We have never taken a prolonged look at the corpus of Oz books by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) and that is something we will do in 2017. They are perhaps the most important and accomplished work of sustained fantasy in the 20th Century (take that, J.R.R. Tolkien!), with the first six books in the series being especially delightful. We will fix his absence in these pages soon.
As an appetizer, and considering the holidays are upon us, I thought I’d take a look at the only collection of short stories in the Oz canon, The Little Wizard Stories of Oz, written in 1913 and collected in 1914, with illustrations by the greatest of the Oz artists, John R. Neill (1877-1943).
The stories were conceived by Baum and his publisher, Reilly & Britton, and were intended for publication in little booklets for each story (each costing 15 cents). The Oz books were traditionally written for middle readers – ‘tweens,’ in today’s lexicon – while these short stories were created for very young readers. Baum and company hoped to generate interest in Oz at a very early age, and continue to promote Baum and all of his books into a brand name for kiddie lit.
Because of the younger audience, Baum tones down a bit of the irony and pun-play found in his longer books, and the plots are significantly less intricate. But taken on a level of simple fun and games in the land of Oz, these stories are unbeatable.
There are six stories in the book, with three of them being particularly charming. In The Cowardly Lion and the Hungry Tiger, both big cats are bored standing guard at the throne of Ozma, princess of Oz. The Hungry Tiger would particularly like to eat a little baby, while the Cowardly Lion is eager to maul some innocent. They leave the castle and promptly come upon a lost baby and, later, the distraught mother – both ripe for consuming and mauling. The self-deceptions they use to avoid creating mayhem are hilarious, and very human.
Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse shows two of our favorite characters from the later novels work together to save a boy lost in the forests of Oz. This is particularly grand because Baum always tried to work out the absurdities of Oz to their most logical conclusions…. For example, since neither Jack nor the Sawhorse sleep, when night comes, they simply stand by the side of the road till daylight. (A somewhat disquieting image.) And when Jack’s pumpkin head is spoiled, he must go headless until he gets back home. There is more than enough to delight any child with a sense of whimsy here.
The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman features, perhaps, the two most famous characters in the series. When the two friends go boating, the Tin Man falls overboard. He lies at the bottom of the riverbed, his tin stuck in the soft earth. The Scarecrow would save him, but his straw would not allow him to submerge. The two finally escape with the help of some low comedy crows, but things get significantly better when the Wizard himself shows up.
The other stories, Little Dorothy and Toto, Tiktok and the Nome King and Ozma and the Little Wizard are all fine, and worthy of attention.
The book is available online, but can also be gotten in a low-cost hardcover reprint from Books of Wonder, complete with the original illustrations. Their Web site is: http://www.booksofwonder.com. For the Oz completest, or to introduce younger readers to the world Oz, it makes for amusing reading.