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Book Review: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

WWOOzIn the introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, illustrated by W. W. Denslow, the Chicago author writes that he aspires to create a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” Since it was published in 1900, his Oz stories, and this one in particular, have earned an enduring literary and cinematic legacy. Whether Baum achieves his goal is open to debate. But his main character, Dorothy, embodies the virtue of loyalty to herself in this coming of age tale about developing good character as the essence of adulthood.

Not that Baum had that in mind or even explicitly identifies the theme in his short children’s novel (I read the Signet Classic edition). But that’s what his fairy tale means, with Dorothy, who lives “in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife”, as the child on the brink of becoming an adult. As in MGM’s classic 1939 musical, her loyalty to herself is often displayed through her fierce protection of her smart and scrappy little dog, Toto.

The fantasy’s three wise men, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, carry the action throughout the strange, dark world of Oz. Baum’s original tale is less fanciful than the film, of course, without music and Technicolor and with the Wicked Witch of the West relegated to a single short section toward the end of the story. Here, unlike the film, the witch does not track the quartet with a crystal ball; their misfortunes and challenges arise organically most of the time. This allows for the depth of characterization that comes from a resourceful trio that each already embody the qualities they seek.

For example, Scarecrow confides to Dorothy that, with his head filled with straw, he wonders: “how am I ever to know anything?” The Tin Man, among the most developed characters, tells her that when he was a woodsman, he fell deeply in love with a Munchkin girl that lived with an old woman who “was so lazy she wished the girl to remain with her and do the cooking and the housework.” Intent upon stopping their union, the old woman enlists the Wicked Witch, who keeps cutting off the man’s body parts until his whole body is made of tin. But he keeps coming back until, finally, the girl cannot return the love of the one who is no longer the man with whom she fell in love. One day, it rains and he is left without his oilcan to rust in the woods. As the Tin Man tells Dorothy: “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth…”

The Cowardly Lion, too, considers himself deficient in certain ways while struggling to find courage. Each of the three represents the three basic literary conflicts; Scarecrow, who through no fault of his own is born without a brain, represents man versus nature; Tin Man, who is decapitated by an old woman’s wicked accomplice, represents man versus man and the Cowardly Lion, who goes after little dogs to mask his own fear, represents man versus himself. With Oz as the place to get mystical resolution, each eventually discovers that there is no such thing. Instead, they learn that it’s a hard life and that they will have to achieve their fullest virtues in action and earn their way to a joyful life. As the wizard, who is flawed but kind, tells Dorothy, “everyone must pay for everything he gets. Help me and I will help you.”

For her part, the witch is cruel. When she learns that the girl whose house landed on and killed her sister is traveling with an entourage, she tells a pack of uber-wolves: “Go to those people and tear them to pieces.” The witch is both magical and evil but her powers are less than omnipotent and, as a villain, she is an ultimately small and insignificant slavemistress. The violence depicted is jarring and the subtext of a modern girl trying to make sense of the world around her is compelling, and, if Baum’s story remains unusual, dark and strange, it is also engrossing and still relevant over 100 years after it was published. The theme of making one’s own character in a cruel yet beautiful world remains a striking piece of fiction, especially for a character that’s a girl. At one point, take-charge Dorothy, whose journey in Oz differs in significant ways from the MGM film adaptation, steps up and plainly asks: “Can you straighten out those dents in the tin Woodman, and bend him back into shape again, and solder him together where he is broken?” This can-do Midwestern spirit permeates a classic American children’s tale.

Book Review: The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen

TUDRipplecoverThe Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen (English translation by H.P. Paull, ilustrations by Ripple Digital Publishing Corp.) is a brilliantly written fable. I recently re-read it and found that, in its own way, the tale repudiates collectivism and egalitarianism – the idea that everyone should be regarded as equal in everything – with a clever inversion.

Without revealing the story’s twist, the duckling is born ugly, which he can’t help. Other ducks ridicule, even assault, him just for being different. His own siblings spurn him. At first, his mother defends him until, seeking others’ approval, she finally says she wishes he had never been born.

After more rejection and abuse, he flees his family for another group’s domain, where he is told that he will be tolerated as long as he doesn’t marry into the collective. He moves on to a group of wild ducks, facing the threat of the huntsman. With shots firing, and birds falling around him, the Ugly Duckling chooses to think; he hides, waits and bides his time to leave when it’s safe. When he does depart, he is exceedingly cautious. He takes nothing for granted. It’s the first hint that he might be better than everyone else. This is made explicit in the next part of the story when he is castigated by a hen for thinking he’s better than others as he finds himself among a trio of misfits. “Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the old woman?” asks the hen. “Don’t imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here.”

The Ugly Duckling refuses to be humble. In encounter after encounter, he senses that he might be special. He sadly moves on after each episode, seeking happiness, and the lonely path he takes exacts a heavy toll. That he sees himself as he truly is only when he makes himself ready to give up climaxes the moral of the story, which is a kind of fable about authentic self-esteem. Adversity makes you stronger is certainly part of Andersen’s point but The Ugly Duckling is not, as is sometimes claimed, merely about being different. It is also a tale about discovering and becoming aware of one’s potential. The notion that one should accept himself as he is, recognizing limitations and strengths and accepting that life is hard, and pain is temporary, is obviously relevant to those who are different. But this story is also, and not as obviously, meaningful to the one who is better than others yet unaware of the truth.

New Title, Art for Peikoff’s First Book

TCOHGOn November 25, Penguin gives a new title, cover art (pictured here) and author’s preface to Leonard Peikoff’s brilliant first book, The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America.

The book, The Cause of Hitler’s Germany, is an exhaustive philosophical study of what caused Nazi Germany. As the publisher’s new promotional material promises, Dr. Peikoff examines self-sacrifice, Oriental mysticism, racial “truth,” the public good and doing one’s duty—seductive catchphrases that circulated in Weimar Germanyand he demonstrates how unreason and collectivism led a seemingly civilized society to become Nazi Germany. Peikoff, who grew up in western Canada, lives in southern California and teaches a writing course in which I am enrolled, worked closely with Ayn Rand for 30 years. The preeminent Rand scholar and estate heir taught philosophy at Hunter College and New York University. Here, he offers a breathtaking comparative study and analysis of the rise of fascism in the United States. This was the first book by an Objectivist author other than Rand that I read and I found it utterly absorbing, like taking an intellectual odyssey in a style distinctly different from Rand’s non-fiction in the form of a cogent and captivating lesson in the modern history of philosophy culminating in the Nazi atrocities while ingeniously integrating what the author warns is the impending meltdown of the New Left. I was fascinated to learn that most Germans possessed, read and accepted Hitler’s Mein Kampf and to see how the ideas of Schopenhauer, Hegel and Kant continue to spread and influence the world around me. Philosopher and podcaster Peikoff, who was Ayn Rand’s long-time associate, has written two other books, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand and The DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out.

This volume includes the original introduction by Rand, who endorsed The Cause of Hitler’s Germany as “[a] truly revolutionary idea…. Clear, tight, disciplined, beautifully structured, and brilliantly reasoned.”

We the Living in 2014

Ayn Rand was asked to adapt her first novel, We the Living, which was published 78 years ago this week and has sold 3 million copies since, for the theatre and I recently learned that two never-before published versions of her stage play will be published this fall.

UncconqueredPalMacmillanAccording to Amazon’s book page for The Unconquered: With Another, Earlier Adaptation of We the Living, the hardcover volume by Rand will feature “the first and last versions (the latter entitled The Unconquered)…[w]ith a preface that places the work in its historical and political context, an essay on the history of the theatrical adaptation … and two alternative endings…” The new work is edited by philosophy professor Robert Mayhew, whom I interviewed five years ago about the novel. He also teaches at OCON.

WetheLivingWe the Living is a bitter tale of a triangle in Soviet Russia and an epic story of ideas, love and life. The 1936 novel, which I wrote about for an article distributed by Scripps Howard and again in a review of the movie adaptation, is haunting, unforgettable and helpful to living everyday life.