On Reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz for the First Time

I do not remember how old I was the first time I watched The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Probably it was before I was twelve, maybe even ten. Maybe earlier still. I remember being scared by the Wicked Witch, and even by the old Wizard himself. Both overwhelmed me. They seemed too big, too powerful. I identified with Dorothy. I longed to return to my own Kansas where, cyclones aside, life was ostensibly safer and certainly simpler.

But to be cast out of one’s known environs, well, that terrified me. And Toto, though Dorothy’s loyal dog, offered no large degree of protection from the dangers awaiting the child-protagonist Dorothy, and her soon-to-be new circle of friends: the Scarecrow (in need of brains/wisdom); the Tin Woodman (in need of a heart/compassion); and the Cowardly Lion (in need of courage).

If you were like I was, the Wicked Witch’s aquiline nose, bony structure, and eerie voice frightened you, too. She was comprised of sharp angles and harsh manners. She dressed in black and hunched over as if from mysterious and malevolent causes.

And cast into a new world of powers and forces to which she had hitherto been unaware was little Dorothy, from the American heartland, Kansas. Uncle Henry, the farmer, and Aunt Em, the farmer’s wife, made their humble way in their little farmhouse on the massive Kansas prairie.

And of course there was Toto, Dorothy’s little faithful black dog, always at her side. (In the novel, he is small and black. In the movie, I think he was a brown Yorkie. But I have not seen the film in many years now.) Having read the novel now, I may watch the film again, just to see if my views may have changed.

I read several reviews of the story by literary types who purported to be experts in fairy tales and/or nursery rhymes. Some reviewers alleged Baum’s story was primarily political allegory. The Tin Woodman, for example, was a symbol for Emperor Wilhelm of Germany and the Cowardly Lion was a symbol for England (Boston Review). I don’t know about all that. Possible … maybe.

When I was reading it, it kept occurring to me that Dorothy and her friends were each missing something. Their shared concern was, in sum, longing. Each longed for something. The Scarecrow longed for brains; the Tin Woodman longed for a heart; the Cowardly Lion longed for courage; and of course Dorothy longed to return home to Kansas to reunite with her family.

But they also shared some things. They were honest with one another. They were trustworthy. They grew to increasingly depend upon one another in their journey down the road paved with yellow bricks to the City of Emeralds, and to hopefully meet the Wizard, who could grant each one’s wish.

I suppose that the novel could have allegorical categories. But as one who read what the author himself said of his novel, that it was a story “in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out,” I take him at his word. I read a delightful story of a girl thrust upon a journey by forces bigger than she understood. She grappled with her familiar surroundings being stripped away. She learned to adapt. Toto, her beloved dog, was her only visible reminder of home. She made new friends. She learned who was trustworthy and who was not. She learned the values of honesty and courage and persistence. She learned the importance of home and hearth. She learned that good and evil are unavoidable categories. She learned how to press on amidst overwhelming odds. And she learned that joy is greater when we have loved ones with whom to share it.

Most of all, I’d say, Dorothy learned that what she wanted now was what she had before but didn’t appreciate. The Tin Woodman had a heart of compassion all along; the Lion had courage in the face of fear; the Scarecrow had a mind throughout. There were no magical spells to instill these qualities; they constituted virtues they had only to use.

Say what you will, but that is no small set of accomplishments for a story most of us encountered first as children. In my view, those accomplishments and ideas are important not just for childhood but all of life.

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