My fantasy and science fiction group discussed the theme of “Fantasy before Tolkien” last week, and I decided to use the opportunity to go somewhere I hadn’t been in over thirty years: Frank Baum’s Oz. More than any other series of books, these titles are connected to my development as a reader. I remember loving them, I remember hunting for them in libraries, I even remember specific moments of reading them as a child almost forty years ago.
It was with trepidation that I returned
to Oz after thirty years away.
The first memory comes from kindergarten, back in the day when kids didn’t start school already able to read. I brought The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to class for show-and-tell and surprised the teacher by being able to read it. Soon she had me reading the book aloud to my classmates, and a few weeks later, I was moved forward to first grade. How’s that for a yellow brick road? The other memories are more generic, but just as precious. Do you remember staying up late reading, against your parents’ wishes, unable to sleep until you finished one more chapter . . . and then maybe just one more? I do, and for me, the books I was reading by flashlight under the covers were the Oz books.
It was with trepidation that I returned to Oz after thirty years away. Of course, I’ve seen the classic film many times since then. It’s another old favorite, and happily unavoidable. But other attempts to revisit the franchise in film have been failures for me, particularly the Sam Raimi-directed, David Lindsey-Abaire-scripted Oz the Great and Powerful, a frantic and unnecessary prequel starring James Franco as the young Wizard in 2013. Why, I wondered as I watched it, didn’t a filmmaker simply go forward with the series as it was written? With that in mind, I picked up books two and three in the series, 1904’s The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s graphic adaptation of one of my favorites, Ozma of Oz (2012). Would the stories hold up?
I’m happy to report that Baum came through in flying technicolor. The characters and plots came flooding back up from the depths of memory. Marvelous Land follows young Tip, a boy raised by the witch Bombi who escapes her attempt to turn him into a statue by bringing Jack Pumpkinhead and the Wooden Horse to life, then running off with them to the Emerald City for adventures with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and new friends like the pompous, punning Woggle-Bug and the reluctant flying Gump.
In Ozma, Dorothy returns to Oz after a shipwreck with the talking hen Billina, finds the mechanical man Tik-Tok, then joins old and new companions in a mission to rescue the royal family of Ev from entrapment as ornaments in the palace of the Gnome King. I’d forgotten, but quickly recalled, for instance, the charms of Ozma‘s Hungry Tiger, a companion for the Cowardly Lion who greets each new acquaintance by telling him or her how delicious they look, or how much he would like to eat a nice fat baby, but how his conscience prevents him from doing so and leaves him perpetually hungry. I have to confess, I preferred John R. Neill’s classic Oz illustrations for entirely personal reasons. These are the way I see Oz’s denizens in my head, not as Young’s diminutive and more cartoon-like characters.
The Oz books made me into a fantasy reader for life.
The Oz books made me into a fantasy reader for life, but revisiting them, I was struck by how unusual the series is, uniquely American and not particularly reminiscent of any other author, either before or since. Baum’s generosity of spirit toward his diverse characters is notable: even his villains have sympathetic moments, and lead characters such as the Scarecrow and Tin Man are both venerated and gently mocked, often in the same paragraph. A quirky humor pervades all of these stories that makes even the more dated passages seem charming (for instance, when an all-girl army takes over the Emerald City using knitting needles as weapons). The books are a challenge to the vocabulary and conventional thinking of a child reader, and re-reading them, I could see the roots of my adult love of eccentric, oddball moments and the development of my underdog’s sense of social justice.
Try a night of re-reads from youth as the theme of an upcoming book group. You might gain insight into the reader and person you have become, and at the very least, you’ll have a wonderful nostalgic trip to your past.