July 3, 2006 Monday
It seems that the Yellowbrick Road is not as straight a path as it let on. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as sat in my bunk’s small metal box, waiting to be read for almost two months, but I resisted, going for supposedly meatier fare. After all it’s a children story, a fairy tale, right? Until it is read.
At least for me, it took holding the actual book written by Baum in my hands to suddenly realize, soon after the cyclone had departed off stage, to realize it is, at least on the surface, the American reflection of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Dorothy’s literary cousin was written only several years before Baum’s own publication in 1900. I suddenly wanted to write a brief comparative piece on the two rich works, wondering at all the suddenly new symbolism.
Nothing says hard research like a Google search, and a quick lookup of the two books offered little, other than connections to The Matrix. Have some people have nothing better to do with their lives? But let us move on.
First the similarities. Both are tales of a young girl (though, perhaps purposefully and cannot be overlooked, on the verge of entering her own Red Tent). Carroll was inspired by three girls he was close to, one named Alice, but I do not know if L. Frank Baum had a young daughter or other similar muse to serve as the template of Dorothy, or if Alice herself was enough. While Alice does have a cat named Dinah, it is not her pet that causes her to ultimately enter her new world, unlike Dorothy Toto who cause’s the girl to be tardy to the cellar. Both journeys are disorienting and each character has little control at this time but to go all for the ride, or fall, as it occurs.
Also immediately, in both Wonderland and Oz, each girl is required to become oriented into her new reality quickly. Yet it is Alice who is more questioning, for the good it does her, and while Dorothy asks questions of the Munchkins and the Witch of the East, she goes along more willingly. For while Oz is strange, comparatively to the overtly grey imagery of Kansas, Baum takes pain in stressing, the characters are much more straightforward in both their approach and manner. Much more American, one could say, than the complex riddling figures Alice confronts, which seems like perfect word to
use, given the often combative nature of each Wonderland conversation. To assist them each are given supernatural items, for Alice her magical food and drink, for Dorothy her silver shoes of vague “charm.”
What struck me most profound, and perhaps the key to the difference between the American and British version of this essentially same tale, was the involvement of the characters outside of Alice and Dorothy, the focal point of this argument being derived from two points. First, while Alice meets a number of Wonderland residents, they are all confined within their own scene, and none venture further with her along her journey, save the old White Knight, and then only for a brief time. Whether it is the Cheshire cat, the Carpenter and Walrus, the Mad Tea Party, or Tweedledee and Tweedledum, they are all confined to their own small part of the world, and operate independently from the reason and logic of the remainder of the world. This might be necessary, as they are all conflicting views. Rather Carroll waits until the climax of Alice to bring the strings together in Alice’s trial by the Queen of Hearts. The characters in their own way remain distant, and quite British in this regard, not companions of Alice by merely points along her path. The story then is of Alice almost singularly, and the rest of the cast relegated to odd, fascinating stop offs.
Oz on the other hand, is defined by journey of discovery as a group, not as a single individual. The story is one of addition, in which Dorothy gains her allies one after another, each adding their own strengths, their unique flaws supplemented by the larger whole. It becomes a story of friendship and unity. Is this a more “American” response, especially given the country was still in the twilight of its great Manifest Destiny, in which man set out to tame the wilderness? Perhaps it is only with a backwards glance this would seem off, or that turn of the century’s ideals was turning more toward community than the rough and rustic individualism so prominent in the 19th-century’s pioneers and Western cowboys. Also worth mentioning as American is the none-too-subtle placement of Oz’s civility, The North being home of a good witch, the East being the home of the settled Munchkins (though before Dorothy’s arrival under the slavery of a witch), while the Realm of the Winkies, the West, happens to be the last bastion of Wickedness in the land. Beyond this the Scarecrow serves as American’s agrarian past, being found first, and the United State’s industrial era being discovered second in the Tin-man. Perhaps we are still to be overthrown by wildlife then? I have read that the wizard was based on the orator and presidential candidate, Illinois’ own William Jennings Bryan, as a commentary of the close of the Victorian era.
Finally, and most central to Oz, is the fulfillment of the four main characters, each seeking the one thing that supposedly they lack. In Scarecrow’s hallow head, Tin Woodsman’s empty chest, and the Lion’s lack of nerve, they are all on a quest that is equal to that of the main character, and perhaps when summed are the three qualities all need to feel at home, wherever one might be. Each of the companions is blessed with their own logic and reasoning, at times belaying the need for the qualities they seek. Baum as much as states this, calling the Scarecrow “thoughtful,” and the Tin Woodsman “polite” and “very grateful,” the hallmarks of developed a brain and heart. Yet the characters debate the value of each, and which is greatest, the Tin Woodsman calling a need for a heart far greater than the brain he owns, which the Scarecrow must take issue with. In this way perhaps humans will always both be in search of a peace we might already
have but not realize, and not be content with the gifts we already have. Is life a journey for all three, and is there a fourth, or fifth?
In the end, Alice seems more a commentary on society’s quiet madness, of course with a quite English bent, with less an emphasis in growth. Alice can not so much change or deviate, but only endure. She changes little over the course of the story, and denizens of Wonderland become no better for her visit. While I do not think Oz is a greater or essentially American tale because of its development theme, it does carry forward the ideas of Alice and in the end make the Oz characters more fleshed out, for the simple children’s fable it is, and thus more accessible to our modern sensibilities