The mouse saves the lion. The story may sound familiar; you might think Aesop but think Lyman Frank Baum instead. His Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Chapter Nine with the title “The Queen of the Field Mice.”
At the end of the previous chapter, the Cowardly Lion, along with Dorothy and Toto, had fallen asleep in the bed of poppies, whose powerful aroma had cast a spell. The Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, not made of flesh, had been able to stay awake and carry Dorothy and her dog away from the soporific flowerbed. But their feline friend was much too heavy; their only choice was to leave him behind. In a chain of events that the ninth chapter chronicles, the Tin Woodman gains the favor of the Queen of the Field Mice (who, alas, doesn’t make the cut in the 1939 film) for having saved her from the jaws of a wildcat, and gains the fealty of her followers. The mice ask the Tin Woodman how can they repay him. He can’t think of anything, so the Scarecrow jumps in and tells them about their friend. A lion, the Queen cries, he’ll eat them up. The Scarecrow assures her, no, this lion is a coward. So the Queen summons legions of mice to bring long pieces of string. They come from all directions, thousands of them, and they attach their strings to a cart of tree trunks that the Tin Woodman had fashioned together, and manage to get the Lion onto cart. While the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow push the makeshift vehicle from behind, little-by-little the mice pull the Lion out of the poppy field.
Baum wrote the Wizard of Oz in collaboration with the illustrator, William Wallace Denslow, a popular newspaper artist and designer of posters and book jackets. Upon being introduced in 1897, the two men hit it off; they were the same age, in their early forties, and had the same sardonic humor. Although they were different in temperament—Denslow was a rather contemptuous fellow, and louder and more gregarious than Baum—they enjoyed working closely together on Oz. In Baum’s den, filled with the smoke of the writer’s cigars and the illustrator’s pipe, Baum would read passages from the book, culled from ideas he had been perfecting for several years, and Denslow would sketch the scenes. They had already experienced a rewarding partnership the year before, working on Father Goose. And as with Father Goose, Baum decided to share with Denslow the copyright of Oz. But to paraphrase the old adage, success breeds contempt. And when Oz, published in September 1900, sold, in less than a year and a half, 37,672 copies—a figure that even today would make a literary novelist envious—Baum’s and Denslow’s friendship started to unravel over Denslow’s efforts to receive a greater share of the royalties not to mention credit. The illustrator’s resentment no doubt fed by the reviews that gave him full recognition for the book’s success. But Oz was, foremost, about the genius of the story, a modern fairytale for which Baum aimed and effected; and when Denslow went off to try to capitalize on the book’s success and tried his hand at writing additional short stories about the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, and Oz’s ‘visitors,’ he failed miserably.
Nevertheless Katharine Roger’s points out in her biography of Baum, Denslow’s lively drawings inarguably gave the author added inspiration for his plot and for his characters; and Denslow’s brilliant layout and design and use of colors complemented the originality of the finished book. It was his visualization to drop the pictures into the text. At the top of page 105 of Baum’s and Denslow’s Wizard of Oz, we can see the sleeping lion on the cart being pushed by the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow, and behind the lines of words green grass and bushes appear, while at the bottom of page 104 the Queen’s field mice flow.
Sources: Frank L. Baum, W.W. Denslow, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 1900; Baum, Denslow, Michael Patrick Hearn, Ed. and Martin Gardner, The Annotated Wizard of Oz, 2000; Katharine M. Rogers, L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz, A Biography, 2002; Evan I. Schwartz, Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, 2009.
(Image: Illustration of the field mice pulling the Cowardly Lion by W.W. Denslow, 1899, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)