The Wizard’s Return to Oz

My wife and I share a love of great science fiction and fantasy. When we met, she had a large collection of great books and that collection has only grown. In that collection were most of the 29 Oz novels published by Del Rey Books in the 1980s. These were lovely editions of the novels featuring realistic covers by Michael Herring, inspired by John R. Neill’s original illustrations. I went back to the shelf the other day to appreciate them, when I learned this month was the 165th birthday of L. Frank Baum, the original Royal Historian of Oz.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Oz novels. In a very real way, they were the first long-running fantasy series. They inspired early silent movies and Baum even created a comic strip featuring some of the Oz characters. The first novel in the series would, of course, inspire one of Hollywood’s most famous films, the 1939 Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. It’s a truly magical and wondrous film, but it’s really only the beginning of the trip down the proverbial yellow brick road. You don’t have to read many of the books to see that Baum had an incredible imagination. Each book features a whole array of new and colorful characters and creatures.

I’m sorry to say I haven’t read quite as many of the books as I should, and I’ve vowed to continue my journey through Oz. Until this month, I’d read the first three novels in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz. So, I embarked on book four, The Wizard and the Dorothy in Oz. Of course, time is always a factor, and it’s not always easy to just pick up one book when I already have an extensive to-read pile threatening to topple over. This is when I had a sudden epiphany and realized Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain. I soon discovered that free audio editions of the books exist on Librivox.org. What’s more, the books are almost the perfect length to listen to during my commute from home to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory. So, now, I get to commute to work via the marvelous land of Oz!

As Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz opens, Dorothy and her Uncle Henry are visiting friends and relatives in California. As Dorothy meets up with Zeb the farm hand, an earthquake opens a fissure, sending them plummeting into the Earth along with Jim the Cab Horse and Dorothy’s kitten, Eureka. Fortunately, air gets thicker the further they go into the Earth and they land gently in a country inhabited by intelligent vegetables. Soon, the great and powerful Oz, the wizard who departed in a hot air balloon at the end of the first book reappears and joins Dorothy. All together they begin a quest to return to the surface world where they belong. Along the way they meet wooden gargoyles, invisible bears (oh my!), and even dragons. Eventually, in something of a deus ex machina twist, they end up in Oz, where their friend, Princess Ozma welcomes them with open arms. The wizard returns as a permanent resident of Oz, though he’s no longer the guy in charge.

The book takes some dark turns as our heroes travel from one dangerous land to another. What’s more, their troubles don’t end when they reach Oz. Jim finds himself in conflict with the sawhorse, who is faster and more robust its flesh-and-blood counterpart. Also, Eureka is put on trial when it’s suspected she ate Princess Ozma’s pet piglet. The book is not without its flaws, but it presents an original adventure with imaginative creatures and never once talks down to the kids in its audience. I’m looking forward to taking more trips to the land of Oz and seeing whatever strange folks I’ll meet.

14 comments on “The Wizard’s Return to Oz

  1. Roadtirement says:

    Had no idea that there were so many OZ novels. Have some exploration to do! And you work at Kitt Peak? What an interesting profession you have. I did my Masters at UofA in the early 70’s, and made a couple of trips out to the observatory.

    • I highly recommend checking out the original Oz novels. L. Frank Baum wrote the first 14 novels. After he died, the publisher continued the series all the way until World War II. There are some 36 canonical Oz novels in all written between 1900 and 1942. Of course, countless authors have done their own take on the world.

      Yes, Kitt Peak is an amazing place to work. I operate the Mayall 4-meter telescope which started operation 1972. Today we’re using it to literally make a 3-D map of the known universe with the goal of understanding dark energy.

      • Roadtirement says:

        I’ll definitely check out the novels. And I seem to remember a “new” telescope having just been installed at Kitt Peak.

      • The 70s was a period where a lot of new telescopes were being built on the mountain. The 4-meter is the largest telescope on the mountain and was definitely a world-class telescope in its day. I also work on the WIYN 3.5-meter, which was built in 1994.

  2. pendantry says:

    Kind of a tangent, but as you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy I’ll take a punt that you’ll appreciate me wishing you a hoopy Towel Day! 🙂

  3. Willow Croft says:

    Road trip for you all LOL 🙂 https://ozmuseum.com/

  4. As Oz existed presumably before any of us was born, one thing that’s often missed is how revolutionary the books were. (And that’s in addition to seeing them as the first long-running fantasy series.)

    While *The Wonderful Wizard of Oz* was preceded by *Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland*, the Alice book was a dream of a girl who largely went along with what happened, while the Oz story was a “real” adventure (and yes, it was made a dream in the 1939 film). The lead adventurer who rescued the scarecrow, “healed” the tin woodman, and encouraged the lion wasn’t a young man, but a young girl. The most powerful people in the land of Oz weren’t men, but four women.

    In one of the major early editions of the books, Baum’s powerful female Princess Ozma was made male. Some people weren’t too happy about Baum featuring strong females.

    • What’s more, another revolutionary aspect of Oz compared to Wonderland is that in Oz, Dorothy was an ordinary Kansas farm girl. In Wonderland, Alice was a girl of privilege. As you say, she went along with what happened, which is what you would expect from a girl of privilege. Dorothy make it’s through Oz with good old American gumption.

      Regarding Ozma, consider this: Ozma first appears as a young boy named Tip. Tip has to learn his true nature, which is to be a woman before he can become ruler of Oz. In a way, Baum gave us the first positive portrayal of a transgender person in literature.

      I’m sure you’re right that some people weren’t too happy about Baum’s positive portrayals of strong women. (Keep in mind, his mother-in-law was a leader of the suffragette movement.) However, Baum kept his portrayals light and innocent enough most people didn’t notice how revolutionary he was.

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