Off to find a wizard

March 5th, 2011

wizard_of_ozThe story of Dorothy, the Tin-Man, the Cowardly Lion, two witches, a wizard, a bunch of munchkins, a house, a tornado, a place called Oz, and the brave, if wayward, little Toto, is a modern fairy story with a venerable bloodline.

Written in 1900, famously released as a movie in 1939, Oz creator L Frank Baum said he was influenced by Alice in Wonderland, (he couldn’t understand a word of the plot but realised that a young girl makes the perfect heroine) and by the classic tales of Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen – but Baum wanted wonder without horror – not for him the grisly miseries of poked out eyes and chopped off feet.

Still, Dorothy manages manslaughter and murder – her house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East and she melts the Wicked Witch of the West. The scarecrow is set on fire. All fairy stories have nastiness in them. We love them partly because we know the witch will be shoved in the oven or melted. Imagine if the witches causing havoc to the ordinary folk had been given large bonuses instead…

There is a rough justice in fairy stories – which is why they are sometimes criticised for being too black and white, not complex enough for kids in the modern world. But the stories – any of them – Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Alice, Oz, are psychologically astute: What drives us? What causes us to fail? How do we succeed? Who can we trust? What is the difference between instinct and commonsense? Is good advice always the best advice?

The animal helper is a central feature of enduring fairy stories, and Oz begins and ends with the intervention of Dorothy’s dog Toto. Toto kickstarts the story by biting the Kansas busybody Miss Gulch – who will soon re-appear as the Wicked Witch of the West. At the end it is Toto who jumps out of the Wizard’s balloon as they are about to go home, forcing Dorothy to realise her own powers of travel and transformation. She doesn’t need a guy to give her a ride.

There is nothing moralistic or heavy-handed about Oz – that’s why it works, and it was the lack of moralising that Baum loved in Alice in Wonderland. Yet, Oz is a perfect self-help manual; its message is that we already have what we need to get through life, and we will meet people on the way who may not fit the bill of society’s demands, (Tin-Man, Scarecrow), or our own assumptions, (Lion), but they will become our real friends.

Authority – and you can read this as male authority if you like – is bogus. Nobody needs a Wizard. A Good Witch is a good idea though, and always be nice to dogs.