new characters are introduced throughout, these first few introduce the principle players, not to mention the setting, which is frequently a character in itself.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz bears some resemblance to the movie…and some differences. Kansas farmgirl Dorothy is picked up by a tornado and carried away to the magical land of Oz with her little dog Toto. There, her house lands on a wicked witch, she acquires a pair of magic slippers (silver, not ruby), and sets off through Oz with a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman, and a Cowardly Lion. Eventually she meets the Wonderful Wizard, kills the Wicked Witch of the West, and goes home by slipper power.
That all sounds like the same plot as the movie…but the difference is focus. While the movie ties neatly together with both Glinda and the Wicked Witch appearing early on, and the Witch providing an ongoing threat, they come in later on in the book. Dorothy spends more time simply wandering about on adventures, without the drive and the urgency of the movie. Growing up, I actually never liked this book–and I think the problem was that I was comparing it to the movie. This most recent read-through, I was finally able to look at it more separately, and it is a rather charming (if unfocused) fairy story.
We’re introduced to a lot that’s fun here, and the characters are delightful. At the same time, there were some things that Baum hadn’t quite figured out yet. For instance, he all but directly says that the emeralds in the Emerald City are illusion, and that the Wizard didn’t really give Dorothy’s companions their various rewards, but just humbugged it. This takes a turn in later books–in the later volumes, the Emerald City really is covered by gem stones, and the brain, heart and courage bestowed by the Wizard really are magical. While I like the message that Dorothy’s friends had all they needed all along…I do also like the more magical version of events. Though at least Baum maintained the magic in this book to the extent that the story didn’t all become a dream sequence at the end!
The ramblingness of the book is the most serious problem, and while this is good, I don’t actually think it’s one of the strongest volumes–strangely, when it’s the best-known!
In the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz introduces new characters. Dorothy isn’t in the story at all, and the hero instead is Tip, a boy being raised by Mombi, an evil witch. Tip runs away with Jack Pumpkinhead, a stick-man with a Jack O’Lantern head, which Tip made and Mombi brought to life. Their adventures eventually lead them to an alliance with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman against an army of girls who have conquered the Emerald City.
Between the threat of Mombi and the possibility of war, this is one of the more exciting installments. The characters are also particularly entertaining, the ones mentioned above as well as a giant, highly-educationed Woggle-Bug, a strange flying contraption called the Gump, and a return appearance by Glinda the Good Witch. The army of beautiful girls armed with knitting needles (really) sets off my feminist instincts a bit, but they’re counterbalanced by Glinda’s far more capable female army. The ending of the book is bizarre to say the least–I won’t give it away, but I’ll say that sometimes you have to just go along with Baum and not ask too many questions…
Ozma of Oz is Book Three, and one of my favorites of the series. Despite the title, which refers to the new Queen of Oz, this is largely a Dorothy book. She gets lost at sea and washes ashore in a magical country near Oz, swiftly reuniting with old Oz friends who are on a journey to the Nome King to rescue the Royal Family of Ev.
This one is full of images and moments that have stuck with me all out of proportion to their importance–though maybe I should just say it has memorable moments. There’s a wonderful bit early on when Dorothy finds trees laden with lunch boxes and dinner pails. She picks ripe ones, opens them up and finds entire meals growing inside. It’s not an important scene, and yet it’s so delightful and whimsical. It encapsulates the magical things that can happen in Baum’s world.
Later on, Dorothy encounters Princess Langwidere, who has a collection of different heads and interchanges them at whim, the way people normally change hats or jewelry. It’s weird and wonderful and just a bit creepy!
When the party from Oz reaches the Nome King’s cavern, he explains that he’s turned the Royal Family of Ev into knick-knacks, and invites each rescuer to search among his collection and try to choose the correct ones–at the peril of being turned into knick-knacks themselves. That story element of having to choose the right enchanted object from a collection has definitely threaded itself into my mind, and is directly responsible for a chapter in my novel–though my heroine had to select the right enchanted fish.
Baum’s books are whimsical and magical and full of funny, fascinating characters. There are very few rules and anything is possible. The first one has some flaws, but on the whole these first three in the series are excellent. They’re rarely highly dramatic or very deep, but they’re entertaining and bright. These are wonderful pieces of classic fantasy I highly recommend.
…or the movie version 🙂