We all have our own idea of fun summer projects. Me, I started reading some literary children’s classics that I’d never tried before. Just recently, I made what turned out to be the interesting choice of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and following that immediately with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With Alice originally coming out in 1865 and Oz getting released in 1900, the two are relatively close together on the literary timeline, and make for an interesting comparison when read side by side.
Just to make sure I’m not misleading anyone with that title, which I admit comes close to clickbait territory, I’m not talking about who would win in a fight, Alice or Dorothy. That would be entirely to easy, and a very short entry. Dorothy, the farm girl from Kansas would easily beat Alice, a prim and proper, very likely upper class Victorian girl. Even if Dorothy didn’t have to help out on the farm too much, she’d easily still have more muscle mass than Alice. See? We’re done already. That’s no fun.
Rather, I want to look at their book and see what makes each one a classic, what gives it that unique, immortal flavor.
Alice came first, so we’ll start with her. As I knew beforehand, Non sequitur, dream logic nonsense was the book’s dominating flavor. I remember feeling like either I was on something when I first watched the Disney cartoon Alice, or else the animators had been. That cartoon wasn’t entirely faithful to the book. It mixed elements from the first and second books (Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, respectively,) but they definitely nailed the strange, fever dream atmosphere. If anything, the book came off as just a bit more British, meaning mostly polite and a bit more ponderous, instead of the overwhelming drug trip spectacle that Disney cartoon left in my brain.
That strange, surreal feel seems to be the whole point for Carroll, and it does work This might be one of the few stories that pulls off the whole “It was all just a dream!” ending because that very fact seemed likely, if not obvious, through most of the story, either that or Alice accidentally ate one of her older sister’s LSD doses, thinking it was candy, but LSD wouldn’t be invented for another century, so that seems unlikely. In the end, while I’d never read this book before, I still felt like I knew it because of how much Alice, the Red Queen, mad tea parties and all that have melted into our cultural lexicon.
Dorothy’s world comes off as much less nonsensical, or at least non sequitur, which I realize sounds like a strange thing to say about a book featuring plenty of talking animals, magic, and living scarecrows and robots, but it’s true. Baum wasn’t going for an “all a dream” feel, because in his book it wasn’t. That’s right, unlike in the famous movie, Dorothy’s adventure to Oz was totally real. I wasn’t totally sure why the film changed this, although I did find a really interesting video discussing how it was a sort of message about how women should be happy to stay home and work once men got home from the war. I do love me some edgy internet theorizing, and it’s an intriguing, well put together argument if you want to take a look.
If you are familiar only with the wizard of Oz movie, the original is a bit stranger, and darker. You can definitely see how Hollywood tidied up the story.
First off, we never get the Tin Woodsman’s amazing origin story. No, he’s not some steampunk robot. He used to be human, but the Wicked Witch of the West cursed his ax, (got wicked reasons involving a girl a family didn’t want married to the non-tin woodsman.) First, his ax cut off his legs, which he replaced with some highly functional tin replicas. Then, his arms were cut off, and he kept up the tin theme there, and then, I kid you not, he got his head cut off but also somehow replaced with a perfect working replica. The story skips over questions of transferring consciousness to cyborg tin heads and ends with his chest getting cut in half and then his whole body finally consisting entirely of tin. Yup, this this some proto-Ghost in the Shell type craziness that I didn’t expect to come across in a century old kid’s book.
There are more bizarre differences between The Wizard of Oz book and film, but I won’t cover those here because I’m trying to keep the Alice/Dorothy coverage even. Maybe I’ll have to dedicate another post to a rant about Hollywood sanitizing a bizarre children’s story that turns to axe murder as a solution a lot more than the movie did. In the mean time, what does this mean for these two books together?
Well, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does blaze new trails in the children’s and fantasy genre, just like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, taking some bizarre turns not included in the movie that make the two books more similar in their love for the whimsical and strange. How the authors treat the strangeness each young girl finds on her adventure leads to two distinct and separate feelings.
While Carroll creates a world where the nonsense of everything is exactly the point, Baum creates something closer to a more modern fairy tale. There’s definitely plenty of fantastical elements, but they adhere to something like a coherent set of rules, aiding in creating a traditional adventure/quest plot, albeit with some twists and turns. Both defined children’s fantasy, and fantasy at large really, because of these bold steps they took to create stories that relied on entertaining whimsy.