When I thought of which book to start A Book A Day with, I was already inclined towards the stack of colourful ‘children’s books’ on my shelf: rediscovering fairytales is more than a nostalgic adulthood cliché, and there is such great joy in fishing out the beautiful editions my parents bought me when I was little, and to turn those page again, looking at the words and the illustrations with that brand of wonder that memory brings about – definitely one I didn’t have when I ‘signed’ the first page of every book I owned with a great deal of ceremony and self-importance.
Hunting for an article to read about The Wizard of Oz, I came across a long list of articles talking about Oz as a ‘satirical allegory of money and politics’, ‘a monetary allegory’, ‘a metaphor of for the political, economic and social events of America in the 1890s’ – and while all this was incredibly fascinating, it was also what I expected when it came to things to read about the story, and I was hoping to find something different.
A little more scrolling later, I found an article by Linda Hansen titled ‘Experiencing the World as Home: Reflections on Dorothy’s Quest in “The Wizard of Oz”, and it struck home. Here’s what Linda talks about in her paper: she starts with the idea of home as a metaphor at two levels, the first being an expression of psychological issues like family relationships, loneliness, etc, and the other being a point of reference for questions such as whether the world has some meaning, and what would be the way to lead life in attunement with that meaning. Yes, there is a clear religious overtone in her exploration of Oz’s themes, and Linda proceeds to look at Dora’s quest for return to Kansas, the other characters and their wishes: the Scarecrow for brains, the Tin Man for a heart, and the Cowardly Lion for courage, the Wizard of Oz and the four Witches, in the context of finding a ‘sacred’ purpose in the world and fulfilling the ‘essential religious task’ of making this world our home. The idea of ‘world’ and ‘home’, ‘reality’ and ‘dreams’, ‘reality’ and the ‘otherworld’, all of them play important roles in her discussion of Oz and Dorothy’s journey back to Kansas. Linda proposes that Dorothy is the one to reach Oz because she is the one who believes in its possibility amongst the ‘grayness’ of Kansas, Uncle Henry, and Aunty Em; it’s because she doesn’t feel ‘at home’ in Kansas that she needs to leave it, precisely so that she can return.
Even the desires of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, are important in the sense that having what they want will not make their life any simpler, and if there is a hint of complexity in the otherwise very stark lack of ‘free thought’ in the book, it is that they are all aware of this: the conversation between the Tin Man and the Scarecrow about brains vs heart, for instance, lends a dimension of ‘what-if?’ to the story that it otherwise doesn’t have. Through the course of their journey down the Yellow Brick Road, we see that the characters, in fact, keep exhibiting those very qualities they desire: the Tin Man cries profusely when he accidentally kills an insect, and it’s the Scarecrow who usually comes up with ideas on how to go on whenever they encounter an obstacle. Linda also talks about how Dorothy’s desire is quite different from the more abstract wishes of her companions: she just wants to ‘go back home to Kansas’; she says Dorothy’s quest is not only a return to Kansas, but a quest of seeking home, which is underlined by the fact that she wears the ruby slippers that will take her back throughout the story, but it is only in the end, that she discovers this, after she has developed a capacity to be ‘at home’ in Kansas, growing through the story with her companions just as they have grown with her.
In the article, Linda talks about the famous 1939 film adaptation of Oz starring Judy Garland too, and the changes made in the story, like the representation of Oz as a dream Dorothy was having, rather than an actual place she visited (like it is in the book). I love this line by Linda when she explains how she came to terms with this decision: ‘(In the movie)…Oz only seems unreal if we dismiss the “reality” of dreams.’ For Linda, Dorothy’s quest of being at ‘home’ is a religious journey of sorts, of belonging and having a sense of purpose in the place where we are, and her problem with Oz’s representation as ‘otherworldly’ is her general problem with religion pointing to an ‘other’ world for joy and pleasure. For Linda, then, Dorothy’s task is making Kansas and Oz one, of finding her belief in Oz’s beauty in Kansas.
Reading Linda’s article was interesting, because unlike the whole economic-allegory interpretation work on The Wizard of Oz, her opinions and theorization are as removed from a direct historical context of Oz as any academic work could be, (which isn’t much, but well). While she does add a disclaimer in the beginning, of finding meanings and explanations in Baum’s story which might surprise him, I still found it a little too wayward to attach such strong meanings to Oz, especially since I found it oddly limited in its scope for interpretation when it comes to the kind of richness we’ve come to expect from children’s tales. The violence in The Wizard of Oz has been talked about before, and it does seem chilly to think of how readily Dorothy accepts murder and death. If I think of it, though, it isn’t like the evil witches of our favourite fairytales didn’t ‘die’ when they vanish in poofs of smoke; perhaps it is the ‘modernized fairytale’ Baum says he aims Oz is that make the violence unseemly, which is a contradiction I can’t resolve since his definition of ‘modernized fairytale’ is ‘one in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.’
Like so many stories, I don’t remember exactly how I ‘always knew’ of the Wizard of Oz – it’s a story I never owned as a child, and I don’t have a distinct memory of reading it, but somehow, I remembered the Wizard being an old man, the cyclone sweeping Dorothy away from Kansas to Oz – I think Oz is why I can never think of Kansas without thinking of dust. There’s a lot of comparison between C. S. Lewis and Frank Baum in articles online, and I did think of Lewis when I was reading Linda Hansen’s religious take on Oz, but in the story itself, I saw more of a Lewis Carol sense of nonsensical liberation. The Wizard of Oz is an uncomfortable story, but I love it because of the images it left me with – the silver shoes, the Tin Man who wants a heart, the Emerald City, the Wicked Witches, the Winged Monkeys, the Yellow Brick Road, of Kansas, and of dust.
(I also love this edition of The Wizard of Oz, it’s a re-issue edition by Puffin Classics, and the entire series is beautiful and true to the text of the original stories.)