One of my nephews has gotten into the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and showed me some pictures he drew, inspired by them... Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and volcanoes, blacksmith for the rest of the gods:
And Ares, Greek god of war:
My nephew was impressed by the fact that I knew who these characters were and could talk with him about them. His level of admiration dropped considerably, however, when I admitted that I knew them from the original Greek myths and have never read the Percy Jackson books.
This book was another Christmas gift which I received this year. It's a fairy tale which I loved when I was a child, but our family copy was sadly lost a number of years ago when my parents' basement flooded during a bad storm. The book is out of print now, but one of my sisters tracked down a copy online and gave it to me for Christmas. The Pumpkin Giant was written by Mary E. Wilkins and was included in her 1892 collection of children stories, The Pot of Gold and Other Stories. I haven't actually read this collection, the version which I'm familiar with being a retelling by Ellen Greene, with the great illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. The Pumpkin Giant tells the story of a kingdom being terrorized by a terrible, pumpkin-headed giant who roams the countryside seeking plump little boys and girls to devour.
Everyone is so terrified by the Pumpkin Giant that they are afflicted with tremors which are called the "giant shakes". Most afraid of all are the parents of fat children, since these are the giant's favourite delicacy. The King is especially terror stricken, because his beloved daughter, Princess Ariadne Diana, is so fat that she can't walk, and so rolls through the royal gardens, accompanied by 50 armed guards to try to keep her safe. The King has issued a proclamation stating that he will knight anyone who cuts the head off the giant, but there are no takers, because everyone is too afraid to attempt it. Meanwhile, not far from the giant's castle, there lives a poor potato farmer named Patroclus, his wife Daphne, and his son, Aeneas. They too are terrified, because Aeneas is as fat as Princess Ariadne, and rolls through the potato field the same way she rolls through the gardens. The difference is, they can't afford to hire 50 bodyguards, so fear the giant even more than the King. Daphne has the giant shakes so badly that she can't get out of bed.
Then, one day, their fears are realized. As Patroclus and Aeneas work in the potato field, the earth begins to tremble, and they look up to see the Pumpkin Giant striding toward them, his mouth wide open. Patroclus tries to hide Aeneus behind him, but the boy is too fat to be hidden. In desperation, Patroclus picks up a large potato and hurls it at the giant. It flies into the giant's mouth and lodges in his throat, choking him. Thrashing and choking, he falls to the ground and, after a final gasp, is still. Immediately Daphne's giant shakes are cured, and she leaps out of bed and joins her husband and son, who are cautiously approaching the prone giant with a carving knife. When it becomes obvious he is dead, they cut the Giant's head off, and Patroclus gives it to Aeneas to play with. The King is overjoyed to hear of the death of the Pumpkin Giant, and for the first time allows his daughter to go about without her guards, which makes her happy. In his joy, however, the King forgets to knight Patroclus, which is disappointing for him and Daphne. Aeneas, however, doesn't care because he has become the envy of all the kids around, having the coolest toy ever. That fall, however, the giant's head breaks and gets scattered all over the potato field.
In the spring, disaster strikes. The potato field is overrun by vines, and in the fall, hundreds of giant heads start to appear. People are in a panic... if one giant terrorized them so badly, what will hundreds do? When the King hears the news, he orders his daughter's guards back. Aeneas begins to wonder what a giant head would taste like, and one day while his father is away, rolls out to their ruined potato field, cuts open a giant's head, and samples it. He loves the taste, and ends up eating most of it. He then goes into the house and informs his mother what he's done. She panics, assuming that her son has been poisoned, as does Patroclus when he arrives home. When nothing bad happens by the end of the day, however, Aeneas announces that he's hungry and intends to eat more of the giant heads. He urges his parents to eat some as well and, hungry now that they have no potatoes, they do- and find it to be delicious. Daphne starts experimenting with cooking it, and eventually comes up with pumpkin pies. They harvest all the pumpkins and start cooking them. One day, the King is riding by with his entourage and smells something delicious. He sends one of his men to Patroclus' cottage to find out what it is, and is informed that it is pie made from giant's head. Astonished, the King orders his page to bring him one. He tastes it, and finds it absolutely delicious. He orders the frightened Patroclus to tell him about how they came up with these amazing pies, and Patroclus stammers out the whole story. Ashamed that he forgot to knight him, the King does so immediately. He makes Patroclus royal gardener and his family moves to the palace, where the gardens are uprooted and replanted with giant heads. Princess Ariadne and Aeneas become good friends, rolling about the pumpkin fields together. The next fall, Aeneas hollows out one of the pumpkins and carves a giant's face on it, putting a candle inside so that it looks just like the Pumpkin Giant. Ariadne likes it so much that he promises to make one for her every year.
When they grow up, Aeneas and Princess Ariadne get married in a lavish ceremony. The Pumkin Giant's castle is shut up, and a huge stone is placed in front of the gate. The King commissions a poet (he is given a pension of fifty pumpkins a year) to write a verse which is engraved on the boulder: Here dwelt the Pumpkin Giant once. He's dead, the nation doth rejoice. For, while he was alive, he lived By e----g dear, fat little boys.
As I said at the beginning of this post, The Pumpkin Giant is currently out of print. Sadly, I fear it is likely to remain so: I have a feeling that a story about fat kids who roll around probably wouldn't be PC enough to pass muster these days. It's a shame really, because it's a really fun story and one that was always loved by our family. And Aeneas and Ariadne are in no way mocked or made ridiculous. The Pumpkin Giant is, I suppose, a little dark, with the Giant roaming about eating children, and living in a castle with a moat filled with bones, but no more so than Grimm's fairy tales. All in all, it's a great children's story which holds a good deal of nostalgia for me. I intend to pass it on: I'm lending it to one of my sisters this week so she can read it to my young nephews.
My nephew was once again doing his required recitation of a poem last week. His selection this time was Lewis Carroll's "You Are Old, Father William", another favourite of my childhood. Great writing for kids never goes out of style. "You Are Old, Father William" is recited by Alice in "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland", which Carroll wrote in 1865. Like many of his poems, it was a parody of an earlier, much more serious work by another poet- in this case, Robert Southey's 1799 poem, "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them". Ironically, it is Carroll's version that is well known today, while Southey's poem is all but forgotten. Small wonder: "You Are Old, Father William" is all kinds of silly fun, while "The Old Man's Comforts" is a rather dreary recital of lessons in virtue. I'm going to post both poems below, so you can compare the two:
You Are Old, Father William
"You are old, Father William," the young man said, And your hair has become very white; And yet you incessantly stand on your head- Do you think, at your age, it is right?"
"In my youth," Father William replied to his son, "I feared it might injure the brain; But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none, Why, I do it again and again."
"You are old," said the youth, "As I mentioned before, And have grown most uncommonly fat; Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door- Pray, what is the reason of that?"
"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks, "I kept all my limbs very supple By the use of this ointment- one shilling the box- Allow me to sell you a couple?"
"You are old," said the youth, "And your jaws are too weak For anything tougher than suet; Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak- Pray, how did you manage to do it?"
"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law, And argued each case with my wife; And the muscular strength that it gave to my jaw, Has lasted the rest of my life."
"You are old," said the youth,"One would hardly suppose That your eye was as steady as ever; Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose- What made you so awfully clever?"
"I have answered three questions, and that is enough, Said his father; "don't give yourself airs! Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff? Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs!"
The Old Man's Comforts, and How He Gained Them
"You are old, Father William," the young man cried, "The few locks which are left you are grey; You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man; Now tell me the reason, I pray."
"In the days of my youth," Father William replied, "I remember'd that youth would fly fast, And abus'd not my health and my vigour at first, That I never might need them at last."
"You are old, Father William," the young man cried, "And pleasures with youth pass away. And yet you lament not the days that are gone; Now tell me the reason, I pray"
"In the days of my youth," Father William replied, "I remembered that youth could not last; I thought of the future, whatever I did, That I never might grieve for the past."
"You are old, Father William," the young man cried, "And life must be hast'ning away; You are cheerful and love to converse upon death; Now, tell me the reason, I pray."
"I am cheerful, young man," Father William replied, "Let the cause thy attention engage; In the days of my youth I remember'd my God! And He hath not forgotten my age."
Robert Louis Stevenson was such a great writer of adventure novels that I sometimes forget that he was also an able poet. I was reminded of this a few days ago by my six year old nephew. He's being home schooled, and one of his weekly assignments is to memorize a poem for recitation. Last week he chose to learn Stevenson's "The Land of Story-books", a poem which vividly describes the way books can kindle a child's imagination- or an adult's, for that matter:
The Land of Story-books
At evening when the lamp is lit, around the fire my parents sit; They sit at home and talk and sing, And do not play at anything.
Now, with my little gun I crawl All in the dark along the wall, And follow round the forest track Away behind the sofa back.
There, in the night, where none can spy, All in my hunter's camp I lie, And play at books that I have read Till it is time to go to bed.
These are the hills, these are the woods, These are my starry solitudes; And there the river by whose brink The roaring lions come to drink.
I see the others far away As if in firelit camp they lay, And I, like to an Indian scout, Around their party prowled about.
So, when my nurse comes in for me, Home I return across the sea, And go to bed with backward looks At my dear land of story-books.
'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' was, as I mentioned in my summary of the book, one of my favourite Christmas stories when I was a child. It still remains a favourite, and one which has stood the test of time very well. This year, one of my young nephews was reading it as an assignment for school (he's homeschooled), and got just as big a kick out of it as I did at that age. The only way that it is slightly dated is in some of the technology mentioned: for example, when their father suggests showing a movie, he mentions that a friend has "five big reels of Yellowstone National Park". Also, another section describes the Herdmans trying to see something on their broken TV by holding onto the antenna. But these things in no way affect the story, and can even be used as an opportunity to explain to kids what it was like in ancient times, before netflix and DVR. Everything else remains remarkably relevant today, up to and including the reason why the Herdmans don't know anything about the Nativity. Their neglectful parents never tell them anything, they've never been to church, and, as Alice points out: "...all you ever hear about Christmas in school is how to make ornaments out of aluminum foil. So how would they know about the Christmas story?"
One of the many things which Barbara Robinson got right in penning this tale was not talking down to her audience. Like Beverley Cleary's works, T.B.C.P.E. is written for children, but is not childish. It is written from a child's perspective, and the attitudes and behaviours of the various characters are ones you can recognize and identify with from your own childhood. The bullies, the show-offs and suck-ups, the kids who try to make it unscathed through the day by keeping their heads down and their mouth shut... they're all there, and actually have characters which are characters, not one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs.
Also, Robinson never allows her plot to become mawkish or maudlin. A lot of the story is broadly humorous, but if you scratch the surface of the comedy, you can definitely see some dark undertones. The Herdmans live in an old garage. Their father is a deadbeat who abandoned his family years before, providing neither guidance nor financial support. Their mother works constantly to support them, but when a social worker tries to get the family some aid money so she can cut down on her shifts, Mr. Herdman refuses. The stark fact is, she would rather be at work than with her kids. Failed by their parents, the Herdman kids are also failed by the school system. Their teachers look at them as something to be endured until they can be shuffled along to become someone else's problem rather than even attempting to reach them or deal with their educational issues. While this may be understandable, it's definitely not helpful, especially since it becomes obvious that, when their interest is engaged, the Herdmans are capable- and even eager- to learn. For example, when they become interested in King Herod, they take it upon themselves to go to the public library to read about him, only to be faced with a librarian who not only does not applaud or foster their attempt at independent learning, but actively discourages it by not wanting to let them get a library card. This attitude of enduring rather than curing is mirrored in the community as a whole. Everyone knows what the situation is- they talk about it constantly- but no one is willing to do anything to change it, other than engage in some seasonal giving. The community gives the Herdmans charity, and the back of their hand. The church does no better... they make up gift baskets to give them, but this treats the symptoms, not the disease. Of course, giving food packages is much easier- and less costly- than giving personal involvement. Despite this rather grim foundation, the story itself is not dark. Nor does it become treacle-y. On the contrary, the tale moves along, briskly unsentimental, and the Herdman's situation provides a spring board for most of the humour.
It's obvious that Barbara Robinson was familiar with church culture and activities, because she nailed them in this book- especially church politics, complacency, and aversion to inconvenience or change. For example, there is no enthusiasm for the pageant, from either the Sunday School students or their leaders... it is merely something that must be done, because it always has been done. They've managed to reduce the "greatest story ever told" to the excitement level of the multiplication tables: something you know backwards and forwards, and have heard so often that you no longer even have to think about what it means. When our narrator, her mother, and brother come home from the first practice, her father asks how it went, and her mother replies, "Well, just suppose you had never heard the Christmas story, and didn't know anything about it, and then someone told it to you. What would you think?" It is only when the Herdmans show up, completely ignorant of the story and without any preconceived notions that their frank questions and honest reactions cause some actual contemplation of the Biblical account. It is no doubt this complacency and lack of actual thought which blinds them to the irony of their behaviour; while staging a play which bemoans the fact that the people of Bethlehem would make no room for the weary Holy Family, the church is itself reluctant to find a place for the unwanted outcasts of their own community. In the end, while there is no resolution of any of the Herdmans actual problems, a bridge has been built- however tenuously- between them. At least now they are seen as individuals who, though troubled and troublesome, have definite value and worth.
In conclusion, I would say that 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever' works very well as a comedic account of a church Christmas concert, but it isn't only a comedy. There are other messages to be taken away from it, not the least of which is, when the Angel of the Lord said, "For unto you is born... a Saviour," that "you" included everyone- even the Herdmans of this world.
"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse." So begins 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever', one of my favourite Christmas books as a child. It was written in 1971 by Barbara Robinson, and is the tale of a rather singular Sunday School Christmas pageant. The story is told the first person by a schoolgirl whose name we never learn, since she always refers to herself as "I", though we do know she has a brother named Charlie. It's November, and it is time for their church's Sunday School to start practicing for the Christmas pageant. No one is very excited about it- it's always exactly the same: the manger scene, with the primary kids as angels, the intermediate kids as shepherds, the older boys as Wise Men; the minister's son is always Joseph because his father makes him, and Alice Wendleken is always Mary. This is because she's the only one who wants the part, and because she's so "holy-looking". Then, the first unexpected thing in years happens: Mrs. Armstrong, the woman who always runs the pageant, falls and breaks her leg badly, winding up in the hospital. Since she also runs the Ladies' Aid Bazaar and the Women's Society Potluck, there's a big scramble to get all of these activities delegated, and our narrator's mother gets stuck with the pageant. She's no more excited about it than anyone else- her husband suggests that she cancel it and show a movie instead- but she insists that she's going to see the pageant through, and not do anything different. Fateful words. No one thinks of the Herdmans in relation to the pageant, because they're definitely not the church-going type. They are a family of six kids- Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys. They're pretty much bringing themselves up, because their father abandoned the family some years before, and their mother works double shifts at a local factory. They live in an old garage on the outskirts of town with their one-eyed attack cat. The Herdmans terrorize the other students at Woodrow Wilson School- bullying, blackmailing, and beating them up. They terrorize the teachers, too, and though never learning much, are never failed. There's always another Herdman coming along, and no teacher is crazy enough to have two in a class at the same time.
Charlie is in the same grade as Leroy Herdman, who constantly steals the desserts out of his lunch. Sick of this, Charlie tells him that he doesn't care, because he gets all the desserts he wants at church, spinning a big lie about all the treats he gets at Sunday School. This is not the thing you tell a Herdman if you want him to stay away, and all six of them show up the next Sunday, looking for the cake and candy Charlie had bragged about. As luck would have it, this is Thanksgiving, and boxes of food are being packed for the needy, which makes the Herdmans think that Charlie was telling the truth, so they stick around. The morning isn't a total loss for them, as they manage to filch some money from the offering plate. It is announced that the first play practice will take place following the service, and the Herdmans, looking interested for the first time, stay for it. Our narrator's mother feels safe asking for candidates to be Mary, because Alice Wendlekin is the only person who ever volunteers. To her shock, Alice doesn't raise her hand- but Imogene Herdman does (it later comes out that she threatened Alice into silence). No one- especially not the minister's son- volunteers to be Joseph except Ralph... Leroy, Claude, and Ollie want to be the Wisemen, and Gladys the angel of the Lord. Since no one else will volunteer for anything, she is stuck with Herdmans in all the lead roles of the pageant.
The members of the church- especially Mrs. Wendlekin- are outraged by the idea of a family like the Herdmans coming from outside and virtually hijacking the pageant, but nothing is done about it because no one else wants to take over the play, either. So, with much trepidation, the practices start. Right away there is a problem, in that the Herdmans know nothing of the Christmas story, other than the fact that it is Jesus' birthday- everything else is completely new to them. So our narrator's mother... I'm just going to call her Mother from now on... has to tell them the story and explain what various things contained in it mean. The Herdman's reactions to this are humorous, as is their running commentary on the Christmas story. They treat the narrative like it was a comic book, or a detective story they are being told- worried about Mary, suspicious that the Wisemen are spies, angry that there's no Herod in the play whom they can beat up. But despite their rowdiness and sometimes shocking remarks, the Herdmans- famous for not listening to teachers, police, or any other authority figures- are completely invested in the story, wanting to know more. And those who hope that they will get bored and drop the whole thing- Alice- are out of luck, because they show up for practices, and more or less do what they're supposed to do, but are still Herdmans, so various highjinks ensue, which are very funny, but leave the pageant in disarray.
Then, on the night of the dress rehearsal, things go terribly wrong. The Women's Society is using the church kitchen that night to cook for the upcoming potluck, and one of the ladies enters the bathroom, sees smoke and panics, calling the fire department. As it turns out, it is just Imogene, smoking a cigar in one of the stalls, but it's too late: the building is evacuated, the fire engines arrive, kids are milling about in costumes, the minister comes running from the parsonage in his pyjamas... it's quite a scene. And then there actually is a fire, because in the excitement, the Women's Society forgets about its cooking food, which all burns up. Everyone is in an uproar- the parents are angry when they arrive to pick up their kids and find them all outside what looks like a fire scene. The women are angry because their food all burned up... the minister's wife is angry because her husband is running around the streets in his pyjamas... and the minister unhappily suggests to Mother that they should just cancel the pageant. She refuses- by now, she's angry, too- and says that,all evidence to the contrary, this is going to be the best Christmas pageant ever.
The night of the performance, she is a nervous wreck, because they've never once gotten through the entire play, and she's sure it's going to be a disaster. With everyone so angry, she thinks that perhaps no one will show up to watch, but everybody does... to see what the Herdmans will do. Those hoping for a scandal are disappointed, because things go more or less as planned. The shepherds in particular are very realistic, as they tremble, sore afraid of Gladys. Gladys makes the most of her one line, shouting loudly, "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" The three Wisemen make a slight change: instead of their fancy jars representing the myrrh and frankincense, they carry in what seems to them a more sensible gift- the ham from their Christmas food basket. And when Mary and Joseph make their appearance, they don't look quite as holy and serene as they usually do. Their costumes are wrinkled, they look wary and a bit defensive... and instead of tenderly cradling the baby Jesus doll, Imogene carries it against her shoulder and thumps its back to burp it before putting it in the manger. It occurs to the narrator that the original Holy Family was probably more like this: rumpled and none too clean, in trouble, and a bit scared and unsure. She reflects that this is actually part of the point of the Christmas story- Jesus wasn't born into a perfect, luxurious setting: He came to the humble and lowly. As the play winds down, and the choir is singing the final carol, our narrator glances over at Imogene, and is shocked to see that she's crying- tough ol' Imogene sitting there in her crooked headscarf, tears slipping down her face as she is suddenly hit by the wonder of Christmas. In the end, everyone agrees that the Christmas pageant actually was the best one they ever had, even if they're not sure why. Imogene asks Mother for a set of Bible story pictures, and takes the one of Mary, saying it's exactly right. Our narrator speculates that, however Imogene was herself, she liked the idea of the serene, perfect- looking Mary in the picture. She concludes, however, that to her, Mary will always be more like Imogene: "sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby". And as they leave the church on that crisp, starry night, she thinks about Gladys the Angel of the Lord, shouting emphatically at everyone: "Hey! Unto you a child is born!"
There has been a lot of discussion over the possible meanings of L. Frank Baum's 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'. If you do an online search, you'll come up with mind-numbing dissertations on it being an allegory for populism and gold vs silver monetary standards (ie. yellow brick road & silver shoes). This all seems a bit far-fetched to me, not to mention boring, so I'm going to ignore all of that in favour of what's really important- that it's a ripping good yarn for kids. The main theme of the novel is pretty easy to pick up on- love of home and family. More to the point, that this love is not dependent on the glamour and wealth of the home in question. The description of Dorothy's life in Kansas is very... grey. She is an orphan living with her unexciting aunt and uncle, on a dry, dusty, and remote farm. When she is carried off to Oz, her life becomes more colourful- literally and figuratively- and much more exciting. Yet Dorothy never wavers in her desire to return to Kansas and Em and Henry, going to great lengths to do so, up to and including risking her life.
There are, of course, other themes, such as the folly of looking to other people or objects to improve your character or correct your flaws in some miraculous fashion. It is obvious to the youngest child that the brain, heart, and courage doled out by the fraudulent "Wizard" are useless. The Scarecrow, throughout their adventures, displays an ability to think quickly and logically. The Tin Woodsman shows over and over that, even lacking an actual heart, he has tender feelings and compassion. The Cowardly Lion actually displays courage on several occasions- for example, when he refuses to bow to the demands of the Wicked Witch, despite being imprisoned and starved. What actually brings these latent qualities to the surface is their concern for their friends- they each rise to the occasion to defend and protect their companions. The only positive result of the Wizard's lame props is that the Scarecrow, Tin man, and Lion become confident in their abilities, even if they wrongly ascribe them to the Wizard's fakery .
It is, of course, impossible to discuss 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' without mentioning the 1939 movie 'The Wizard of Oz'. The movie in undoubtedly much more well known than the novel it's adapted from- which is a shame, because the book is, in my opinion, superior to the film. Which isn't to say that I don't enjoy the movie- it's iconic- but I don't think that it measures up to the magical charm of the book. Naturally, there are many differences between the novel and the film. A lot of characters and incidents are not in the movie, and those which are, are less well-developed or have their characters changed completely. For example, the Munchkins, rather than being the race of flamboyant singers
and dancers portrayed in the film, are sedate farmers who all dress in shades of blue. The book is also a lot more violent than the movie,with Dorothy and her friends having to fight- and kill- monsters, wolves, giant spiders, etc. These are understandable differences, however: there are others which are more glaring- and more annoying for fans of the book.
One of the major problems I have with the movie is the character Glinda. In the novel, there are two good witches- one in the North and one in the South- but in the film they are morphed into one and lumped together under the name Glinda (the name of the Good Witch of the South). Why is this a problem? Well, to begin with, it's a question of balance. There is supposed to be a witch for every direction in Oz- north, east, south, and west. The melding of the two good witches into one messes that up. More importantly, it causes a problem with the plot. In the book, the Witch of the North legitimately does not know the power of the silver shoes. It's only when Dorothy consults the Witch of the South (Glinda) that she finds she can use the shoes to get home. In the film, Glinda knows what the shoes can do, yet makes Dorothy traipse through Oz, facing numerous- possibly fatal- dangers, then basically tells her, "By the way, you could have gone home at any time... surprise!" It's a wonder that Dorothy didn't take a swing at her before clicking her heels.
The second problem I have is the dream sequence cop-out. In the movie, there is an added back story involving a malicious neighbour, hired hands, and a circus performer. The actors who play these characters show up in Oz in all the major roles. At the end of the film, Dorothy regains consciousness after the blow she received to her head during the storm and realizes that her trip to Oz was a dream into which she incorporated all the people she knew. I cry foul on this; in the book, Dorothy's adventure in Oz is fact, not hallucination. While there, she is missing and presumed dead in Kansas, and this is so much better. Kids want to think about Oz as an actual place, not as the product of Dorothy's bruised brain. Where's the imagination in that? In conclusion, I would say that, while the movie is hugely entertaining, the novel provides a richer and more interesting introduction to the Land of Oz.
* To write 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', L. Frank Baum drew on stories he had told his own children to amuse them. * Baum claimed to have arrived at the name "Oz" by looking at one of the drawers in his filing cabinet, which was labelled 'O-Z'. * Baum originally intended to write only one tale of Oz, but due to public demand- and probably with an eye on the finances- ended up like the authors of some other famous book series (Conan Doyle, L.M. Montgomery), reluctantly writing numerous sequels. He personally wrote 13 more books about Oz before his death in 1919, and then his publishers contracted author Ruth Thompson to keep churning them out, adding 21 more books to the Oz collection.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of my free time with my nose in a book, even sneaking out of bed at night to sit in my doorway and read by the hall light. I still have most of my childhood favourites, unable to bring myself to get rid of them no matter how battered, bent, and dog-eared they are. Now that I have nephews and nieces, I've got an excuse to pull these classics off the shelf and enjoy them again through their eyes. One of these is 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.' 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'- was written in 1899 by L. Frank Baum.
The book's main character is Dorothy Gale, a young girl living with her staid Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in turn-of -the-century Kansas. It is a dry, grey existence until, during a cyclone, their house- with Dorothy and her dog Toto in it- is picked up by the wind funnel and carried to the magical land of Oz. Upon landing, Dorothy finds that the house has set down in the eastern region of Oz, populated by the Munchkin people.
More to the point, it has set down on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her and thereby freeing the Munchkins, whom she had enslaved. The grateful Munchkins contact the Good Witch of the North, who arrives and explains to a confused Dorothy what has happened. Dorothy asks the Witch of the North to send her back to Kansas, but she doesn't possess the ability to do so. She suggests that Dorothy seek out the powerful Wizard of Oz in the City of Emerald and ask him for help. She gives Dorothy the silver- not ruby- shoes which belonged to the Wicked Witch, telling her that they have some magic, though she doesn't know exactly what. She then sets Dorothy and Toto on the yellow brick road which is the path to Emerald city.
On her journey, Dorothy meets up with three characters who become her friends and travelling companions. All of them wish to help her, but each also has a request that he wants the Wizard to grant. The Scarecrow, bemoaning his straw-filled head, desires to be given a brain. The Tin Woodsman, literally heartless due to one of a series of Wicked Witch-caused axe mishaps, wishes to be given a new one so that he can love again. The Cowardly Lion's request, unsurprisingly, is to be given the courage he lacks.
The companions travel to Emerald City, facing many dangers on the way, such as clawed, fanged creatures called Kalidahs, and the deadly poppy fields. They survive these by working together using their individual strengths and eventually arrive at the City. Those they meet tell them that, while the Wizard has the power to grant their requests, he is unlikely to do so, as he rarely agrees to an audience with anyone.
On entering the city, they are required by order of the Wizard to don the same type of glasses that all the city dwellers wear. These glasses are locked into place, and they are told these are to keep the wearers from being blinded by the brightness of the emerald-encrusted city. Surprisingly, the Wizard agrees to meet with them and agrees to grant their requests, but only on the condition that they first defeat the Wicked Witch of the West, who rules the Country of the Winkies.
The companions resolutely set out, but the Witch knows that they're coming and tries to have them killed, using her wolf pack, her flock of crows, swarm of killer bees, and her Winkie soldiers. They manage to fight off these attacks, so the enraged Witch uses her magic golden cap to summon the Winged Monkeys. They pull apart the Scarecrow, drop the Tin man onto rocks, and carry Dorothy, Toto, and the Cowardly Lion off to the Witch's castle. The Witch forces Dorothy to work in the castle, all the while scheming to steal the silver shoes. She also locks up the Lion without food, demanding that he agree to serve her. He refuses to do so, and Dorothy manages to sneak food to him.
Through trickery, the wicked witch manages to obtain one of the silver shoes, which so angers Dorothy that she throws a bucket of water over her. To her surprise, the water causes the witch to melt like sugar while spouting some hysterically sour abuse at Dorothy. The Winkies are delighted to be free of the witch's enslavement, and locate and repair both the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodsman. They are quite taken with the Tin man, and ask him to be their king. He agrees, but tells them that first he must help Dorothy to get home.
Now in possession of the Wicked Witch's golden cap, Dorothy uses it to summon the Winged Monkeys and instructs them to carry all of the companions back to Emerald City. While travelling, the King of the Winged Monkeys tells Dorothy how they are bound to the power of the cap: anyone who owns it can use it to summon the Monkeys three times to serve them. This means that Dorothy can call the Winged Monkeys twice more.
Back in front of the Wizard, Dorothy and her companions are frustrated to find him trying to backpedal and avoid fulfilling his promises. At this point, Toto knocks over a screen, revealing the "Wizard"- an ordinary, aging man who landed in Oz many years before. He was a circus performer from Omaha whose hot air balloon went astray. They also discover the real reason for the required glasses: the City isn't actually emerald- the lenses of the glasses are tinted green to make everything appear that way. Repentant, the Wizard does his best to keep his promises to the companions: he mixes together a concoction of bran, pins, and needles for the Scarecrow's "bran-new brains" which the Wizard says will make him sharp. He provides the Tin Woodsman with a stuffed heart made of silk, and gives the Cowardly Lion a potion to provide him with 'liquid courage,' so to speak. Curiously, even though they know the Wizard is a fraud, they accept his claims and, convinced that they now possess all they wished for, begin to behave accordingly. The placebo effect, I guess.
To help Dorothy and Toto get home, the Wizard starts construction of a new hot air balloon. Tired of faking being an all-powerful wizard, he decides to make the balloon trip with them. When the balloon is ready, the Wizard makes a final public appearance where he appoints the Scarecrow to rule in his stead... with his new "brain" the Scarecrow is apparently now the smartest person in "Emerald" City. Given that the city dwellers were duped for so many years by the "Wizard" and his green glasses, that may well be true. Then, as the Wizard climbs into the gondola, Toto runs off in pursuit of a cat and Dorothy goes to get him. Before she can get back, the ties to the balloon break and the Wizard helplessly floats away without her. Devastated, Dorothy summons the Winged Monkeys and asks them to carry her and Toto back to Kansas. Unfortunately, the monkeys cannot cross the desert which surrounds Oz, so her second use of the cap is wasted.
It is suggested that Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, may know how to send her home, so Dorothy and her loyal friends set out for Quadling Country, which is where Glinda's palace is. They again must face many dangers and difficulties on the way there, such as the Fighting Trees, China Country, and the Hammerhead people. Also, while travelling through some deep, dark woods, the Lion, with his new-found courage, comes to the aid of the forest animals by killing a giant spider which has been terrorizing them. The grateful animals ask him to be their king and he agrees, promising to return after helping Dorothy find her way home.
To get over the mountain of the previously mentioned hostile Hammerhead people, Dorothy calls the Winged Monkeys to carry them, using the cap for the last time. Arriving at Glinda's palace, they are warmly welcomed, and Glinda informs Dorothy that she possessed the ability to return home all along. This is the power of the silver shoes: they will transport her to wherever she wishes to go. Dorothy is overjoyed, though sad to leave her good friends. Glinda takes possession of the golden cap, which she will use to send the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion back to their respective kingdoms. She will then give the cap to the King of the Winged Monkeys so that he and his people will never again be subject to its power.
After exchanging fond farewells with her friends, Dorothy clicks the heels of the shoes and wishes to go home, and she and Toto are whisked away over the desert, back to Kansas. Unfortunately, the silver shoes fall off Dorothy's feet during the trip and are lost in the desert. She is home, however, to her joy, and that of her Aunt Em, who had given her up for dead. As her aunt embraces her, Dorothy tells her, "I'm so happy to be home again."
The second part of T.B.S.D. has had a good deal of negative comment. Many think that it is too preachy, and feel that it's unrealistic to portray these boys as being interested in discussing spiritual matters. It could, I suppose, be considered 'preachy'; Thomas Hughes was very clear that he was writing a defense of his views on education, and his belief in the importance of "muscular Christianity." As for those who complain that they can't imagine the boys being interested in studying the Bible and discussing it, what they really mean is that they can't imagine themselves doing so. In today's secular society, the idea of schools incorporating Christian doctrine into their curricula is a foreign one. In such an atmosphere, however, it is not unlikely that some of the boys- Hughes makes it clear that it certainly is not all of them- actually think about the faith they are practicing, and discuss and debate it seriously. I first read T.B.S.D. when I was about twelve, and have picked it up periodically over the years, enjoying it each time. On the surface it is an interesting story, but also has deeper levels, posing serious questions. How do you deal with bullies? What defines courage? Do you compartmentalize your faith, or does it infuse and affect all parts of your life? Finally, it's great to read a book which treats boys as capable of thought. Their characters are flawed, but refreshingly, they don't treat adult authority figures with contempt. They also have a sense of respect for themselves, their school, and their country. It's nice not to have the boys dragged down to the lowest common denominator for a change.
* George Arthur's character is based on Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster, who attended Rugby and Oxford. * Thomas Hughes wrote a sequel, 'Tom Brown at Oxford,' which is much less well known. * There have been several movie adaptations of T.B.S.D. I have seen the old 1940's version, which is O.K., but not great. More recently, there have been a couple of made-for-TV mini series, one of which stars Stephen Fry as the Doctor. I haven't seen these, so cannot comment on them.
The second part of T.B.S.D. is quite different in tone and substance, and there is a notable shift in focus. If the first part of the novel deals with Tom's struggle against external problems at school, the second part could be said to be about his struggle against his own nature.
Having been marginalized by many of their peers, and regarded with suspicion by the schoolmasters- fallout from the Flashman conflict- Tom and East are rather at loose ends. They more or less go their own way for a while, disregarding or outright flouting school rules. After all, if they're going to get blamed for fictional misdeeds, they might as well do something blameworthy. The end of term finds them teetering on the edge of dismissal for a variety of infractions. At this point, the Doctor reenters the narrative. He reasons that the solution to this problem may be splitting up Tom and East rather than expelling them. Discussing the situation with their schoolmaster, he decides that it would steady Tom to have a younger boy put in his charge. This is when we meet George Arthur, the young son of a clergyman. He is quiet, painfully shy, and is assigned to share a study with Tom. Tom is a bit miffed, since he'd been planning on sharing the study with East. He's somewhat mollified by the fact that Arthur seems a good sort, and has a lot of nice things with which to outfit their room. Tom finds himself at a loss as to what to do with Arthur. Used to the rough and tumble, boisterous life of the Schoolhouse, he is unsure how to deal with a boy who barely talks, or worse, meekly agrees with everything he says. Tom finds this extremely frustrating, but feels responsible for Arthur, and fears that other boys will make his life miserable. He tries to bring Arthur out of his shell, and advises him on how to conduct himself to avoid ridicule: "...you must answer straight up when the fellows speak to you; and don't be afraid. If you're afraid, you'll get bullied. And don't you say you can sing; and don't you ever talk about home, or your mother or sisters."
Not sensitive advice perhaps, but very practical under the circumstances. To this point, Tom is merely resigned to doing his duty by his young charge. The situation changes, however, in a dramatic scene on Arthur's first night in the Schoolhouse. Tom, who up to this time has defined bravery as a physical thing, is given a lesson in moral courage by Arthur which leaves him humbled and shaken. This episode marks the beginning of a transformation in Tom's character as, influenced by Arthur's friendship, he begins to mature and change- or at least question- many of his opinions and behaviors.
Arthur makes a habit of doing private Bible study every day. After Tom stumbles across this, he begins to join him, dragging East along, too. The three have lively debates over these studies, their opinions providing insight into their very different characters. These discussions also bring Arthur out of his shell and make him less hesitant about speaking his mind. Also, as Tom pushes him to get involved in school sports, Arthur becomes healthier and forms friendships with other boys. Arthur's influence over Tom- and thereby, East- is just as marked, though gradual, so that they don't even realize how much they're changing. This transformation is demonstrated through various incidents, such as Tom's moral conflict over the use of Latin cheat sheets, and East's crisis over his confirmation.
This is not to say that there is no physical action in the second half of the book; Tom is always ready to back up his moral convictions with his fists when necessary. T.B.S.D. covers a number of years, leading up to Tom's graduation. The last chapter skips several years ahead, detailing Tom's return to Rugby after the death of the Doctor, and his reflections on how his early education shaped the man he has become.