St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

These Things Must Be Done Delicately

Three Hammer-Heads

I’ve often told my friends what I think of L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) — that Dorothy and her friends are cold-blooded murderers, and that the novel is is a litany of crimes committed by and against them. People must enjoy the assassination of a children’s classic because I keep getting asked for my notes on the novel. The time finally came to write them up properly and post them for all to enjoy. I am slightly embarrassed by how long this article turned out to be, but all I can do is address the events that happen in the book. There is just that much murder in this story, and no amount of good intentions and hand-waving can make it go away.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz seems like a strange target to set your sights on. It’s a much-loved children’s classic which spawned decades of sequels. Baum created such a rich world that people are still writing new Oz books to this day. It inspired one of the most famous movies of all time and still has such a popular following that there are half a dozen regular Oz conventions around the United States. The novel has held up so well that it has even attracted more complex literary criticism and interpretations. Most famously, these include reading the novel as an allegory for the Populist movement in the 1890s (the Yellow Brick Road is the gold standard, etc.)

The novel strikes me as too simplistic to support any really heavy alternative readings. It was L. Frank Baum’s stated intention to write a straightforward fairytale whose only purpose is to delight children rather than preach to them. The introduction to the novel is so short — and so important — that it’s worth reproducing the thing in its entirety.

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for 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. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, 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.

L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900.

This is certainly the level on which the novel makes the most sense, and I have never been convinced that Baum included any deeper meaning than this. Telling a fun story, innocent of horror, is an admirable enough goal. But is that what Baum actually did? Unfortunately not. Instead of leaving out the “heartaches and nightmares”, Baum has included them in the story and given them a warped moral justification. He turns his back on the horror in his novel and refuses to acknowledge that the events taking place have serious, even horrific, consequences for the characters and the world of Oz. The result is not a fairytale but a catalog of violence, callousness and torture that is fed to children without any redeeming moral.

The novel begins with Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City. This portion of the novel seems designed to convince us what good people Dorothy and her friends are. Of course the first act of life and death occurs when Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch of the East, and Dorothy makes sure to tell us how much this accident appalls her: “‘Oh, dear! Oh, dear!’ cried Dorothy, clasping her hands together in dismay. ‘The house must have fallen on her. Whatever shall we do?’” The Tin Woodman also gives us a show of his great sensitivity when he accidentally steps on a beetle: “This made the Tin Woodman very unhappy, for he was always careful not to hurt any living creature; and as he walked along he wept several tears of sorrow and regret.” The novel’s characters are falling over each other to tell us how nice they are. It does not take long for this pretense to ring hollow.

The first thing to jolt me out of Baum’s “fairy tale” was the summary execution of the Wildcat beside the field of poppies:

The Tin Woodman was about to reply when he heard a low growl, and turning his head (which worked beautifully on hinges) he saw a strange beast come bounding over the grass toward them. It was, indeed, a great yellow Wildcat, and the Woodman thought it must be chasing something, for its ears were lying close to its head and its mouth was wide open, showing two rows of ugly teeth, while its red eyes glowed like balls of fire. As it came nearer the Tin Woodman saw that running before the beast was a little gray field mouse, and although he had no heart he knew it was wrong for the Wildcat to try to kill such a pretty, harmless creature.

So the Woodman raised his axe, and as the Wildcat ran by he gave it a quick blow that cut the beast’s head clean off from its body, and it rolled over at his feet in two pieces.

It wasn’t just the suddenness of this act that surprised me, or even its violent nature, but the awful way that the Tin Woodman spontaneously decides to take capital punishment into his own hands. Without hesitating for a single second, the Woodman decides to execute the Wildcat, who is probably just trying to catch his dinner. It’s true that the mouse can talk, and so killing it would constitute murder, but then consider that all the animals in Oz can talk, bar none. What does that tell us about the novel’s carnivores? How can we satisfy ourselves that their diets aren’t murder? The only real reference in the novel to a carnivore’s food is that of the Cowardly Lion, who “went away into the forest and found his own supper, and no one ever knew what it was, for he didn’t mention it.” Nor does Baum, who seems content to leave the grisly subject at that. Can it be okay to execute the Wildcat but not the Lion? How can one be guilty and the other innocent? This thread only gets worse the more you tug on it. The Munchkins are farmers, so do they raise animals for food like cows and chickens? Do we read this as institutional genocide, torture, or merely a horrific program of eugenics?

The Woodman’s execution of the Wildcat isn’t only important as the first murder of the novel — it is also a fine example of the one-sided argument. In a capital trial you wouldn’t dream of only listening to the prosecution, and yet the Woodman doesn’t even stop to consider that there might be two sides to what he saw. You might also remember the Wicked Witch of the East, whose sudden death by house is the first of many one-sided trials. The Witch of the North tells Dorothy that the Witch of the East “has held all the Munchkins in bondage for many years, making them slave for her night and day.” This reasoning justifies her manslaughter in a way that wouldn’t work if the house had landed on, say, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. From the way everyone talks about the Wicked Witch as a slave-driver, you might expect all the Munchkins to live like pyramid workers. Instead they have the most beautiful, lush and colorful country Dorothy has ever seen. We never see a shred of evidence that Munchkin Country resembles the Shire after Sauron has blazed through, which is what you’d expect after decades of slavery. Evidently this story has two sides, but Baum declines to tell us the Wicked Witch’s story. He is satisfied to find her guilty posthumously.

The incident with the Wildcat is also echoed later in the book when Dorothy and her friends wander into a forest on their way to visit Glinda. A tiger tells the Cowardly Lion that a monstrous spider has been terrorizing the forest: “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 does a fly.” Our crew find the spider sleeping and, before stopping to hear another side to the story, the Lion severs its head from its body. I don’t even know where to start here, so the perversion of justice seemed as good a place as any. We have witnessed yet another one-sided trial and summary execution. But what exactly was the spider’s crime? It went around eating people? Then what the hell does the tiger do all day? Are we supposed to believe he sits at home pressing posies between the pages of Little Women?

Even as the body count begins to rise, Dorothy still gets moments where she is almost redeemed. When the Great Oz commands her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy’s first instinct is to break down in tears, protesting, “I’ve never killed anything, willingly”. However that doesn’t get her off the hook. Dorothy keeps company with some obviously blood-thirsty people and she can’t feign ignorance forever. And Dorothy herself is hardly just an accessory1. First off she ignores what is obviously another one-sided argument. The Wizard, with his big green head and kill-happy demands, is hardly the star witness at a capital trial. Then when it comes to actually killing the Witch, Dorothy goes straight for the bucket of water. In the film version they had enough sense to make the Witch provoke Dorothy — giving her an hour to live, taunting her with the face of her aunt, and finally setting the Scarecrow on fire — and even then Dorothy only kills the Witch by trying to extinguish the Scarecrow. In the novel, however, all the Witch does is ask Dorothy to do the washing up. Dorothy then gets so upset she lays hands on a bucket of water and drenches the Wicked Witch.

At the point where all the characters set out to kill the Witch, each and every one of them cries innocent. They are, in turn, too innocent, too cowardly, too stupid and too sensitive to kill anyone — right before they march into the biggest massacre of the novel. When the Wicked Witch spots what amounts to an invasion force entering her country, the Witch sends her armies against them. She sends 40 wolves, 40 crows and a swarm of bees (sentient bees — see above) to repel the invaders, and Dorothy’s friends manage to kill them all2. Remember these aren’t dumb animals. Every one of them can talk.

Outside of murder, the novel raises any number of philosophical and ethical problems which it declines to address. Let’s take the Scarecrow. He can talk. He is a sentient scarecrow who, just like all the animals in Oz, appears to be a person in his own right. The novel never reveals whether the Scarecrow is unique in this regard, or whether all scarecrows are sentient. If it’s all scarecrows, then these people are routinely being nailed to posts and left to hang in the middle of a field for years on end. The Munchkin farmers would appear to be some kind of torture-loving slave-drivers who enjoy impaling people and letting them get picked at by birds. But Baum never makes it clear whether the Scarecrow is unique, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt on this one and suppose that the Scarecrow must have come to life in a freak accident.

The Scarecrow gets dismembered twice in Chapter 12, which would hurt enough to drive any human out of their mind. We can at least console ourselves that the Scarecrow does not feel pain: “If anyone treads on my toes or sticks a pin into me, it doesn’t matter, for I can’t feel it.” But the Scarecrow’s deaths and resurrections raise some interesting questions. Where does he go when he is disassembled? Is he consciously looking out from his deflated head? Does his disembodied soul float around in the air waiting to get its body back? Or does the Scarecrow go to some limbo, Hell or afterlife where he wallows until somebody puts him back together? In short, where is the Scarecrow’s consciousness? I will say that it cannot be in his straw because that gets completely replaced several times3. The Scarecrow’s consciousness must therefore be in his clothes. But what does that even mean? Would he be a completely different person if he changed his socks? The metaphysical implications of “clothes maketh the man” could drive a person round the twist.

I’ll finish on the Tin Woodman. What a bastard. Not only is he the primary instrument of the novel’s slaughter, but he is also the man who jilts his loving fiancée. This is a man who believes he has lost the ability to love his girlfriend, who has been pining away with unrequited love for him. The whole reason he sets out to see the Wizard is to get a heart with which to love her. As it turns out the Woodman has had a heart all along. He is sensitive enough to cry after stepping on a beetle, and the purpose of his journey to the Emerald City is to let him discover that he already has a heart. What this means is he simply stopped loving his girlfriend on his own. Even then, having got a “heart” from the Great Oz, you’d think he might go say hello to his girl. But what’s the first thing he does? He becomes the king of the Winkies, an obscure tribe of people on the other side of the country! He must really have hated his old lady.

Now it’s fair to say that Dorothy isn’t behind the majority of these crimes — the Tin Woodman is probably the most trigger-happy of the fellowship. However Dorothy’s complicity makes her, at the very least, an accomplice to murder. You can’t be best friends with Pol Pot and claim it’s only for the lively backgammon nights. And let’s not forget that Dorothy has two manslaughters on her hands — the Wicked Witch of the East and the Wicked Witch of the West. To kill one witch may be considered an accident, but to kill both begins to look like murder.

What’s upsetting about this novel isn’t the fact that Dorothy and her friends commit murder. It’s the fact that Baum doesn’t provide any moral compass. I wouldn’t care if Dorothy burnt Glinda at the stake, so long as it’s demonstrably a bad thing to do. I read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked a few years ago, and having read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz now I can see why Maguire felt like he had enough latitude to tell the novel from another point of view. Baum might have had good intentions, but he just didn’t write the novel he set out to. Instead of a kids’ book, we’ve wound up with a horror show. And I don’t mind horror shows. Actually I love getting scared by a goodly amount of suspense and splatter (lately The Fly (1986) springs to mind). But you wouldn’t countenance showing a horror movie to a six-year-old, nor would you go around touting The Fly as a children’s classic. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz needs to be recategorized, either as a horror show for adults or a warped and failure-ridden children’s book. In view of the tone of the novel, it’s hard for me to see my way to calling it a book for adults. The only way I can rightly read this novel is as a children’s book that is so reprehensible you should never allow it near anyone under the age of ten.

Notes


  1. It’s worth noting that the Lion is the first member of the fellowship to suggest that they actually go kill the Witch. Dorothy seconds the motion. 

  2. The actual rap sheet looks like this: the Tin Woodman kills the 40 wolves; the Scarecrow kills the 40 crows; and, in the Woodman’s defence, the bees expend their stings on the him and promptly die on their own. Each time Dorothy rises to find a mountain of mangled corpses. 

  3. Chapter 11, shortly before setting out to kill the Witch and Chapter 13, when the Winkies revive him. 

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