Who is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

Who is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?
A study of the portrayal  of the Wizard
(By Maggie Brookes)

In historical events great men—so called—are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the last possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.

Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoi, War and Peace

When L. Frank Baum looked around him at the fairy tales of his time, he saw that a new age was waiting to begin. An age where “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 incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.”[1] With this in mind, Baum devised The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, what “aspires to be a modernized fairytale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.”[2] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a tale of a young girl lost in a fantasy world who overcomes challenges with the help of a trio of travelers and various other magical guides in order to return home to Kansas. This tale has enchanted the minds and hearts of readers for over a hundred years. For over a hundred years this tale has inspired countless imitations, variations, and adaptations adding layers of meaning onto the already layered adventure.

The original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz focuses on Dorothy’s adventure through the land of Oz where she is instructed to travel to the center point of the land and meet with the Wizard to find her way home. However, this is just the plot of what occurs in the novel. Thinly veiled is a prominent moral preaching inner strength and the ability to find everything one needs within one’s self. Once Dorothy receives her silver slippers (pre-Hollywood, the slippers were silver rather than ruby) she has the ability to go home to Kansas at any point throughout the story, although she is not told of this power until she has learned of her own strength. The Good Witch Glinda explains “one of the most curious things about them is that they can carry you to any place in the world in three steps… all you have to do is to knock your heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.”[3] It is important to note that the she must use her own two feet to walk back to Kansas. However, it takes the whole journey for her to discover and learn of this strength inside herself. Similarly, her trio of friends, the Cowardly Lion, the Brainless Scarecrow, and the Heartless Tin Woodman have to discover the same moral for itself. While each respectively believes that he is deficient in his own way, it is obvious throughout the adventure that what they claim to lack, they actually possess in great quantities.

It has been hypothesized by many is that the story as a whole is a political “allegory for Populist demands for a bimetallic monetary system in the late 19th century.”[4] Baum, however, never recognized this idea as true. But viewing this matter historically, and putting political leanings aside, there is a connection between what Baum was simultaneously working on while writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Stuart Culver states that “L. Frank Baum was particularly interested in the vagaries of consumer desire in 1900 when he sat down to write The Wizard of Oz. He was at the same time at work on a treatise entitled The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows, as a vade mecum for would-be window dressers that culminated Baum’s brief career as the editor of The Show Window, the official journal of the National Association of Window Dressers.”[5] Baum’s ideas for ways to manipulate the shopper’s desire through window decorations are easily recognizable in the various ways that the Wizard character utilizes illusions to sway the opinion and satisfy the wants of his people.

Perhaps even the title of his fairytale has an element of illusion built in. The original title of the novel was edited to exclude the “Wonderful” in front of the Wizard’s title, changing it from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to just The Wizard of Oz after the first edition. By the initial placement of the word, and then the subsequent removal, the “Wonderful” hovers in the memory of the reader who is aware of the original title like a shadow of something that is not quite present. It acts like one of the illusions, hinting at the Wizard’s magic when in reality it does not exist. Even the Good Witch of the North is misled by the presentation of the Wizard; when Dorothy is first instructed to visit the Wizard by the her, Dorothy inquires of Glinda “Is he a good man?” to which she receives the answer “He is a good Wizard. Whether he is a man or not I cannot tell for I have never seen him.”[6] This initial introduction to the Wizard is the reverse of the conversation Dorothy later has after she has discovered the true nature of the Wizard where he claims “I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard.”[7] Despite the admittance of his trickery, the friends still insist that he use his power to fulfill his promise. The memory of the belief that he could create great magic lingers in their mind, not fully accepted as untrue, just as the Wonderful lingers in the title of the novel.

Once he has been discovered by Dorothy and her friends, the Wizard protests: “How can I help being a humbug when all these people make me do things that everyone knows cannot be done?”[8] This statement implies that the Wizard feels he has been pressured into position of power and has only been able to manage through his illusions. While this does seem plausible for a few of his tricks, there are others that are either entirely self-serving or possess an element of both motivations. For example, Dorothy and her friends are informed at the gates of the Emerald City by the Gatekeeper of the dangers associated with not complying with the imposed illusion ordained by the Wizard:

If you did not wear spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day. They are all locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built, and I have the only key that will unlock them. [9]

The order from the Wizard is created to ensure that his deception- that the city is completely green- is never revealed by someone removing their green-tinted lenses. In addition to this, the mandatory state of misrepresentation serves two other purposes. The first is a way for the Wizard to show his people the absolute necessity of his power over them. He does this through the satisfaction of the people’s desire that their leader’s work is grand and extravagant. By using green, which has a strong connection to money and prosperity, to blanket the city of Oz he creates a semblance of wealth. The warning from the gate attendant also influences the initial reaction to the City, “even with eyes protected by the green spectacles Dorothy and her friends were at first dazzled by the brilliancy of the wonderful City.”[10] Had the warning been of a less threatening nature, the initial impression may have been of a slighter degree. As it is, the effect is so strong that “even the sky above the City had a green tint, and the rays of the sun were green.”[11] When in reality it is clear that the appearance of green is created by looking through green glasses. In this situation the Wizard is utilizing his position of power to create a stronger sense of the necessity of his position.

The second purpose contrasts the first because it is mandated not by the Wizard, but by the people. In this case the people have the power and the Wizard is required to comply with their needs, however impossible they truly are. “Many shops stood in the street, and Dorothy saw that everything in them was green. Green candy and green pop-corn were offered for sale, as well as green shoes, green hats and green clothes of all sorts. At one place a man was selling green lemonade.”[12] This desire for goods that are not normally of a green color and have no real benefit from the abnormal coloring, are representations of what the Wizard refers to as “things that everyone knows cannot be done.” However, the people ask for it, and so he must provide it. The expectation of this fantastical effect and the lack of understanding at its source would lead the citizens to experience shock at the loss of effect. This lack of understanding is shown when Dorothy leaves the Emerald City, “Dorothy still wore the pretty silk dress she had put on in the palace, but now, to her surprise, she found it was no longer green, but pure white. The ribbon around Toto’s neck had also lost its green color and was as white as Dorothy’s dress.”[13] Now, even if the Wizard wanted to lessen the illusion, he could not. The citizens of Oz have become accustomed to the extravagance and excellence of their green consumerism and expect that it be maintained by the Wizard who is ruling them.

The Wizard, no longer satisfied and lacking the energy to continue playing the role of illusionist, decides that he will fulfill Dorothy’s wish by taking her with him on his return journey home. The Wizard is a man from the same world as Dorothy, who was accidently transported to Oz while working as a balloonist at a fair. He explains his sense of entrapment by the beautiful delusions he has created surrounding his powers: “I am tired of being such a humbug. If I should go out of this Palace my people would soon discover I am not a Wizard, and then they would be vexed with me for having deceived them.”[14] The Wizard is no longer interested in his position of power because he feels that he has become the prisoner of the people of Oz’s demands and expectations. Therefore, he decides that he will leave and go home with Dorothy. Although the Wizard is no longer interested in playing the role of a “humbug,” he keeps the act up until the end, informing his people that he is going to visit his Wizard brothers in the clouds.

This portrayal of the Wizard is consistent with L. Frank Baum’s aim to create a fairytale without the “horrible and blood-curdling incident devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale.” The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film adaptation of the Wizard’s character creates the same basic character. However, there are some key differences that cast the Wizard in a different hue. The Wizard of Oz in the film adaptation is lacking some of the enchantment presented in the novel. In the film, the Wizard is not credited with making the City appear green; it already is green. The setting of the film is describes the scene when the travelers first view the Emerald City: “Shooting across the poppy field. In the far distance stands the glittering towers and domes of the Emerald City.”[15] Despite that there is no indication that the City is in any way a product of the Wizard, Dorothy still attributes the greatness of him to the City: “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Just like I knew it would be! He really must be a wonderful wizard to live in a city like that!”[16] In the film the city portrays the Wizard’s greatness, even though he is only passively involved in its appearance. However, in the novel, where the Wizard actively requires green goggles, the Wizard portrays a carefully constructed representation of his power and influence through the City. This inverse relationship is subtle and does not have an impact on the reactions of Dorothy or her friends. But it does play a key role in how the Wizard is viewed by the audience. The film takes from the Wizard an element of his agency and redistributes it to the City, leaving the viewer less impressed with the Wizard.

In order to regain the lost sense of power that viewers expect of the Wizard, the film creates suspense through plot elements and cinematic tricks. One way this is done is by refusing Dorothy and her friends from seeing the Wizard immediately. Finally, when they are allowed to see the Wizard they are shown into the Palace Corridor, as described by the script, “it seems to stretch on forever, high and narrow, and has an awe-inspiring air of mystery and silence. Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion are walking down this corridor slowly, cautiously.”[17] The film Wizard uses simple tricks to intimidate and awe the people of Oz. The City is beautiful and green and the passageway is long, high, and narrow, causing the travelers to feel small and vulnerable. Once, the travelers arrive, they see the Great Head that Oz is using as his disguise. The illusion of his appearance as a Great Head is another reminder of their smallness in the face of the Wonderful Wizard.  In the original work, Oz appeared in several different disguises specially designed to dazzle and intimidate each guest individually. However, the movie, subject to the constraints of filming, must choose a single portrayal of Oz.

In addition, the Wizard introduces himself in a loud powerful voice: “I am Oz, the Great and Powerful! Who are you?”[18] This introduction is crafted to portray a sense of worthiness and ability while reminding the travelers that they are subject to his power. Dorothy replies “I—if you please, I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek. We’ve come to ask you—“[19] At which point she is interrupted by the bellowing of the Wizard and by the flame and smoke emitting from the Great Head. Throughout this the Wizard uses techniques that will enhance his appearance of power and magic.

In both the book and the film, the scene when Dorothy and her friends return to the Throne Room displays the true nature of the Wizard. However, in the film adaptation the Wizard appears more absurd and comical than he does in the novel. Even before he has been revealed the Wizard acts anxious and flustered. When Dorothy asks for the fulfillment of their promises he exclaims “Not so fast! Not so fast! I’ll have to give it a little thought. Go away and come back tomorrow!”[20] The Wizard appears to have not thought of a way to create an illusion to give them what they want. Then, once Toto has revealed him operating the machine, he tries frantically to continue his show and says into his microphone “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! The Great Oz has spoken!”[21] Of course this is not convincing and the travelers are persistent. Furthermore, unlike in the novel where the Wizard shows remorse at his uncovering, the Wizard in the film shows very little at all. In fact, it appears more so that he is goofily proud of being a humbug and enjoys his employment.

The travelers will not forget his promise, so he is forced to find a way to appease their wishes. Quickly, he thinks of symbols to give each of the three friends, but has nothing for Dorothy. Sending Dorothy back to Kansas is not the same as making her believe in something she already possesses—that would require real magic. Being a good man, he states “Well, you force me into a cataclysmic decision. The only way to get Dorothy back to Kansas is for me to take her there myself.”[22] Here the Wizard is leaving not because he is tired of the pressures of being a humbug but because he is a man who tries to keep his word. However, he has been a humbug too long and cannot be trusted to be a man of his word. When the balloon back to Kansas launches without Dorothy, she calls for him to bring it back down, the Wizard responds “I can’t come back. I don’t know how it works!”[23] This is strange since he had just previously claimed to be a “premier balloonist par excellence to the Miracle Wonderland Carnival Company — until one day, while performing spectacular feats of stratospheric skill never before attempted by civilized man, an unfortunate phenomena occurred. The balloon failed to return to the fair.”[24] This whole set-up regarding himself as a “premier balloonist” who was caught in an “unfortunate phenomena” where the balloon “failed to return” sounds like a lot of grand talk that actually means that he was operating a balloon without the proper knowledge of how to do so. This is further proven by the fact that the same “unfortunate phenomena” occurs when trying to return home with Dorothy and he does not know how it works. Clearly, the Wizard is a great man at illusions, but not a great man at reality and so he appears ridiculous and absurd when his tricks are revealed.

Remarkably, the biggest variation from the original portrayal of the Wizard comes from the most recent literary adaptation of the original Wizard of Oz. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, proposes a background story of the characters of Oz that Dorothy meets along her journey. The focus, as the title suggests, is on the  Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, whose name derives from the L. Frank Baum’s initials (L-F-Ba). Wicked, originally written in 1995, draws on plot details from both the original novel and from the MGM film adaptation (there are some details that reference Baum’s further books on Oz as well). In modern times, more people are commonly aware of the Wizard of Oz film, but only a small percentage of people have read the novel. Therefore, in order to appease the reader, Maguire takes inspiration from both versions. For example, one of the most iconic symbols in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are the magic slippers. Nonetheless, as noted earlier, they are depicted as two very different colors in Baum’s work and the MGM film. Therefore, Maguire finds a way to incorporate both descriptions into his novel: “Elphaba undid the cord and opened the wooden box. From a pile of ash shavings she withdrew a shoe, and then another. Were they silver?—or blue?—now red?—lacquered with a candy shell brilliance of polish?”[25] In this way, Maguire escapes having to choose between depicting the famous slippers as either silver, as they are depicted in the Baum’s novel, or red, as depicted in the MGM film. Readers from all levels of knowledge on the Wizard of Oz are satisfied.

However, what may be most disturbing difference between Wicked and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is that Maguire puts back into the story that which Baum intentionally removed. Reading Wicked immediately after finishing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz throws into stark contrast the feeling of each novel, this is definitely not a child’s fairy tale. While Baum wrote a novel that “aspires to be a modernized fairytale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out,”[26] Wicked includes in detail great heart-ache, nightmarish events, tragedy, and several instances of sexual intercourse between characters.

Just as in previous versions, the Emerald City of Oz is representative of the Wizard and how he is viewed by the people and the audience. In Wicked, the Wizard is characterized as an Emperor who rules through fear and oppression and the beautiful Emerald City is described as run-down and filled with all levels of urban strife and political unrest.

“The farms gave way to deserted mills and abandoned granges. Then abrupt and decisive, the Emerald City rose before them. A city of insistence, of blanket declaration. It made no sense, clotting up the horizon, sprouting like a mirage on the characterless plains of central Oz. Glinda hated it the minute she saw it.”[27]

This description of the initial impression of the Emerald City on Glinda (later the Good Witch of the North) and Elphaba, is representative of all that the Wizard is. He is a man of insistence, ruling through power and fear. “Our redoubtable Wizard has crowned himself Emperor…There isn’t anyone who has more authority, he said. And who can argue with that?… No one is particularly happy”[28] explains a friend to Elphaba when she asks for an update on politics. The people of Oz have no power under the Wizard as he continues to increase his status and tighten his rule over the people. The final line emphasizes the blunt contrast to previous versions because in Wicked “No one is particularly happy.”

It was no mistake to describe the city as “sprouting like a mirage on the characterless plains of central Oz.” The description of the City is an exact mirror of the description of what the Wizard truly is. The Wizard is still an ordinary man, although he will never admit it. Everything the people believe the Wizard is is like a “mirage” he has created to layer on top of his characterless plain normality. Everything the Wizard does is a deliberate act aimed to further an illusion and solidify his position of power. It is not a random decision to send Dorothy and her friends to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. There are several events that led up to the Wizard making this decision. First, Dorothy unintentionally kills the Wicked Witch of the East who had recently instigated the secession of Munchkinland from the Wizard’s power. Second, Dorothy and her friends needed the Wizard’s help. Third, the Wizard wanted the charmed slippers that Dorothy now possessed. Fourth, the Wicked Witch of the West’s intentions against the Wizard were still unclear. Dorothy came to Oz and by chance, became the perfect pawn for the Wizard to solve several of his problems at one time. Unlike in previous adaptations, there is no caring or sympathy associated with the Wizard’s acts, nor does he need the travelers to prove themselves to him. He simply needs an assassin. The Wizard reflects on his decision: “He had sent Dorothy, locked in those shoes as she was, to kill the Witch. He had sent a girl to do a man’s job. If the Witch was the victor—well, that was the troublesome girl out of the way, then. Perversely, though, in a fatherly way, he half hoped Dorothy would get through her trials all right.”[29] Inside, the Wizard knows that what he has done is wrong. But he only has enough sympathy for the matter to consider it in the privacy of his own mind. Externally he maintains his image and sends her to do his work.

Despite the carefully planned intention behind all of the Wizard’s actions, there are still hints of his ordinariness that even the Wizard cannot completely veil. He had earlier met with Elphaba and had appeared as a “skeleton with lighted bones, dancing in a storm.”[30] However, when he inquires of her opinion of his performance she responds: “Sir, I think you are a very bad Wizard.”[31] Hurt, he childishly replies, “and you are only a caricature of a witch.” This brief conversation reveals to the reader that the Wizard, despite all his confident display of his power, is still capable of feeling the sting of an insult, even from one of the people he rules. In the same conversation, he reveals further weakness: “’It is for others to bargain,’ said the Wizard. Rather than sounding offended he seemed merely depressed, as if he were talking to himself instead of her. ‘I do not bargain. But I do think.’”[32] Here the words contradict the image he is sending to Elphaba. Although he knows what he must say to control the sense of his power, it seems as though he is growing tired of the constant mask he must create. This piece of his personality is subtle in Wicked, contrasting the outright statement in Baum’s work. Finally, as in previous works, the true nature of the Wizard is revealed to the reader by Dorothy:

“The arrival of Dorothy Gale from Kansas was a summons, he knew it; he knew it when he saw her face. There was no point in searching for the Grimmerie any longer. His avenging angel had come to call him home. A suicide was waiting for him back in his own world, and by now he ought to have learned enough to get through it successfully.”[33]

The Wizard, who may have arrived in Oz as an ordinary and honest man, has undergone a transformation that has done him more harm than good. Despite his power, he is unhappy with his position. Hinting at the original Wizard’s words, “I am tired of being such a humbug,” the Wizard of Wicked desires to return to his home as well and be finished with his job of deception. However, while the Wizard desired to return home, the actual reason for his departure involved two other events. First, Dorothy returns from having killed the Witch and brings back with her “the green glass bottle that said MIRACLE ELI- on the paper glued on the front.”[34] And second, the increasing level of political unrest of the citizens of Oz. Ultimately, “it may merely be apocryphal that when the Wizard saw the glass bottle he gasped, and clutched his heart… it is a matter of history, however, that shortly thereafter, the Wizard absconded from the Palace. He left in the way he had first arrived—a hot air-balloon—just a few hours before seditious ministers were to lead a Palace revolt and to hold an execution without trial.”[35] The return of the bottle to the Wizard signaled to him the extreme wrong he had done in his stay in Oz. The bottle had been his when he was first traveling around Oz, before he became Wizard, and had slept with a woman, this woman was Elphaba’s mother. Seeing the bottle forced the Wizard to realize that he had just ordered the execution of his only daughter and launched him into a desperate flight from all his wrong-doings and a return to his land. It is stated in both previous versions by the Wizard: “I am a very good man, I’m just a very bad Wizard,” however, in Wicked it is clear that the Wizard is unhappy with his life and believes himself to be as Dorothy accuses, “a very bad man!” Here the fault is entirely on the Wizard. He has complete ownership of his misdeeds which is a sharp diversion from the previous two, where the Wizard is a harmless man who is playing theatre tricks for the enjoyment of the people of Oz.

L. Frank Baum was probably highly influenced by the work he was doing—creating the ideal window shop display when writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The same sense of illusion and magic are used to impress awe and manipulate the thoughts and behaviors of the citizens of Oz by the Wizard. For the MGM film version of the movie, influence could have come from limitations associated with creating a movie. Then in Wicked, Gregory Maguire was working to portray a completely different angle than had previously been presented. The final result of all these elements working together created the different types of Wizard for each version. Baum’s Wizard is a humble, ordinary man who has fallen into a position of power and acted in ways to maintain that power and keep the people happy. MGM’s Wizard is a man of little power in reality, but an amazing ability to create an illusion of power to cover his absurdity. Maguire’s Wizard is a dominant, manipulative man whose power has gone to his head, yet he is getting older and worn-out by all the work. Each of these creates a slightly different sense of who exactly was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.


[1] L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (New York: Signet Classics, 2006), xix.
[2] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, xx.
[3] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 216.
[4] Bradley A. Hansen. “The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics,” Journal of Economic Education, 254.
[5] Stuart Culver, “What Manikins Want: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows.” Representations, 1988, 97.
[6] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 17.
[7] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 159.
[8] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 168.
[9] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 93.
[10] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 95.
[11] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 96
[12] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 96.
[13] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 115.
[14] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 173.
[15] Noel Langley, The Wizard of Oz, directed by Victor Fleming (1939; Culver City, CA: Warner Home Video, 2009), 56.
[16] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 56.
[17] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 72.
[18] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 74.
[19] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 74.
[20] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 97.
[21] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 97.
[22] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 101.
[23] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 103.
[24] Langley, The Wizard of Oz, 101.
[25] Gregory Maguire, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. (New York: Harper,  995), 191.
[26] Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, xx.
[27] Maguire, Wicked, 217.
[28] Maguire, Wicked, 358.
[29] Maguire, Wicked, 517.
[30] Maguire, Wicked, 454.
[31] Maguire, Wicked, 454.
[32] Maguire, Wicked, 453.
[33] Maguire, Wicked, 517.
[34] Maguire, Wicked, 518.
[35] Maguire, Wicked, 518

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2 thoughts on “Who is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?

    • Maggie Brookes says:

      I think that Toto, being the only character capable of innocent thought and therefore the only one truly connected to truth, was the only able to remove the illusion from everyone’s eyes. Also, by using Toto as as the one to pull back the curtain, Baum was able to avoid giving analytical agency to a character. After all Toto, was just being a dog and chewing on the curtain, right? (Although, there could be an argument for the idea that Toto did know that the Wizard was behind the curtain and was showing his friends on purpose. But that would imply that he had some level of higher understanding which is hard to believe considering he fell out of the trap door in the house in the middle of a tornado and Dorothy had to catch him by his ear.)
      what do you think?

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