“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.