SPECIAL PODCAST: Return to Oz (1985)

img_1793Happy Halloween, everyone!

We are delighted to present you with our first foray into the world of podcasting: just in time for the festive and frightening season, it’s Sarah and Nick, breaking down national barriers and joining each other in time, space, and virtual reality to talk about one of their favorite movies: Return to Oz (1985). We’ve been planning it for some time – did you catch Nick’s hint in the last blog? – but we weren’t sure it was going to work. Believe it or not, it’s been almost as much of a surprise to us as it is to you!

img_8469If you grew up with the movie – or if you were there when it opened over three decades ago – leave us a comment and tell us what you think. Did it deserve its critical mauling? Is it true to the spirit of Baum’s Oz books? And most important of all, which Baum characters have you found in that coronation scene?

Have a great and safe Halloween, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, where we’ll be releasing exclusive content at the end of the week. See you in November for Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz!

https://www.podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/8242066?style=normal&autoplay=false

Ozma of Oz (1907)

It’s time to return to the land of Oz – not just for us, but for Dorothy, too!

ozmacoverFollowing one book set entirely in the Land of Oz, L. Frank Baum brings back the Kansas heroine of his original big success. In his author’s note, Baum tells of the many “sweet little letters” from young readers who pleaded “to know ‘more about Dorothy’; and they ask: ‘What became of the Cowardly Lion?’ and ‘What did Ozma do afterward?’” If he were to answer all their questions, Baum says, he would be “obliged to write dozens of books to satisfy their demands.”

We know now that dozens upon dozens of books did follow Ozma of Oz; what his readers did not know then was that Baum had already signed a contract to provide the first two. After a wonderful fable and a marvelous cash-in, Baum was preparing to take Dorothy down a gold-paved road to the Emerald City and beyond: the Oz books had become a series.

Episode III: A New Hope

wp-1476752796264.jpgThis is usually the last Oz book anyone in mainstream culture has even vaguely heard of, says Sarah, but the really weird thing is that this is the first true Oz book. Right?

Not for me, says Nick. I definitely knew Wizard and Land before I even found a copy of this book. I’m sure I also saw Return to Oz a few times before I came to the book it was based upon. How about you?

Well, I genuinely don’t remember which Oz book I read first. I know it wasn’t Ozma. This is the first Oz book I can put a date on, though, because my mother wrote it on a bookplate for my birthday in 1989. I would’ve been six.

Documentary evidence! This is why people should write in books.

I agree, but what I’m saying about Ozma has nothing to do with when I read it. I meant that it’s the first in the “series,” the first that is recognizably the Oz we fans know.

That’s so true. It’s the first book that treats Oz as a place which is truly escapist, even idealized: a place we might wish to – and can – return to without breaking the mode in which we read it.

All the elements are in place now for the long haul. This is the “pilot” for the series in a way that Wonderful Wizard is not, and it’s the first Oz book Baum wrote with the specific intention of perpetuating a series.

nick-meets-ozma-of-ozI must admit it sometimes felt weird to read it as it makes that transition. It’s the first book where you need prior knowledge to prevent your head spinning round every other page.

I’ve always found it a hard book to gift for that reason. Often, I will give a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to friends with young children, but I don’t think – good as it is – that it’s really the book I want to be giving. I want to give them a “real” Oz book. I want to give them a copy of Ozma of Oz, but I can’t.

Baum does deliver quite a lot of backstory, in a very funny way, I thought. Dorothy keeps telling her new friend Billina about the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and Billina – a talking chicken – is like, “Yeah, right. As if!” Reading in sequence, though, you do feel a significant shift. The world created for the fable of Wonderful Wizard – the girl who arrived so satisfactorily “Home Again” at the end – is suddenly on the move again.

Will the Real Dorothy Gale Please Stand Up?

Well, that’s the other thing that’s a little peculiar – this is the sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the novel, as opposed to The Wizard of Oz, the musical extravaganza from 1902. Baum’s actually writing a fairy story again – not a theatrical satire – and he’s clamped down on a lot of the elements that made Land of Oz feel so stagey. He’s already reworked a lot, too.

Are you thinking of our heroine?

I am indeed. Blonde Dorothy is not Brunette Dorothy. Brunette Dorothy lives in a shack on the Kansas prairie, with her dull-as-ditchwater aunt and uncle. Blonde Dorothy has an uncle who takes a sailing ship to Australia! She’s fashionable! She speaks in catchy slang! She’s almost totally different in every way!

I’ve never understood that weird thing John R. Neill shows her wearing. Baum mentions her gingham dress, but Neill has her in some (supposedly fashionable) unflattering bag-type thing and impeccable shiny black shoes.

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Detail from The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck by W.R. Bradford and John R. Neill (1909)

I think it probably was fashionable; the female heroine of Neill’s contemporaneous comic page, The Little Journeys of Nip and Tuck, is dressed in exactly the same style of clothing Dorothy wears in this and the next few books. His art really emphasizes the shift in Dorothy’s character, though. Did you, like me, have a weird disconnect, as if you were reading the adventures of an entirely different child?

In my head, this Dorothy is a little older, which explains the way she talks.

Her age would account for a bit of it, sure, but where did Uncle Henry get his money?

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Dick Martin (1961)

Through these hitherto unknown relatives in Australia, of course! The Gales of Canberra! I’m sure we’ll hear lots more about them in the next book.

Well, apparently they’re a huge, spread-out family. They’re off to Australia at the start of this book, and the next one finds them with other relatives in San Francisco. It begs the question: why was Dorothy ever placed in the care of destitute relatives?

Did you like Blonde Dorothy more or less than Brunette Dorothy? Could you blur them together somehow?

Yeah, if I squint. I think I like Brunette Dorothy better, because she has sheer determination on her side, but I’m more familiar with Blonde Dorothy. She’s definitely less attractive, though; she’s grown rather haughty in her old age.

Oh yes; she doesn’t approve of Billina! She point-blank refuses to let her to call herself Bill.

Billina’s really taken on the role of Brunette Dorothy as the one who’s not going to be put down, the one who’s not going to just roll over and play dead, the one who’s got all sorts of common sense. She’s the hero of this book. It should be called Billina in Oz.

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John R. Neill (1907)

She’s almost a successor to Chick the Cherub, in more than one way.

Oh no. Not again!

Don’t worry, I’m not about to claim Billina as a trans icon of the early 20th century – but she is another character who really doesn’t care whether she behaves like a girl or a boy and has an androgynous name because, well, she was born a chick: gender neutral. For me, her big line is, “I don’t care what you call me, so long as I know it’s me!”

It’s a good point. There is, actually, a stage version of the book out there – Ozma of Oz: A Tale of Time, by Susan Zeder – which uses the story as a springboard for inter-generational understanding, of all things. I haven’t seen it performed, but one of the major features is Bill – not Billina, Bill – who is played as a “human-sized chicken.” Yes, really.

Goodness! It’s funny, though, because Billina gets a lot of Classic Baum on Broadway Repartee in this book. I was thinking: if he did plan on adapting this for the stage, would he have actually had her onstage as a giant chicken?

The mind boggles.

She wouldn’t have fit under the Nome King’s chair in that case, but I’m getting ahead of myself….

Scary Movie Double Feature

Indeed, we digress. In our version, there will be no inter-generational understanding, as Uncle Henry is left on board while Dorothy is washed overboard. Then we find ourselves in the land of Ev with Dorothy and her new pal Billina. These are, I think, some really lovely scenes that I’m not sure I appreciated as a child.

Yes, the pair of them just head out to explore their new surroundings. It’s extremely satisfying to have neither of them shivering and wishing they were home.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Absolutely. All the initial material in Ev is classic Baum, too: wandering around, examining the place, having an ethical discussion about food sources. There are such nice details: the contents of the dinner pail, Dorothy having to dry out her socks, Billina hunting for insects. It really keeps the reader in the moment.

Suddenly: the Wheelers! Now, because I found them so terrifying in Return to Oz, I’m never sure what we’re supposed to make of them when they turn up here.

Exactly. I am aware that my entire interpretation of the Wheelers (and indeed, huge chunks of this book) comes from Return to Oz, and that’s not an association I can shake. They’re definitely unnerving in the book, even as they’re also wacky and nonsensical. Their wheels are made out of keratin, apparently. Think about that.

The fact that they’re beautifully dressed, in straw boaters and ruffs – even though they live on the coast, spend their time shouting abuse at people, and have no fingers or toes – makes them truly surreal and unlike any of the other magical occurrences in Ev, which maintain a sort of Zixi-ish, fairy tale aura. That being said, Princess Langwidere…

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John R. Neill (1907)

…is satire. She’s satire, right? She’s every modern lady who has to buy this week’s new hat. Not to mention, she’s probably a slightly teasing judgment on moody women.

Yes, her hall of head-cabinets actually resembles a hat shop full of mannequins, doesn’t it? I like the way she can’t quite be bothered to be villainous; Return to Oz makes her more frightening than Baum intended. Dorothy is never expressly afraid of either Langwidere or the Wheelers. They’re just rude people who get in her way.

Again, we’re getting into how Return to Oz coded this for us, but I’m not sure Baum or his audience realized how bloody creepy it would all look on film. These characters are just meant to be weird, not truly scary.

It’s worth remembering that Baum’s generation hadn’t road-tested the effects of this sort of material on child readers. Over in Britain, E. Nesbit has just written the Psammead trilogy, and The Wind in the Willows and Anne of Green Gables are still a year away. This is children’s literature in beta.

Guaranteed to Do Everything but Live

We’re overlooking what is surely one of the weirdest and most imaginative characters in Baum’s entire oeuvre, though, and that’s probably because he’s just not that strange to us today. I’m talking, of course, about Tik-Tok.

Yes, the marvelous mechanical man who does everything but live!

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John R. Neill (1907)

I always liked Tik-Tok; I think it’s quite hard to not like Tik-Tok. On rereading the book, though, I was taken with how much Baum hovers on his manufacturedness. It’s so beautifully presented. I love the engraved plates Dorothy reads: “Things, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything But Live.” “Guaranteed to Work Perfectly for a Thousand Years.” “Manufactured Only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev.”

Yeah, I love that too. We get a rich backstory for him and for his creators, and Baum keeps adding to it, bit by bit. You can feel Baum’s enthusiasm flowing as he writes – essentially about inventors like him. It’s far more than the plot demands, but it’s where the Oz books come alive.

Right. Tik-Tok doesn’t actually do very much. In the second half of the story, he really only pops up to be wrong, again and again, but he solidifies in your mind because of all that detail and backstory, right at the first.

One disappointing thing about this book for me is that we don’t get so many of those funny, cod-existential conversations from Marvelous Land. We only have a minute or two of random bitching: “Well, we may both have been manufactured, but I’m alive.” Tik-Tok doesn’t care about any of it. It’s amazing to me how many similar characters Baum has created after only three books, but they each have incredibly strong identities.

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Skottie Young (2011)

I agree, and Tik-Tok is probably the next-to-last character to really catch the public imagination. He still works today, too: bring up Return to Oz, and someone’s going to give you a half-formed memory of Tik-Tok. There’s a whole slew of tiktoks in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, and a version of him even pops up in the Disney videogame Epic Mickey 2.

It’s true that he doesn’t really do anything, though. It’s almost as if, in the last third of the book, Baum goes “Whoops, too many characters, better make thirty of them inanimate…”

Here Comes Everybody

Similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this book has an awkward three-act structure. Up to now, it’s been all action, but the entire second act of the book is pretty much just people having meetings. Dorothy is sprung from the tower almost immediately by Ozma and her retinue, we learn that the royal family have been enchanted by the Nome King, and it’s off to the Nome Kingdom.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Yes! Lots of chatting and mingling and some business with a completely superfluous new talking animal, the Hungry Tiger, who admittedly gets a lot of fun lines.

He does. He’s actually more of a presence than the Cowardly Lion, whom Baum will sideline from here on out. Will no one stand up for a Cowardly Lion?

Actually, I was glad to see the Cowardly Lion back. He was never my favourite character as a kid, but here I think he’s absolutely adorable and somewhat important. Baum seems to imply a comparison between him and all those captains and generals who are always running away.

Ah, yeah – the army of Oz. Why are they in this book? They’re the one holdover, I felt, from the theatre, as if they’re supposed to break into comic song somewhere.

Actually, I think they’re important. They’re Baum working through more issues of masculinity and the military and his own ill-health. One general even uses the excuse of heart disease at one point, which would be quite pointed coming from Baum.

Oh, I don’t think I buy that. I think Baum’s just being rascally and showing up authority, as usual. The Tin Woodman makes nearly the same joke about heart disease in Wizard.

But that’s the Tin Woodman talking to the Lion. Here it’s a general excusing himself for letting others risk their lives before him.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Returning to the second act, we do get Dorothy’s first reunion with her old friends, but curiously, we never really see her meet her future bosom pal, sole confidante, and possible girlfriend, Ozma – the eponymous hero of the book!

Oh yes, I hadn’t noticed! It’s like the first meeting of the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart!

Why is Ozma of Oz the title of this book, anyway? It sounds good – for once – but it’s hardly representative of the story. Ozma doesn’t make her first appearance until page 103 out of 270, and she’s a terrible, naive leader! She just waltzes in and proclaims and expects people to… what, tremble? Realize they were wrong and apologize?

Baum mentions fan letters about her in his preamble, so I’m assuming she must have had some popularity after her fleeting appearance in Marvelous Land. Perhaps it’s simply because she is a heroic little girl, like Dorothy, but Baum himself doesn’t seem interested in her the way he is in, say, Dorothy. When they come to the gates of the Nome King, they only get inside because Dorothy has the humility to ask if they can come in.

Quite. And there we have our third act – and our big confrontation.

Make Ev Great Again

I’m more used to the openly villainous Ruggedo of the later books, but I love the Roquat of the Rocks version of the Nome King that we first meet here. He’s not a mastermind villain: he’s a businessman. In her article, “Beneath the Surface of Ozma of Oz” (The Baum Bugle, Spring 2002), Suzanne Rahm points to turn-of-the-century moguls like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller as inspiration, and I think that’s exactly right. The Nome King is all about the monopoly of power, the hoarding of things. It is – I’m sorry, Nick, I’ve got to say it – an amazingly appropriate book to be reading in the final days of the candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

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Dick Martin (1961)

I thought exactly the same thing, Sarah, although the Nome King is rather more charming and articulate and fun to be with.

Oh, definitely; the Nome King’s someone you could actually tolerate at a dinner party. As with any business mogul, though, he prides himself on his manipulation and gamesmanship.

Yes, there’s something a bit Alice in Wonderlandish about the way he plays with language. “Oh, it would be cruel to enslave these people, so I turned them into tableware.”

Right. I like that bit – it’s funny, and it’s logical, but it’s totally without compassion. The cunning trick of the King of Ev’s “long life” is pretty good, too.

There’s something very sinister about the idea that Evoldo was given a long life – and if he throws it away, it’s not the Nome King’s concern.

Of course, we’ve only recently been reading an earlier appearance from the Nome King. We both entered a contest run by the Oz Club to finish Baum’s novel King Rinkitink , originally abandoned in 1905 and awkwardly rewritten as Rinkitink in Oz in 1916. Nobody really knows how much of it became Ozma, but we know it did have at least some influence. Did the contest give you a different perspective on the Nome King?

Apart from the fact that Ozma of Oz is far more elegantly structured than the adventures of Prince Inga, I do think the Nome King changes in emphasis depending on the villains with whom he shares the narrative. King Rinkitink features two bad guys so incredibly unpleasant that there’s no way Baum could resolve things without Inga running them through. There, The Nome King takes the role Langwidere has here: a minor obstacle for the characters. Ozma works so much better – for me and for Baum, I think – in making him the opponent most important to the narrative.

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John R. Neill (1907)

Oh gosh, I just totally disagree.

Oh!

I think he fulfils almost exactly the same role, to the point where I’m relatively convinced that King Rinkitink originally ended with the “game” in the ornament room, and that it was lifted almost wholesale into this novel. The Nome King of Rinkitink and the Nome King of Ozma are, to me, fairly indistinguishable. They’re both businessmen, and they’re both fond of eliminating their opponents in creative ways. Neither of them is openly villainous.

I think my point is that Baum switches to a different, less earthly kind of villainy because it would mean pushing his heroes into more conventional, military heroism than he wants from them.

Perhaps I’m resisting a certain interpretation of the Nome King because I’m worried that it’s simply my “Return to Oz brain” talking. It’s hard; as much as I love the ornament room sequence, for instance, I can’t resist thinking that the film does it better, in a more streamlined fashion.

Yes, it’s hard to deny that movie’s influence on the way we see the book, and perhaps the Nome King in particular because he is so radically re-envisioned, including the way they defeat him. Maybe we should do a blog post just about the movie…?

Hmm…. The end of the book is actually the downward slope for me, because the Nome King just kind of gives up. It’s the latest, and perhaps least guilty, entry in a long line of books that Baum doesn’t quite seem to know how to finish.

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Skottie Young (2011)

Perhaps Baum wanted to keep Roquat as a returning villain? It’s not just that he doesn’t know how to finish; he basically resolves the book by recycling bits from the first two, which doesn’t bode well. Royals in enchanted disguise; someone in disguise who gets picked up by mistake; Dorothy getting everyone home with the villain’s magic article of clothing; and the Scarecrow re-enacting the Wicked Witch’s demise with an egg thrown in anger.

Yes, but Return to Oz – and even later Oz books – makes a far bigger deal of eggs being poison to Nomes. Here the Nome King basically acts like a wet cat. Last I checked, it’s hard to wipe corrosive acid out of your eye!

Ozma of Oz: A Good Egg

To be honest, Sarah, we had so much fun getting to this point, I really don’t care about the flaws. There are so many good characters in this book. Add the improvement in plotting – on Marvelous Land, as well as King Rinkitink – and I really enjoyed Ozma of Oz. How about you?

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Unpublished cover by John Romita (1976); colors by Eric Shanower (1987)

Oh, yes. I think it’s a wonderful book and probably one of the strongest in the series. To return to that idea of it being “the first real Oz book,” I feel like this is possibly Baum’s best standalone fantasy story, just as an entertainment. No overwhelming morals, no adherence to fairy tale tradition, just Baum being Baum and sort of relaxed about it. It’s possible, of course, that this is the first book he really felt secure about ahead of time because of his contract. If so, I think that security shows. 

I would definitely buy this for a child today, and I think it would still be loads of fun to read aloud. How about you? 

Oh, absolutely. I think we should all make that our goal. In the next calendar year, give a copy of Ozma of Oz to at least one child you know, or read it aloud to them, and do all the voices.

Mission accepted. Oh, and I’m really looking forward to next month’s book; I loved Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz as a small boy, and we finally get to see the Wizard back in action.

Before that, though, we’ve got a Halloween treat for you. It’s a special podcast we’ve recorded about the film mentioned so many times in this month’s blog: Return to Oz. Let us know what you think – or follow us on Facebook!

So, gentle reader: what do you like about Ozma of Oz? Tell us in the comments! 

Next Time

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DOROTHY AND THE WIZARD IN OZ

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Illustrations are photographed from the book collection of Sarah K. Crotzer, are used without financial gain as examples of the original publications, and remain the property of their original creators and publishers. Please don’t steal them; go buy the books instead.