Until You Find the Key to Your Life

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

There was a documentary on BBC Radio 4 over Christmas about Alice — a couple of books to which I sometimes have an allergic reaction — that said something along the lines of the Alice books became popular in the 1960s in America because the US had had no fantasy aside from the Oz books.

Ho hum.

But presumably Alice is a taproot text — a young girl who falls into a fantastical world and undergoes an almost random series of encounters before returning home. Baum gives the story more architecture: there is the journey to the City of Emeralds; the journey to the Wicked Witch of the West and the return to the Emerald City. She is given more defined companions, each with a quest of their own: the Scarecrow; the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. A recurring trope in the book is their restatement of their needs, a fairy tale recurring rhetorical structure.

The gimmick is surely clear from the perennial Newtonmas screenings of the film version — the titular Wizard is a humbug and you must search for the hero inside yourself. (Incidentally this is a variation on the anti-technology sf movie dependent on technology to narrate its tale — the fantasy narrative distrustful of fantasy and illusions.) The Wizard isn’t who he claims to be and that is a Bad Thing, but the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion must pretend to be who they want to be and that is a Good Thing.

The book doesn’t have the is-it-a-dream-or-not? frame of the film, in which various farmhands are anticipatory doubles of her companions. The farm sequence is pretty brief, barely a chapter, as Baum clearly knows to get her to the fantasy land as soon as he can. On the other hand, there’s little sense of why she wants to go home (although in the film it makes no sense at all). The flying monkeys are less scary than they become in the movie, as indeed is the Wicked Witch. If more incidents are thrown at Dorothy and the gang in the book than the film, they are dealt with chapter by chapter. Can one whisper the film is an improvement on the novel? Or maybe got to me first.

I think a comment needs to be made on gender, and the power vacuums created and filled by the narrative. Oz is divided into four segments, North and South ruled by good witches, West and East are ruled by bad witches. Four domains, four female rulers. The central zone is the Emerald City, built by the humbug wizard (but see The Marvelous Land of Oz) In the course of the novel two of the women are killed and one is replaced by a male character (it is not clear who rules Munchkinland, but presumably Dorothy has squatter’s rights). The male Wizard is replaced by the male Scarecrow, marking a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. The novel was written in the era of the New Woman and an era of suffragism.

Perhaps this will become significant in the sequel.

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“We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us”

From “’We Has Found the Enemy and They Is Us’: Virtual War and Empathy in Four Children’s Science Fiction Novels’, The Lion and the Unicorn (2004), 28(2): pp. 171-185

[This article in part draws on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who argues that the self has to respond to the other’s right to be and to aid the other, even at expense to the self. This philosopher was central to my PhD. The other three novels were Gillian Rubinstein’s Space Demons (1986), Robert Westall’s Gulf (1992) and Gloria
Skurzynski’s
Virtual War (1997)]

There is a moment in Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (first published 1992) when the hero Johnny Maxwell watches some television: “There was a film on the News showing some missiles streaking over some city. It was quite good” (22). By comments in subsequent chapters it becomes clear that the military action being shown is the Gulf War of 1991, a war which Jean Baudrillard has argued did not take place, and which for the children who are central to Only You Can Save Mankind has taken on the shape of a video game; indeed, they hear that the bombers have grown up playing such games:

“There was a man on the box saying that the bomb-aimers were so good because they all grew up playing computer games,” said Wobbler.
“See?” said Johnny. “That’s what I mean. Games look real. Real things look like games.” (116)

The virtual Gulf War is counterpointed with the computer game Only
You Can Save Mankind, which Johnny has started playing and indeed
entered into.

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