The Magic Books of Oz

Sometimes – quite often, in fact – all I really want is magic. Not a subtle overtone, which could be explained away as metaphor or madness. I want a wicked guardian threatening to turn her servant into a marble statue. Then I want that boy to run away with the Powder of Life and a wooden man with a pumpkin-head. I definitely want to see a couple of daring girls set an impossible task by a bad-tempered king who turns people into furniture – and for them to beat him at his own game. I want a quest to a lonely island. Invisible monsters. I want an underground kingdom of belligerent plant people. More plainly, I want Oz books.

And if you want magic in life, you must look out for magic workers.

Something will always give them away. A curious look, a careless word, a ready laugh, the occasional sense that they’re half-remembering that summer they met a wishing beast, or summoned up a Norse god, or walked through a door in the air.

The Oz books are not the only books which instil this sense of enchantment in people, but for me they are ladder, back to my earliest sense of wonder. Down the paper rungs I go, to catching a movie, the Christmas I was three. A house carried away by a storm, and Judy Garland’s eyes saucer-wide; Judy stepping from a monochrome world into one of Technicolor –who can ever beat that for a special effect? Hard not to develop a longing for magic when you’ve been transported so entirely and at such a young age.

The next summer, The Wizard of Oz taught me how to love a book, when I found a yellowing Scholastic paperback edition in a charity shop. I saw what it did differently from a motion picture, sometimes giving more (all that detail, back story, further adventures) sometimes less (you are the casting agent, the director and the author of a sequel). Meanwhile, it does things I loved from the movie but with the deft, close-up magic of a storyteller’s language:

“Did you speak?” asked the girl, in wonder.

“Certainly,” answered the Scarecrow; “how do you do?”

The storyteller’s voice is always there in the Oz books, because they began as tales told by L. Frank Baum to his children, probably while he was a commercial traveller, roving over the country persuading strangers to buy chinaware. He must have had many hours to let the magic potion brew, in lonely hotel stays and long train rides, looking forward to conjuring for his young audience when he made it back home.

As a boy, I was delighted to find a second Oz adventure in my local library. The Marvelous Land of Oz reflects of a turn-of-the-century vogue for revolutions and big ideas: army of women deposes the King of Oz (the Scarecrow, unilaterally installed by the Wizard). A daft parody of women’s suffrage, yes, but the male characters of the book are even less prepossessing: the only heroic one of the bunch, young Tip, is revealed (spoiler alert) to be the rightful ruler of Oz, Princess Ozma, magicked into the wrong gender at infancy. As a girl, she takes the throne and remains one of the most enduring and inspiring aspects of the series, throughout the forty-odd sequels (give or take the odd recasting by future authors).

These books are: sweet; weird; funny; frightening; ridiculous; beautiful; radical; conservative; absurd; mystic; science-fictional; epic; cartoonish; disturbing; distasteful; disarming; disorientating; dizzy; dancing; silver-shoed; emerald-citied; rainbow-daughtered. And queer; Sarah and I argue about what that means for the books, but it’s a word that intrinsically belongs to that world; perhaps it’s the how you really say ‘”Pyrzqxgl”, the magic word Baum feels safe to give us because nobody can pronounce it, the word that can transform you into any shape you wish.

All this is true: I’ve been rereading them in recent years, AND I KNOW. They are over the top and never enough. For their readers, they constitute an imagined space of possibility and strangeness: uncynical, unpredictable and potent. Plenty of people don’t need a space like that, certainly not long-term: so of course, I feel a kinship with those who do. The books I love always reflect back a little of their original audience anyway, and the first readers of the Oz books breathe mutability and pre-war optimism. They were a fandom before fandoms were a thing, writing en masse to Baum to offer thanks and criticism and story ideas. He increasingly replies to him in his opening addresses: “My dears…”

I remember, maybe twenty years ago, finding a copy of John R. Neill’s Lucky Bucky in Oz in a London bookshop. It was the ‘new’ Oz book of its day (‘Founded on and continuing the famous Oz stories of L. Frank Baum’) and its publishers decided to try selling the series in the UK on the back of Judy Garland’s big movie: I tried to picture being a child reader at the end of the Second World War. The inscription on the flyleaf was a boy’s name: I tried to picture how it felt to be a boy who liked Oz books in 1942.

I couldn’t afford that book, and anyway I liked my paperbacks. They reflected back different child readers, of perhaps even less wonder-filled eras. Perhaps I would never have thought of collecting older editions – perhaps I would have left Oz entirely in the past – if I hadn’t become friends with Sarah when I was ten. She knew and had read and experienced more than I could possibly imagine; she also lived impossibly far away in Tennessee. In fifteen years we only met in person for half a day when we were both twelve: otherwise, having put in touch by the great and powerful Oz Club, we sent letters into the unknown, like Baum’s readers writing to him ninety years earlier, like Baum addressing them with his books. Sarah and I wrote to one another, and read one another, and it was a queer friendship to the letter.

That’s what inspired this blog, but there’s too much to say here, because last year, after two decades of letters, emails, phone calls and Skype – we met up! I flew to Nashville airport and we spent three weeks together in the July heat. It should have been magic – and it was! Halfway through our thirties, old enough to know better, we racketed around, visiting museums and cafes and one forty foot replica statue of Athena. We had long overdue conversations and read together in companionable silence, and went to – goodness me – so many bookshops. In the first one we came to, I bought my first, properly old Oz books. One of them was Neill’s Lucky Bucky in Oz: from Baum, to Neill, to that first reader in the 40s, the paper rungs leading up through seventy odd years of owners to Sarah and me and now.

It still gives me a little thrill, that magic charge hanging around in the atmosphere when I turn the pages. Really quite often – no, I’d say almost always – it’s the only thing that will do.

P.S. If you like this kind of thing, take a look at the blog Sarah and I are writing together, reading the Oz series together:

I always turn straight to the ‘This Book Belongs To’ page and look for a name. This one is from ‘Jack Pumpkinhead in Oz’, which Sarah gave me on the last morning of our holiday together.

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