Within the fantasy genre, particularly in children’s literature, there is a frequently used trope of magical travel from our world to another. The characters who travel can serve as avatars for the readers, as everything they encounter is just as new to them as it is to us. It is the Everyman, someone who shares our wonder and perhaps our trepidation of this new fantastic world. And some of the most famous Everymen in classic children’s literature are two young girls.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are not, as far as I know, solely marketed as girl’s books. This is important in a culture wherein girls are encouraged – even required – to identity with characters of the other gender, while boys are seldom given the opportunity to do so, let alone expected to. They learn at a far too early age to shy away from anything that could be construed as having feminine labels. Perhaps Oz and Wonderland are old and venerable enough stories that they’ve managed to escape this supposed stigma. Perhaps, also, Alice and Dorothy are simple enough characters – mostly reactionary rather than proactive – making it easy for anyone to identify with them, male or female. Whatever the reason, girl and boy readers alike are introduced to the lands of Oz and Wonderland through the eyes of a girl.
The stories themselves are admittedly rather nonsensical, particularly Wonderland. If you’ve ever read Lewis Carroll’s (pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) chaotic romp through absurdity, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn it was derived from a story he made up on the spot to three girls (one named Alice) while on a river ride. It’s meandering, very light on plot, full of bizarre imagery and silly wordplay. In addition to Alice, many of the characters’ names and/or appearances are a winking reference to real people. There are many other theories about the symbolic meanings the author could have intended, but as far as stories go, it’s giddy nonsense.
Alice’s role is largely to respond to the chaos around her with curiosity, confusion or frustration. Things happen to her, by and large. She leaves Wonderland simply by waking up from a dream. Still, if any of us were suddenly dropped into a world apparently devoid of logic and sense, we’d probably behave much the same way. She’s an effective an avatar as any boy could have been. And the format worked. The book has never been out of print, and produced a similarly popular sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
The similarities between Carroll’s book and L. Frank Baum’s are not coincidental. Baum liked Wonderland‘s idea of a child protagonist that children readers could easily identity with. He, too, named his heroine after a real-life girl, in memory of his wife’s beloved niece Dorothy who died at only five months. He also approved of using lots of illustrations, as Carroll did, to help create a vision of the fantastic world. He did not, however, care for Wonderland’s gleeful incoherence, as he was setting out to write something more like a modern-day American fairytale. He mingled old features with new – there were witches and wizards, but also cornfields and references to Kansas and Omaha.
Dorothy’s tale is very simple, for all its fantastic trappings. She is swept away to Oz in a tornado, and she wants to get back home. Through all the ups and downs of her journey, her purpose remains clear. She encounters some marvelous things – a living scarecrow and tinman, a talking lion – and terrifying horrors – a witch who wants to kill her – but she continues her quest undaunted, and finally succeeds. She’s arguably a stronger character than Alice, but neither one of them changes much over the course of their journey. Part of the reason for this could be that Baum didn’t want a story with a heavy-handed moral. It’s an adventure tale, not an allegory.
Or is it? Just as with Wonderland, theories about Oz‘s hidden meaning abound. It’s impossible to substantiate any of them, though it’s fun to speculate. Meanwhile, the famous film version of Oz creates a character arc for Dorothy wherein she must discover for herself that “there’s no place like home” – not to mention turning the whole adventure into a dream like Alice’s, which it is clearly not in the original book. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, somewhere between a sequel and a re-envisioning of the story, makes Alice’s a journey a much more straightforward quest tale, rather at odds with the directionless nonsense of the original. Even so, the interest in reinventing the story indicates something about the long-lasting nature of the original character’s appeal.
Baum went on to write thirteen sequels to Oz, most of them containing Dorothy to some degree or another. Eventually she moves to Oz with her aunt and uncle, eliminating the need to come up with more and more accidental ways for her to travel there. And she remains a relatively simple character. She is the prototypical child, not riddled with adolescent angst or the existential woes of adulthood. We recognize her immediately in her blue-checkered gingham dress and brown pigtails, just as we recognize Alice in her pinafore. We travel with them to strange new worlds; we empathize with their reason and determination in the face of absurdity and peril. And we see ourselves in them, because we we all used to be children.