Published 31 October 2022
While it was not the first, the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz has proven the most enduring and popular adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s original novel. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published thirty-nine years prior to the release of that film. To be frank (pun intended), I find the movie boring. I assume it is popular because it was a special effects extravaganza for 1939. Baum’s novel, in contrast, is an inspiration to me for its incorporation of lush and extensive artwork by W. W. Denslow with the text. My copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz sits proudly on my shelves of classic literature.
I am not writing about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz today, however. It only recently occurred to me that I should read a few of the other books in the series. Baum himself wrote at least fifteen Oz books in total. He seems to have been hesitant to pursue the endeavor. But money is a powerful motivator. When the second Oz novel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, proved another hit, Baum, like a certain man named Arthur Conan Doyle who continued his Sherlock Holmes stories despite being averse to doing so, committed to writing more bizarre modern fairy tales set in this magical world.
My copy of The Marvelous Land of Oz is the William Morrow & Company 1985 reprinting of the 1904 original, a high-quality hardcover book that faithfully reproduces the large text and the illustrations that flavor almost every other page. The color drawings feature their own glossy pages, which disrupts the aesthetic of the book as a physical object but ensures the highest possible quality for the drawings themselves. Most of the illustrations are line drawings without color.
The later Oz books brought back Dorothy by popular demand (according to Baum). However, The Marvelous Land of Oz keeps the action in the titular magical region, or “fairy country” as Dorothy calls it in the sequel, no isekai involved. The protagonist is a young boy named Tip who lives in the country of the Gillikin people with a mean old sorceress—not a witch, for bureaucratic reasons—named Mombi. The story begins with Mombi out buying a life-bestowing powder from a shady wizard. A series of events leads to Tip running away from home with a terrifying but friendly living mannequin named Jack Pumpkinhead and a similarly living Saw-Horse that can gallop at rapid speeds. Tip and his friends become entangled with political intrigue after General Jinjur and the Army of Revolt overthrow the Scarecrow and seize the Emerald City, later bringing Mombi aboard as a royal advisor. Along the way, like Dorothy, Tip becomes a member of a bizarre group of travelers. The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman (real name Nick Chopper) are well known from Dorothy’s adventures, both in the universe of the fiction and in the world you and I inhabit. But the aforementioned Pumpkinhead, the pun-slinging Woggle-Bug, and the wobbly but indefatigable Saw-Horse also join Tip on his journey. The Pumpkinhead’s presence is also my justification for posting this on Halloween.
In the original novel, Denslow’s illustrations are as pivotal to the story as the text, to the extent that he shared the copyright with Baum. However, Baum and Denslow parted ways during the four years that passed between The Wonderful Wizard and The Marvelous Land. The new illustrator, John R. Neill, would handle the artwork for the remainder of the series and even wrote a few Oz books of his own. Fortunately, Neill continues the strong color themes of Denslow’s drawings: green is associated with the Emerald City and its territory, yellow with the Winkie country of the west (that famous Wicked Witch is not really green), red with Glinda and the Quadlings of the south, blue with the Munchkins of the east, and purple with the Gillikins of the north. Occasionally, Neill conflicts with Baum, such as depicting Jinjur smiling imperiously to the Guardian of the Gate (page 90) when the text is clear that she is scowling: “‘Surrender instantly!’ answered General Jinjur, standing before him and frowning as terribly as her pretty face would allow her to” (91).
Neill’s drawings are of a more realistic style than Denslow’s rather eerie cartoons. But the solid linework makes for highly attractive illustrations more interesting than the text. I sometimes wonder about the rationale behind giving certain scenes full-color illustrations. These should be used like prerendered cutscenes in a PS1 video game, punctuating pivotal moments. Sometimes they do, but other times they seem chosen almost at random. Never fear, for Neill’s drawings might be scarier than Denslow’s.
Neill loves emphasizing that the Scarecrow is, indeed, a scarecrow, straw protruding from the seams, his expression never changing, and his fingers and limbs pointing at angles that would imply devastating pain for a human. Neill lovingly illustrates Baum’s descriptions of the Scarecrow, among other things, having his straw removed for the Winkies to wash his skin in the laundry.
I mentioned that Jack Pumpkinhead is terrifying. Indeed, Tip builds him to scare Mombi. However, the characters react positively to his smile and empty eyes. The frequency with which Jack’s body breaks, his limbs twist and swivel at alarming angles, and the repeated allusions to his inevitable rapid death when his head soon rots are played for laughs. Baum and Neill seem to intend this walking nightmare to be cute and comical! There might be a moral here about not judging people on their appearance because Jack is a sweetheart. Really, most of the crew is frightening at a glance. (Compare that to the 1939 film explicitly teaching that ugly people are evil.)
The writing style is also somewhat changed. Baum’s prose in The Wonderful Wizard is simple, as befits a children’s fairy tale, but in The Marvelous Land the sentences struck me as a drop more complex. In addition, the material is somewhat more grownup and slathers on more jokes and witty repartee:
“My friend is right,” said Nick Chopper, who had been polishing his breast with a bit of chamois-leather. “Jinjur is still the Queen, and we are her prisoners.”
“But I hope she cannot get at us,” exclaimed the Pumpkinhead, with a shiver of fear. “She threatened to make tarts of me, you know.”
“Don’t worry,” said the Tin Woodman. “It cannot matter greatly. If you stay shut up here you will spoil in time, anyway. A good tart is far more admirable than a decayed intellect.” [Note the double entendre: “tart” is a rude word for a promiscuous woman.]
“Very true,” agreed the Scarecrow.
“Oh, dear!” moaned Jack; “what an unhappy lot is mine! Why, dear father, did you not make me out of tin—or even out of straw—so that I would keep indefinitely.”
“Shucks!” returned Tip, indignantly. “You ought to be glad that I made you at all.” Then he added, reflectively, “everything has to come to an end, some time.”
“But I beg to remind you,” broke in the Woggle-Bug, who had a distressed look in his bulging, round eyes, “that this terrible Queen Jinjur suggested making a goulash of me—Me! the only Highly Magnified and Thoroughly Educated Woggle-Bug in the wide, wide world!”
“I think it was a brilliant idea,” remarked the Scarecrow, approvingly.
“Don’t you imagine he would make a better soup?” asked the Tin Woodman, turning toward his friend.
“Well, perhaps,” acknowledged the Scarecrow. (182–183)
The characters are mean in this scene. 😅
Baum narrates the action in a more detailed and complex way than the simple, folktale-like adventures of the previous novel. Compare the whole chapter devoted to the battle against only the jackdaws in The Marvelous Land to the less than one chapter devoted to the battles against the Wicked Witch of the West’s wolves, crows, bees, Winkie slave soldiers, and Winged Monkeys in the previous novel.
In an afterword, Peter Glassman suggests this is heightened theatricality, reflecting that Baum wrote The Marvelous Land specifically to adapt it for the stage. This would explain why Baum devotes so many words to describing the Army of Revolt’s colorful uniforms. Baum may have imagined them being performed by Broadway chorus girls. This also explains the prominence and vaudevillian antics of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman. These characters were popular for their humorous portrayals in the 1902 musical The Wizard of Oz, a precursor to the 1939 film, to the extent that that Baum dedicated The Marvelous Land to Fred A. Stone and David C. Montgomery, the comedians who played them. Baum was just writing what he meant to be their next role. Though the novel proved a success, the stage adaptation underperformed, perhaps because he for some reason entitled it The Woggle-Bug, which is about the same as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace being entitled Jar Jar Binks.
The general rule is that Baum’s writing in The Marvelous Land goes into much more detail than in The Wonderful Wizard. The greater elaboration is, for instance, why the many occasions the Scarecrow is skinned and gutted in various forms seem more disturbing here than in similar scenes of that more famous predecessor. There is a decent amount of violence, as well, with no fewer that two instances of eyes being threatened with sharp, piercing points, and Tip being stabbed by one of Jinjur’s soldiers.
The Oz novels are early examples of fantasy worldbuilding as readers today would understand it. Whereas Tolkien approached this matter with weight and care, for Baum the effort is more slapdash, yielding, perhaps, more bizarre and idiosyncratic creations. In The Marvelous Land, Dorothy’s adventures are treated as a legendary and momentous chain of events with profound political ramifications. They would be, were they to have happened in a real series of countries, but it is strange (and awesome) for Baum to recontextualize fairy tale adventures as shaking up politics and destabilizing society. This also results in Tip’s exposition to Jack hilariously implying Kansas is an exotic land. The Scarecrow is now the king of the Emerald City, the crown sewn to his head, though its weight causes his face to sag. The Tin Woodman, meanwhile, has become the uncontested dictator and self-proclaimed Emperor of the Winkies. Being the character with the most compassion, he is, I would hope, nicer to them than the Wicked Witch, yet it is disquieting to see the Tin Woodman no longer a tragic lumberjack but leading a lifestyle of extreme luxury as a self-identified “Absolute Monarch” (285).
The story is more morally ambiguous than in the previous novel. There are still clear antagonists and clear protagonists, but the villains Mombi and especially General Jinjur are no longer literal beasts or slave-driving Wicked Witches, and the protagonists, as I have suggested, are of rather dubious goodness. The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman are both dictators and bumbling doofuses. While friendly, the Scarecrow is acknowledged to have unjustly stolen the throne (which the Wizard also unjustly stole with Mombi’s assistance). He also apparently presides over some alarming laws, such as one that sentences those who damage a certain palm tree to death seven times (194). Still naïve to a point of tragedy, neither the Scarecrow nor Tin Woodman have realized that the Wizard was a fraudster or that they were already wise and kind without his ersatz magic. The powerful Glinda the Good—whose name is literally “the Good”—is imperiously carried around by twelve servants in a palanquin (248), has an international spy network (242), threatens death on her enemies (alarming the Tin Woodman), and is confirmed to have inherited some of the Wicked Witch’s slaves: “the Winged Monkeys are now the slaves of Glinda the Good,” as the Scarecrow tells Tip and Jack (117).
In addition, Tip raises some troubling questions in the way he uses the magic powder to bring life to various beings. To begin with, he steals it from Mombi, who though cruel is a poor old woman who has just purchased it. Whereas before Baum could allow the Scarecrow to be a living being with no explanation, now Baum considers in detail what it means for Jack Pumpkinhead, the Saw-Horse, and the Gump to spring to life and explores the implications of their existence. There is discussion of their inability to eat and feel physical sensations and the uncertainty of their continued survival. Tip never seems particularly concerned.
The Gump, also called the Thing, is particularly disturbing: it is the severed head of an elk-like animal mounted on the wall and then brought back to life with a body made out of two couches, a broom, palm leaves, and some string. The animal is conscious that it used to be alive before a hunter suddenly shot it and finds its new condition bleak and hopeless. In the ending, its only wish is to die: “I did not wish to be brought to life, and I am greatly ashamed of my conglomerate personality. Once I was a monarch of the forest, as my antlers fully prove; but now, in my present upholstered condition of servitude, I am compelled to fly through the air—my legs being of no use to me whatever. Therefore I beg to be dispersed” (284). However, though they disassemble his body, the characters prove unable to return this tortured animal to the grave. This is what the “good guys” do? It is not that they are villainous or cruel, but they seem somehow less than heroic.
Mombi and General Jinjur make for somewhat strange villains themselves. Physically, the Wicked Witch of the 1939 movie, with her dark robes, hat, stature, and pointed noise and chin, seems to be based more on Mombi than Baum and Denslow’s one-eyed queen of the Country of the Winkies. But unlike that witch, Mombi is a pivotal ally of the Wonderful Wizard. This introduces moral gray because the Wizard, while a conman and liar, is generally friendly in the book that bears his name. And unlike either interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West, Baum describes Mombi with a degree of ambiguity:
“[T]he Gillikin people had reason to suspect her of indulging in magical arts, and therefore hesitated to associate with her” (7).
“Mombi’s curious magic often frightened her neighbors, and they treated her shyly, yet respectfully, because of her weird powers. But yet Tip frankly hated her, and took no pains to hide his feelings. Indeed, he sometimes showed less respect for the old woman than he should have done, considering she was his guardian” (9).
Not a vicious dictator, Mombi is a strange, isolated old woman who lives in a farmhouse. Unlike last time, the dictators are the heroes. While Mombi is cruel to Tip, he gives it as good as he takes. The dynamic is totally different from the Wicked Witch, a tyrant who enslaves Dorothy and her friends. Baum also allows Mombi to display sincere, endearing joy over her magic, and he revels in describing the wonderful liberation of her transformative powers, which allow her to switch from old woman to little girl to rose to shadow to ant to griffin. (It reminds me of a scene of even more bonkers transformations from the One Thousand and One Nights.)
Despite Mombi’s general nastiness, I felt sorry for her when Glinda gives her the choice to be executed or to lose all her magic forever. “Then I would become a helpless old woman!” says Mombi (268). I wanted Mombi to escape! I wanted to cheer for this modest rogue, against the lawful good sociopath ultra-rich queen Glinda who sits around on a golden throne and hates transformations. In contrast, the Wicked Witch of the West had her death coming and completely earned her title (at least in Baum’s version of the story). Baum agrees, at least to the extent that Mombi both survives and apparently receives a stipend to live on from Queen Ozma.
(The Mombi in Return to Oz is largely based on Langwidere from the third Oz novel, Ozma of Oz.)
General Jinjur and the Army of Revolt are the most overtly political aspect of the plot. Jinjur is a beautiful young girl—young enough that she is living with her mother doing chores, anyway—who unites the women of all the countries of Oz to overthrow the Scarecrow.
“May I ask why you wish to conquer His Majesty the Scarecrow?” Tip asks her. She responds, “Because the Emerald City has been ruled by men long enough, for one reason[. …] Moreover, the City glitters with beautiful gems, which might far better be used for rings, bracelets and necklaces; and there is enough money in the King’s treasury to buy every girl in our Army a dozen new gowns. So we intend to conquer the City and run the government to suit ourselves” (86–87).
From the start, Baum employs various sexist tropes with Jinjur and her forces. They are totally frivolous, treating war as a game. Their weapons are knitting needles, they do not know how to govern, and their main motive is that they are lazy, want jewelry and new clothes, and want to sit around eating sweets all day. The text emphasizes that the women are pretty, so men will never hurt them (if only that were all it took), giving them an advantage. When the army surrounds Tip and his friends, the Scarecrow temporarily drives them away by sending mice running at them, mice being something that all women are terrified of, as we all know. After Tip, the Scarecrow, Jack, and the Saw-Horse escape the Emerald City the first time and return with the Tin Woodman, they discover that gender roles have been inverted so that the men are stuck doing domestic labor while the women sit around idly chatting. The claim that men have run the Emerald City for too long is only a pretext. Jinjur reveals her true motive in counsel with Mombi: “[I]t is so aristocratic to be a Queen that I do not wish to be obliged to return home again, to make beds and wash dishes for my mother” (251).
Jinjur and her army are a teasing caricature of feminists and the suffragette movement gaining momentum in Baum’s day. Because treating women as humans was so unthinkably shocking to insecure dunderheads, conservatives at the time would caricature feminists as seeking a world where women took men’s roles (such as having lives, I suppose), and men were stuck in women’s (implicitly acknowledging that women had a raw deal). Baum directly copies this. Most insulting of all is the equation of women seeking rights with whiny, incompetent children demanding they be allowed to eat fudge all day. In the end, upon Jinjur’s defeat, even the women rejoice because they secretly want to be domestic servants: “At once the men of the Emerald City cast off their aprons. And it is said that the women were so tired eating of their husbands’ cooking that they all hailed the conquest of Jinjur with joy. Certain it is that, rushing one and all to the kitchens of their houses, the good wives prepared so delicious a feast for the weary men that harmony was immediately restored in every family” (283).
However, General Jinjur is by no means evil, despite proving a capable opponent. In her first scene, she gives food to the starving Tip, hardly a villainous act. The text enjoys the glamor of her dress and boldness. While, beside Mombi, it is clear that she is a girl in over her head, Jinjur also disproves reductive stereotypes through her own bravery, ability to organize the Army of Revolt, and success at overthrowing the men. Even in his anti-feminist mockery, Baum acknowledges that women’s work is tough. “I’m glad you have decided to come back and restore order,” says one of the men doing domestic labor, “for doing housework and minding the children is wearing out the strength of every man in the Emerald City.” The brainy Scarecrow answers, “If it is such hard work as you say, how did the women manage it so easily?” The husband is left to suggest women are made of cast-iron (170–171). Baum also avoids the cruelest misogyny of contemporary conservative caricature that imagined feminists as hateful, “ugly” spinsters because The Marvelous Land portrays the Army of Revolt and their leader as young women so beautiful and whimsically fun that Baum and Neill seem to adore them.
Baum further disproves this reductive sexism by having Jinjur lose not to the male hero or any of his male friends but to Queen Ozma. The Army of Revolt loses to Glinda’s army, which is also comprised entirely of women but is portrayed as competent and able without any irony: “But these soldiers of the great Sorceress [Glinda] were entirely different from those of Jinjur’s Army of Revolt, although they were likewise girls. For Glinda’s soldiers wore neat uniforms and bore swords and spears; and they marched with a skill and precision that proved them well trained in the arts of war” (237).
Moreover, in both The Wonderful Wizard and The Marvelous Land, all the most powerful, reliable, and capable characters, both good and evil, are girls: Dorothy, Ozma, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, the Wicked Witches, Mombi, and Jinjur. For comparison, take the Emerald City’s previous figures of power: the Wonderful Wizard is a weak conman from Omaha who stole the throne (and only with the female Mombi’s assistance), the army is a single old man who is scared of women, and the Scarecrow is a clownish ruler who gets made a fool of by a little girl (who wears lettuce on her shoes) in the funniest scene in the novel. The lesson might be that Jinjur is wrong because she inverts the relationship of oppression, whereas Ozma is right because she wants women and men to have equal rights. Many aspects of The Marvelous Land defy simple interpretation.
In the real world, Baum supported women’s rights and was related to the activist Matilda Joslyn Gage. To quote one source: “Baum’s choice of a girl instead of a boy for this central role [that is, for Dorothy] is significant in several respects. Many of the rulers and protagonists in Oz were female. In addition to Dorothy and Glinda, later books introduce Ozma and Lurline, both benevolent rulers. Frank Baum was committed to the cause of women’s rights. Both his wife and mother-in-law campaigned for women’s suffrage. […] As the editor of the Saturday Pioneer, Baum published political tracts written by his mother-in-law, and the paper endorsed women’s suffrage in South Dakota” (Gretchen Ritter, 178). This accounts for the frequency of powerful and capable girls and women in his fiction. At risk of leaving you with too positive an impression, I will remind you that Baum was also a racist who advocated genocide.
Jinjur’s wish for a girl to rule the Emerald City comes true. The Scarecrow repeatedly indicates he would prefer not to be the king, and the characters grant that Jinjur has just as much right to the throne as he does, as both came to power illegally. The Wizard somehow took over after the death of the previous monarch, Pastoria. In the most shocking twist of the novel, it turns out that Tip is Pastoria’s long-lost heir, Princess Ozma, whom Mombi has magically turned into a boy!
At first, Tip rejects his birth identity as a girl. Glinda tells him, “[Y]ou were born a girl, and also a Princess; so you must resume your proper form, that you may become Queen of the Emerald City.” Tip replies, “I want to stay a boy, and travel with the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman, and the Woggle-Bug, and Jack—yes! and my friend the Saw-Horse—and the Gump! I don’t want to be a girl!” (272). However, the Tin Woodman and Scarecrow assure Tip that girls are just as good as boys—another intriguing interaction with the Army of Revolt plot—and Mombi performs a vividly described ritual to turn him into a girl. Although Tip has changed into “a young girl, fresh and beautiful as a May morning” (276), she reassures her friends she is still the same person she always was, only different. The ending has Ozma arrest (and forgive) Jinjur and then live out her days perfectly happy. It is as if a boy would have failed before Jinjur, so Tip has to become Ozma so that Jinjur’s dream of a society led by a woman can come true.
In effect, The Marvelous Land of Oz is a fantastical coming-of-age story where a young, irresponsible boy matures into a powerful girl. I am tempted to call this a transgender narrative! Because it is. So that is what they meant by going over the rainbow. However, Ozma’s enchanted transition is not an affirmation of identity but almost the opposite: Ozma is AFAB and forced to return to girlhood even though there is no obvious reason this is necessary to rule the Emerald City. On the other hand, Ozma has no idea she began as female until Mombi reveals the truth of her conspiracy with the Wizard, so Ozma might as well have begun as a boy. Yet others seem to read the story as a metaphor for a trans girl AMAB who has to rediscover her true nature, which was evident from the start but concealed from her. In any case, there was a happy gender transition story in a popular American children’s novel at the turn of the previous century. I found a blog that calls Ozma a “transgender icon.” I would prefer more space devoted to this aspect of the protagonist than to the Woggle-Bug being unfunny and long battles against story-irrelevant birds. Taken together, the gender politics are surprisingly messy and interesting.
It is this cumulative strangeness and many tensions that render The Marvelous Land of Oz fresh, or rather alien—they don’t write fantasy novels like this anymore. However, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is no less weird, its ideas about a tornado flinging a Kansas girl’s house onto a wicked witch in a land of little people and magic slippers and a talking scarecrow and so on normalized only through their popularity. I dislike the 1939 Oz movie not only because I find it boring (and not only because of harm actors sustained on set) but because it sanitizes the creativity and unsettling ideas and implications of the source material. The Tin Woodman chops zero animals apart with his ax in the Hollywood version, I’ll tell you that much. Reading this novel’s more obscure sequel, I am able to appreciate Baum’s inventiveness with an unspoiled mind.
When I read the third novel of the series, Ozma of Oz, I will post about it here on mackerelphones.com.