14 October 2009

“Oz could do that easily enough.”

Yesterday I quoted a passage from L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz describing Dorothy’s arrival at a farmhouse outside the Emerald City. In that book and later ones, she and other travelers in Oz often pass a meal or a night at ordinary homes like these.

When I first read the series, that aspect of life in Oz was just another pleasant, welcoming detail. But gradually I realized how Baum had managed to make nearly all those “ordinary” families distinct. The farmer might have a sarcastic wit, or the old couple might be too deaf to communicate, or the husband might be lazy and the wife understandably short-tempered, or the couple are perfectly nice pigs. When we meet “ordinary” husbands and wives in Oz, they usually act like a couple who’ve really been together for years, and the woman is rarely a secondary partner in the relationship.

In the household outside the Emerald City, the most distinct detail is that the husband is laid up with an injury. Above is a portrait of him based on W. W. Denslow’s original illustration, here courtesy of Piglet Press. (In the new graphic novel adaptation, Skottie Young draws the man in an elaborate wheelchair; most likely that unexpected detail caught my attention and made me think over this scene again.)

I suppose Baum might have made that character lame so that he could be home to give Dorothy information. But it wouldn’t have been that difficult for him to be a craftsman whose workshop is just next door. As it is, the man’s injury makes life in Oz seem more realistic even as he speaks of the Wizard’s magic:

The man had hurt his leg, and was lying on the couch in a corner. They seemed greatly surprised to see so strange a company, and while the woman was busy laying the table the man asked:

“Where are you all going?”

“To the Emerald City,” said Dorothy, “to see the Great Oz.”

“Oh, indeed!” exclaimed the man. “Are you sure that Oz will see you?”

“Why not?” she replied.

“Why, it is said that he never lets anyone come into his presence. I have been to the Emerald City many times, and it is a beautiful and wonderful place; but I have never been permitted to see the Great Oz, nor do I know of any living person who has seen him.”

“Does he never go out?” asked the Scarecrow.

“Never. He sits day after day in the great Throne Room of his Palace, and even those who wait upon him do not see him face to face.”

“What is he like?” asked the girl.

“That is hard to tell,” said the man thoughtfully. “You see, Oz is a Great Wizard, and can take on any form he wishes. So that some say he looks like a bird; and some say he looks like an elephant; and some say he looks like a cat. To others he appears as a beautiful fairy, or a brownie, or in any other form that pleases him. But who the real Oz is, when he is in his own form, no living person can tell.”

“That is very strange,” said Dorothy, “but we must try, in some way, to see him, or we shall have made our journey for nothing.”

“Why do you wish to see the terrible Oz?” asked the man.

“I want him to give me some brains,” said the Scarecrow eagerly.

“Oh, Oz could do that easily enough,” declared the man. “He has more brains than he needs.”

“And I want him to give me a heart,” said the Tin Woodman.

“That will not trouble him,” continued the man, “for Oz has a large collection of hearts, of all sizes and shapes.”

“And I want him to give me courage,” said the Cowardly Lion.

“Oz keeps a great pot of courage in his Throne Room,” said the man, “which he has covered with a golden plate, to keep it from running over. He will be glad to give you some.”

“And I want him to send me back to Kansas,” said Dorothy.

“Where is Kansas?” asked the man, with surprise.

“I don’t know,” replied Dorothy sorrowfully, “but it is my home, and I’m sure it’s somewhere.”

“Very likely. Well, Oz can do anything; so I suppose he will find Kansas for you. But first you must get to see him, and that will be a hard task; for the Great Wizard does not like to see anyone, and he usually has his own way. But what do YOU want?” he continued, speaking to Toto. Toto only wagged his tail; for, strange to say, he could not speak.
As it turns out, the Wizard does have a sawdust-filled heart lying around, and his courage does come in liquid form, though he pours it out of a bottle instead of a “great pot” with a golden lid. I get the feeling that when Baum wrote this scene, he was thinking ahead to how he’d have the Wizard appear in different guises and ultimately solve the travelers’ dilemmas.

However, Baum makes clear later that the Wizard just improvises those gifts. Furthermore, it’s clear even in this scene that he’s lived a secretive life since building the Emerald City, and there’s no link between him and this man recuperating on the couch. So, even though the fellow’s information is pretty good, he must be speaking through his hat. Which gives a whole new cast to the scene.

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