Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Road to Oz - The Road Less Traveled?

Sometime back, I promised (in more or less words) an analysis of The Road to Oz. Well, here we go.

I mentioned that this book is considered one of Baum's weakest books in the series, and honestly, the argument stands.

The story is straightforward, and even, on some degrees, mirrors that of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy meets the Shaggy Man in Kansas, and he asks her how to get to Butterfield. When she shows him the way, she, Toto, and the Shaggy Man are instantly transported to a crossroads that is certainly in some fairyland.

They are quickly joined by the young Button-Bright, and soon find their way to Foxville, where King Dox becomes impressed with Button-Bright and gives him a fox's head. He also tells Dorothy she is very close to the Land of Oz, and that Ozma's birthday is on the 21st of the month (Dorothy says earlier in the book that it's August, so Oz fans have easily deduced that Ozma's birthday is August 21st). Despite what he did to Button-Bright, Dorothy promises to ask Ozma for an invitation for him.

After leaving Foxville, they are joined by Polychrome, the Rainbow's wayward daughter, who makes her first appearance. (I should devote a blog to her sometime.) Their next stop is in Dunkiton, where slightly anthropomorphic donkeys live. (Wasn't there a place like this in one of Gulliver's Travels? Wait, I think that was horses instead of donkeys.) There, King Kik-a-bray becomes fond of the Shaggy Man and gives him a donkey's head, an obvious reference to Bottom's transformation in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. King Kik-a-bray also asks to be invited to Ozma's party, and also tells the travelers that their transformations can be dispelled by the Truth Pond, which is somewhere in Oz.

Now wait, look, here we really see where this compares to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. We have Dorothy and Toto with three travelers, each of who need something. Similar to how the how the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman wanted body organs that represent certain traits, Button-Bright and the Shaggy Man wish to be rid of their enchantments, and Polychrome, similar to Dorothy's quest in the first book, wants to go home.

Dorothy's goal is not so substantial here. She has wound up in another adventure, and having done so before in the previous two Oz books, is beginning to take these adventures as things that just happen to her, and even mentions that if she's not gone for too long, Aunt Em shouldn't worry too much about her. Is Dorothy's initial moral resolve of loyalty to her family being dissolved by her repeated exposure to Oz? Very possibly so, but at least in the next story, we see she hasn't completely lost it.

The travelers meet the Musicker, Allegro de Capo, who makes music as he breathes, and thinks highly of himself. Although he is amusing, he is another of Baum's easily disposable yet entertaining and memorable characters, similar to the Braided Man in Dorothy & The Wizard in Oz, and many others in Baum's stories.

Next is an adventure where they encounter another race of Baum's strange, exotic, and sometimes violent creatures: the Scoodlers. This race wants to make the travelers into soup, but they manage to escape.

Then they reach the Deadly Desert, which they manage to cross, when the Shaggy Man uses the Love Magnet to summon the busy Johnny Dooit, who whips up a sandboat to carry them across the desert.

The Love Magnet (which was actually introduced very early on in the story) is a curious device. The Shaggy Man claims that when he has it, it makes everyone around him love him. This is the only magical device Baum used in his Oz books that was magical with no apparent origins in Oz or fairyland, or anywhere else, for that matter. (Some fans have ideas, though, Eric Gjovaag and Karyl Carlson's Queen Ann in Oz has an explanation, and is worth reading!) It's odd, but you'll notice Baum is full of such details, or rather lack of details. While some people might point this as poor writing, actually, it lends to the idea that Baum was relating these stories second-hand. His informant (Dorothy) didn't know the details, so Baum didn't make it up, at least, not in the fantastical explanation he created for his tales.

So, now the travelers are in Oz proper, and soon discover the Truth Pond. While Button-Bright and Shaggy are freed from their transformations, there is a side effect that Shaggy reveals: all people who bathe in the Truth Pond are forced to tell the truth. In Baum's works, there aren't any real contradictions to this effect. It is even used again in The Lost Princess of Oz, the "victim" there later became the main character (and titular character) of Eric Shanower's short story "The Final Fate of the Frogman," and in the McGraws' The Forbidden Fountain of Oz, if someone who bathed in the Truth Pond lies, their ears will glow green. (Thanks, Nathan DeHoff!)

Along their way to the Emerald City, they meet old friends Tik-Tok, Billina, and the Tin Woodman.

During their stay at the Tin Woodman's palace, the Tin Woodman reveals that money is no longer used in Oz. There was money mentioned in the first two Oz books, but it has apparently been abolished since then. The way the Tin Woodman is adamant about this suggests he was a supporter of this decision. I had the idea that maybe the main characters of Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz stories suggested this, given that they had problems with money in the series. As the Tin Woodman was among the visitors, this does make sense.

Next, we re-visit Jack Pumpkinhead, who we finally discover can replace a spoiled head at will, so he grows his own pumpkins. This finally puts an end to Jack's main worry from The Marvelous Land of Oz that he would spoil all too quickly.

Finally, we reach the Emerald City, but during the trip, the Tin Woodman tells a story about the Powder of Life. Apparently, the Crooked Magician Mombi got it from back in The Marvelous Land of Oz met a tragic accident that "destroyed" him (as later Oz books would define death). The Powder goes to a woman named Dyna who accidentally uses it to bring her blue bear rug to life. Some of these details will be discussed in a later blog about Dr. Nikidik, Dr. Pipt, and the Powder of Life.

Ozma's birthday festivities begin, and some of the guests are easily recognizable to people who are well-read in Baum's non-Oz work, and here we begin to see one of the biggest reasons why this is considered a weak book:

We have:
  • The Queen of Merryland and the Candy Man from Dot & Tot of Merryland
  • Santa Claus, Ryls, and Knooks from Baum's own Santa tale, The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus.
  • Queen Zixi of Ix, and King Bud and Princess Fluff of Noland from Queen Zixi of Ix.
  • John Dough, Chick the Cherub, and Para Bruin from John Dough & The Cherub.
But why did Baum do this? People have said, "Hah, he was promoting his other books!" Very likely, actually! Probably he did this to interest his readers in his other, non-Oz fantasies, because he had already planned to end the Oz series with the next book, and wanted to introduce his readers to his other works so they'd read the other things he'd turn out.

He spent most of Road in countries outside of Oz, and tying his other books into this showed that there was more to Oz than... Oz! In The Emerald of Oz, his next book, and, he had hoped, his last Oz book, we get to see more of the wonders inside Oz as well as see some of the nastier people who live outside of it.

We know now, with almost 100 years of hindsight, that this cross-promotion plan, if this was what Baum was aiming for, didn't work, as there seems to be no major increase of the sales of those books, and The Sea Fairies and Sky Island didn't sell very well, forcing him to return to Oz in 1913.

The festivities continue, and climax with the Wizard making giant soap-and-glue bubbles that Santa Claus (who has learned some magic, it seems, since his book) uses to return many of Ozma's guests home, including Button-Bright. The Shaggy Man opts to live in Oz forever, while the Rainbow appears and takes Polychrome home. Dorothy opts to have Ozma send her and Toto home at night so she will awake in Kansas, so really, this is the first Oz story that features Dorothy where she doesn't return home at the close, but it is promised she will do so.

And, well, for one of the weaker Oz stories, it certainly was a well-told story! It managed to introduce three new characters to Oz who play major roles in later books, and with the promotion of his other stories and the adventures before arriving in Oz, Baum shows us definitively that there were other countries to explore outside of Oz, other than the already established Ev and Nome Kingdom from Ozma of Oz.

Baum finally showed in The Road to Oz that he did not create a fairyland with Oz, he created a world, a world that all of us enjoy visiting again and again.


Oz RPG said...

"Road" is definitely one of the more picaresque of the stories, along with "Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz". It is also very well-written and an entertaining read.

Nathan said...

Yeah, the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver's Travels were horses. I think it's quite likely that Dunkiton was at least partially inspired by them, although the two societies are really quite different. The Houyhnhnms are sort of like Star Trek's Vulcans, trying to base an entire civilization on logic. Then again, that might well be what King Kik-a-bray would CLAIM he was doing with Dunkiton. {g}

Jack Snow's Shaggy Man provides the canonical version of the Love Magnet's origins, as well as why it seems to work differently when we see it again in Tik-Tok.

I have to wonder whether Santa's knowledge of magic was part and parcel of his being made immortal. I also wonder why there were no characters from Mo at the party, even though Patchwork Girl establishes that there is (or at least was) communication between the two.