The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

“Follow the Yellow Brick Road, follow the Yellow Brick Road, follow, oh follow, oh follow, oh follow, oh follow the Yellow Brick Road.” That line, sung in the high-pitched voices given to the Munchkins in the 1939 MGM film, The Wizard of Oz, has stuck with me since I first saw the film when I was six years old, on a 12” diagonal black-and-white TV.

Despite my monochromatic first introduction to the Yellow Brick Road, I have always been struck by the journey of Dorothy and her three champions (and Toto, too).

I first read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I was 10. I was up all night with some sort of flu, and Dorothy and the inhabitants of Oz were my only company through the night. It was my first realization that the film version of a book can vary quite a bit from the book. And this one does vary quite a bit.

There are lots of other peoples than the Munchkins, who are only in the Eastern part of Oz; to the West live the Winkies, who unwillingly serve as the Witch’s minions – in the film these must be the guys dressed up with fur-collared coats – we never get the name Winkies, though. To the South (yes, Dorothy visits the South too), the Quadlings live.

The Quadlings are ruled by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, while the Good Witch of the North, an old woman in the book, is not named. In the film, we never see the Good Witch of the South.

There are other changes as well – the Ruby Slippers in the film are Silver Shoes in the book. The switch to Ruby was made because it shows up so much better in Technicolor. Like their ruby cousins, the Silver Shoes were the possession of the Wicked Witch of the East, and given to Dorothy, who is unaware of the great power they have. When the travelers get to Oz, they are given special glasses that everyone in Oz wears – it is the green glasses that make all seem green – though none of the characters seem to realize this.

The four do not get to see the Wizard all at the same time; each is called in for an audience on subsequent days, and each sees a different manifestation of Oz. Dorothy sees a disembodied, floating head (no flames); the Scarecrow sees a beautiful woman; the Tin Woodman sees a monstrous beast that looks like a giant rhinoceros, but with five arms, legs and eyes; and the Lion sees a great fireball.

The four travelers come to Oz each seeking something they lack. The Scarecrow wants brains, the Tin Woodman a heart, the Lion courage, and Dorothy a way home to Kansas. But Dorothy’s three companions show that they already have that which they thought they lacked.

The Lion is the most remarkable, for he understands the need to appear courageous and tough, even when he doesn’t feel it, and he and Dorothy (with Toto) face the Wicked Witch of the West alone, the Scarecrow and Woodman showing up only when the witch is dead. Bert Lahr’s wonderful mugging for the camera in the film as the lion who needs to be pushed into showing courage, here takes it on himself as he aims to defend Dorothy against the witch.

What I was most struck by when I read this novel as a kid – and I was struck again this time – was that the encounter with the Wicked Witch of the West was very short, and that the departure of Oz in the balloon took place with almost a third of the book left. There is no quick clicking of the shoes and an awakening from a dream here.

Baum does not present Oz as some figment of Dorothy’s imagination, but as a real place (one to which, a few books later, Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry will move) – and this accounts for a dozen or so sequels. To get home to Kansas, Dorothy must travel to the South to the land of the Quadlings to see Glinda, the beautiful Witch of the South (Glinda in the film serves as the sole good witch), who points out that the Silver Shoes have great power and can take her back to Kansas, and they do.

Also worth noting in this children’s book is the use of bad puns. Where the Wizard in the 1939 film makes a sly and ironic commentary on the distinction between “wisdom” and “education,” there is nothing like that here. As a reward for his part in taking care of the Wicked Witch of the West, the only real threat to Oz, the Wizard opens the Scarecrow’s head, removes some of the straw, and replaces it with a mixture of bran, and pins. The Scarecrow now has a swelled and misshapen head, but he’s now deemed intelligent because he has “bran-new brains” and everyone can see the pins and knows that he’s “sharp.”

L. Frank Baum was a failure at most of the business ventures he attempted. Where he was successful was in creating a place called Oz and populating it with all sorts of fantastic creatures. In many ways, he is a lot like the title character of this book – something of a con man, who managed to create a fantastic world, which, if you put on your emerald glasses, can just come into view.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.