28 October 2009

No Ultimate Evil in Oz

In an essay on the Awgwas and Phanfasms, who are about the nastiest, scariest creatures L. Frank Baum ever wrote about, Nathan DeHoff concluded:

One thing we really don’t see in Baum’s fantasy universe is an ultimate evil along the lines of Sauron or Voldemort. About the closest we get is Zog, and he’s killed off in the same book that introduces him [Sea Fairies]. I know some fans have tried writing such a being into Oz, but they’ve generally reported that it didn’t work out. Maybe that’s actually a good thing, as the Almighty Lord of Evil is sort of a cliché by this point.
Plus, the concept of embodied evil doesn’t fit with how the Oz books depict human nature.

Other fantasy universes include people naturally endowed with magical powers. In Oz, there are some magical beings (usually lumped together under the catch-all term “fairies”), but all humans can do magic if they have the right knowledge or the right tools. Baum often says that Dorothy is just an ordinary little girl, but when she gets hold of the Magic Belt—look out! There are no inherently magical people, just people who choose to learn magic.

Similarly, the books imply that all people can be good or bad, depending on their choices. True, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offers characters named the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the East, but it doesn’t say those women were born to those roles. And Baum’s storytelling in that book is in a different mode from how he created his others, as I wrote last year.

More typical is how Baum introduces the villain in The Lost Princess of Oz (1917):
A curious thing about Ugu the Shoemaker was that he didn’t suspect in the least that he was wicked. He wanted to be powerful and great, and he hoped to make himself master of all the Land of Oz that he might compel everyone in that fairy country to obey him. His ambition blinded him to the rights of others, and he imagined anyone else would act just as he did if anyone else happened to be as clever as himself.
Ugu isn’t the servant of a dark lord or black force—he’s just selfish.

But perhaps in this cosmology selfishness is evil. That could well be so, but characters in the Oz books don’t defeat selfishness through magic. Rather, villains are deprived of their powers and then pressed to make up their own minds about whether to behave better. Some do, and some don’t. Here’s how The Lost Princess of Oz ends, with Dorothy having transformed Ugu into a dove:
“Are you sorry, then?” asked Dorothy, looking hard at the bird.

“I am very sorry,” declared Ugu. “I’ve been thinking over my misdeeds for a long time,…and I’m surprised that I was such a wicked man and had so little regard for the rights of others. . . . But with the kind forgiveness of my former enemies, I hope to become a very good dove and highly respected.”
There are some fine fantasies about saving the world and defeating evil, but the Oz books aren’t in that group. They’re almost all stories about getting home, whether that home is Kansas or the Emerald City or some other safe place of one’s own choosing.


David Maxine said...

The ambiguous line between good and evil was one of the things I've always loved about the Oz books. It makes Roquat and Ugu so much more interesting, IMHO. It also adds to the sense of reality - because real people's motivations are never really black and white.

This ambiguous quality is one of the reasons I published LIVING HOUSE OF OZ -- it blurred the lines even further between good and evil, and beautiful and ugly - and makes for a more complex story and feeling more complex emotions in the reader. Again, IMHO.

J. L. Bell said...

It’s striking how the punishment Ozma imposes on her worst adversaries, such as the Nome King, is making them drink from the Fountain of Oblivion. Its waters, as you know, make them forget all their bad impulses. Basically, they get a do-over.

Anonymous said...

What about the First and Foremost?

J. L. Bell said...

The First and Foremost brings us back to where we started, with Nathan DeHoff’s essay on the Phanfasms and Awgwas. Because those races of creatures aren’t human, Baum can label them as evil without undercutting his picture of people determining their goodness through their own choices.

Furthermore, what does The Emerald City of Oz tell us about the First and Foremost’s evil? Is he/she trying to take over the world? No, he/she’s living on the Mountain of Phantastico, not bothering anyone until Guph comes along. True, Guph’s offer leads to a plan to move out from Oz and bring misery to the whole world, but if that’s the Phanfasms’ motivation they’ve been ignoring it for centuries.

And then at the end of that book, the First and Foremost and all the Phanfasms drink of the Water of Oblivion and forget what they came for. So much for their implacable evil!

David Maxine said...

But even with the Phanfasms Baum provides a slightly ambiguous description. As John points out, they've been quiet isolationists for 1000s of years. But Baum also describes their civilization as highly cultivated and advanced with a a stunningly beautiful city and a love of high fashion. And perhaps an implication that hey are physically beautiful.

J. L. Bell said...

Baum definitely broke the connection between beauty and goodness. While Ozma and Glinda are beautiful, the Wizard isn’t. (He becomes a very good man, and a very good wizard, later in the series.)

Meanwhile, some very beautiful women with magical knowledge are also quite nasty and heartless.

The Phanfasms seem to change their appearance however they want, so obviously their looks mean nothing about their virtue.

Nathan said...

Since my main examples of really evil villains weren't in the Oz books themselves, I kind of wonder if Baum was less comfortable with bringing pure evil into the Oz series. Actually, I think the most demonically evil character I can remember in a Baum story was the devilish buffalo from one of the Animal Fairy Tales.

As for Zog, I find it interesting to compare him to King Terribus from YEW. They're both villains due largely to hating themselves, but Terribus reforms when Prince Marvel changes his appearance, while Zog is killed.