Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Wonderment and Joy; Heartaches and Nightmares

In L. Frank Baum's famous introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he writes "the time has come for a series of newer 'wonder tales' in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale."

Those familiar with fairy tales point to the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the original version "Little Red Riding Hood," in which Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both devoured by the Wolf with no hope of rescue; or "The Little Mermaid," in which the title character commits suicide after not being able to fulfill her dreams. Yet another case is in Andersen's "The Red Shoes," in which a vain child gets fancy red shoes that become cursed, making her dance continually until she chops off her own feet.

To be sure, in his work, Baum still moralizes. Most notably, most of the stories in his American Fairy Tales from 1901 each contain a moral. And many of these are often humorous rather than having a deep point. In "The Box of Robbers," the moral is to leave such things alone, because the main character has to return items downstairs. "The Glass Dog" teases that there might be a moral, but the narrator cannot consult with the Wizard to discover it. The most poignant moral is in "The Wonderful Pump," in which a farmer and his wife are blessed with a great store of money, but squander it and have the rest of it stolen.

In contrast to Andersen and other fairy tales, Baum doesn't have to give a character a grisly end to point out his moral. Likely the closest he got was the story "The Tiger's Eye," which was published posthumously. Other pseudonymous or work for adults do have bloodshed, but Baum was working outside of his target audience for Oz.

However, there is more in Wizard's introduction that lobbies criticism at Baum: "...the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out."

People criticize this because the book does contain what might be called "nightmare fuel." The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman kill several animals, to say nothing of the Kalidahs, the Fighting Trees, the Winged Monkeys, or the Wicked Witch of the West.

However there is an overlooked element to this, and it affected the entire composition of the text. Aside from the first, no chapter in the book ends with the characters in peril, save the Wicked Witch chapter which ends with the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow lost and disassembled. Baum even tells us about the Winged Monkeys, which should dispel any trepidation a child would have about them.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written with children as its target audience, and they would not be reading the entire book all at once. To prevent nightmares, the dangers in Oz are usually introduced and dealt with in the same chapter, leaving Dorothy and her friends in relative safety. As Baum wrote in By the Candelabra's Glare:
                                Who's afraid?

Ev'ry Giant now is dead—
Jack has cut off ev'ry head.

Ev'ry Goblin, known of old,
Perished years ago, I'm told.

Ev'ry Witch, on broomstick riding,
Has been burned or is in hiding.

Every Dragon, seeking gore,
Died an age ago—or more.

Ev'ry horrid Bogie Man
Lives in far-off Yucatan.

Burglars dare not venture near
When they know that papa's here.

Lions now you only see
Caged in the menagerie.

And the Grizzly Bear can't hug
When he's made into a rug—

                                Who's Afraid?

This is why the book is episodic: it was arranged that way on purpose.

I do not believe that Baum kept this ideal for very long. In fact, it may have been the influence of W.W. Denslow, who Baum was partnering with on the first Oz book. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz systematically eliminates all dangers. Dot and Tot of Merryland—their next and final collaboration—had a complete lack of them.

After parting ways with Denslow, Baum quickly drifted from this method of eliminating horrors so soon. Critics have noted more linear narratives in his later Oz books. Often the villain is rendered harmless by story's end, but in these stories, no longer writing bedtime episodes, Baum was able to craft the entire book around these villains.

Denslow also wrote and illustrated his own picture books without Baum, and it's notable that Denslow's Humpty Dumpty features the title character being hard boiled to avoid easy breakage. His Mother Goose often sanitizes harsher elements of the classic rhymes (the Little Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe "kissed them all sweetly" instead of "whipping" her charges "soundly"). His own take on The Three Bears sweetens the story so much that it is nearly unrecognizable. I've seen more examples, but I'm just pointing out ones you can read for yourself right away.

So, I suggest that this dedication to making stories that would never frighten children was more of Denslow's concept than Baum's. If they had stuck together, Baum would have turned out some very different tales. But we can see that Baum quickly departed from this structure. In The Master Key, we have peril, as we do in the Awgwa episode of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus and more adventure in The Enchanted Island of Yew, even though most dangers are worked through easily in those tales.

Many fans prefer Ozma of Oz to The Marvelous Land of Oz for a true sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and it's easy to see why. The highly focused plot and suspense over the rescue of the Royal Family of Ev make an excellent plot. It's clear that after Baum's second Oz book, he was ready to just write some ripping good stories. Take Queen Zixi of Ix and John Dough and the Cherub, with the threats of the Roly-Rogues and Ali Dubh.

Baum would never go over-the-top gruesome in his tales. Yes, he suggests some nasty situations, but doesn't dwell on them. Famously, he allowed his publisher to excise a chapter from The Patchwork Girl of Oz in which is discovered a garden where plants grow people for their food, and that was his limit.

I personally believe that while Baum knew his limits, he quickly left behind the idea that his stories shouldn't contain anything disagreeable. That was what made them so enjoyable. To a young reader, a happy fairyland is not a lot of fun without a scary situation for the characters to face. If Ozma had whisked Dorothy and her friends to Oz at the beginning of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, it would not be as satisfying as after they had faced the Mangaboos, the Invisible Bears and the Wooden Gargoyles.

When Baum was writing The Little Wizard Stories, the publisher was concerned about a couple of tales. Toto originally killed Krinklink, and Baum altered the ending. But in the case of the Nome King believing Tik-Tok to be a ghost, Baum refused to rewrite to a gentler form: he knew his young readers would understand the story.

The characters must earn or defend their wonderment and joy, and sometimes, they have heartaches and nightmares. But eventually, they come out on the other side, just fine once again.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

I also have to wonder if there were differences between what was considered frightening for kids now as contrasted with Baum's time.