(No) Colours in Kansas
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
“Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Blue Light,” “The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs,” “The White and the Black Bride.” Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812-58) are full of colours. Red, blue, gold, white, black. (Yes, it is debatable whether the last two are indeed colours, but they are taken as such in the stories, so there!) Colours cover ideas: blue is often connected to magic; gold to wealth and, similar to white, pureness, innocence and beauty. Red is for recklessness, vanity, life; black for danger, cruelty, death. In “Little Snow-White,” the latter three famously meet:
Once upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, "Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame." Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony; and she was therefore called Little Snow-white. And when the child was born, the Queen died. (Grimm and Grimm, trans. Hunt)
White for innocence, beauty, beginnings; red for life and “pretty[ness]” and a potential to be spoiled; black, a warning, a price to be paid. Colours also cover emotion and their blending, apparently, even more so. Hope and danger make stories. No light without its shadow. Or, rather, no shadow without a light? Somewhere. Far out there. Behind the “seven mountains” (Grimm and Grimm).
Literary fairy tales – tales created by single authors rather than being collected from folklore – sometimes claim to leave the darkness of traditional fairy tales behind, “the horrible and blood-curdling incidents” (Baum 3) of wolves devouring little girls and queens being cruelly punished: “But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead” (Grimm and Grimm). Meet the dark side of red.
Stories live off contrast. And light sparks darkness. Colours remain:
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen elsewhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else. (Baum 7)
This is the beginning – pretty much – of Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), “a modernized fairy tale” (3). Everything in Kansas is “gray.” Sun-bleached. The landscape, the people: “The sun and wind had changed [Aunt Em], too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now” (7). Uncle Henry, too, is “gray […], from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke” (7). The greyness seeps into their hearts. Grey colour equals “grey” emotion and character. The only thing that resist the dullness is Dorothy’s dog: “Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long, silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily” (8).
But the fairy tale, strictly speaking, hasn’t even begun yet. As Dorothy sets her eyes on the Land of Oz for the first time, the “grayness” of everyday life immediately vanishes:
The cyclone had set the house down, very gently – for a cyclone – in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, gray prairies. (9-10)
It’s a green country, full of life and voices, its capital is green also: “the City of Emeralds” (13). The road leading to this place is “paved with yellow brick” (14), and the inhabitants of Oz wear colourful clothes: “blue” and “white” (10) as well as “silver shoes” (11). At least one of them. Did. (Go read the story! Or listen to it. Or watch it. If you end up with the musical – what happens to green there?!)
The function of grey and green in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is as symbolic as the function of white, red and black in “Snow-White.” But whereas the traditional folk tale may signal its ‘fairytaleness’ via its specific use of more or less set colour(s), Baum seems to go a step further: it is the colours themselves that allow us to enter the story, from the mundane into the wonderful. As the yellow brick road, they show us where to go. The 1939 film adaptation with Judy Garland takes this to the next iconic level as it continuously depicts Kansas in black and white, Oz in Technicolor. For some reason, the magical shoes end up red, too – tapping into the traditional fairy tale paintbox there? In fairy tales, colours contrast death and life, reality and fantasy, suggest the magical as well as (moral) ideas and emotions. They illumine the story in both a literal and a figurative sense and, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, they illumine Dorothy’s life – as Toto does –, and the reader’s life – as fairy tales do. But, importantly, there is no implication that the colourful Oz should replace bleak Kansas entirely. Dorothy’s journey, after all, is a quest for home, a return to the “gray”: “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” (20). A home, a little whiter, a little redder, a little blacker, a little greener. A home in contrast. All it takes is a fairy tale.
Baum, Frank L. “The Wizard of Oz.” 1900. The Wizard of Oz: And Other Wonderful Books of Oz: The Emerald City of Oz and Glinda of Oz, edited by Jack Zipes, Penguin Books, 2012, pp. 1-105.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “Little Snow-White.” 1812. Translated by Margaret Raine Hunt, Wikisource, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Grimm%27s_Household_Tales,_Volume_1/Little_Snow-White, 1884. Accessed 06 June 2020.