Welcome, dear readers, as ever.
Where do characters come from? Sometimes, it seems, out of the air. As Tolkien
wrote of Aragorn:
“So the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things along the way that astonished me. .. Strider sitting in the corner of the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea of who he was than had Frodo.” (a wonderfully interesting letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 216)
But even with such a surprise—and the letter goes on to detail more–Tolkien was always working with a deeper purpose, as we know from this familiar passage:
“The invention of language is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows it.” (“To the Houghton Mifflin Co.” nd, but sometime in mid-1955, Letters, 219)
Language needed speakers perhaps as much as stories needed characters.
Tolkien’s friend, C.S. Lewis,
had a different approach:
“One thing I am sure of. All my seven Narnia books, and my three science-fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen.” (“It All Began with a Picture” in Of Other Worlds, 67)
But recently I’ve been thinking about a somewhat earlier author, L. Frank Baum (1856-1919)
who once wrote:
“A lot of thought is required on one of these fairy tales. The odd characters are a sort of inspiration, liable to strike at any time, but the plot and plan of adventures takes me considerable time to develop. When I get at a thing of that sort I live with it day by day, jotting down on odd slips of paper the various ideas that occur and in this way getting my material together. The new Oz book is in this stage…But…it’s a long way from being ready for the printer yet. I must rewrite it, stringing the incidents into consecutive order, elaborating the characters, etc.” (letter to Sumner C. Britton, 23 January, 1916, quoted in M.P. Hearn, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, xxxvi-xxxvii)
The first of these Oz books was, of course, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900.
If you grew up with the 1939 musical movie,
before ever reading the original book, as I did, you were surprised to see just how different the two were, everything from the “ruby slippers”,
which were silver in the book,
to the whirlwind appearance and disappearance of the Wicked Witch of the West fairly early in the film.
In the book, she appears late—and it’s not only that there’s no appearance/disappearance, but also her actual appearance is so radically different.
One thing which hadn’t been fundamentally changed, however, were those four principal characters, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion,
even if their appearance had.
The bibliography on Baum and his books is huge, not to mention websites devoted to him and his works—the Oz Club link will show you one such, with tons of information about every facet of author and books: https://www.ozclub.org/ . There are also, as you can imagine, interpretations, from the literary to the Freudian and back, but I, for one, tend not to read such things, preferring to form my own opinion of what the author might intend.
In the case of Dorothy’s three main friends, they strike me as immediately falling into the standard folktale category of “animal/magic helpers”. The Lion
has always seemed the easiest to interpret—since antiquity, lions have always been a symbol of courage—why would Richard I of England (1157-1199) be “Richard the Lionheart” otherwise?
(This is the seal of Richard and it’s characteristic of the man, not much of a king perhaps, considering how little time he spent as monarch in England—maybe only 6 months, it is thought–but certainly a warrior.)
I think that we can imagine that Baum held the traditional view, but, by reversing it, we have a fresh character, who, at first, may seem a less than magical helper, since his reputation is based upon nothing more than his roar:
“I learned that if I roared very loudly every living thing was frightened and got out of my way.” (The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Chapter VI, 109)
Always the optimist, however, Dorothy says:
“You will be very welcome…for you will help to keep away the other wild beasts. It seems to me they must be more cowardly than you to scare them so easily.” (The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Chapter VI, 112)
We know that Tolkien very much resisted any symbolic or allegoric readings being attached to his work. As he once wrote:
“There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story. Allegory of the sort ‘five wizards=five senses’ is wholly foreign to my way of thinking. There were five wizards and that is just a unique part of history. To ask if the Orcs ‘are’ Communists is to me as sensible as asking if Communists are Orcs.” (letter to Herbert Schiro, 17 November, 1957, Letters, 262)
In the same letter, however, he goes on to say:
“That there is no allegory does not, of course, say there is no applicability. There always is.”
And I would use this as the basis of a possible interpretation of the other two “magical helpers”, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman.
If the Lion, usually understood to signify “Courage”, could be inverted initially to stand for “Cowardice”, I wonder if we might understand that, at some level, these two might signify two sides of the US at the turn of the century as Baum might have seen them.
The Industrial Revolution had come to the country as early as the young republic, first appearing in the Slater Mill, which harnessed water power to spin cotton thread, in 1793.
Throughout the 19th century, the northern US in particular was gradually moving towards a machine world, with railroads,
and bigger and bigger factories, driven by steam, rather than waterpower,
turning out identical items on assembly lines.
(This last is from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times and here’s the LINK to the whole scene which I think pretty much sums up the consequences of humans turned into parts of a machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giJ0YMaAc8s )
And so it might seem natural that one of the helpers is a kind of mechanical man, suggesting that industrial world which the US was fast becoming in 1900.
And perhaps it’s significant that he’s missing a heart?
Baum, although living most of his life in towns and cities, saw himself as coming from the other America, the agrarian world in which the country had begun and which, in 1900, much of the country still was.
Scarecrows were in every cornfield,
so they would have been a significant part of the landscape—if a creepy part, perhaps, to an imaginative boy:
“When I was a boy, I was tremendously interested in scarecrows. They always seemed to my childish imagination as just about to wave their arms, straighten up and stalk across the field on their long legs. I lived on a farm, you know. It was natural then, that my first character in this animated life series was the Scarecrow, on whom I have taken revenge for all the mystic feeling he once inspired.” (The Annotated Wizard of Oz, 64, quoting an interview in the North American, 3 October, 1904)
But, as the Tin Woodman is missing a heart, should we think about the fact that the Scarecrow is lacking brains?
I’m always wary to take such things too far after all, that’s just the sort of thing which I avoid reading —but, when we group the three together, we find one who says that he has no sense, one who has no emotions, and one who has no courage, and yet they all aspire to gain such, as if there is always the possibility for self-improvement.
We know that Tolkien, although he clearly enjoyed the story-making, also had the goal of giving his languages context and Lewis is pretty plain in saying that the Narnia books have a religious goal in the midst of the exciting narrative (see “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” in Of Other Worlds). Baum had seemingly no greater goal than entertainment, but, just like The Lord of the Rings, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a Quest.
Baum himself was a self-made man, having been everything from a dry goods store proprietor to a traveling salesman to a newspaper reporter to a dramatist to an expert on shop display windows before eventually becoming a very successful children’s book author. I don’t believe that he would have wanted to take this image too far, but could I at least suggest that we might see the possibility that, to Baum, American agriculture and industrialism each lack something, but perhaps, with the self-awareness that each of his characters possesses, combined with courage, they might—as in the book and the film—gain what they feel they are missing and become whole?
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Avoid aircraft vulnerable to gusts of wind
And know that, as always, there’s
In case you still don’t have your own copy of the original Oz book of 1900 with Denslow’s illustrations, here’s a LINK : https://archive.org/details/wonderfulwizardo00baumiala