References Over the Rainbow

Just how familiar are the people of Oz and the surrounding nations with the culture of the mundane world? It would seem that the most likely answer would be “not very,” but there are occasional references that suggest otherwise. One of the major ones is Victor Columbia Edison, the live phonograph named after the three main record companies in the United States at the time. Similarly, in the Utensia episode of The Emerald City of Oz, King Kleaver says he “must speak to Marconi” about a wireless sieve. The pun is obvious, but how would an inhabitant of a community so isolated that they don’t even know who Ozma is have heard of Marconi? Ruth Plumly Thompson has the Dictator of Dicksy Land reading Dickens, again bringing in the name for the sake of a pun, but also implying that nineteenth-century English literature has made it to Oz. So I guess the basic rule is that Ozites can demonstrate unlikely knowledge when the author thinks it’s funny. That said, it seems to me that it’s possible to go overboard with such references, and some modern Oz writers tend to do this. This came to mind recently due to Joe Bongiorno’s comment on my review of Chris Dulabone’s The Marvelous Monkeys of Oz, about a Winged Monkey comparing Sky Island to the U.S.S. Enterprise. Taken on its own, it’s not much worse than the references to Marconi or ragtime, but they’re really quite common in Chris’s books in particular. How would the Queen of the Scoodlers know what a ’58 Buick is, or an antique dealer in the Quadling Country have heard of George Washington and color television? Dave Hardenbrook’s Oz books share this quality, with one of the characters in his Unknown Witches being a pirate who enjoys watching Cheers on videocassette. I don’t mind such jokes in moderation, but when they’re overdone it kind of takes me out of the story. They might work better if the characters weren’t aware they were making them, perhaps. That’s usually what I’ve tried to do when making such references in my own Oz stories, but who knows how readers will react to that technique?

Another plot device I’ve seen in some relatively recent Oz books is the characters being familiar with the Oz series as we know it. There’s some precedent for that, as when we see a shelf of Oz books in Glinda’s palace in Kabumpo.

I guess it kind of depends on how you interpret L. Frank Baum’s title of Royal Historian of Oz. Does that mean he’s the historian for the people of the Great Outside World, or that his books are standard history books within Oz itself? I’m not necessarily so keen on the latter idea. The Famous Forty authors did give us examples of people from the Outside World knowing about Oz through the books, but not of Ozites studying their own history that way. I think the other thing that bugs me about all the references to our own culture is that it limits creativity in a way. Doesn’t Oz have its own culture that its inhabitants can reference? Their culture might reflect our own more than that of other fantasy worlds simply due to the fact that Baum made it modern in quite a few respects, but surely it has its own popular authors, right? Or has American culture become just as ubiquitous in Oz as it has in our own world? If so, let’s just hope Dorothy hasn’t started twerking. If John R. Neill’s illustrations are to be believed, she did keep up with American fashion to a certain extent.

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11 Responses to References Over the Rainbow

  1. Jared Davis says:

    Isn’t Peter already familiar with Oz from the Oz books? And Dorothy says she’s read of the Ryls and the Knooks (suggesting she got to read “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”) and Trot is already familiar with Oz in “Sky Island.” (She seems surprised that Button-Bright’s been to Oz. I guess she missed “The Road to Oz.”)

    • Nathan says:

      Or maybe Road hadn’t yet been published by the time she met Button-Bright. I guess if Dorothy was in contact with Baum, as the ending of Emerald City suggests, he might have sent her complimentary copies of his books. In Magical Mimics, Dorothy remembers “reading in a story book about Merryland and the Valley of Clowns.” Then again, it’s also possible that she read about Ryls, Knooks, and Merryland in books published in Oz. Regardless, these are all cases of Americans, rather than native Ozites, being familiar with the Oz books.

  2. Anthony Will says:

    I remember that Neil (in Road to Oz, I think) pictured Jack Pumpkinhead’s pumpkin house as having a mail slot as well as telephone lines. That’s pretty modern, I think!! I don’t think in the famous forty we ever read about Ozma getting the morning mail (I could be wrong. You have a much better memory on things like that)

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, that picture was in Road. I don’t recall there ever being much about the mail service, although it’s sometimes hinted that birds carry messages. In Handy Mandy, for instance, the Wizard mentions receiving a message from Glinda via pigeon post.

  3. In Sam Sackett’s Adolf Hitler in Oz, Hitler finds the Oz books in Queen Ann’s house, and later, goes to a library where he’s surprised to find books on various painters from the Outside World. Later again, he discovers that at least one Ozite is familiar with music from the Outside World and has biographies and books written by several historical figures, particularly ones that have had a positive effect on mankind.

    In Philip Lewin’s Witch Queen of Oz, the Wizard and Glinda make a trip to the Outside World to collect native plants. Similarly, in Denslow and Baum’s newspaper strips, various Ozian characters visit the U.S. (which happens again in Gardener’s Visitors from Oz). There are other examples too.

    So, it appears that to some degree, Ozians have and maintain an interest in what’s going on in the Outside World, in part because some of them come from it. And if we go back far enough in time, numerous people were once part of that Outside World — which explains why certain customs (e.g., money, aristocracy, medieval pageantry) are still present in Oz so many years later.

    But I agree that Oz is at the same developing its own culture, and, given the various diverse communities, quite a few different cultures. This is occurring at the same time that Oz residents are learning about (from book trees and libraries and stories from native Outsiders) the Outside World, specifically the United States, Europe and the Middle East (given that Thompson makes several references to Arabic customs and cultures).

    • Nathan says:

      I tend to like the idea that people from various cultures somehow wandered into Oz at different points in history, thus explaining the sometimes bizarre mix of cultures. Maybe the Ten Lost Tribes are somewhere around there, too.

  4. Trot mentions having heard of Oz in _Scarecrow_. I can’t recall if Betsy bobbin did the same. It made perfect sense in _Gardner’s Boy_ for Candy Longtaw to know about Oz, given it was a response to _Scarecrow_.

  5. Glenn I says:

    In Alexander Volkov’s “Yellow Fog” a witch awakes from a long hibernation and is given histories of the Magic Land to read and catch up on what she slept through. The histories seem to be Volkov’s previous books in the Magic Land series. An otherwise pretty good story detours into chapters recapitulating in fair detail the earlier Volkov books. Illustrations of these summary chapters feature the witch reading and reading and reading.

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