illustration of main character Dorothy standing on the yellow brick road

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

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Despite her boredom with her drab life in rural Kansas, Dorothy almost immediately wishes to return to its comfortable familiarity after she is transported to the wild, magical Land of Oz. Without any trusted adults to guide her, Dorothy listens to the advice of the Good Witch of the North, who explains that she must visit Oz. The Good Witch describes him as a “great Wizard,” her voice falling to a whisper to connote a sense of reverence for his position. She adds that he is “more powerful than all the rest [of the witches] together.”

Dorothy places all hopes of returning home on Oz; the people of this magical land respect and revere him; Dorothy, therefore, has no reason to doubt his purported abilities. When she and her new friends arrive at his palace, Oz seems to use magical powers to alter how each individual perceives him.

For a “powerful” wizard, Oz places a strange condition upon his assistance: he will only send Dorothy back to Kansas and aid her friends if they kill the remaining evil witch. Dorothy is baffled by the proposition and seems unwilling to violate her principles by committing murder, even to return home to the family she dearly misses.

Oz’s character is questionable from the moment of this request: an all-powerful wizard should not need the assistance of a young girl to tackle the forces of evil on his behalf—especially not a wizard who has been deemed “more powerful” than all of the other witches who live there. When Dorothy fulfills the conditions of her agreement with him, Oz’s character is further called into question.

Privately, Oz confides to Dorothy and her friends that he is not a wizard at all. Instead, he is an ordinary man who, much like Dorothy, reached this land by accident. However, the differences in their character are notable from the moment of arrival. While Dorothy tries to deflect the Munchkins’ praise for killing the Wicked Witch of the East, Oz intentionally takes advantage of the admiration lavished upon him. He orders the people of this land to construct a city and a palace in his honor. Oz demands they wear green spectacles under the false premise of protection, altering how they view their world. Over time, the people lose all memory of normal vision and begin to believe the worldview forced upon them by Oz is, indeed, reality.

Oz insists that he has been “good” to the people and has provided them with “every good thing that is needed to make one happy.” Astonishingly, even after Oz reveals to Dorothy and her friends that he possesses no superhuman abilities, the group refuses to relinquish their faith in Oz’s powers. The Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion stand firm in their conviction that Oz must grant them their desires, even after he reveals that he is “just a common man.”

It is worth remembering the title of the novel: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oz’s actions certainly call into question the use of such a positive adjective to describe him. Indeed, he might justifiably be called a fraud and a coward; when the Scarecrow calls Oz a “humbug,” the wizard wholeheartedly agrees with the accusation. After finally agreeing to help Dorothy, he saves himself and leaves Dorothy behind without making any real effort to assist her as he floats away.

To therefore describe Oz as “wonderful” seems paradoxical. Oz is overly concerned with his image, craves power and authority, and uses those around him to maintain a false identity. Although he insists he is a good man, there is little evidence of his positive influence.

Yet, Oz is wonderful. This seemingly paradoxical descriptor honors the man for helping the travelers realize the truth about themselves. The Scarecrow came to Oz because he wants brains, but he has already demonstrated a growing sense of wisdom. For example, when the Wicked Witch of the West commands the bees to  sting Dorothy and her friends to death, the Scarecrow suggests they remove his straw to cover Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion to protect them from harm. 

The Tin Woodman came to Oz desperate for a heart, but he has already proven his capacity to love deeply. When wolves attack his friends, the Tin Woodman willingly places himself in harm’s way, attacking each wolf individually until they all lay dead around him. The Lion believes he lacks courage, but he demonstrates his bravery numerous times throughout the journey. Notably, he confronts the Kalidahs, certain they can “tear [him] in two as easily as [he] could kill Toto.” As the monstrous beasts approach Dorothy, the Lion instructs her to “stand close behind [him],” promising to “fight them as long as [he is] alive.”

The travelers are blinded by their flawed self-perceptions; Oz, despite his failures, recognizes his power to change their misconceptions about themselves. He stuffs the Scarecrow's head with pins and bran, and the Scarecrow immediately feels wise; places a silk heart inside the Tin Woodman, who instantly professes his gratitude; and concocts a drink for the Lion, promising that it will help courage to always reside within him. After drinking it, the Lion replies that now he feels “full of courage.”

Therefore, Oz symbolizes that flawed, ordinary human beings can work together to create a better society. He influences others to recognize their strengths, and this transformation allows them to continue their journey with a greater sense of purpose. After they become confident in their abilities, the group is better equipped to help Dorothy return home. Additionally, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion assume leadership roles within their land, determined to expand their sphere of influence and benefit the lives of others.

This ability to help others gain the confidence to become effective and benevolent members of society is wonderful. Oz’s characterization suggests that helping others to recognize their strengths does not take extraordinary abilities and that cultivating a healthy sense of self-worth within others can stimulate meaningful societal change.

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