Thursday, March 7, 2013

Oz is an odd place

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a co-worker that somehow slanted towards children's literature and the Land of Oz. For the life of me, I cannot now remember how we got there, but there we were.

I'm a purist in such matters, so whenever I think of Oz, it's the original Oz from L. Frank Baum's novels. (He wrote 14 all-together.) The 1939 movie is brilliant and deservedly considered a classic, but it's Baum's fairy-land that represents the real Oz in my mind.

And whenever I think of Oz, I think of the 12th book in the series--1918's The Tin Woodsman of Oz. Because if you had a contest to identify the oddest plot in the history of children's literature, this book would definitely be in the running for first prize.

To set all this up, a little background information is required. Also, I'm going to have to pretty much spoil the book's ending to discuss it properly. You can read the book HERE if it's new to you.

Baum was a wonderful writer, with a straightforward prose style that just seemed to make the magical lands he wrote about all the more magical. He wrote a number of non-Oz books (The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus from 1902 being one of my favorites), but these never sold as well as the Oz series. So, just as Arthur Conan Doyle was stuck with Sherlock Holmes, Baum was stuck with Oz.

I don't think Baum was as annoyed by this situation as was Doyle. If he had an idea for a plot or a character that he had wanted to use in a non-Oz book, well, by golly, it wasn't that hard to make it fit into Oz itself instead.

Michael O. Riley, in his book Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, writes "...Baum now had no other outlet than the Oz series for his imaginative countries, and the fact that he funneled all his creative energies into Oz may be an indication that he had become reconciled to his readers' preferences for Oz stories above his other types of fantasies."

The result of this was Oz becoming more inherently magical and more bizarre than it had been in the original 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. To quote Riley once more: "In the first six books, Glinda is the principal source of good magic in Oz, and her magic is limited. In the last eight books, magic workers, magic implements, and the use of magic increase enormously."

It's this increase in magic and in the increasingly bizarre internal "logic" of Oz that made the plot of The Tin Woodsman possible. Now follow along closely, because this gets a tad bit convoluted:

In the original novels, the Tin Woodsman was not originally built from tin. He was, in fact, a human, in love with a young lady who worked for the Wicked Witch of the East (the witch that was eventually pancaked under Dorothy's house). Not wanting to lose her servant, the Witch put a curse on the Woodsman's ax, making it cut off a part of his body ever time he used it. He went to a tinsmith each time this happened, gradually getting his entire body replaced with tin. Why he kept using the same ax is not discussed. Then he's caught in a rain storm and rusts up until found by Dorothy and the Scarecrow. And he didn't have a heart at that time anyways, so he didn't love the girl anymore.

In Tin Woodsman, he's reminded that he never went to find his old girlfriend even after he got a heart. So, along with the Scarecrow and a kid named Woot the Wanderer, he sets off to find her and propose.

The trio have a series of odd individual adventures, reflecting the episodic nature of the later Oz books. They get trapped in the castle of a lady giant and transformed into animals. Woot is threatened by hungry dragons and the Scarecrow by a strange creature that eats straw. There's several other mini-adventures as well.

But this is okay, since each adventure is well-constructed, with the heroes coming up with clever solutions to extract themselves from trouble.

Finally, they stumble across a Tin Soldier. And, yes, the Soldier had fallen in love with the same girl, had his sword hexed by the Witch and had his body gradually replaced by tin through exactly the same circumstances.

That's bizarre enough, but things really get weird when they visit the tinsmith. He's still got some of their body parts stored away, including the Woodsman's original head. And nothing ever dies in Oz, so the Woodsman has an awkward conversation with his "meat" head.

Then things get really, really weird. They eventually find the girl, but she's already married. Because, you see, so the tinsmith was able to use magic "meat glue" to make a sort of Frankenstein being (named Chopfyt) out of body parts originally belonging to both the Woodsman and the Soldier.

The following conversation ensues:

The girl: "...I married him because he resembled you both. I won't say he is a husband to be proud of, because he has a mixed nature and isn't always an agreeable companion. There are times when I have to chide him gently, both with my tongue and with my broomstick. But he is my husband, and I must make the best of him."
"If you don't like him," suggested the Tin Woodman, "Captain Fyter and I can chop him up with our axe and sword, and each take such parts of the fellow as belong to him. Then we are willing for you to select one of us as your husband."
"That is a good idea," approved Captain Fyter, drawing his sword.
"No," said Nimmie Amee; "I think I'll keep the husband I now have. He is now trained to draw the water and carry in the wood and hoe the cabbages and weed the flower-beds and dust the furniture and perform many tasks of a like character. A new husband would have to be scolded—and gently chided—until he learns my ways. So I think it will be better to keep my Chopfyt, and I see no reason why you should object to him. You two gentlemen threw him away when you became tin, because you had no further use for him, so you cannot justly claim him now. I advise you to go back to your own homes and forget me, as I have forgotten you."

So that's that. The girl lives happily ever after with Chopfyt and the Tin Woodsman returns home thinking that it all might have worked out for the best anyways.

When I recounted this tale to my co-worker, she suggested that Baum had family issues reflected in this situation. I did a little research into Baum, though, and it seems that he was happily married. But there is one interesting incident recounted in L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, by Katharine M Rogers.
Frank brought home a dozen jelly donuts one day. His wife Maud was chagrined, wondering if this was a criticism of the food she brought home. She then proceeded to serve him a donut each day--even after they had grown stale. Frank learned his lesson. Maud was the queen of the household and Frank wouldn't be bringing home any food unless she ordered it.
So Frank was well-trained, just as Nimmie Amee trained Chopfyt. I have a feeling that Baum was getting in a loving "Take That" at his wife. 

Which, if true, doesn't make the plot or the resolution of The Tin Woodsman of Oz any less bizarre. Because Oz was indeed an odd place.


  1. this was the second sequel book I read in the OZ series (it was hit or miss at the library, so I took what I could get). I loved it, lots of monsters and general weirdness, as you describe. at 9 or so years old, you just accept it.

    great write up as always.

    Baum did try to end the series at five books, I think- "The Emerald City of OZ", when they bring Aunt Em and Uncle... Uncle... Henry (can't believe I just blanked that) to OZ to live.

    have you read "A Barnstormer in OZ" by the late Philip Jose Farmer? it's pretty good and a cool take on the series.

  2. I read a number of Farmer's books, but not that particular one. It seems I can never quite get around to reading everything.


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