25 January 2012

What if the Deadly Desert Isn’t Deadly?

Yesterday I described how over the course of five books L. Frank Baum developed the desert around Oz from a natural barrier that apparently hid that fairyland within North America into a magically fatal barrier that protected Oz from its magical neighbors and everyone else.

But was the Deadly Desert really deadly? Certainly folks in the Oz books believed it to be. Someone even went to the trouble of erecting signs warning travelers not to venture onto the sands or be turned into dust. For understandable reasons, no one tested that. No one we read about, at least.

A few years back, in an Oz discussion group I put forward the cheeky hypothesis that the Deadly Desert isn’t actually deadly at all—that the legends and signs are simply a way to scare off potential invaders. Again, the books never show us anyone turned to dust.

Who could or would construct such a hoax? The obvious candidate is Glinda, the Good Sorceress of the South. She has a record of taking swift, unilateral, and somewhat ruthless (though far from cruel) actions to protect Oz. She has the intelligence and magical resources to put up those signs.

Not many Oz fans like my realpolitik conception of Glinda, I’ve found. And, to be honest, I don’t actually ascribe to that Deadly Desert theory. In my own stories the swirling sands are still a threat to people made of flesh, even if no one’s died yet.

In the latest Baum Bugle, Nathan M. DeHoff of the VoVatia blog kindly acknowledges my question of whether the Deadly Desert is actually deadly, but he devotes most of his “‘Great Dates and Deserts!’: Some Thoughts on the Deadly Desert of Oz” article as he should: assembling a coherent picture of how the desert works across all the Oz books, including those by Baum’s successors. It’s a thorough overview, useful for writers wanting to review that feature of the Nonestic world.

Also in that Bugle is Marilynn Strasser Olson’s paper about how a humorous article on Death Valley published in the Los Angeles Times in 1890 might have maybe influenced Baum’s invention of both the Deadly Desert and the Emerald City. Unfortunately, Prof. Olson can’t actually show a link from the article to Baum. And I don’t think the parallels are that compelling.

As with Evan Schwartz’s Finding Oz, that if we read late-1890s US newspapers and magazines looking for “Ozzy” details it’s easy to find material that reminds us of Baum, in either its topic or its tone. But that was the cultural milieu. The American press had a lot of humorists in the mode of Twain and Nye. Baum set out to create a fairy tale that seemed modern and American, so of course it reflected the same general topics and concerns tackled by other writers of the day. I want to see a clear link to Baum, not just an assumed connection.

(Illustration above by Eric Shanower.)


Mark Dominus said...

At the end of Chapter 22 of The Marvelous Land of Oz, Mombi, in the form of a griffin, runs out on the sands, but is pursued by Glinda and the Sawhorse. None is obliterated, or even harmed.

As you have observed before, a consistent continuity was not something that really interested Baum.

J. L. Bell said...

That's true, and it's clear that Baum meant for readers to interpret that desert as the one that surrounds Oz. Many researchers, however, have concluded that because of (a) the lack of deadliness, and (b) the short time it takes to reach that desert from the Emerald City compared to other journeys in that book and others, that sandy area can't be the Deadly Desert but must be some waste within Oz.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I figure the desert is of variable deadliness. Some places you can walk out for miles, then, suddenly, poof!, you turn to dust.

If you know the safe paths, which are circuitous, no doubt, maze-like, you could walk out of Oz altogether. It's risky, and you probably want to pack plenty of water ...