NIGHTMARES AND HEARTACHES AND BAUM . . . OH, MY! 😊
by John Fricke
L. Frank Baum’s extraordinary fantasy country of Oz is often referenced as “America’s Own Fairyland” – a fact familiar to his countless millions of adherents. Equally well-known is the descriptive definition of his initial Oz book, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, as “the first American fairy tale.” Mind you, Baum himself didn’t originate such statements; he did, however, declare a certain personal intention and thesis in writing when he penned the introduction to that classic story in April 1900.
“The time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales,’” he suggested, and he called for the elimination of “all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by . . . authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.” Baum also decried “all disagreeable incidents . . . heartaches and nightmares,” taking a stand for “only entertainment . . . to pleasure children of today.” To say he succeeded in delivering pleasure is both understatement and another long-acknowledged concept. In the process, however, Baum didn’t quite manage to eliminate “the horrible” or the “heartaches and nightmares.” No less an Oz advocate than the celebrated James Thurber – playwright, cartoonist, journalist, and wit – confirmed this as early as 1934 in THE NEW REPUBLIC: “I am glad that in spite of [his] high determination, Mr. Baum failed to keep them out [as] children love a lot of nightmare and at least a little heartache in their books. And they get them in the Oz books.”
Thurber is, of course, correct on all points, and to underscore his opinion, here are a few editorial reflections upon — and pictorial examples of – some of the terrifying or heart-stopping incidents and characters from just the first Baum Oz book. (Not to worry, however. As you’ll see below, all of them are pretty much designed for the “entertainment” he sought to present, and Baum’s nightmarish incidents are always quickly resolved, eliminating any long-term negative effects.)
As early as paragraph six of chapter one of THE WIZARD OF OZ, there’s indication of horror on the horizon (literally and figuratively), and this image of “Dorothy’s transportation” was drawn by Dale Ulrey for the 1956 Reilly & Lee edition of Baum’s book. Though such a real-life spectacle may inspire awe, the approach of violent and extreme weather is more often panic-making than anything else — for all ages but perhaps especially for children. This is increasingly true in our present day and age, when videos of tornadoes and their havoc are often unavoidable and viewable on demand. Baum, however, made use of such fears in 1900, when only a couple of actual photographs of such storms had been taken and published.
Chapter seven of THE WIZARD OF OZ is gently titled, “The Journey to the Great Oz,” with no indication of the fearsome creatures about to be encountered. Midway through Baum’s discourse, however, he has the Cowardly Lion whisper to Dorothy and Company that “it was in this part of the country that the Kalidahs lived . . . : ‘monstrous beasts with bodies like bears and heads like tigers, and with claws so long and sharp that they could tear me in two . . . .’” Fittingly, it’s the Lion’s underlying (if not self-comprehended) bravery that scares off the Kalidahs when they first approach the Kansas girl and her party; the quick-thinking Scarecrow next directs the Tin Woodman to use his valiant ax to destroy the log bridge the creatures are crossing in pursuit. Artist W. W. Denslow chose that moment for one of the full-page, full-color plates (shown above) in the WIZARD first edition.
It’s only a chapter later that Baum leads his protagonists into “The Deadly Poppy Field.” Skipping over the moment (and it’s basically as brief as that) when the Tin Woodman decapitates a wildcat in pursuit of the Queen of the Field Mice, the story line has caused considerable angst for many young readers as the Cowardly Lion falls under the spell of the flowers. The Scarecrow and Tin Man are able to make a chair of their arms and carry Dorothy and Toto out of the poppies to safety, but the Lion “is much too heavy to lift.” The Woodman regretfully acknowledges. “We must leave him here to sleep forever” amidst the blossoms. Anton Loeb captured that peaceful but heartrending image for the 1950 Random House WIZARD:
One of the “great escapes” of literature AND film is the manner in which Dorothy (accidentally) implements freedom from the Wicked Witch of the West for herself and her companions. In the uber-familiar WIZARD OF OZ movie, of course, she picks up a handy bucket of water to save the Scarecrow, whom the Witch has set afire. In Baum’s original book, however, the little girl throws a scrub-bucket of water at the old crone after she steals one of Dorothy’s magic silver shoes.
Either way, it’s a chilling denouement for young auditors, readers, or viewers. Baum recounts that the Witch dissolved “away like brown sugar . . . [falling] down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass [that] began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor.” Tom Sinnickson pictured Dorothy in the defiant act of self-defense for the 1951 WIZARD OF OZ Wonder Book edition:
Finally, one of Baum’s more gruesome characters is dispatched by the no-longer-Cowardly Lion in one of the penultimate chapters of the first Oz book. The Wizard has provided courage — as well as brains and a heart — for Dorothy’s three compatriots before departing the Emerald City in his balloon; in her ongoing desire to return to Kansas, Dorothy must next seek help from Glinda, the Witch of the South. As the faithful troupe of friends trek to the Quadling Country, they pass through what the Lion terms “a perfectly delightful” old forest. The animals who live there approach him and beseech that he kill “a fierce enemy. . . a most tremendous monster,” which they further describe as “a great spider, with a body as big as an elephant and legs as long as a tree trunk. It has eight of these long legs, and as the monster crawls through the forest, he seizes an animal with a leg and drags it to his mouth, where he eats it as a spider eats a fly.” One can’t help but think that such a passage might have tweaked the trepidation of any number of children, but the newly fearless Lion makes quick work of the creature – as depicted here by Dale Ulrey in the 1956 Reilly & Lee WIZARD:
These are a few examples of the challenges — not to say hallucination-inspiring or saddening occurrences — in Baum’s new “wonder tale.” Meanwhile, this discourse hasn’t even referenced the Fighting Trees; the Hammer-Heads; the Scarecrow’s unescapable entrapment as he clings to a pole in the middle of a fast-flowing river; the “most terrible beast” and ball-of-fire disguises utilized by the Wizard on his first meetings with (respectively) the Tin Woodman and the Lion; the wolves and bees sent by the Wicked Witch to destroy Dorothy and her buddies; and the disassembling of the Scarecrow and destruction of the Tin Woodman by the Wicked Witch’s Winged Monkeys. (“It hurt for me, even if it didn’t for Mr. Baum,” wrote James Thurber, recollecting his childhood exposure to THE WIZARD OF OZ.)
However! Why does Baum’s stance and counter-horror thesis still ring – and hold – true? There is both a simple reason and a simple answer: it’s all in the handling, in his entertaining, story-teller approach. Every single one of these definitely confrontational and potentially scary adventures is fast-fleeting, transitory, and quickly resolved. Each is faced and pondered and conquered in a page or two – or even a paragraph or two. The cyclone safely carries Dorothy and Toto to Oz. The Lion is saved from the Poppy Field by the Queen of the Field Mice and her subjects. The Winged Monkeys turn out to be great friends to Dorothy – and, later, Glinda – when the girl and good witch take possession of the Golden Cap that controls them. The Lion is made King of the Forest by the residents of the forest he’s saved from the giant spider.
Additionally, Baum could justifiably and proudly claim that no “fearsome moral” pervaded his fairy tale; instead, he provided a moral-for-life, indicated by the ongoing and fulsome cheer his characters experience when they bond with each other, work together, take on any and all tasks, tests, trials, and terrors – and see their situations through to a succession of peaceful, joyous, rainbow-hued (if sometimes sentimental) finales. Baum offered such conclusions again and again throughout his Ozzy writings, and – to use the word he chose for THE WIZARD OF OZ introduction — they have been “pleasure” to children for one-hundred-and-twenty-years.
It’s true that such happily-ever-after may only be achieved in Oz – or in some other heart’s solace. Yet how important it is to unfailingly strive – with one’s life’s companions – to reach that place. The journey may be ultimately unfulfilled in some ways, but how immeasurably important it is to keep moving forward with courage, intelligence, heart, and the company of (or desire for) our loved ones. As Judy Garland sang in another of her movie songs, “We don’t know where we’re goin’, but we’re on our way!” 😊
In his stories, L. Frank Baum offered some glorious roadmaps, guideposts, and mentors for any and every voyage.