8.22.2013

Apples Falling From the Baum

F. Clement - d'Aulnoy's L'oiseau bleu

Amidst TAing an “Enjoyment of Music” summer session at UCSB and preparing to teach “Survey of Western Music” at Westmont beginning next week, I’ve been getting in a little last-minute reading. This summer has been an enthusiastic adventure through a variety of books concerning fairy tales: from Propp’s morphological theorizing and Todorov’s definition of the “fantastic” to bios of George MacDonald to fascinating contes by seventeenth-century, female, French writers like d'Aulnoy and l’Héritier, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s bizarre Der goldene Topf. I recently finished a book entitled Out of the Woods: The Origins of the Literary Fairy Tale in Italy and France, a collection of essays by prominent fairytale scholars, which gives a wide swath of perspectives and analytical positions to consider and apply in my own thinking. I’m having fun!

With this exploratory thought-lust in mind, I’ve made some preliminary observations concerning one of our read-out-loud-while-my-amazing-wife-prepares-dinner books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Since I’m currently diving into a chapter entitled "Inverting and Subverting the World with Hope: The Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum" by Jack Zipes, which is sure to give me a lot to think about, I’d better get out my initial perspective out now before anything else happens.

Frank, pensive style


What initially struck me was Baum's introduction, a short one-page disclaimer in which he advocates for fairy tale modernization (particularly doing away with old European motifs, characters, and gruesome scenes) and aims at creating stories of pure, juvenile entertainment (Dorothy's innocence is a constant theme throughout the book). This strikes me a a pretty gutsy and bravura move and it brings a lot of questions to mind:

1. Does Baum succeed in divorcing himself from European tradition? His narrative structure seems particularly Proppian; his characters, though packaged differently, function much like those from a stock fairy tale; and the amount of gruesomeness tends to rival that found in some Grimm stories, for instance Dorothy viewing a decomposing corpse upon entry to the Land of Oz, as well as frequent and well-nigh habitual decapitation and dismemberment by the Tin Woodman's axe. Even as I write this, however, I wonder if there is a symbolic gesture involved in the violence. What if the Wicked Witches of the East and West somehow stand in for European tradition itself, something that Dorothy's purity must somehow (effectively yet simultaneously innocently) eradicate, both by the fall of the house (building something new over old foundations?) and through the cleansing power of water...

2. What about the dialectic between childish entertainment and moralizing symbolism? Baum's self-conscious story advocates for the former, but his pugnacious introduction, seemingly directed at adult purchasers/readers complicates matters. It makes me critical of the fantastic elements in the story as I attempt to understand their potential purpose and position. It seems like the fantasy can act in at least three ways:
     A. As pure childish fancy: primary colors, glittering objects (so much you have to wear protective eye-wear), wondrous exoticisms, delicious fruits, soft sheets... in effect anything that gives a sense of delightfulness and potency as wonder-inducing symbols for youth. Seen in this light, it would seem that Baum's choices are nearly random. Does it matter that the Munchkins like blue and the Winkies like yellow? Why a Stork? Why Wolves and Bees? Why this appearance of symbolism, of potential? Why does unmasking the power structure (the Wizard as a humbug) accomplish so little in the paradigm of the story?
     B. As cultural critique: I read somewhere that Baum may have had a "yellow-brick road = money power structures" vendetta. Maybe also an American/democratic, anti-monarchical message? But in the end, despite the Wizard's banishment, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all become monarchs... I don't have any biographical knowledge that could enrich this idea as of yet, plus ideological application is so tricky.
     C. As a tongue-in-cheek, adult-directed message: the brainless Scarecrow a great thinker, the heartless Tin Woodman constantly crying and sighing, the frightened Lion facing death to protect his friends. Where is Propp's Lack? Where is the real problem that must be fixed? Also, the use of "magic" seems extremely complicated: sometimes mere smoke-and-mirrors; sometimes, genuinely borrowed from Europe (Dorothy's silver slippers and petit Poucet's seven-league boots); and sometimes so random as to appear ridiculous (the Good Witch of the North balancing her pointed hat on her nose and counting to three, as it turns into a writing tablet)... Does magic exist here or not? Is it powerful or not? Does it matter? Who makes things happen? Who has power?

3. Lastly, why has it become such a powerful American cultural symbol? The MGM movie, The Wiz musical, Wicked the book and the musical? Does it contain something potent after all it's deconstruction?

W.W. Denslow

What do you think? What pops out at you when you experience this story? What do you like, dislike, not understand? Why did they change the color of her slippers in the movie!?!?

2 comments:

  1. Interesting points! I remember hearing that they changed the color of her shoes in the movie because the color screen tested better or something like that :)

    It's been years since I read the book (in 9th grade because our school was doing The Wizard of Oz as our musical), but I remember being a bit surprised by how much more gruesome it was even than the movie. And the movie definitely scared me as a kid!

    As a side note, one of the most interesting conversations I've ever had about fairy tales was with friends at a summer program in the CR. The European versions of our fairy tales and the ones they have there that we don't have are SO much more gruesome and also politically incorrect. It's crazy!

    Anyway, glad you're finding time to read good stuff. It makes me want to just take over in the kitchen so I can make John read to me :)

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    1. Jack Zipes has a chapter called "Who's Afraid of the Grimms" which I'm sure will get into traditions behind fairy tale scariness. Disney did a pretty good job getting rid of all that stuff for us in the US.

      Totally give reading out loud a shot! It's a lot of fun, especially if you throw in unique voices for each character.

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