Published 24 February 2023
Since October, I have been writing about L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels, beginning from the less familiar second installment. They have almost no connection to the better-known 1939 musical, which already shaved the edge and personality off Baum’s work. I recommend readers of this post not familiar with the Oz books check out my earlier articles first. The Emerald City, in particular, follows up the plot of Ozma of Oz. If this post might be easier for you to share there, you can also find it on Tumblr.
At last, I reach the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz, the grand finale (or not). In addition, The Emerald City serves as a thematic capstone and statement of the series’ overall values with some interesting political implications, as I will explore in a second post, “The Politics of Oz.” Putting these considerations here would make this post so lopsided it would lose balance and tumble off the countertop. Writing is taking longer than I intended. I have yet to post the Kamui essay I promised in my video about The Silver Case and am already in the middle of multiple other projects and am making no money off this (unless you donate to my Ko-Fi 🥺). For these reasons, I am a fool to add another task to the to-do list. Even so, if this political essay comes out well, I’ll post it to this website and put a link to it here. If it does not come out well, then you never heard me mention it.
The original 1910 printing of The Emerald City of Oz used sparkly, metallic green ink in John R. Neill’s many lush water color illustrations. Is it supposed to be emerald? Subsequent runs of The Emerald City removed this feature, something like the later printings of The Road to Oz dropped the colored pages, removing what made the book unique. However, as with the previous installment, my Books of Wonder edition restores this feature for the first time in decades, allowing me to view the drawings as Baum and Neill intended. The metallic shininess of the ink, sadly, cannot be preserved in the scans you see here.
(For some reason, I notice that the Archive.org edition of The Emerald City includes at least one color illustration my print edition lacks, the above one depicting Dorothy seated with the King of Bunnybury.)
Neill has continued developing the scratchiness and intricate detail of his drawings to an extent that some of them are difficult to interpret at a glance. The colored illustrations in particular often feature baroque detail in such flat and muddled color, most of the things depicted absent from the text because Neill had to fill the space with something that they demand deciphering more than viewing. But can non-color illustrations end up similarly opaque.
The above scary picture of the Nome King beating a gong to summon his minions took me particularly long to figure out, his face, contorted with rage, all wrinkles.
The Art Nouveau style is confident and distinct, trendy at the time and today full of the foreign strangeness that adheres to the aesthetic tastes of a past generation. Now at the height of his form, Neill completely avoids (sadly) the scary and upsetting style of illustration that fills The Marvelous Land of Oz, and so I have little else to say about them (except that I wish he drew the Wizard as tiny as Denslow depicted the “little man”).
The Emerald City features an escalated conflict and brings back concepts and characters from the past novels. Notably, for the first time since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Baum addresses the existence of danger in Oz: the Kalidahs, Fighting Trees, and Hammer-Heads. Trying to keep Oz a heavenly utopia, Baum feels the need to address that the Hammer-Heads are “Wild People” but do not harm anyone who stays away from their mountains in the Quadling Country and adds that the Kalidahs, so menacing before, “[are] now nearly all tamed” like the Cowardly Lion and Hungry Tiger (32). “I suppose every country has some drawbacks, so even this almost perfect fairyland could not be quite perfect” (33), Baum says in the narration, getting defensive against, I can only assume, me specifically. At least he does not advocate killing the Hammer-Heads.
Despite this attention to detail, the continuity, as usual, seems careless to a reader today. Baum forgets the basic geography of Oz. In The Emerald City, he depicts a number of towns under the protection of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, but apparently situates them in the northern Gillikan Country (242). On page 46, he even has Guph say Glinda lives in the northern country, not the south! For a writer whose most famous villain has a name emphasizing her cardinal direction, you’d think Baum would remember which country is on which side. He introduces a region outside of Oz, the Ripple Lands, where the land shifts like an ocean, perhaps to display his total contempt for consistent geography.
The truth is that Baum did not care about continuity whatsoever because his artistic and financial goals had nothing to do with it. This is why every book in the series contradicts earlier material, as I most especially describe in the post about Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. Now that I am finished going “Well akshually” and pushing my glasses back up my nose, let’s proceed to the story.
The Emerald City features two plotlines that intersect near the end. In the first of these, focused on in six of the 30 chapters before overlapping with Dorothy’s plot beginning in Chapter 24, the diabolical Nome King returns. Last seen in Ozma of Oz shaking his fist at Ozma’s procession crossing the Deadly Desert, he has become deranged in his obsession with vengeance for the theft of his Magic Belt and the liberation of his slaves. The Nome King is no longer named Roquat of the Rocks but instead Roquat the Red, presumably because he is so full of rage he screams until he turns red. “The reason most people are bad is because they do not try to be good. Now, the Nome King had never tried to be good, so he was very bad indeed” (39). As Neill draws him, the Nome King’s hair has also grown so much longer that it drags behind the ironically egg-shaped fiend.
The first chapter focuses on the Nome King rather than Dorothy, establishing narrative suspense. Baum layers on the buildup: “The Nome King could not forgive Dorothy or Princess Ozma, and he had determined to be revenged upon them. But they, for their part, did not know they had so dangerous an enemy. […] An unsuspected enemy is doubly dangerous” (20). The Nome King is a brutal antagonist, though no longer in so memorably unique a way as in Ozma of Oz (or Return to Oz). He evaluates the number of slaves he will be able to take from Oz, makes clear his objective is complete genocide; yells at, beats, and “throws away” his minions; and is generally a ruthless, emotionally unstable militaristic dictator. Like Darth Vader, the Nome King has a habit of killing his direct subordinates when they displease him, though continues feigning politeness:
“Will you do this, General Crinkle?”
“No, your Majesty,” replied the Nome; “for it can’t be done.”
“Oh, indeed!” exclaimed the King. Then he turned to his servants and said: “Please take General Crinkle to the torture chamber. There you will kindly slice him into thin slices. Afterward you may feed him to the seven-headed dogs” (41).
Though highly dangerous, the Nome King has become buffoonish, more like a pouting child than the terrifying sorcerer in Ozma of Oz. The brains of the operation are Guph, a particularly crafty Nome who volunteers to be General even though the Nome King has executed his predecessors. As he tells his sovereign, Guph is the only Nome who can defeat Oz, steal its vast riches, kill and enslave its people, and retrieve the Magic Belt from Ozma. This is why Guph dares disrespect the Nome King: “You want to conquer the Emerald City, and I’m the only Nome in all your dominions who can conquer it. So you will be very careful not to hurt me until I have carried out your wishes” (44). Neill draws Guph with a flower in his hair, probably because it is otherwise difficult to distinguish him from the Nome King. There is a sense to the design since flowers grow from underground, and the Nomes rule the underground.
The Nomes will dig a tunnel under the Deadly Desert, like the tunnel that appears in Return to Oz, and erupt into the Emerald City to take the Ozites by surprise. Contrary to the Nomes’ steamroller victory in the movie, however, Guph warns the Nome King that they cannot simply storm into the Emerald City. Ozma’s magic is too powerful, and with Billina and her numerous offspring, the Ozites have an ample supply of eggs, which all Nomes fear. (Billina has many chicks who are attending the Woggle-Bug’s university, but she is happy to give away her unfertilized eggs for others to eat. I have no idea who the father is because there were previously no chickens in Oz.) Furthermore, the Nomes cannot send raptors to kill the chickens because Oz’s birds are protected by magic (145).
Guph explains, “There are a good many evil creatures who have magic powers sufficient to destroy and conquer the Land of Oz. We will get them on our side, band them all together, and then take Ozma and her people by surprise” (46). Though failure means the Nome King will kill him, assuming the “evil creatures” do not, Guph accepts the risk because “[h]e hated every one who was good and longed to make all who were happy unhappy. Therefore he had accepted this dangerous position as General quite willingly, feeling sure in his evil mind that he would be able to do a lot of mischief and finally conquer the Land of Oz” (59). Guph just loves his job!
While the Nomes dig the tunnel, Guph spends three chapters traveling the lands east of the Deadly Desert to enlist the aid of three tribes of “evil spirits”: the Whimsies, the Growleywogs, and the dreaded Phanfasms. The Phanfasms are “Erbs” (115), “the most powerful and merciless of all the evil spirits” (126), an odd bit of worldbuilding that I doubt Baum ever again returned to. In establishing these new characters, the travelogue of the Nome chapters shows a great scoop of creativity. Guph faces enough peril and shows enough cunning to earn the reader’s sympathy, including undergoing needle-based torture by the Growleywogs. Even the ever-moralizing narration can’t quite dislike Guph: “This Guph was really a clever rascal, and it seems a pity he was so bad, for in a good cause he might have accomplished much” (118).
The recruitment proceeds along gradations of power, with the Whimsies the weakest and, in their way, kindest of the “evil powers” and the Phanfasms by far the most strong and wicked. Guph wins the Whimsies and Growleywogs over by offering them slaves, jewels, and other physical results of conquest, for “[p]eople often do a good deed without hope of reward, but for an evil deed they always demand payment” (63). (The Whimsies do not actually seem particularly evil, being hospitable to Guph and disinterested in hurting Ozma.) But the Phanfasms, living for centuries in isolation on the feared mountain Phantastico, are already more rich and powerful than Ozma. Terrified to meet the Phanfasms after evading the mountain guardian, Guph is rapidly captured and dragged to a series of crude stone huts. Guph’s meeting with and attempts to bluff the Phanfasm leader, the First and Foremost, is riveting dark fantasy:
With all his knowledge and bravery General Guph did not know that the steady glare from the bear eyes [of the First and Foremost] was reading his inmost thoughts as surely as if they had been put into words. He did not know that these despised rock heaps of the Phanfasms were merely deceptions to his own eyes, nor could he guess that he was standing in the midst of one of the most splendid and luxurious cities ever built by magic power. All that he saw was a barren waste of rock heaps, a hairy man with an owl’s head and another with a bear’s head. The sorcery of the Phanfasms permitted him to see no more (120).
Before the swarming, shapeshifting Phanfasms kill him (the First and Foremost changes shape and gender), Guph is able to persuade them to assist the Nomes by offering the one thing they lack: “the exquisite joy of making the happy unhappy” (125). The Phanfasms, who would have destroyed Oz long ago if the Deadly Desert did not block them, release Guph. Here it is clear that Guph has made a disastrous mistake, awakening an ancient evil that will doom the world. “We will use King Roquat’s tunnel to conquer the Land of Oz,” says the First and Foremost. “Then we will destroy the Whimsies, the Growleywogs and the Nomes, and afterward go out to ravage and annoy and grieve the whole world” (126). In a JRPG, after the player beats the Nome King, the real final boss would be the First and Foremost. He even changes his shape, allowing for multiple phases.
The Phanfasms are not alone in their treachery. Each of the four countries of the alliance—Nomes, Whimsies, Growleywogs, and Phanfasms—are completely self-interested, smugly certain of their own power, and plotting to betray the others once they have razed Oz and taken their slaves (the Growleywogs talk ahead of time about which of them will get Tiktok as a slave, which the Scarecrow, etc.). Guph himself schemes to overthrow the Nome King after the conquest (86). Contrasted with the legions, the Nome King seems almost tender in wanting none of “those dreadful creatures” to kill or enslave Ozma and Dorothy because he wants them to be his own slaves, transformed into “china ornaments” he will be sure his maids dust carefully (146).
A stark contrast to the childlike goofs and general niceness of Dorothy’s ramblings in Oz with which they are juxtaposed, the Nome chapters feature robust dark fantasy. It is clear Baum was at his best when not writing about Oz, which he had reinterpreted by this point as a utopia on par with Heaven.
The impending assault on Oz parallels the impending loss of Dorothy’s own home in Kansas. Befitting a grand finale, the heavier tone and higher stakes continue on in the Dorothy plot as well—at least, at first.
The second chapter begins this main plot and elaborates on the poverty of Dorothy’s family. Baum has previously been unclear about the Gales’ economic situation. (I am not sure whether Aunt Em and Uncle Henry are surnamed Gale, but let’s assume so for that sentence.) The description of their lives in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suggests an austere, miserable existence of impoverished drudgery. The family lives in a shack with “four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room” (11) in the midst of a bleak, colorless prairie that has drained all happiness from Aunt Em until laughter shocks her, and Uncle Henry “worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was” (13). Their life is so lonely and hard that the moral “There’s no place like home” seems absurdly misplaced. However, the subsequent novels depict Dorothy traveling to Australia and California with her uncle. (I would bet money there is a reference to Henry having hired field laborers somewhere, but I can no longer figure out where it is, or in which book.) This suggests they might not be so poor after all, especially if they can afford this after losing their entire house to a cyclone.
In The Emerald City, Baum retcons the previous events. Instead of traveling to Australia for fun to meet relatives, Henry went there on doctor’s orders after his health began failing, and the trip put severe economic strain on the family. The destruction of their old shack in The Wonderful Wizard has left the family hopelessly in debt. Henry is too sick to continue working the fields, which yielded too little to support them to begin with, and the bank is going to foreclose on the new house Henry himself built. It is just sad: “When the banker told Uncle Henry that he must pay the money in thirty days or leave the farm, the poor man was in despair, as he knew he could not possibly get the money. So he told his wife, Aunt Em, of his trouble, and she first cried a little and then said that they must be brave and do the best they could, and go away somewhere and try to earn an honest living. But they were getting old and feeble and she feared that they could not take care of Dorothy as well as they had formerly done. Probably the little girl would also be obliged to go to work” (23–24).
So far, Henry and Em have hidden their desperate situation from their orphan niece, explaining why she never took some gold or emeralds with her from Oz, where precious metals and gemstones are so abundant that everyone has them. When Henry and Em admit what is going on, Dorothy immediately decides they should move to Oz. Certainly, they wouldn’t have these troubles there. This time around, Baum elaborates that the Ozite economy is a successful communist dictatorship (in the normal sense of “dictatorship” instead of the weird specialized sense Marxists love to use), with no money, no bosses or overseers, purely voluntary labor, and an abundance of food and material goods freely given by all to all. Ozma has effectively abolished private property because everything in Oz is legally her personal property (30), and she lets all people enjoy it without limitation. In the first two novels, Oz is an unjust, unstable country full of slavery, death, and the consistent use of money. A novel depicting how, exactly, Ozma went about changing these conditions would be fascinating and an enormously better use of time than The Road to Oz and, for that matter, The Emerald City of Oz. Someone get on that (these are all public domain).
Communism via all property being one person’s private property is ironic indeed. That must be what people call dialectics. But this would spell catastrophe if a wicked, Nome King-like ruler inherited the throne, as the characters even claim happened once. This is the issue with a monarchy: even if you have the one in a billion genuinely benevolent dictator, they will die, and some rather worse guy will come in next. But that will not be an issue here since, for some reason, Ozma seems to be stuck as a little girl. If they do not age, I have no idea how there were ever other rulers of Oz short of assassinations, but there is no way Ozma’s parents could have, well, sired and given birth to her if they were still children themselves. And clearly Ozma has aged since she is not an infant. Even within the whitewashing retcons from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, Mombi still keeps Ozma’s family prisoner for multiple generations, indicating aging and death. Just don’t think about it! Baum didn’t. (There is a non-Baum Oz novel called Paradox in Oz about this very subject!)
While Return to Oz depicts Henry and Em concerned for Dorothy’s mental health, in The Emerald City they not mind Dorothy’s fantastical stories whatsoever, though they do not believe they are real. Henry and Em are also strangely chill about their niece frequently vanishing for weeks at a time, leading at least twice now to them going into mourning believing she is dead, but let’s ignore that. Dorothy performs her special hand signal, and Ozma, seeing Dorothy in the Magic Picture, warps her from her bedroom in Kansas back to the Emerald City. There, Dorothy tells Ozma she wants to move to Oz with her aunt and uncle. The next day, Ozma warps them to Oz without any warning. Luckily, neither of them were, say, in the middle of changing clothes or using the toilet. Though at first overwhelmed, embarrassed, and terrified, Henry and Em soon accept their new situation.
Unfortunately, the initial drama of the Dorothy plot, and the suspense of the Nome plot too, evaporates for interminable filler that comprises most of the book. Ozma sends Dorothy, Henry, Em, Toto, Billina, the Shaggy Man (now capitalized), the Wizard, and Omby Amby (the head of the non-existent Ozite military, a character I have not mentioned in these posts) on a tour of Oz. A reader might expect that, for the conclusion, this will serve as a method for Baum to revisit past locations and characters for some reflection, perhaps glimpsing Ozma’s hometown, say, or returning to the ruin of the farmhouse blown to Oz in the cyclone. Instead, with the exception of the Woggle-Bug’s athletic college, the characters only stop by places never before mentioned.
Initially, the chapters alternate between Dorothy’s and Guph’s travelogues, the former hollow hijinx and the latter suspenseful and violent exploration of new aspects of the Oz world. The book’s pacing suffers dramatically when Guph finishes his travels, not reappearing until the finale. Baum dedicates about a third of the text to golly-gee-whiz comedy and pastoral rambling with no suspense or drama, much like most of The Road to Oz. The material is especially insipid compared to the Nome plot and the serious real-world topics explored early on. Cutting directly from the treacherous Phanfasms becoming “a pack of howling wolves” encircling the conniving and alarmed Guph in their illusion-city (124) to Dorothy and her boring, vapid pals in an idyllic woods meeting a random talking kangaroo crying over mittens (130) is so jarring it almost feels like a joke. (The kangaroo plot is resolved when Dorothy and her friends assemble an old woman from jigsaw puzzle-like pieces to knit new mittens. I think there is no subsequent mention of this kangaroo episode.)
In this large filler section, chapters fifteen to twenty-three are a particularly Alice in Wonderland-style sequence. The tourists get lost and set up a camp. In the morning, Dorothy, Toto, and Billina wander off into the thick (Gillikan Country?) forest and discover a militant city-state of living kitchenware whose people have never heard of Ozma. Later in this tidal wave of puns, they find a town of sapient baked goods, where the brainless, perpetually destructive Toto eats several people (!) and gets Dorothy, himself, and Billina driven out of the city by an angry mob—which is, granted, surprisingly dark.
An earlier chapter involves the town of the Cuttenclips, living paper doll people whom Glinda’s magic protects from weather but not the Shaggy Man’s sneezes. Later, Dorothy discovers Bunnybury, a city with a high wall that Glinda also created. Bunnybury and these three cities of conscious inanimate objects seem like a callback to the “china country” in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a walled city-state in Quadling Country whose inhabitants and buildings are all made from porcelain. Perhaps the utensil town and baked good town each once had its own local sorceress, like Miss Cuttenclip in the paper doll town, but over time they lost their founders?
The only part of these filler chapters of clear thematic significance to the rest of the story is Dorothy’s visit with the King of Bunnybury. He is actually elected to this position, unlike the hereditary monarchy that usually obsesses Baum. Glinda has created a walled city for the rabbits to inhabit, freeing them from the food chain and the wilderness for luxury, security, and “civilization” in the form of clothes, houses, balls, music, and other human customs. The King rabbit spends his days weeping and longing for his old life, as he explains to Dorothy over their luncheon:
“Rabbits are out of place in such luxury. When I was young I lived in a burrow in the forest. I was surrounded by enemies and often had to run for my life. It was hard getting enough to eat, at times, and when I found a bunch of clover I had to listen and look for danger while I ate it. Wolves prowled around the hole in which I lived and sometimes I didn’t dare stir out for days at a time. Oh, how happy and contended I was then! I was a real rabbit, as nature made me—wild and free!—and I even enjoyed listened to the startled throbbing of my own heart!”
“I’ve often thought,” said Dorothy, who was busily eating, “that it would be fun to be a rabbit.”
“It is fun—when you’re the genuine article,” agreed his Majesty. “But look at me now! I live in a marble palace instead of a hole in the ground. Every day I must dress in fine clothes and wear that horrible crown till it makes my head ache. Rabbits come to me with all sorts of troubles, when my own troubles are the only ones I care about. When I walk out I can’t hop and run; I must strut on my rear legs and wear an ermine robe! And the soldiers salute me and the band plays and the other rabbits laugh and clap their paws and cry out: ‘Hail to the King!’ Now let me ask you, as a friend and a young lady of good judgment: isn’t all this pomp and foolishness enough to make a decent rabbit miserable?” (210–211)
During Dorothy’s stay with the King of Bunnybury, she promises she will ask Glinda to return the King to the wild. But the King asks Dorothy to petition Glinda to allow him to keep his jugglers and assorted other amusements until, in the end, he realizes he wants to remain in Bunnybury, promising not to be sad anymore. “If you won’t say anything to Glinda I’ll promise to be merry and gay all the time, and never cry or wail again.” He deems his previous thoughts “foolishness” and swears “on the royal word of a King” to “enjoy [himself] and do [his] duty by [his] subjects” (224).
Ozma has a rather pushy streak in The Emerald City. She refuses, for instance, to allow Dorothy to renounce her royal title (36) because she adores Dorothy so much she never wants to be away from her (gaaaay + they kiss several times). She forces Henry and Em to dress in clothes they find uncomfortable. “Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had some trouble in getting used to the finery and pomp and ceremony of Ozma’s palace, and felt uneasy because they were obliged to be ‘dressed up’ all the time” (87). Aunt Em jokes, “[W]e’re helpless victims of high-toned royalty.” The narration states, “Dorothy was much amused” (69).
Ozma is rather cruelly dismissive of Henry and Em’s life in the US, as well: “The old life can have very little interest to them, and the sooner they begin the new life here the happier they will be” (54). I am not sure what happens to all of the Gale family’s chickens or to Dorothy’s pet cat, Eureka. Presumably, they are all just abandoned to die in the bleak Kansas prairie because Baum forgot them or because Eureka, as we see in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, is too much of a real animal to live in Oz. (Baum remembers Eureka in The Patchwork Girl of Oz and adds that Dorothy brought her along too. I guess he forgets the latter chapters of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. Perhaps the family had already stopped keeping chickens for some reason.)
With barely any adjustment, this is a horror scene: Henry and Em vanish from their home and reappear in a dazzling throne room containing a huge lion and tiger. They behold their missing niece, now dressed up in elegant green as though assimilated into the place, says to them, “You are now in the Land of Oz, where you are to live always, and be comfer’ble an’ happy. You’ll never have to worry over anything again, ’cause there won’t be anything to worry about. And you owe it all to the kindness of my friend Princess Ozma” (55). And they recall their niece has told them of the nightmares and monsters that have faced her in this fairy land, from the various witches to the hideous cannibal Scoodlers to the vicious invisible bears who leave body parts strewn over their meadows. They are at the mercy of the capricious, inhuman Ozma now.
Or not. This is not a kidnapping, really. Henry and Em are happy to escape capitalism forever, and the people of Oz genuinely show them nothing but kindness. Baum definitely intends the change to only be positive:
It was a rare treat to these simple folk, who had lived in the country all their lives and known little enjoyment of any sort, to wear beautiful clothes and live in a palace and be treated with respect and consideration by all around them. They were very happy indeed as they strolled up the shady walks and looked upon the gorgeous flowers and shrubs, feeling that their new home was more beautiful than any tongue could describe (73–74).
The King of Bunnybury’s situation mirrors that of Henry and Em. He begins leading a harsh, more real-world life only for a sorceress (Glinda, in his case) to, without his consent, remove him into a magical paradise where he has to behave and dress in accordance with idealized nobility inside a luxurious palace where various similarly costumed subordinates put on performances for him all day and servants satisfy his every need. While Ozma concedes to find some light work for Henry and Em to do because they desire not to live idly, she refuses to allow them to have a farm in Oz. “You’d be a reg’lar lunatic to want to leave Bunnybury for a wild life in the forest, and I’m sure any rabbit outside the city would be glad to take your place” (224). This rebuke to the rabbit King applies, with a few changes, to Henry and Em: You’d be a lunatic to want to leave Oz for the brutal capitalism of the US, and I’m sure any other American would be glad to take your place.
The End of Oz?
These two plotlines merge once, after Baum uses the Rigmaroles to make fun of bloviators and the Flutterbudgets to make fun of neurotic people, Dorothy’s caravan reaches the Tin Woodman’s gleaming palace in the Country of the Winkies. There, the reader is finally spared from filler. The Tin Woodman has heard from Ozma. She learned of the Nome King’s impending invasion from the Magic Picture, which lets her see anyone she wants anywhere in the world at any time. Dorothy and her friends are somewhat perturbed to learn they’re all about to die, or worse.
“When our enemies break through this crust they will be in the gardens of the royal palace, in the heart of the Emerald City. I offered to arm my Winkies and march to Ozma’s assistance; but she said no.”
“I wonder why?” asked Dorothy.
“She answered that the inhabitants of Oz, gathered together, were not powerful enough to fight and overcome the evil forces of the Nome King. Therefore she refuses to fight at all.”
“But they will capture and enslave us, and plunder and ruin all our lovely land!” exclaimed the Wizard, greatly disturbed by this statement.
“I fear they will,” said the Tin Woodman, sorrowfully. “And I also fear that those who are not fairies, such as the Wizard, and Dorothy, and her uncle and aunt, as well as Toto and Billina, will be speedily put to death by the conquerors.”
“What can be done?” asked Dorothy, shuddering a little at the prospect of this awful fate.
“Nothing can be done!” gloomily replied the Emperor of the Winkies. “But since Ozma refuses my army I will go myself to the Emerald City. The least I may do is to perish beside my beloved Ruler” (253–254).
After the party visits the Scarecrow at his new apartment, a building shaped like an ear of corn, they return to the Emerald City to die alongside Ozma. Dejection prevails.
Opening the novel is an ominous illustration of the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow embracing while weeping sadly. The Tin Woodman holds a flag reading “Farewell,” implying that not only is this the end of the series but that the end will be disastrous. Although I think Baum largely fails to realize these characters’ respective alleged compassion and intellect, seeing them in this condition still legitimately moved me a little.
The Scarecrow counsels everyone to remain happy until the very end, for there is no reason to spoil the brief time they have left before the “country is despoiled and our people made slaves” (259). Since her behavior has become increasingly inhuman and difficult for a reader to sympathize with, Ozma herself does not worry about the Nome King the tiniest bit (263), somewhat undercutting the drama. Even after the others express their alarm, only after dinner does Ozma begin discussing whether she should do something about the impending invasion. Rejecting Omby Amby and the Scarecrow’s urging, Ozma still steadfastly refuses to fight. The explanation is no longer that Oz is too weak but that killing is unethical:
“No one has the right to destroy any living creatures, however evil they may be, or to hurt them or make them unhappy. I will not fight—even to save my kingdom.”
“The Nome King is not so particular,” remarked the Scarecrow. “He intends to destroy us all and ruin our beautiful country.”
“Because the Nome King intends to do evil is no excuse for my doing the same,” said Ozma (268).
This is a touching and admirable, if foolish, dedication to principle. Or it would be, but why is Ozma determined to save the murderous slavers when she was so eager to kill Dorothy’s pet cat a couple books ago? Is Ozma aware of how many Mangaboos her friend the Wizard personally killed? Does she realize the Wizard also might be responsible for complete genocide in the Gargoyle Country? And these merciful principles are easy for her to cling to with the Wicked Witches and the giant spider already dead and gone (save Mombi), so she could just waltz in and rule without having to worry about them. Maybe she’ll change her mind when a Phanfasm seizes her.
When Dorothy, always more practical, proposes Ozma use the Magic Belt to escape to Kansas (which hilariously the Shaggy Man calls a “country”), she refuses on sturdier moral grounds: “Never will I desert my people and leave them to so cruel a fate. I will use the Magic Belt to send the rest of you to Kansas, if you wish, but if my beloved country must be destroyed and my people enslaved I will remain and share their fate” (269). Dorothy does not want to flee either, also having responsibilities as a Princess of Oz, while Em declares she and Henry have spent her life slaves anyway and choose to stay as well. (Quite a way for Em to put it when she was probably alive during American chattel slavery!)
At risk of lingering too long on this scene, the characters’ innocence is touching and tragic. Ozma suggests if she is there to meet the Phanfasms, who have already literally, physically stolen the Nome King’s throne and demanded to lead the charge, she “will speak to them pleasantly and perhaps they won’t be so very bad, after all” (270). Jack Pumpkinhead suggests they just offer the invaders “a lot of emeralds and gold,” since nobody in Oz values jewels or precious metals highly because of their abundance there (268).
Given the enormous power of the Magic Belt, it seems confusing that Ozma is not using its power to warp as many Ozites as possible to someplace safe. While the lands immediately outside of Oz are clearly hostile, surely one of the various fairy countries shown in The Road to Oz would be welcoming to them—why not send all the people she can to Santa Claus? Because Baum forgot about that, and this is more dramatic.
Stranger is that nobody suggests Ozma use the Magic Belt (or her “fairy wand,” which the Nome King is also wary of) to simply instantly warp the invading warriors back to their homelands. In this case, the claim cannot be the Magic Belt simply does not have that power or that Baum forgot or ignores it: this idea is already present in the book. Guph (since the Nome King has lost his capacity for complex thought if he was ever more than a dunderhead) advises the Nome King use the Magic Belt to warp the treacherous Whimsies, Growleywogs, and Phanfasms back to their own countries before they turn on him (277). This again shows that Baum made the Magic Belt much too powerful—he only finds drama by ignoring it.
Instead, while the others grieve and Dorothy can’t sleep from fear, the Scarecrow, no longer just the smart one but “the wisest man in Oz,” devises a way to defeat the Nome King’s legions without the need to kill anyone. To this end, Ozma uses the Magic Belt to fill the Nomes’ tunnel with choking dust so that, in the morning, the evil powers all emerge desperately parched. By coincidence, they dug the tunnel so that they will enter the palace courtyard just beside the Forbidden Fountain, and when they see the water, they will rush to slake their thirst. Not mentioned prior to The Emerald City as far as I remember, the Forbidden Fountain is another of Glinda’s creations. It contains magic water that erases people’s memories. Those who drink this Water of Oblivion become “as ignorant as a baby” (271). Does it have some relationship to the Truth Pond? In the past, a wicked ruler of Oz drank from the fountain and then, having a chance to be reeducated from scratch, learned to be good. The Scarecrow hopes the same will happen if the invaders drink the Water of Oblivion. This idea of erasing someone’s identity is horrifying and despicable and perhaps more cruel and alarming than physical violence, but it is an intriguing fantasy that raises questions of nature versus nurture. (Baum comes down on the nature side, sadly, since he has the Nome King return to his evil ways in later books, but that is probably an unintentional side effect of continuing a series he had met to end.)
Dorothy and her friends and family watch the monsters pour out of the tunnel and drink greedily of the water. I recall a photo I have seen online of swarming centipedes drinking from a dish on a Chinese farm. The Phanfasms, then the Growleywogs, and then the Whimsies shove each other aside to reach the water, one after another, until “the great warriors [become] like little children” (283) and look on their surroundings with appreciation instead of hatred. Only the Nome King himself realizes the trick when even Guph doesn’t recognize him. “The sight of General Guph babbling like a happy child and playing with his hands in the cool waters of the fountain astonished and maddened Red Roquat” (284). Before the Nome King can command his Nome army to charge, the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman grab him and toss him into the water. When the Shaggy Man fishes the Nome King out, “he chatted and laughed and wanted to drink more of the water. No thought of injuring any person was now on his mind” (285). Ozma, though an actual child, speaks to the old Nome King like a parent, informs him of his name and that he rules the Nomes, and sends him and his army back into the tunnels to return to “the pretty cavern” of their home (286). Then Ozma uses the Magic Belt to send all the other formerly evil warriors back to their homelands.
You may be thinking this ending seems weird or wonder why I am skipping over some of the ideas in this novel. I am holding my tongue to address that in “The Politics of Oz.”
With the day saved, the characters express concern over how outsiders may imperil Oz again. Earlier in the novel, the Wizard mentions that with airships and airplanes, the Deadly Desert might no longer protect the country. “I hate those things, Dorothy,” the randomly luddite Wizard says, adding, “It wouldn’t do at all, you know, for the Emerald City to become a way-station on an airship line” (229–230). Why not? He even says he wants to contrive a magic spell that will prevent airship pilots from ever being able to reach their intended destinations—I should mention that, under Glinda’s tutelage, the Wizard has now learned real magic. The Wizard’s suspicion of outsiders arriving in airships seems like projection. Ozma also worries about airships, “for if the earth folk learn how to manage them we would be overrun with visitors who would ruin our lovely, secluded fairyland” (290). To prevent this, Glinda casts a spell that hides Oz from the rest of the world, such that it appears to just be more of the Deadly Desert. As for the Nomes’ tunnel, Ozma seals it with the power of the Magic Belt. This nightmarish isolationism, especially given how open Oz was to visitors in the last book, is another odd choice.
And of course Glinda did it. Glinda has shifted from a friendly leader of her own country with some shady connections to instead be God, except as your mom instead of your dad. Her magic resolves every issue. So far, one way or another, she pops up out of nowhere to fix every problem in every installment as of The Patchwork Girl of Oz with the sole exception of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. The book of information Glinda attained from her spies in The Marvelous Land of Oz, creating a more colorful and fun setting, is now a magic book in which every event in the world is documented as it happens (292). Baum has made Glinda omniscient and, through the vagueness but incredible power of her magic, omnipotent.
This enchanted severance from the rest of the world has disturbing implications. Will life really be good if nobody ages, for eternity, totally isolated from all art and cultural developments everywhere else on Earth? If Oz is a land of tolerance, how can they implicitly reject all outsiders, especially after most outsiders (Dorothy, Tiktok, Billina, the Wizard, and all the dozens of guests in The Road to Oz) are so beloved? Is Oz actually good to deny everyone else in the world their immense material wealth and magic? That sounds a bit like the issue in Black Panther. Later books establish that, within Oz, it becomes impossible to see anything beyond the country, so everyone there is just trapped forever under the totalitarian surveillance state of Ozma (which Baum establishes, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, even bans and burns certain books).
But the real purpose of Oz’s magical isolationism is to unshackle the author from writing this stuff. L. Frank Baum incorporates himself as a character within the fiction. He is the Royal Historian of Oz who has, apparently, been creating these books because someone from Oz has informed him of what goes on there. But in the last chapter, titled “How the Story of Oz Came to an End,” he receives a note written on a stork feather:
“You will never hear anything more about Oz, because we are now cut off forever from all the rest of the world. But Toto and I will always love you and all the other children who love us.
“Dorothy Gale” (295).
Then Baum says we have had plenty of Oz anyway (he is so burnt out) and wishes Dorothy luck. Neill closes the series with Dorothy, holding (HER GIRLFRIEND) Ozma’s hand, waving a handkerchief goodbye under the words THE END. Behind them, the Wonderful Wizard sits under a tree, reminding readers of where the series began. A touching goodbye from our friend Dorothy, safe with her family in an otherworld paradise. So The Emerald City of Oz turns out a farewell after all, but a happy one.
This is a disappointing finale. The last-minute introduction of a new magical idea that solves every problem is hugely underwhelming (though typical for Glinda, a plot contrivance more than a character). Worse, our main character Dorothy has nothing to do with how the Nome King is defeated. While I dislike that in Ozma of Oz Billina outwits the Nome King on her own with no input from anyone else, at least there Dorothy does participate in his game and wins. In The Emerald City, Dorothy and most of the other characters are totally extraneous. A much more satisfying conclusion might have all the characters play a small role in defeating the Nome King using their unique talents, perhaps in a sort of Rube Goldberg machine magic spell, or just have them cooperate to deceive the foolish, greedy Nome King by using the villains’ character flaws against them. Imagine the wily Wizard running a con that tricks the Nome King!
One also wonders why Glinda is not involved in the main conflict, only popping up afterward to say she already knows everything. In The Marvelous Land of Oz, Glinda shows herself entirely willing to kill people and commands a large army. Ozma is a figurehead—Glinda is the real power defending Oz, doing all the dirty work while the little girl make-believes she is a ruler. In The Emerald City, Baum even writes in a plot hole by giving Glinda the Magic Book that surely informs her of the Nome King’s scheme, information she apparently ignores. If Glinda arrived in the Emerald City, there could even, for the first time ever, be an interesting conflict between her and Ozma’s ideas of goodness and right and wrong, certainly a better use of pages and a more resonant, meaningful conclusion than the tiring jokes that comprise most of the book.
What actually happens instead is that the Ozite characters all gather around in the twilit courtyard to idly watch the invaders. Worse than the above criticism is that the Dorothy plot basically has nothing to do with the Nome plot. What purpose does the tour of Oz or Henry and Em settling in serve in relation to the Nome King’s invasion? The cruelty of the fairy lands outside Oz parallels the cruelty of the “real world” even farther away, but this thread is too tenuous to form a strong metaphor.
The Emerald City is a good point to end the Oz series. Baum had clearly lost his touch and enthusiasm. The series has declined in quality since the third book, the fifth and sixth especially underwhelming. He has stripped out all space for drama or conflict in Oz, removing the magic, perilous beasts, possibility of the slightest moral gray, and even the existence of unfriendliness. Any past tension he just decides to ignore. Even the point of the original novel seems lost on its author, who decides the morally ambiguous Wizard must be a real Wizard and that the Emerald City, whose emerald color in the original novel is another memorable deception, is actually emerald now. What remains of Oz is a saccharine blob forever locked inside itself. That the segments with Guph outside of Oz are so much more dramatic, fun, and interesting than those within makes clear Baum’s excitement to write about other places. We are lucky he went on to spend his later career doing just that.
I’m kidding, kidding! Baum would never escape Oz. Turns out Oz was cut off for less than forever.
In 1910, Baum had been writing an Oz novel a year for three years. In 1911, to escape burnout, he tried to start a new series, also illustrated by Neill, about a California girl named Trot Griffiths. But Trot’s debut, The Sea Fairies, and its explicitly Oz-related sequel, Sky Island, did not perform as well as Baum hoped. (No wonder Sky Island underperformed if Baum thought what readers wanted more of from Oz was Button Bright of all people.)
Then Baum (wouldn’t you know it) managed to get in touch with Dorothy Gale using a wireless telegraph, resuming the series in 1913 with Little Wizard Stories and The Patchwork Girl of Oz. Baum wrote “quaint,” “queer,” “strange” Oz stories for the rest of his life, also running an unsuccessful Oz movie studio from 1914 to 1915. At least Baum seems to have utilized his ideas for Trot’s future adventures in his Oz books, in which Trot becomes a regular character.
Even Baum’s death did not end the series but simply passed on the torch to other royal historians, beginning with Ruth Plumly Thompson, a reportedly less inspired writer (whose first Oz book has a helping of racism and who notably has Ozma decide to just kill people), and then to more by others until there were at least forty novels. John R. Neill also wrote four of his own Oz books about an abrasive New Jersey girl named Jenny Jump. The series did not stop there! As the novels’ copyrights keep expiring, other authors have collectively written dozens of takes on Oz in various genres, including some questionable and unusual reinterpretations (I think there’s one where the Shaggy Man is a pedophile) and some more intriguing revisionism and sequels. Wicked by Gregory Maguire is probably the most famous of these, reimagining the Wicked Witch of the West as a terrorist battling the oppressive Oz state. And a large portion of the world met Oz not through the Oz series but through Alexander Volkov’s Magic Land novels. First published in Russian in the Soviet Union, Magic Land features a Kansas girl named Ellie Smith, rather than Dorothy Gale, and a series of adventures to save the Emerald City. One of these involves an alien invasion. This Russian-language series has also been continued by various other authors. The American Oz series still lives, too: as far as I know, the newest Oz novel is Shadows Over Oz, published in 2022 and written by David M. Keyes with illustrations by Jackson Smith. The next installment of this darker and edgier continuation, Prisoners of Oz, is slated for release in 2024. I cannot vouch for their quality. Far from delighting (and scaring) children today, Oz has become more an obscure historical curiosity than a popular series, at least here in the US.
Will I write posts about these dozens and dozens of Oz books? No. No, I will not. However, I will write one more of these Oz posts about the seventh Oz novel, the unexpected continuation The Patchwork Girl of Oz. In that one, Baum might have just got his spark back, with Oz not so tamed as the Glinda-minded might hope. You can read my post about that one here on my website or on Tumblr.
But this isn’t the end of my commentary! As I said in the Introduction, the more explicit politics of the The Emerald City of Oz are particularly interesting. When “The Politics of Oz” goes live, you can find a link to that here as well as another link to the Patchwork Girl post.
By the way, if you enjoy what I do, it isn’t too late do give me a one-time donation on Ko-Fi.