Fact Within Fiction


It’s a strange thing to me that a world presented in a work of fiction can be basically just like ours, except without that work, and often related ones, existing in it, even if it’s very popular in the real world. There are some exceptions to this, of course. I understand Marvel Comics established early on that their comics do exist in-universe, although they aren’t quite the same. I have to wonder how this would work with a character like Spider-Man, where a lot of the conflict lies in his trying to maintain two separate identities, when the writers have no way of knowing he really is. And that’s not getting into characters like Deadpool and She-Hulk who can intentionally break the fourth wall, because that’s a different issue, and usually played for comedy. L. Frank Baum made it clear that the Oz books do exist within his stories, or at least they do in the Great Outside World that’s separate from Oz but sometimes interacts with it. His conceit was that he was the Royal Historian of Oz, and he wrote of events that actually happened. In The Emerald City of Oz, which he intended to be the last in the series, the final chapter actually says he received a note from Dorothy written on a stork feather, saying that Oz had been cut off from the rest of the world.

When he returns to Oz with Patchwork Girl, his explanation is that the Shaggy Man managed to make contact with him through wireless telegraph.

It’s suggested that he was originally getting the stories directly from Dorothy. Of course, that raises some additional questions. There are parts of the plots where Dorothy isn’t present, and she’s not in Land at all. And the books are written in third-person omniscient style, but how would Baum know what everyone was thinking? He called himself the Royal Historian, not the Royal Psychic Reporter. The best explanation might be that he extrapolated and embellished the accounts without mentioning it, making them not very good history books. When I write about Oz as if it’s real, or my own stories about it, I tend to go with a very literal reading, trying to iron out the contradictions as much as possible. It’s how I often like to approach fiction, and the details make things feel more real to me. But in doing this, I’m largely ignoring Baum’s own way of lending credence to his writings. That’s not to say that he himself didn’t also go back and forth on this; the very same book that had him get the note from Dorothy had him admit in the introduction that he used a lot of his readers’ suggestions, which should be impossible if writing about true events. You could perhaps say that what he wrote BECAME true in Oz, but if that’s the case there’s no real need for the radio telegraph, except maybe for confirmation. We do have Shaggy, who’s supposed to be the one dictating the stories to Baum, saying in Tik-Tok, “No one knows that, except the person who’s writing this story.”

This seems to fit in with the even more heavy-handed than usual jokes in this book that bely its origins as a stage play (which in turn was based on a few earlier Oz books), but I don’t know what it means in terms of Oz lore. Ruth Plumly Thompson sometimes went along with the idea of being in radio communication with Oz, as in her notes in Gnome King and Ojo; but a promotional Ozmapolitan suggests she actually visited the Emerald City. John R. Neill wrote in Lucky Bucky that the tale came from a “special record” he “ran across.” Jack Snow says in Shaggy Man that he communicates with the Emerald City through a television set, while Rachel Cosgrove Payes cites a talking bird as her source.

The Proclamation Extraordinary promoting the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comics indicates that Baum and illustrator Walt McDougall would follow the visitors around wearing caps that made them invisible.

“Ozma gave us permission to stalk her friends.”

If the world in which these authors lived is the same one that Dorothy is from, does that mean visitors from there have read the Oz books? This generally seems to be the case. In Sky Island, when Button-Bright and Polychrome discuss having met in Oz, Trot has heard of it. And upon reaching Jinxland in Scarecrow, she rattles off a long list of Ozites. Betsy Bobbin has heard about Oz and knows about Ozma and Dorothy, but not Shaggy. In neither of these cases do we know for sure that these people read about Oz instead of just hearing about it from somebody else. In Gnome King, however, Peter Brown outright tells Ruggedo, “I read a book about Oz once, but I didn’t know it was really true.” He then says the former Nome King wasn’t in the book he read, and he doesn’t seem to know who the Patchwork Girl is. He does, however, know about Ozma, Dorothy, and the Wizard of Oz. He’s also read about gnomes, but not necessarily in an Oz book. Speedy makes a similar comment in Yellow Knight: “I’ve often read about Oz, but I never thought it was really true.” In fact, most of Thompson’s American protagonists have essentially the same reaction upon finding out they’re in Oz. Bucky Jones recognizes that Oz is “a wonderful and friendly place.”

Twink and Tom are aware of Oz and the Shaggy Man, while Jam and Robin Brown have apparently never heard of the fairyland before visiting there. Neither have Notta Bit More, Bob Up, or Jenny Jump, but they all seem to have lived fairly sheltered lives in the United States. Tompy Terry has read “several Oz books,” and knows enough to give Yankee a brief overview of the place and its history. He’s also “read a bit” about Kabumpo, but hasn’t heard of Jinnicky. When he gets home, he reads Purple Prince to Yankee. David Perry “had read many stories and strange adventures about the people in Oz.”
More recent authors have accounted for the fact that Americans these days are more likely to know about Oz from the movie, and there are occasions where they’re surprised by how the real Oz, the one of the books, differs from the MGM one. In David Hulan’s Glass Cat, Barry Klein is familiar enough with the books to ask a genie to teach him the magic word from Magic, but his sister Becky only knows the film. Aleda in Melody Grandy’s Tippetarius is familiar with both the first Oz book and the movie, but doesn’t read any others until she arrives in the land, where she reads some to the giant Orlando.

Oz books appearing in Oz itself is something that happens from time to time in more recent tales, although there’s some precedent for it with the illustration in Kabumpo where Glinda has several titles on her shelf.

Orlando’s books grow on a book tree, and include some of the same books from our world, but also other titles like The Four Wicked Witches of Oz and The Red Sorceress of Oz. While I suppose the books would be histories within Oz, it does seem unlikely that most Ozites would get their history from works by authors from another country, even if the Royal Historian title implies approval from Ozma. There are a few mentions of the Wogglebug having written Oz history books, but he might be an even less reliable narrator.

This entry was posted in Characters, Comics, Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Humor, Jack Snow, John R. Neill, L. Frank Baum, Magic, Melody Grandy, Oz, Oz Authors, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Ruth Plumly Thompson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fact Within Fiction

  1. I know that Baum appears as an off-stage celebrity author in one of the “Aunt Jane’s Nieces” books. According to my own entry for the centennial contest, I found the Web edition of “The Ozmapolitan” and got my story from there.

  2. Ethan Davis says:

    Great post! In my Oz series (which is work-in-progress) my New Character Trevor Lewis is very familiar with Oz when he first arrives. But only the MGM version.

  3. markrhunter says:

    My WIP goes under the assumption that Baum was actually in contact with Oz–but that he embellished his stories as necessary for dramatic purposes, which helps explain some of the conflicts. Meanwhile my main character only knows of Oz from the MGM movie, so when she meets the real Dorothy in modern times she’s in for an education that will hopefully bring the reader up to speed, too.

  4. I have to admit, books or other works of fiction popping up in their own worlds can be fun. It sort of tickles the edges of reality by asking, what if that world really is out there?

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