3 December 2016
There are fantasy books that sell more or more enduringly beloved, but "The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz" is perhaps the most influential American fantasy story ever written.
And though most people are familiar with the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland, L. Frank Baum's first novel about his magical fantasy land is a whimsical -- somehow darker -- version of the tale. It's a fairly simple tale about a little girl wandering through a magical land filled with strange creatures, but the endearingly familiar companions she picks up along the way and the oddball ideas that Baum peppers the story with keep it entertaining.
A little girl named Dorothy lives in the grey expanses of Kansas, on a grey farm with her grey aunt and uncle, and her little black dog Toto. When a cyclone strikes, her house is torn up and sent whirling away... and when it eventually lands, she's in the land of the Munchkins, and has accidentally crushed the cruel Witch of the East. Hoping to find a way back to her relatives, Dorothy takes the witch's silver shoes (yes, movie fans, they're silver) and heads to the City of Emeralds to find the Wizard of Oz.
She quickly gains some traveling companions -- a sentient scarecrow in a cornfield, a metal woodsman who suffered a series of involuntary amputations, and a fearsome lion with some anxiety issues -- who also want to ask the Great Oz to grant their assorted wishes. But before they can get what they want, they must deal with the many strange things in Oz: the terrible Kalidahs, poppies that cause narcolepsy, the strange green-tinted City, killer crows, and so on. And when they finally do encounter Oz, he gives them one terrible condition: to get their wishes granted, they must kill the wicked Witch of the West. Easier said than done.
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is in many ways a straightforward fantasy story for young children -- a young girl is swept off into a magical land, and must find the enchanted means of finding her way back home again. Simple enough, but Baum had a rather lively imagination that spices the land of Oz with various odd little creatures (Munchkins, the Kalidahs, lots of talking animals) as well as some bizarre, whimsical concepts of his own (the City of Emeralds only looks green because... well, Oz got everyone in it to wear green-tinted eyeglasses).
And those who have only seen the movie may be surprised by some of the things that happen here, as there were quite a few changes. For one thing, it's substantially darker -- there are more monsters (the fighting trees, a sort of G-rated "Evil Dead" plant threat), the Tin Woodsman's gruesome origin story is outlined in detail, and Dorothy and her friends are effectively hired as assassins. And Oz has creatures that never made it in, such as the bizarre Quadlings and the china people.
But Baum presents this with a writing style that is oddly whimsical and cheery, as if refusing to let even the worst events sully Dorothy's adventures for long. It's a pretty simple style, fairly common in the 19th century, but it has a certain charm to it ("Its legs were quite as long as the tiger had said, and it's body covered with coarse black hair"). And his imagination for Oz seems to be almost boundless, as Dorothy simply floats through, encountering one weird thing after another.
The characters are fairly endearing ones -- none are particularly developed, but Dorothy's chipper, no-nonsense attitude makes her a pretty likable little girl. And her companions are each pretty charming, each seeking a cure for some perceived deficiency (brains, heart, courage), but not quite bright enough to realize that they have these things already, as shown by their actions in the story. And there are a fair number of intriguing side-characters, such as the Witches (both good and bad, including Glinda and her army of beautiful young women).
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" is basically a fanciful road trip, but Baum's nimble imagination and vivid ideas keep its simplicity from ever becoming dull or cloying. And surprisingly, Dorothy's adventures in Oz are not over yet.