08 July 2008

L. Frank Baum’s First Oz Series

Ozma of Oz coverLast week I started to muse about how open-ended series are different from those with a planned ending, given how storytellers have to maintain some dramatic tension and character conflicts rather than resolve them. How, one might ask (if one were I), does that apply to L. Frank Baum's Oz books?

Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with no thought to a sequel. Therefore, it ends with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion's problems solved, each established as a ruler of part of Oz. The Wicked Witches are dead, Dorothy is back home, and we can all go home, too. But the success of that book and especially its stage adaptation prompted Baum to write a sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Because Wizard hadn't left dangling questions or conflicts, Baum had to start Land with a new set of characters. Oz turned out to have more wicked witches, a missing dynasty, and a rebellious female army. The book features the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman since they had become stars on stage, and they were still interesting. The Cowardly Lion is nowhere to be seen because a brave lion isn't an interesting character; it's a cliché. Again, Baum finished Land without expecting to follow it up with any more books about Oz.

The success of both those books, and a generous contract from Reilly & Britton, convinced him to expand the series further. The next four books constitute the first Oz series conceived as such, with a new title each year. And I think Baum had an overall narrative arc in mind as he wrote them, vague though it probably was.

Baum started by returning to Dorothy and the roots of that character. Even before the cyclone carries her to Oz, what had he written about her? She's a Kansas farmgirl, and the uncle and aunt raising her are old, poor, and sad. Baum's next four Oz books therefore address the problems of Dorothy's family.

The first of that four-book series, Ozma of Oz, starts with Dorothy and Uncle Henry on a trip to Australia for his health. Along the way, she makes her second journey to fairyland. She meets Ozma (protagonist of Land), reunites with the Cowardly Lion (once again feeling a lack of courage, and therefore interesting), and becomes a princess of Oz. The second and third books also show Dorothy traveling to Oz, each time with a different animal companion and a different set of humans. Having gone by air in Wizard, she makes the journey over the water, through the earth, and by magic.

Ozma also introduces the villainous Nome King. Although he's defeated at the end of that book, he's not destroyed like the Wicked Witches. The next titles tie off some loose ends from Baum's previous writing. Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz brings the Wizard back to the Emerald City and tries to resolve some moral questions about his conduct (in the stage show, the Wizard was a villain). The Road to Oz unites the Oz books to the universe of most of Baum's other fantasies by having their characters visit Ozma for her birthday.

Emerald City of Oz coverFinally, The Emerald City of Oz brings Baum's Oz saga to a close. Dorothy and her family, having lost their farm to a mortgage holder, move permanently to the Emerald City, thus resolving the problems established in the first chapter of Wizard. The Nome King returns with an army of immortals, but Ozma and her allies manage to dispatch them--seemingly forever--without compromising her values.

Finally, we come to Glinda, the sorceress who rules the southern part of Oz. In the first two books, she was the dea ex machina who provided the power and knowledge to resolve the plots. She plays little role in the next three, however. Baum turns to her once again to bring the series to a close. In order to protect Oz from invasion, Glinda cuts off the country from our Great Outside World. The series was over, Baum told his readers. And indeed most of the lingering problems and questions had been resolved.

Bankruptcy due to plowing too much of his money into a new stage show later caused Baum to return to writing Oz books. And when he did, he approached the series as open-ended, without the thematic unity or overall plot of the four books between Ozma and Emerald City.


Anonymous said...

Ozma has the best characters and most interesting magic, I think. It is probably the Oz book most frequently reread in my family (our first edition hardcover, alas, is in tatters). Emerald City has so many goofy puns that it is intended more for the parent reading than for the child.

J. L. Bell said...

You’ve touched on a big shortcoming of what I’m calling Baum’s first Oz series: though there’s an overarching plot about Dorothy finding a home in Oz, there really aren’t enough plots along the way to fill four books.

Ozma has a good plot, with Dorothy and Ozma up against the Nome King. Dorothy and the Wizard has a scary journey, but then Ozma rescues Dorothy, and there’s a bit of padding in Eureka’s trial. Road has a less scary journey, with all the problems solved at about the halfway mark and Ozma’s birthday pageant filling out the rest—hardly enough plot for a short story.

Emerald City starts off well, with a plot building from parallel storylines as Dorothy’s family adjusts to life in Oz and General Guph assembling his invasion force. But then the Oz adventures become very episodic, and indeed mostly built around puns or magical conceits. (I liked the puns as a child, but I wouldn’t have minded some more suspense with them.)

As for characters, I think Baum created some terrific ones in Road: the Shaggy Man, Button-Bright, and Polychrome are all nicely drawn, and all proved strong enough to return in later books. That doesn’t take anything away from Billina, Tik-Tok, the Hungry Tiger, and the Nome King in Ozma. But you don’t always need a good plot to introduce good characters.

Anonymous said...

I think the puns were baffling to me at 5 or 6, even with parental explanation, but to my surprise last summer when I read about TikTok to my then 4 year old nephew, the fact that he was patented (and proud of it) provided a great way to explain my new job as a patent lawyer! He is now the best informed child about patents in all of NY, I am sure, and all due to Tik-Tok's impressive machinery.

My grandmother, now 93, and owner of our family's first editions although we have custody now, had a belt that vaguely resembled the Nome King's magic belt and when she wore it as a child, her siblings were cowed into doing what she said. So as you can see, we take our Oz characters seriously.