• Ilana Davis

The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairytale

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Final Paper for Grimm's Fairytale College Course, GWU (2017)

A little over two centuries ago, the Grimm Brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob, began collecting and transcribing traditional German stories and tales. They did this by transliterating stories told to them orally-stories that were central to the German people. Kamenetsky comments on the nature of the Grimm’s tales, saying, “the Grimm’s were more exacting in recording tales from the oral tradition, and even if they merely summarized an oral tale, they would exert all of their efforts in reconstructing its oral style in loyalty to its spirit” (152). What this meant was, amongst the classic fairy tale elements such as magic and good versus evil, the Grimm’s also included features that were unique to the German lifestyle at the time. This included anything from the dark forests and small fishing villages of Germany to the hope of social mobility through marriage. With this, the Grimm Brothers created a book of stories that were by Germans, for Germans, and about Germans. This inspired the world, and as will be discussed in this paper, L. Frank Baum and eventually MGM studios to create a story that was a fairytale in concept but was also quintessentially American. Just as how the Grimm Brothers captured the German essence in their retelling of fairy tales, The Wizard of Oz expressed the American spirit, struggle, and dream with its fairytale plots, themes, and elements.


In 1900, L. Frank Baum released The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which went on to become a film that captured the hearts of Americans. Hugh Ruckoff writes “The book on which the movie is based, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, is not only a child's tale but also a sophisticated commentary on the political and economic debates of the era” (1). Although the book was released over three decades before the film, these underlying themes and ideas are carried into the late 30s, when the film was released. At a time when the United States was recovering from a terrible economic depression. When The Wizard of Ozwas released on film it provided a much-needed narrative for struggling Americans everywhere.


The Wizard of Ozwas not a record-breaking film during its release in 1939; it had a budget of just under 3 million, and only made a little over 3 million. MGM studios wanted to create a film using the new form of technology, the Technicolor process. This type of process was used for Snow White, and on February 1938, the New York Times ran an article, saying, “With the industry convinced that “Snow White” will be a box office success, there is a wild search for producers for comparable fantasies” (Harmetz, 3). In this way, the adaptation from book to film is similar in theory to why the Grimm Brothers transferred oral stories to ones written down. At the time the Grimm Brothers were transcribing stories, more and more German people were learning to read, making this new medium possible. By the late 1930s, Hollywood was booming and Americans had access to the movies. The emergence of film allowed for The Wizard of Ozto be brought to both a larger screen and a larger audience.

Part 1: Wizard of Oz: Just Another Fairytale


What makes European fairy tales distinct from other stories are the elements and themes found within them. These include anything from the prevalence of magic, to the existence of talking animals and objects, to the portrayal of good versus evil. Just as the classic fairy tales included these components, so too did The Wizard of Oz.


The journey that Dorothy must make to get home is a common motif found in fairytales. Often times, a character is given a task or a voyage he or she must complete, which sets the story on course. According to Kevin Smith, “magical events occur in an entirely other world” (2). This applies to The Wizard of Oz, as Dorothy’s journey only begins once she enters the Land of Oz itself. Just as classic fairytales like Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel take the audience on a journey through the country of Germany, The Wizard of Oz does the same with America. Student Gatricya Rahman released a thesis discussing archetypes of a fairytale. In it, Rahman writes that, “the hero must leave the world of his or her everyday life to undergo a journey to a special world where challenges and fears are overcome in order to secure a quest, which is then shared with other members of the hero’s community (35). Following this analysis of a fairytale archetype, it is clear that Dorothy sets out to do just this. She travels to Oz, a land where dreams become reality, and sets out on a challenge that she eventually overcomes, which ultimately betters both Oz and her home of Kansas.


As with classic fairytale characters, Dorothy, too has companions to help her with her journey. These come in the form of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. The Cowardly Lion, however, blurs the line between and animal companion found in tales like Cinderella, with a human friend. The Scarecrow, typically an inanimate object in a farm field, is alive and in need of a brain. The Tin Man, too, should not be able to walk or talk, for he is just metal in the shape of a man. And yet these characters walk and talk and aid Dorothy along her journey. These characters represent the companions found in classic fairytales, and further show the magic that can be found in the Land of Oz.


Fairytales are known for providing the audience with lessons and morals, and The Wizard of Ozis no different. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explains “in practically every fairytale good and evil are given body in the form of some figures and their actions” (page 8). This is best seen through the competition between the Wicked Witch and Glinda the Good Witch. The two embody polar opposites, not just in their actions but in their appearances too. This sense of ‘good versus evil’ provides Dorothy with a moral path to complete her journey on, which is a common trope in many fairy tales. Often times in fairytales, a character sets out on a journey, only to have his or her morals and actions tested.


Part 2: An American Tale


The Wizard of Oz, however, is not a European fairytale, but an American one. This concept can be seen through elements and themes that both the film and the novel include. From the apparent intelligence of the Scarecrow, to the patriotism found in a nation looking for hope, to the quintessentially American setting,The Wizard of Oz distinguishes itself a new type of fairy tale: an American one.

Often times in fairy tales, the protagonist will have a companion to aid them with their journey. Often times in European fairy tales, these come in the form of godmothers or animal helpers. The Wizard of Ozgives Dorothy companions to help her get to the Emerald City, each representing aspects of the American lifestyle. The Scarecrow, perhaps one of Dorothy’s favorite companions, is often seen as a representation for the Western Farmer. His head is filled with straw, and he outright says that he is missing a brain. When the film was released, farmers in the Midwest were feeling hopeless in their social standing. Farmers were suffering greatly during the Great Depression, and were often viewed as lower class or inept. But, as Hugh Ruckoff says, “we soon learn that he is shrewd and capable. He brings to life a major theme that farmers in general were capable of understanding complex theories” (7). While the Scarecrow spends the entire story looking for a brain, he discovers that he has one all along; he simply went his whole life being told he was brainless and therefore began to believe this to be true. This sentiment echoes the complaints of American farmers in the 1930s (Great Depression and World War II). The farmers felt they were being used and abused by corporations. The symbol of the Scarecrow, as a whole, is used to appeal to a suffering audience in need of hope, as well as to provide a set of morals and lessons.


Just as how the Grimm Brothers tales united a nation, so too did The Wizard of Oz. A famous line from The Wonderful Wizard of Ozreads:“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home” (Page 44). This line, in which Dorothy speaks of wanting to leave Oz, represents the American patriotism that Baum incorporated in his novel. When the film came out, Americans were struggling with the Great Depression, a great war was stirring, and there was a clear sense of bleakness across the country. Yet, this line, which stuck in the hearts and minds of many, gave the impression to thousands that their country was worth fighting for and struggling for. This concept is very similar to the German nationalism movement brought on by the Grimm Brothers, which author Louis Snyder describes by saying, “In this way they conveyed the impression that their tales reflected praiseworthy national traits of the German people” (page 1). These tales, while they appear simple and childish, all represent a larger sentiment of patriotism, which further made these stories so popular. In a larger sense, The Wizard of Oz’sconcept of American values, along with its clear fairytale elements, makes it similar to the classic European tales, yet different in that it was a fairytale meant to be cherished and appreciated by Americans.


The settings itself holds much significance in The Wizard of Oz. In the Grimm’s tales, the setting is often a dark forest or a small village; these are common backdrops in their stories. The Wizard of Ozcaptures the epitomic American setting of a barren farm in Kansas. During the 1930s, thousands of Americans living in the regions of the dust bowl were affected by dry, arid conditions along with hopelessness for their economic futures (Schubert). But The Wizard of Ozgave these people hope, as it told them that a world of fantasy and magic was awaiting them, just as it was for Dorothy. Additionally, Dorothy’s yearn to go home would later resonate with the Americans who, despite their struggles, were proud to live in the country they did. In the case of a fairytale, the setting is used to further appeal to an audience, and The Wizard of Ozused both realism and fantasy to do so.

Part 3: An American Fairytale: Missing Elements


This theme of the American Fairytale is further suggested by the classic fairy tale elements the story leaves out. The Grimm Brothers were just one example of the many European authors of Fairy tales. Charles Perrault, Christian Anderson, and Oscar Wilde all wrote stories that resonated with the people of Europe. This meant that in a fairly Christian and monocratic region, the stories too echoed these concepts.


The United States made itself out to be a new kind of nation: one with no defining religion, nor a ruling monarchy. For this reason, the story lacks royalty, kings or queens, as well as a sense of overbearing Christianity. This aspect is one of the defining reasons as to why the Wizard of Oz should be considered an American Tale. What The Wizard of Ozdoes have, however, is the Wizard in the Emerald City. Laura Barrett comments of the nature of The Wizard of Oz’sgenre, writing, “the traditional characters of such tales – kings, queens, princes, and princesses – were out of step with democracy, and magic itself was dwarfed by the reality of the American experience.” Here we see that the formula that once defined classic European fairy tales have changed to fit other cultures. For the same reasons that the Wizard of Oz is a fairytale, it can also be argued that it doesn’t hold all the elements of a fairytale to be true. For this reason, The Wizard of Ozrepresents a new kind of fairytale: one far enough out of the reaches of Europe that it can decide what elements ring true to its culture, and what could be made different.


For over a century, Americans have marveled at the creativity of L. Frank Baum, and later of the film industry for the adaptation it created. The Wizard of Ozhas been dissected and analyzed for meaning more times than one can count, and yet the same developments always arise: it is a story not just of history, but of the future and the present. It provides a mix of reality and fantasy, of good and evil, of far off lands and lands close to home. In his book, Smith quotes Tolkein, who claims,


The definition of a fairy-story – what it is, or what is should be – does not depend on any definition or historical account or elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. (Tolkein 1965:16)


The Wizard of Oz, with its fairytale tropes and far out lands, lends itself perfectly to this definition. Yet at the same time, Smith challenges this notion saying, “oral transmission of traditional narratives is not a common activity in a culture that relies upon the easy dissemination of mass produced fiction, and it is therefore necessary to realize that the fairytales we recognize are more part of literary tradition than an oral one” (5). According to Smith, there is in fact a difference between classic fairy tales that come from oral culture and that of literary fairytale.


But the Grimm Brothers themselves changed and edited the stories told to them so much, that their works, too, could be considered literary rather than oral fairy tales. Whether a tale is written down, shared through words, or shown on a big screen, it is undeniable that many of these stories share the same devices and elements, which make them all fairytales in a sense. The Library of Congress even has an exhibit honoring the tale, titled “The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairytale.” Just as how the Grimm Brothers sought to unite Germany under common themes and circumstances affecting them, so too did The Wizard of Oz.In such a case, The Wizard of Ozis representative of the American struggle, spirit, and triumphs. Through the classic elements the story includes, and those it chooses not to include, The Wizard of Ozcan be described as a classic American fairytale.

Work Cited:


1. Barrett, Laura. “From Wonderland to Wasteland: The Wonderful Wizard of

Oz, the Great Gatsby, and the New American Fairy Tale.” Papers on Language & Literature, Southern Illinois University, 22 Mar, 2006. https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-146958136/from-wonderland-to-wasteland-the-wonderful-wizard

2. Baum, Frank L. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. George M. Hill Company, 17 May, 1900.

3. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of

Fairytales. Vintage Books, 1975.

4. Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Chicago Review Press, 1977.

5. Kamenetsky, Christa. Brothers Grimm and their Critics: Folktales and their Quest for

Meaning, 1 Feb, 1992.

6. Library of Congress. “The Wizard of Oz: An American Fairytale Exhibit.” Library of

Congress, 7 March, 2000. https://www.loc.gov/item/prn-00-010/the-wizard-of-oz-is-saluted-in-library-of congress-bicentennial-exhibition/2000-03-07/

7. Library of Congress. “Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945. Library of

Congress.http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/depwwii/depress/

8. Rahman, Gatricya. “The Archetypes of Hero and Hero’s Journey in Five Grimm’s

Fairy Tales. Yogykarta State University, 8 July, 2014.

9. Ruckoff, Hugh ‘The “Wizard of Oz” as a Monetary Allegory,’ Journal of Political

Economy, Vol. 98, 1990, pp. 739-760.

10. Schubert, Siegfried D., et al. “On the Cause of the 1930s Dust Bowl.” Science,

American Association for the Advancement of Science, 19 Mar. 2004. Science.sciencemag.org/content/303/5665/1855.full.

11. Smith, Kevin P. The Postmodern Fairytale: Folkloric Intertexts in Contemporary

Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

12. Snyder, Louis. Cultural Nationalism: The Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. Nineteenth-

Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Suzanne Dewsbury. Vol. 77. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Roots of German Nationalism. Indiana University Press, 1978. p35-54

13. The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. MGM Studios, 1939.



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