At the end of the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wakes up in her room, relieved to be home after her journey to distant land of Oz. Her Aunt Em tells her, “You just had a bad dream.”
“But it wasn’t a dream,” insists Dorothy. “It was a place.”
My journey through L. Frank Baum’s original Oz novels has brought me to the sixth book in the series, The Emerald City of Oz, and sure enough, Aunt Em will learn that Oz was no dream!
As the novel begins, we learn that Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are facing serious financial trouble. Henry had to take out a mortgage to pay for a new farmhouse after the first one was swept away by a tornado in the first book. Now the payment is due, but Henry hasn’t made enough money. All along, Princess Ozma has been asking Dorothy to move to Oz permanently. Given the dire straights in Kansas, Dorothy finally agrees, under the condition that Uncle Henry and Aunt Em also be allowed to move to Oz. The next day, Ozma uses her magic belt to yank Uncle Henry and Aunt Em to the magical land.
So where did this magic belt come from? That goes back to book 3, Ozma of Oz. The magic belt used to belong to the Nome King who lives across the deadly desert from Oz. Well, it turns out the Nome King wants his belt back and what’s more, he’s decided to take over the land of Oz. As the Nomes begin to tunnel under the deadly desert, the Nome general, Guph begins to recruit allies to help with the invasion.
While all this is going on, Dorothy decides to take her uncle and aunt on a tour of Oz. They’re accompanied by the wizard, the Shaggy Man, the sawhorse, Billina the Hen, and Toto. Along the way they see such sights as the land of the Fuddles inhabited by living 3-D jigsaw puzzles, a land populated by living paper dolls, and Bunnybury, a land of civilized rabbits. Fans of groan-worthy puns don’t want to miss Dorothy’s side trip to Utensia, a land of kitchen utensils. Eventually the party makes their way to the castle of the Tin Woodsman, who is now the Emperor of the Winkies. He’s learned about the Nome invasion and the whole group return to the Emerald City to warn Ozma and prepare a defense. Along the way, they pick up their old friends the Scarecrow and Jack Pumpkinhead.
The steampunk in me was delighted when Dorothy suggests that airships might be a great way to get around Oz. Then after that, the wizard realizes that could be a problem, after all, he arrived in a balloon and Dorothy made her first trip by cyclone. If airships become too numerous in our world, they may eventually find Oz. Not only did I enjoy the reference to airships, I loved how this further suggested that Oz was a real place in our world one could just travel to, assuming one could cross the deadly desert that separated it from the rest of the world.
I have to admit, I’ve long been conflicted about the ending of the 1939 film. The problem I run into arguably isn’t the fault of anyone involved in the writing or production of the classic movie. Dorothy’s return home is nicely handled and the audience can draw their own conclusions about whether Oz was a dream or not. In fact, in the Oz novels, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry don’t believe in Oz until they’re brought there in the sixth book. The problem I have is that I’ve seen too many fantasy stories after The Wizard of Oz that send a hero into a fantasy world, give the hero many heart-wrenching, death-defying adventures, and then bring them back home to discover “it was only a dream.”
What I don’t like is the cliché. If I invest myself in a fantasy story, if the characters engage me enough, I want to believe the world they inhabit could exist. I want to believe that my concern for the character had been justified. I want to believe airships could fly over the fantasyland by accident. The Wizard of Oz screenwriters had good narrative reasons for its ending. If you’re going to put me through a harrowing emotional journey, then tell me the whole experience was just dream, you better have reasons that are just as good or you’ll lose me as a reader.