Today’s guest post comes from Heather Halak, a student in Rebekah Fitzsimmons’s “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class. Heather looks at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its peculiar collection of non-human characters who might reveal more about humanity than you’d think.
By Heather Halak
In many children’s classics, animals are attributed human qualities such as the ability to communicate creatively through language and are often given much importance through significant character roles. Among these classics is the greatest of all: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In the novel, Baum toys with the idea of what exactly it means to be human by assigning personalities and emotions to inanimate objects such as a scarecrow and a pile of tin and rust. Baum transforms them from inactive objects and into characters with feelings, goals, and dreams. Baum explicitly addresses that these beings are not entirely human by indicating one is missing a heart and the other a brain (which are quite necessary to be alive and well), yet maintains their identity as pseudo-humans by conveying they, too, cry and experience things much like we would. Baum also experiments with anthropomorphization in giving a lion, an animal of the jungle, qualities such as “cowardly” or “brave” and the ability to speak in addition to his roar. Throughout the novel, these three nonhumans are contrasted with Dorothy who is clearly a human girl, perpetuating their differences and yet simultaneously illustrating we are not all that different.
The Tinman and Scarecrow, two characters constructed out of materials far from the animation of life, are each given significant roles in Baum’s novels despite their lack of humanity in the most technical sense. The Tinman, who claims to once be human, lacks a heart, which is necessary for life and ventures to Oz to request one from the Wonderful Wizard in order to feel emotion. Though lacking a cardiac system, the Tinman is far from heartless, often crying over dead beetles and the loss of brief acquaintances. In the Wizard’s “granting” of the Tinman’s humble request, we can see that a heart may not be entirely necessary to define the human condition, as he has the ability to feel before the acquisition of his gift from the Wizard. Much the same can be said for the Scarecrow, who is stuffed with straw and possesses a painted on face. He claims to lack a brain, in addition to lacking everything else that is necessary to be considered a human being. Despite not having a heart and brain, the Scarecrow and Tinman are the most human of all characters, often keeping in mind the feelings of others, especially Dorothy’s.
The Cowardly Lion is not very different than many of the other animals portrayed in classical children’s literature. He talks much like a human, yet can also roar like a lion of the jungle. Much like Kipling’s The Jungle Book and his classic Mowgli stories, Baum takes an intimidating beast and adapts its nature to be more appropriate for children, almost transforming a carnivorous lion into a cute and cuddly companion deserving of love and sympathy. Much like how the Scarecrow and Tinman compare to Dorothy in their lack of humanity, the Cowardly Lion is juxtaposed with Dorothy’s small dog Toto who barks yet cannot speak.
The Tinman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion are arguably protagonists as important as Dorothy herself throughout Baum’s novel. In their origins, they draw one’s attention to the human condition and what exactly it means to be “human.” Though it is a question often explored in the genre of science-fiction, such thought provoking issues indicate an overlooked complexity in children’s literature.
Heather is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.