January 29, 2012
The Darkness of Oz
“Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.
“And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe despite the callow protestations of certain adults that books–especially the dark and dangerous ones–will save them.” –Sherman Alexie
So I got a Kindle for Christmas. I hadn’t previously thought that I wanted one, but agreed to give it a whirl…and now that I have it, I really can’t deny its usefulness, even as some features irk me.
I had the prospect of a long bus ride back home in front of me, and had learned the hard way on my trip out to Kansas City that Greyhound’s advertised free wi-fi is actually a deeply unreliable prospect. A friend had recommended Gregory Maguire’s Out of Oz, the conclusion to the series that began with Wicked. Though tempted to make that my first download and jump right in, it had been a long time since I’d read Son of a Witch and I barely remembered its plot, I hadn’t even gotten to A Lion Among Men yet, and I was feeling pretty rusty and unmoored in my Oz lore in general, so I figured maybe I’d better start back at the beginning…and read the original, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which, somewhat embarrassingly for a book-loving girl born in Kansas, I never had.
I got the complete original 14-volume Oz series for something like $4.50. Okay…I started to admit that this Kindle thing could be pretty great.
So, rolling through the desolate wintery hills of Missouri and Indiana, I started reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Baum includes a note at the start of the book:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.
Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.
Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today [“today” being the year 1900]. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
My heart sank; I was sure to be in for a fatally boring read, and I had 28 hours ahead of me. Compelling stories require real threats and real stakes; this was, like, the very first lesson of my college dramatic writing class…in which the movie version of The Wizard of Oz was Exhibit A.
But I was not to be disappointed, because let me just say, for a fairy tale supposedly stripped of nightmare and malice…The Wonderful Wizard of Oz contains a whole lot of death, dismemberment, and treachery. Most prominent is the origin story of the Tin Woodman, who was once a flesh and blood human being, a poor woodcutter, whose love for a Munchkin girl was resented by the old woman she worked for. The old woman went to the Wicked Witch of the East, who enchanted the woodman’s axe to kill him off one piece at a time…until having lost all of his original parts and thus lacking a heart, he didn’t die but simply became indifferent to the girl he’d loved.
There’s also the Wizard’s frankly admitted tyranny over the Emerald City and enslavement of its population, the complicity of the “good” witches with this, their rather transparent use of Dorothy as a pawn to regain the power of the silver shoes from the Witch of the West, that witch’s enslavement and abuse of the Winkies and flying monkeys…the field of poisoned poppies is still there, and some other nasty stuff, too…it’s a dark tale.
Even trying to write a children’s story without menace, morals, or survival lessons (if we believe that that’s what he was sincerely trying to do; I’m not actually sure that I do), Baum couldn’t do it.
It’s as if violence and hidden evil are things that must, one way or another, always be addressed in stories for children. Because children know they exist even as well-intentioned adults attempt to deny them; they live in constant knowledge of their own vulnerability, and so a children’s story that attempts to deny or obscure their reality will always fall flat.
When we believed, as Baum did in his time, that morals and character were being explicitly and consistently taught to children in school, church, extended families and communities (whether they were or not, or what we might think of what kind of morals were being taught, is another story entirely), did writers for children feel less of a need to write explicitly or realistically about these things? And now that, I think it’s arguable, we feel a widespread anxiety that these things are not being taught to children very well or consistently or at all, do children’s writers again feel an obligation to address them more openly and honestly, even in ways that are graphically, horribly violent?
Ironically, when our culture and educational system overwhelmingly address youth as shallow, technology-obsessed, and morally ungrounded, more compelling writing for children and teenagers addresses them seriously and respectfully as thinking, competent people, capable of astonishing empathy and courage. Adults who lack regard for children as whole people who think and suffer and deserve to have their suffering taken seriously, can’t give them what worthwhile literature does: examples of real strength, intelligence, and hope from characters their age.
I think particularly of the heroes of two series that I don’t think it’s unreasonable to predict will wind up as the defining examples of children’s literature of our time: Harry Potter, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy.
And when I say “teaching morals and character,” I don’t mean talking down to children about these things, but addressing real problems of existence, conflict (including war and murder), conscience, and ethics in the serious way that children actually crave and are capable of handling, which is far greater than we as a society typically give them credit for.
The Wizard of Oz succeeds as children’s literature, not to the extent that it denies or obscures the reality of violence, evil, fear, and loneliness, but to the extent that it utterly fails to.
In her New York Times op-ed from October, “No More Adventures in Wonderland,” Maria Tatar says that we shouldn’t oppose the current dark and serious trajectory of children’s literature, “it is hard not to mourn the decline of the literary tradition invented by Carroll and Barrie….No other writers more fully entered the imaginative worlds of children — where danger is balanced by enchantment — and reproduced their magic on the page. In today’s stories, those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”
But I disagree that there ever was childhood fantasy untainted by adult anxieties. Enchantment isn’t a balance to danger; it’s bound inextricably with danger. Great children’s stories are safe zones precisely because they deal with very real adult danger in a safe medium, not because they make it zany or ludicrous. There is no escapism here. Good children’s stories are still almost always survival lessons, because there is no need for fantasy or enchantment without the reality of evil and heartache. Hook may be ultimately contemptible, but he’s not an interesting character unless he’s a truly mortal enemy.
If I look back to the books of my own childhood (rather than the children’s stories I discovered as an adult), of course I’m fond of Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and The Caretakers of Wonder; but the book that hands down meant the most to me then and still does now, is Saint George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges’ adaptation for children of an episode from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which spares no gory detail of Saint George’s three battles against a nightmarish dragon terrorizing the medieval English countryside. It’s an enchanting tale, gorgeously illustrated with watercolors of whimsical fairies and English sunsets. And everyone involved—George, Una’s people, the dragon—are fighting horrifically for their very lives and there’s no pretending otherwise. (And I tended to identify with the dragon above either of the human protagonists, but that’s another story entirely.)
When Tatar writes that “It’s hard to imagine Carroll or Barrie coming up with something like that. They were as passionate about their young readers as they were about the books they wrote. In 1856, Carroll purchased a camera with the hope of freezing time through his portraits of little girls. By capturing them in photographs, he made sure they never grew up,” she reveals that the style of children’s literature she mourns says more about the prejudices towards children of its authors, rather than the actual needs or character of children or anything about their world.
What happens in a book can’t hurt you. What happens in real life certainly will, if you have no prior example for how to cope with it. People who actually respect children and teenagers as people, trust them to use books to learn what they need to. Abuse, sex, violence, alienation, homophobia, hatred, etc., are things that happen to children and teenagers, and the fact that we think they shouldn’t isn’t enough of an excuse to deny them the emotional resources for helping themselves, and letting them do so privately and in their own time. That is what good stories, especially the darkest stories, provide: precedent in a safe context for dealing with cruelty, the difference of others, and emotional complexity, rage, fear, and confusion.
“Instead of stories about children who will not grow up, we have stories about children who struggle to survive,” Tatar writes of our most successful children’s literature. But it was never really otherwise, except in the fantasies of adults.