Dorothy and Alice: Precocious Precursors to Potter

August 17, 2008 at 2:24 pm 2 comments

Ralph Steadman's Tea Party

Ralph Steadman's Mad Tea Party, 1967

I’m discovering more and more information about Dorothy, Alice and other kidlit heroines; the similarities between them; and their origins and evolution. Wendy of Peter Pan keeps coming up–and not just in the “Lost Girls” erotic graphic novel, by Alan Moore (of V for Vendetta, Watchmen and From Hell fame), where the intrepid trio share stories of their sexual adventures. That’s a dialogue for another time.

Naturally enough (for me), I started down this winding path because of the Homage to the Rabbits group number in the SYTYCD Finale, and now I am enmeshed in research into the literary analysis of The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, fairy tales and their place in our culture and human psychology, and what they say about our apparently innate need to create fantasy worlds and live in them–if only briefly–through literature (also, stage and film).

First, an erratum: L. Frank Baum created a series of books, on which the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland was based, about Dorothy Gale and her adventures in a mythical land called Oz. So apologies for my lack of precision in Ramble Through The Looking Glass and I now note that Oz was indeed based on a book series.

More after the jump…

The Sepia Tones Of Dustbowl Kansas (photo: unknown)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first book in the series, differed significantly from the film in that Dorothy did NOT find it to be a dream: Oz was and remained a “real” place to which Dorothy would return, over a series of 13 other books by Baum, and 19 further ones by an author named Ruth Plumly Thompson. By the sixth book in the Baum series (1910), Dorothy has been made a Princess of Oz, and has moved Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to a house on the outskirts of Oz after the bank forecloses on the mortgage on their Kansas farm.

The socioeconomics of Dorothy’s family’s situation is worthy of discussion. It seems highly significant that Baum created a heroine who is facing what at the time (early 20th C) was a very real, very American (very Steinbeckian) threat in a land of dustbowls, depression and financial ruin.

Aside from their entertainment value, fairy tales (and The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures are just that, despite lacking any real fairies!) almost always endure in a culture because they satisfy a basic developmental need: to help children confront and navigate grown-up situations and anxieties. The metaphors, analogies and allegories in fairy tales do two things. First, they offer food for kids’ developing imaginations. Second, they provide a “safe place”–a fantasy world–to work through the social, familial, personal and sexual anxieties that children must traverse as they mature.

Charles Blackman, "Drink Me"

That’s why, of course, fairy tales are deconstructed to the very death by scholars in broad-ranging fields, far beyond the obvious literary ones. Peter Pan is an apt example. PP is a direct exploration of the conflict between the desire to remain a child forever, and the inevitable need to assume adult responsibilities. WoOz, Alice, PP and other modern fairy-tales (and I am going to class Harry Potter among them), are all concerned with the task of growing up, in one way or another. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the metaphor is quite literal of the physical challenge Alice has in being too large or too small, and her quest to get back to the ‘right size’.

Keira Knightley as Dorothy, photographed by Annie Liebowitz for Vogue

In Wizard of Oz, I just LOVE the symbolism of the coherence of self achieved by the end, with each character representing different aspects of self: the heart (emotion), the brain (cognition), and the “spirit” (how I read ‘courage’ required by the Cowardly Lion). Note to self: I must seek out a Jungian analysis of WoOz. Dorothy’s quest is to shepherd her motley crew–which, I think it not a stretch, can be read as the different fragmented aspects of her ‘self’ as a child–to the Emerald City where they will each be made whole, and where she will have achieved a developmental milestone and be ready, then, to return home.

The awkward yearning and inevitable need to ‘grow up’ but fear of what it entails simmers sub-consciously beneath the child’s understanding at the age when these books are most often read. The trip to the alternate universe–be it Oz, Wonderland, or Neverland; or, among the second vein of stories that I think can be classed as modern-day fairy tales: Narnia, MiddleEarth or the wizarding world of Potter–is taken alone or sometimes with siblings or friends, but never with parents. Indeed, notice how many of these heroes/heroines are orphans, have lost (or are in the process of losing) a parent? The only one that breaks this pattern is Alice, whose parents are neither named nor significant in the set-up or plot.

"They're Off To See The Wizard"

The journey is almost always a ‘quest’ journey, with the hero/ine seeking a goal–sometimes specific, but oftentimes not. More broadly, the goal is to develop independence through self-mastery of specific situations, encounters and challenges. In psychological terms, the goal is to achieve the developmental stage separation/individuation.

Okay, back to Oz and Alice: Baum specifically drew upon Lewis Carroll’s Alice as his inspiration. He knew that the character of Alice was the key to the success of the Wonderland/Looking Glass series. I’ve found a link to an amazing article dated 1909 by Baum himself in which he outlines not just the importance of Carroll’s Alice to the evolution of the genre, but also what makes for a good fairy tale:

It is folly to place before the little ones a class of literature they cannot comprehend and which is sure to bore them and to destroy their pleasure in reading. What they want is action–“something doing every minute”–exciting adventures, unexpected difficulties to be overcome, and marvelous escapes.

To my mind a good book of this sort is just as necessary to the proper promotion of a child’s welfare as baths, exercise or wholesome food. (Baum, Modern Fairy Tales, 1909)

The “action–‘something doing every minute'” that Baum identifies as essential is what you will find in each of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through The Looking Glass), The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, LOTR and Harry Potter, to name seven examples that I can think of off the top of my head, which seem to represent modern fairy tales. Baum’s suggestion that stories of this type must not “destroy their [children’s] pleasure in reading” seems to presage the accolades bestowed upon J.K. Rowlings and her Harry Potter series for reviving an interest in reading among an entire generation of kids whose attention was (is?) consumed by video games, TV and the Internet.

A Confession: I’ve never read ANY of the Harry Potter novels. Their immense popularity and cult-like following triggers the contrarian in me, and I have deliberately avoided them. I also have questioned the claims made about their singular contribution to restoring a love of reading among a generation who chooses the ease of joystick, keyboard, or TV remote to obtain information and entertainment, rather than the slightly less convenient (but ultimately more satisfying) trip to bookstore or library. But I can hardly stand on my high horse about that, given that I too have succumbed to the lure of the Internet-as-entertainment, and sadly fallen down on my reading.

Without any commentary on its literary quality, there is no doubt that Rowlings has created a fantasy world that can stand up to Wonderland, Oz, Neverland or Narnia in its coherence and complexity; in the richness of imagery that nourishes growing imaginations; and in the structure and plot(s) that offer kids today (and their parents) an opportunity to work through the challenges of growing up through the characters of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. Now, if it wasn’t so daunting to get through the series’ seven humongous novels, I might try to read it/them, but I have other things on my reading list now, so I won’t make any promises.

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Entry filed under: Art, Books, Movies. Tags: , , , , , , .

Still Down The Rabbit Hole … If I Ruled The SYTYCD Universe…

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tasithoughts  |  August 17, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post and gaining some perspective on these children’s classics and the meanings behing these stories. It gave me a lot to think about and also a thirst to to know more and revisit them. Thanks.

    Reply
  • 2. zennifer516  |  August 17, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks so much, tasithoughts! I know exactly what you mean–I haven’t read any of them cover to cover in many years, and it’s high time for me to go back to the original texts. I’ve just ordered the Steadman-illustrated Alice from amazon, so I’m off now on a quest of my own!

    Reply

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