Fairy Stories and Beyond Baum’s Wizard of Oz

Saturday , 1, April 2017 21 Comments

“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

And now for something different. I’m not going to focus on genre or pulp in this post, beyond these two observations –

1. Genre wars and the kinds of literary scrums we’ve been seeing of late (over the nature of “Hard SF,” “Pulp,” genre itself, etc.) are nothing new. In 1947, J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” was published. It had been conceived, written, and delivered as a speech nearly a decade earlier for the Andrew Lang lecture. The main gist of Tolkien’s thesis? That famed folk and fairy tale collector Andrew Lang’s criteria for his collections were overly board. “Traveler’s tales,” “beast fables,” and other genres were not fairy tales and should not be lumped together. That’s right, Tolkien was calling out The Fairy Tale Man on fairy tales. It’s too bad Lang was already dead and buried and so couldn’t offer any kind of defense or retort.

2. As time marches on and the field, and perhaps definition, of fairy stories expands, many of the old and great tales are falling into obscurity and neglect. I offer no conspiracy theories regarding this trend. Publishers are more concerned with contemporary works, it seems. And Disney reboots and re-imaginings and other such dreck abound.

On one of the more recent episodes of Geek Gab (I believe it was this one, but can’t swear to it), one of the gentlemen (Update: John has pointed out in the comments that it wasn’t him who brought up Baum; relistening to the last 20 minutes didn’t help me here and I don’t have time at the moment to review the whole episode. But it was one of them! I believe it was JC Wright, but can’t swear to it) pointed to L. Frank Baum as an underappreciated great fantasy writer. Man, that stirred up some memories for me.

My dad was a voracious reader, and when I was a kid he used to read to me every night. One of the series we went through together was the Oz collection. Although the Wizard of Oz is far and away the most well-known and popular of Baum’s stories, he wrote over a dozen Oz books in all, including a number of short stories. He was a pretty prolific writer, actually, and wrote many non-Oz tales, as well.

I’ve been looking at some of his short form works recently, and have recognized some of the traditional hallmarks of fairy stories and folk tales. Although suitable for children, they’re not all exclusively meant to target younger audiences. They’re also a mite darker than one might remember or imagine.

Little Wizard Stories of Oz is a good place to start if you want to check out some of Baum’s post-Wizard material in bite-sized chunks. One of my favorites from this collection is “The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger,” a short story that presents the darker side of the famous lion and his feline companion. Ultimately all ends well, but again, Baum takes things in a direction you might not expect.

Here’s one short conversation between the two guardians of the princess Ozma:

The Tiger got up and stretched his great, sleek body.

“Come on,” he said. The Lion stood up and proved he was the larger of the two, for he was almost as big as a small horse.

Out of the palace they walked, and met no one. They passed through the beautiful grounds, past fountains and beds of lovely flowers, and met no one. Then they unlatched a gate and entered a street of the city, and met no one.

“I wonder how a fat baby will taste,” remarked the Tiger, as they stalked majestically along, side by side.

“I imagine it will taste like nutmegs,” said the Lion.

“No,” said the Tiger, “I’ve an idea it will taste like gumdrops.”

They turned a corner, but met no one, for the people of the Emerald City were accustomed to take their naps at this hour of the afternoon.

“I wonder how many pieces I ought to tear a person into,” said the Lion, in a thoughtful voice.

“Sixty would be about right,” suggested the Tiger.

“Would that hurt any more than to tear one into about a dozen pieces?” inquired the Lion, with a little shudder.

“Who cares whether it hurts or not?” growled the Tiger.

When I have children of my own, I plan to read to them the Oz books, as my father did for me. There’s much wonder and magic to be found in the world of Oz, though many have forgotten. And though Baum’s stories and many other old classics may be fading from public memory, I’m grateful that these days with the abundance of e-books and the dominance of Amazon, at least in many cases now one doesn’t have to run around from library to library in the hopes of fortuitously chancing to find the particular book you happen to be looking for.

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

  • Forrest Bishop says:

    Good grief. By the gods of unintended consequences, I swear I had neither dream nor desire to become a Castalia House blog addict. I only had designs of posting an occasional screed or two over here, and so to cleverly use them as my tool. Now, now it is too late for me, swept up in Jeffro’s maelstrom of revolution, tracking down the old stories by Huh?, Who?, and Wha?. Hanging on to every post. Anticipating the next. For tool am become tool.

    Speaking of tools, there are otherstories, other interpretations, of both Baum and C. S. Lewis. Strapping on my 24K goldfoil hat: Oz. is an abbreviation for “Ounce”. File cabinet O-Z is a cover story. Gold is measured by the Troy Ounce. A standard London Good Delivery Bar is 400 Tr. Oz. These resemble bricks. Their color is yellow. Gold is money. Follow the yellow brick money.

    • PC Bushi says:

      Yes, that’s definitely an interesting fact about Oz. Alex and others have told me about this – how the Emerald City represented the greenback, etc.

    • Anthony says:

      I looked that whole thing up with the whole money thing. 100% myth. It would have supported the opposite of Baum’s actual position.

      • PC Bushi says:

        Hmmm…do you have any sources I can look to? Upon further research (admittedly I haven’t delved very deeply), I see statements that the theory hasn’t been proven or disproven either way.

        • Anthony says:

          snopes used to have an article which since disappeared, but the most obvious refutation is that Baum supported McKinley, not Bryant. That and he denied his whole life it was an allegory, and these new interpretations popped up decades after the fact.

          • PC Bushi says:

            Those are some pretty solid exhibits. I wonder how the allegory interpretation has gone on so strongly in light of all that.

      • B&N says:

        htt p://www .ebay. com/itm/The-Wizard-Of-Oz-THE-EMERALD-CITY-2-Ounce-999-Silver-Proof-Coin-COLLECTIBLE-/262326262999

  • Jesse Lucas says:

    To be fair Tolkien did have a point on Lang not really being that good of a Fairy Tale Man.

    Not that I can remember much of the color fairy books, I liked them well enough at ten years old. They certainly didn’t have anything that stuck in my head like Tolkien, which I also read at that age.

    • PC Bushi says:

      Ouch, poor Lang.

      To be fair, I don’t think Tolkien was criticizing the value or quality of Lang’s work. He was touchy about the categorization of many of the stories.

      I don’t really remember the Fairy Book stories either, though I do remember seeking the out at libraries as a kid. Still, I’m glad they exist. Lang may not have been an exceptional author, but he was arguably a damned good collector and anthologist.

    • deuce says:

      Lang was kinda slapdash in what he threw into his books. Kind of the Lin Carter of the late Victorian era. However, as an author/editor, he did have to keep cranking out books, so I can see why he let certain stories slide. JRRT’s problem with it seems *somewhat* akin to JCW’s aversion to calling the Gormenghast books “fantasy”. Tolkien saw no true magic or “Faery” in some of the tales Lang published.

      As yet another demonstration of HRH’s centrality to the rise of modern SFF, H. Rider Haggard was a respected friend of Lang’s. The two collaborated on a novel.

  • B&N says:

    Does “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” have a hidden message? – David B. Parker

    http s://www .youtube. com/watch?v=7Lg4vjRY4Ts

  • I did not make the comment you remember, albiet I also remember it. Was it Razorfist?

    • PCBushi says:

      Thanks for the correction, John!

    • B&N says:

      “These are the comments you’re looking for.”

      -“These aren’t the comments we’re looking for.”

      “He can go about his business.”

      -“You can go about your business.”

      “Move along.”

    • anonme says:

      Yeah. It was Razorfist. If I remember correctly, you are the one that made the scathing comments about the Author of Wicked missing the point of the Wizard of Oz.

  • deuce says:

    I was already reading pulp fiction when I was 8yrs old. Thus, I didn’t read as much children’s lit as some. That said, I did read the first book by Baum and a couple others by Ruth Plumly Johnson.

    Baum and ERB actually met several years after Ed became a success. Burroughs’ earliest literary effort, “Minidoka”, was likely inspired by the Oz books, though the influence of Swift can never be ruled out. Lin Carter was always a booster for the Oz books.

    Baum should be appreciated, IMO. There is definitely a place for his type of fiction. A welcome antidote to HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES.

  • Carbonel says:

    Andrew Lang also wrote a pretty decent fairy story of his own: Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo.


    Though my favorite modern fairy tale is by A.A.Milne. Yes. that Milne: “Once on a Time”


    • Jesse Lucas says:

      Prince Prigio was a little smug, but I loved it when it was read to me and when I reread it as an adult. I pity the kids who never knew that remora is also a term for an ice creature.

      I wouldn’t even call Baum fairy stories. He wrote weird tales for kids.

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