The Wonderful Wizardry of Words

Writing in the Winter 2010/Spring 2011 edition of the Folio Magazine, Maria Tatar uncovers the real magic in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.


Photograph of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum

L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz draws its power from a deceptively simple conflict: the Small and Meek girl from Kansas comes up against the Great and Terrible Oz. Today, even over a century after its publication in 1900, the book (as well as the 1939 MGM movie based on it) remains alive with kinetic energy, frightening us with its Winged Monkeys, charming us with its Munchkins, and astonishing us with its dazzling Emerald City. It has inspired prequels and sequels, musicals and films, adaptations and parodies, spin-offs and re-creations. Our ongoing cultural romance with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz becomes evident in the unending citations, homages and nods in its direction. ‘You’re not in Kansas anymore,’ a character proclaims in James Cameron’s Avatar, echoing the words of countless cinematic forebears.

L. Frank Baum may have been a wizard with words, but he had his ups and downs when it came to business. He managed a theatrical touring company for a time, writing scripts and occasionally playing leads, despite financial setbacks and physical disasters (his play Matches went up in smoke when the theatre caught fire). In South Dakota, he opened a dry-goods store that went bankrupt, tried to sell finger bowls to homesteaders, and edited a local newspaper that failed. In Chicago, Baum wrote for the Evening Post, published a magazine about window displays, and worked as a travelling salesman, all the while selling fireworks on the side. A literary breakthrough came in 1897 with the publication of Mother Goose in Prose, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz followed just three years later to become the most successful children’s book of 1900. It went on to sell ninety thousand copies in a mere two years, enabling Baum to abandon his entrepreneurial activities and devote himself fully to the sorcery of words and music – in print, on stage and at the movies.

In Oz, L. Frank Baum created a land with so many high-wattage attractions that the flat, grey Kansas prairie could hardly compete with it. Yet once Dorothy brings happiness to her three ‘good friends’ and provides them with kingdoms over which they can rule, she unequivocally announces her allegiance to home. ‘I think I should like to go back to Kansas,’ she declares without a trace of ambivalence. Once in Kansas, returning to Oz is no longer an option, for, as we learn in the very last sentence of Oz, the silver shoes fell off Dorothy’s feet during her flight through the air and were ‘lost forever’ in the desert. If there is any moral at all to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it is in the now proverbial truth that there is no place like home. In the end, Dorothy wholeheartedly declares the victory of the ordinary over the irrational and extravagant.

Sara Ogilivie illustration for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Illustration © Sara Ogilvie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 2010

The mild-mannered aeronaut who travelled by balloon to Oz turns out to be just as meek as Dorothy and about the same size. He has, as it turns out, no magical powers at all and is more like a child than an adult, for, as he confesses: ‘I have been making believe.’ Even the Emerald City is nothing but a sham. ‘When you wear green spectacles,’ he admits, ‘why of course everything you see looks green to you.’

Once Dorothy discovers that Oz is nothing but a ‘humbug’ who uses ventriloquism and other shabby sideshow deceptions in order to make himself look like a charismatic wonder, she also understands that she must rely on more than magic to get back home. In the chapter entitled ‘The Magic Art of the Great Humbug’, it becomes evident that the man who has been celebrated as the ‘Great Wizard’ is a charlatan. Yet his powers are not completely undone, for he displays a true dignity and wisdom when he unveils a ‘magic art’ that does not have a touch of fraudulence to it.

Illustration by Sara Ogilvie for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Illustration © Sara Ogilvie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 2010

When the Wizard endows the Scarecrow with ‘bran-new’ brains, ‘fills’ the Lion with courage, and makes a heart for the Tin Woodman, he reveals to the girl from the Great Plains that his real power resides in the ability to operate with the symbolic dimension of language and to endow others with confidence in what they already possess. In a ceremony that illustrates the power to do things with words and reinforces our faith in the performative dimension of language, the Wizard teaches Dorothy that she herself has the power to return to Kansas. As Glinda points out, ‘Your silver shoes will carry you over the desert. If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.’

Dorothy not only puts on the silver shoes, she also utters the words: ‘Take me home to Aunt Em!’ In this liminal moment, poised between Oz and Kansas, Dorothy divines the deep magic of the Great Humbug, the wizardry that all children see in the authority adults wield through language. Grown-ups can make things happen. When they assert desires and issue imperatives, they also inaugurate actions. Dorothy has taken instruction from the Good Witch and the Great Humbug. They are the tutors who train her in the art of mobility, teaching her how to return to Kansas on her own.

Illustration by Sara Ogilvie for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Illustration © Sara Ogilvie, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 2010

L. Frank Baum created a story that is to all appearances simple and straightforward, yet it nonetheless engages with the complexities of language and its authoritative force in profound ways. Baum surrounds Dorothy with figures of deep symbolic importance as well. In the trio of companions accompanying Dorothy on her travels through Oz, we find allegorical representations of three virtues that go far toward explaining not only what Dorothy, the child inside the story, will need to navigate the real world but also what the child outside the story can develop through the reading experience. Brains, heart and courage – Baum’s inventory reveals the importance of what also go by the names of curiosity, compassion and confidence.

Yeats tells us that ‘masterful images’ grow in ‘pure mind’, but that they also all have trivial origins – ‘a mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street’. It was L. Frank Baum’s genius to begin with ‘the Small and Meek’, to add to it dry straw, rusty tin and raw fear, and finally to place them all in a land ablaze with colour and bursting with a radiant life force. Dorothy may have lost the silver shoes on her flight over the desert, but we return to Oz (as she herself does in the sequels), drawn there time and again by it magnetic beauty.


This is an edited version of Maria Tatar’s introduction to the Folio Society’s edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum, which is available now.

Maria Tatar is Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and a leading authority in the fields of folklore and children’s literature.

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