House of Smoke and Mirrors

One of the strangest and creepiest bits of an Oz book occurs in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, not too far into the story. Ojo, the Patchwork Girl, and the Glass Cat have left the Blue Forest to find an antidote for the Liquid of Petrifaction. After encountering a friendly woodchopper and declining his invitation to spend the night, the party tries to find a place to stay. They follow a blue light, only to find that the light is moving more quickly than they are. Bungle sees a house by the side of the road, however, so they go inside and are greeted by a mysterious voice, which allows them to stay but insists on quiet. When Scraps refuses, she is thrown out of the house.

In the morning, a breakfast table is already set for Ojo, so he eats and they leave. Outside, the boy and the cat find Scraps, who claims that a big gray wolf came to the door three times during the night. Ojo then finds that he is just as hungry and tired as he was before entering the house the night before. You would think this would totally freak out the boy at least, but just then the obnoxious live phonograph shows up and the incident is promptly forgotten. So what was the point? Either L. Frank Baum was just being weird, or he never bothered to write an explanation. I’m not the first one to note how bizarre this episode is, either. There was a Baum Bugle article by Patrick Maund discussing it, along with the Down Town part of Hungry Tiger. The article mentions a similar part in Scarecrow, in which a magical house of the same sort shows up in the Quadling Country to provide shelter and sustenance for Cap’n Bill, Trot, and Button-Bright. This house is explicitly said to be the result of magic by the Wizard of Oz, and it lacks the authoritative unseen voice. The episode also comes up a few times in the Book of Current Focus discussion, but no clear conclusions are drawn. Gordon Birrell mentions a possible connection to two Grimm fairy tales, one about a blue light that provides supernatural assistance to a young soldier and the other about a self-setting table.

So what is the explanation for the mysterious house? It’s not clear, and it probably isn’t supposed to be. The wolf being at the door is an old expression denoting poverty, but if there really was a literal wolf involved here, what was it doing? If Scraps was right outside the house, why wouldn’t it have noticed her? Ojo’s immediate response to the Patchwork Girl’s report is, “I don’t see why that should be; there was plenty to eat in that house, for I had a fine breakfast, and I slept in a nice bed.” The implication is that the boy takes Scraps’s report figuratively, even though she says she saw the wolf just as she did the stars and moon. Or is the wolf being at the door always literal in Oz? If I had to explain the house, my explanation would be that it was the creation of a magician (but probably not the Wizard of Oz) who perhaps takes the form of the wolf when not invisible. Really, though, there doesn’t need to be an explanation, and perhaps providing one would remove the impact of the episode. Although some material was cut by the publishers from Baum’s original manuscript, I seriously doubt any of it addressed the house. It really wasn’t his style to return to an incident so much later in the story, and there are other minor adventures in his books that don’t make much sense, although most of them aren’t quite so unsettling. Perhaps it is worth noting, however, how tricky and sometimes overtly hostile the area in general seems to be. The Shaggy Man identifies the road that he leads Ojo and his friends along as a different road of yellow brick than the one that Dorothy took on her first visit to Oz, and claims that it is the better of the two.

That may be true as far as the territory it runs through. Dorothy and her companions were thrust right into the middle of Kalidah territory, not to mention the gulfs and river that broke up the road. (Unlike in the MGM movie, the poppy field was not along the road; the party only encountered it when they had temporarily lost the path due to the river.) The road in Patchwork Girl, however, has a section that carries travelers backwards, and can only be passed if someone walks backwards on it themselves. Also, man-eating plants grow on a section of the road, and there is an illusory gate between the Munchkin Country and the Emerald City territory.

Dorothy hasn’t come into the story at this point. Is this carelessness on John R. Neill’s part, or another effect of wild magic?

I have to wonder how any of these oddities occurred, especially the wall, since I don’t think Ozma would have had the desire to separate the Munchkin Country from the capital in this way. Perhaps an earlier ruler wanted a barrier between them, however. It sounds like there might well be a lot of raw magic in the area, perhaps resulting from powerful spells cast there in the past. If so, such aberrations as the magic house with its lupine guardian might not have even been intentional. Incidentally, the house does appear in Baum’s silent film of Patchwork Girl, but it’s Dr. Pipt who visits it. It’s referred to on a title card as simply “the magic house,” and trick photography is utilized to make it look like the table is setting itself and other such effects. Here, the episode does not come off as such an eerie one, but the fact that Baum decided to include it suggests that he thought it to be a somewhat important scene. Then again, there are quite a few occasions in the books where Baum seems to feature an idea because he thinks it would look interesting on stage or screen.

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6 Responses to House of Smoke and Mirrors

  1. vilajunkie says:

    I’m starting to wonder if Oz, and even the “Continent of Imagination” on top of that, is a magnetic pole for magical energy. I don’t think that’s quite the right word, but I don’t know how else to put it. Or maybe even a garbage heap of magical energy much like the magical waste dumping ground at the Unseen University. Magic gravitated toward Oz at an early stage in Earth’s history, and any use of magic by wizards, witches, and so on complicates the nature of Oz’s geology. Someone, possibly Lurline, realized the dangers of Oz’s magic creeping out and screwing with the rest of the world and created the Deadly Desert around it. But they weren’t in time to save the rest of the Continent of Imagination, at least the parts that weren’t particularly magical to begin with (like Ev). The Red Jinn and Zixie among others probably use the magic that leaked out. And Glinda meant well by putting up an Invisible Barrier, but who knows what effect her use of magic over the entirety of Oz had on the inhabitants? Ozma and friends really need to start relying on conventional methods of solving problems rather than expecting magic to fix everything.

    • Nathan says:

      Ah, but maybe using magic IS a conventional method in fairyland!

      While I’m not sure there’s any basis for it in the books, I do think the Discworld idea of magical leaks causing oddities works for Oz as well. I think Mo might have the biggest leak, though.

      • vilajunkie says:

        Even if magic is conventional in a fairyland, RTP’s use of magic for everything the characters ever did was insane (when they weren’t having million-to-one chances, of course). I mean, this was the author who described Ozma using magic to turn a mountain inside out and control the minds of bandits to turn them into farmers–all by wishing it!

        Oh, Mo definitely has more magical buildup than Oz, even though almost none of the citizens know how to use it like all the Oz heroes and villains do. At least Oz doesn’t have entire sections of land made out of junk food and dragons filled with purple jelly.

      • Nathan says:

        We never actually find out how Ozma turned the bandits into farmers, and it might not have consisted of anything more than giving them plots of land to work. Overall, I wouldn’t say Thompson’s endings are lazy because she uses magic so much as that she’s very vague about HOW the magic works. It’s like the Magic Belt suddenly becomes much more powerful when the story ends. {g}

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