Jan 14 2010 1:00pm

Boredom in Fairyland: The Magic of Oz

So Ozma is having a birthday again. Yawn. And the various adopted citizens and hangers-on at the palace don’t know what to get her. Yawn. And an old enemy of Oz reappears. Yawn. Yawn. Have we reached the end yet? 

Magic of Oz, the thirteenth book in Baum’s Oz series, is, above all, a tired book. Very little new happens.  Glinda sets a group of young girls to weaving and sewing a gown formed from silk spun from softened emeralds. Trot, Cap’n Bill and the Glass Cat figure an ever changing magical plant will do the trick. Dorothy and the Wizard, cudgeling their brains together, come up with...performing monkeys. It’s even drearier than it sounds.

Ozma’s birthday, indeed, makes for such a weak plot that Baum was forced to add a second, where the former Nome King, still called Ruggedo, attempts to take over Oz with the help of a boy who knows how to do transformations. But although Ruggedo still schemes, his heart isn’t really in it, and a reuse of a plot device from The Emerald City of Oz only shores up the sense of eh. We’ve seen both plots before—and in contrast to the colorful parade of characters and detailed party entertainment descriptions of Road to Oz, this party is summed up in a few terse sentences. Even the monkeys, a supposed integral part of the plot, make only a truncated appearance.

Indeed, the only parts that make this book readable at all are the transformation of the vain and self-centered Glass Cat into an almost heroic and helpful creature (if one with a severe attitude)—and the introduction of the Lonesome Duck, who finds the company of other creatures dull and unendurable.  Frankly, in this book, it’s difficult to disagree with her.

Perhaps aware that this is not exactly compelling stuff, Baum tries to add some excitement through nearly shrinking Trot and Cap’n Bill to death. (It almost works as a metaphor for the entire book.) And he gives us a paragraph or two explaining why anyone would even bother to give the Ruler of Oz a birthday party after her nearly continual record of Rulership Fail.  As it turns out, she likes to head to kitchens and interrupt hard working cooks at their work; put children’s lives at risk with dangerous rides on the Sawhorse; and ask humble charcoal burners what else they might need to make them happy. (Apparently “a new job” and “rooms at the palace” aren’t the answers she’s looking for.)  But coming at the end of the book, as it does, this does not exactly provide extensive character motivation or a good reason for anyone to risk his or her lives for a birthday gift.

With most authors, a book of this sort would be a clear sign to give up and move on. But Baum had one more Oz book left in him.

Mari Ness thinks that a gown woven of emeralds would get very itchy. She lives in central Florida.

Beth Friedman
1. carbonel
For some reason, this one was my favorite book, other than the original. I was enchanted by the whole "pyrzqxygl" thing, and again when Zenna Henderson used it as a plot element in "The Believing Child."

But you're probably right from a logic and plotting point of view.

Are you planning on carrying on with the Ruth Plumly Thompson and other non-Baum authors?
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@Carbonel - I think I would have loved the whole "pyrzqxygl" thing more if Baum had given us the correct pronunciation, however dangerous that might have been. I do know I tried to say the word anyway.

I'm considering continuing this series with Ruth Plumly Thompson at least on my own blog. Thompson has a very rich, sometimes almost European take on Oz, and I find the contrast fascinating. But I must confess that, much though I love Oz, I actually haven't read all of the Famous Forty. But Merry-Go-Round in Oz is one of my favorite Oz books - perhaps the favorite - and it might be fun to talk about. Plus it gives me an excuse to track down The Scalawagons of Oz and Magical Mimics of Oz at last.
Dru O'Higgins
3. bellman
I just ordered 15 books in 1, the Oz compilation. Has anyone ever heard of "Little Wizard Stories of Oz"? I was sure there were just 14 Baum Oz books.

Also, 15 books in 1 is a really stupid title.
Mari Ness
4. MariCats
@Bellman - The Little Wizard Stories of Oz is not usually listed as one of the "official" Baum Oz books, partly because unlike the other books, it isn't a novel. It's a collection of short stories aimed at younger readers. I like the Neill illustrations better than the stories.
J. L. Bell
5. J. L. Bell
The Magic of Oz is one of my favorite Baum novels because of the interlocking plots. Dorothy's quest for a birthday present of trained monkeys (since a MacGuffin wasn't available) affects Kiki Aru's quest to conquer Oz, which affects Trot's rescue from the island. The resolution of each storyline depends on elements from both the others, with the Glass Cat and the magic word providing the links.

You write, “Ozma’s birthday, indeed, makes for such a weak plot that Baum was forced to add a second…" Chapter 1 starts with Kiki Aru, his adolescent boredom, and his discovery of the magic word. The birthday-gift quests were the additions. Indeed that's not a very compelling motive, but by this point in the series Baum had made the Emerald City so paradisical that he was straining for excuses to let the kids have adventures.

I did a study of Baum's manuscript for Magic (now at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin), and he wrote it right through. Very little rewriting, only a couple of added passages, and no discarded paths that survive. Given Baum's lackluster plotting on some other books, I suspect the way this one's threads braid together was as much the result of a happy accident as careful planning.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@J.L. Bell - Much thanks for the insight into Baum's manuscript - I've never seen any of his manuscripts, and I had no idea that he wrote this one straight through. I wonder if that was his usual process? It's fairly clear that he rarely bothered to reread his previous books, but I guess I figured that he did more rewriting than just a couple of added passages. Very interesting. (And something that causes me deep envy.)

I think both the Ruggedo/Kiki Aru and the birthday plots are pretty weak here. Part of my reaction may stem from the book's placement between two (in my opinion) much stronger books - Tin Woodman and Glinda - with Glinda providing a solid reason to get nearly everyone out of the Emerald City, with some really original touches. I just don't see anything as powerful or creepy as the Tin Woodman forced to confront his identity and past, or as original as a domed city that sinks beneath and rises above water.

I do agree that the paradise of the Emerald City does not lend itself to great plotting; Thompson ran into the same problem, and I note that in later books she either placed the Emerald City under an outside threat or avoided spending time there as much as possible.
J. L. Bell
7. elsiekate
i stumbled over this blog, but i am really enjoying these write-ups. i have not read all of the oz books, either, but i adore _merry go round in oz_!

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