Baum vs. Tolkien on Fairy Tales


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Baum vs. Tolkien on Fairy Tales

I had The Wizard of Oz out a couple of days ago, and although I must have read the author's Introduction at some time in the past, I hadn't remembered it - so reading it again seemed like a new discovery. Since the text is in the public domain I'm copying all of it here. It has some interesting ideas for Tolkien-saturated brains:

Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed children 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 incidents.

Having this thought in mind, the story of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

- L. Frank Baum
Chicago, April, 1900



My first thought at reading this is how different it is from what Tolkien said thirty-some years later in "On Fairy-stories" - diametrically opposed regarding some concepts. My second reaction was to wonder whether Baum actually believed and/or followed what he says here. In his best-known work, did he really leave out "the heartaches and nightmares," when a young girl is caught up in a terrible storm and left in a strange land with no way to get home? And that doesn't even get into any of the doings of the wicked witch and the 40 ravenous wolves that she sends to tear Dorothy and her friends into little pieces (the witch very specifically gives the wolves permission to tear them into little pieces), or the Great Oz appearing as a giant head, a ball of fire, and a horrible hairy beast. When the scarecrow and the tin woodman are destroyed by the flying monkeys, it's hard to think that the author "dispenses with all disagreeable incidents."  A story that left out everything disagreeable wouldn't  even be of much use as "only entertainment," and one that avoids heartaches and nightmares would be the poorer for leaving out much of what touches the human emotions of both children and adults. Even the book's "happy ending" is bittersweet as Dorothy has to leave her newfound friends forever (well, until the sequels, anyway), and loses the silver shoes - her last connection to them - as she flies over the desert on her way home.

There's one thing Baum did that I believe is consistent with what he says in this Introduction. Most of the morals/lessons in The Wizard of Oz come not from the evil elements but from the good ones. It's true, for example, that an "old-fashioned" fairy tale might have had the lion sleep forever in the poppy field because the group of travelers had been mean to the mice, rather than the mice helping to rescue the lion to repay their kindness. But not all of the old stories are negative; as Tolkien says in "On Fairy-stories," they also tell us about the good things that can happen to widows' sons (usually because they're wise, good-hearted and/or courageous, leaving us again with positive lessons). What's probably my favorite aspect of the original Wizard of Oz story (which isn't as clearly shown in the movie) is that the things Dorothy's companions think they lack are really their strongest characteristics - even before they meet the Wizard. This also comes through in some of the old fairy tales, as when the "simpleton" of the family (usually the youngest son) shows himself to be wiser than the more "intelligent" members. I'd venture to say that hobbits play the same sort of role in Tolkien's fiction - one reason, perhaps, that his stories containing hobbits come across as more positive than those set in the First and Second Ages.

[An aside here that the Grimms' fairy tales, as collected folktales, and Andersen's fairy tales, as stories written by one identifiable author, can't really be lumped together as "old fashioned" fairy tales in the way that Baum seems to do; I'd assume that he's mainly referring to the type of folktales that the Grimm brothers collected. Just going by memory, it seems to me that Andersen's stories often make their points positively, also ("The Ugly Duckling," "The Nightingale"), although some of them have heartachingly bittersweet endings ("The Little Matchgirl," "The One-legged Tin Soldier").]

So I suspect that Baum's and Tolkien's beliefs about the necessity of "disagreeable incidents" aren't as far apart as Baum's Introduction would make them sound; Baum, though, doesn't mention the idea of the joyful turn when dyscatastrophe becomes eucatastrophe, which makes dyscatastrophe essential to the happy ending. On the other hand, in a direct rebuttal of Baum's statement about children having a particular taste for "wonder tales," Tolkien says that every healthy person has an instinctive love for "folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales" and that it's a mistake to relegate them to the children's library in the first place.

I also believe Tolkien looked at the idea of stories that are "manifestly unreal" from a very different direction than Baum. Besides Baum's assumption that children are especially attracted to such stories, he's also assuming that children are especially attracted to such stories. Tolkien said that children read fairy-stories because that's what's given to them, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be as happy to read other kinds of literature. In addition, what's "manifestly unreal" to an adult might not be so to a young child. As Tolkien said, a child asking "Is it true?" after hearing a story about a dragon, is very likely really asking, "Am I safe in my bed?" more than he or she is asking whether the story is historically factual. And reading about dinosaurs, Vikings, or the moons of Jupiter can be as wonder producing as reading about fairies and ogres.  

In fact, I'd think Tolkien would say that it isn't so much the "manifestly unreal" elements of fairy-stories, legends, and myths that attract both children and adults, but rather the reality they manifest to our hearts and spirits - if not always to our minds. And sometimes even to our minds: as Tolkien points out in his Epilogue to "On Fairy-stories," a historically true story can carry the benefits of a fairy-story if it contains the right elements. Our sense of wonder isn't necessarily turned on by the presence of elements we regard as "unreal" - or turned off by the presence of "facts."

Perhaps Baum's most limiting statement (which, again, I wouldn't say he completely follows in his own writing) is that the only thing fairy tales, myths and legends can teach is morality - that everything else is entertainment. Unless you label everything concerning life, creation, and humanity as "morality," the education they offer goes far beyond that: even in The Wizard of Oz.


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Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw

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