Absolutely Cuckoo


I think the first time I came across the word “Cloudcuckooland” might have been in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, but I’ve come across the term occasionally since then. Apparently it’s actually used as the name of a place in The Lego Movie, but I haven’t seen that yet. The term was invented by Aristophanes in his play The Birds. Well, actually, the name he invented was Nephelokokkygia, but that translates into English as Cloudcuckooland. It was basically a perfect city built in between Earth and Heaven as a home for birds. Later, it came to mean an insane place, probably due to how “cuckoo” came to mean “crazy.” It’s not entirely clear how this came about, but the accepted explanation seems to be that someone who is cuckoo makes so little sense that they might as well be making the noise that a cuckoo bird does.

And in 1813, Arthur Schopenhauer began using the term Wolkenkuckucksheim as an indication that someone was being unrealistic, sort of like dismissing someone’s ideas by saying they’re living in Wonderland or the Land of Oz.

TV Tropes has a list of Cloudcuckoolands in various fictional works, mostly concentrating on ones that fit the “bizarre place” definition. Some are simply defined by strange or backwards customs, like Mypos from Perfect Strangers, Borat’s version of Kazakhstan, Fez’s unnamed homeland in That 70s Show, etc. Others, however, are ones where the laws of physics don’t necessarily even work the same way: Alice’s Wonderland, the Beatles’ Pepperland, Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, Wackyland from the Porky Pig cartoon.

By the way, did you notice how Wackyland was in Africa in the original cartoon, but appeared to be adjacent to Acme Acres in Tiny Toon Adventures? This reflects the general shift away from the portrayal of Africa as the mysterious, unexplored Dark Continent where anything is possible. The dodo bird actually was native to Africa, but it’s not like real dodos were at all like the reality-warping ones from the cartoons.

In the Middle Ages, a popular name for an imaginary utopian land was Cockaigne. I’m not sure whether this is at all related to Cloudcuckooland; Wikipedia relates it to an old French term for “plenty.” Still, not only is the name similar, but it more or less fits BOTH meanings of “Cloudcuckooland.” It’s a paradise, but a bizarre one. Descriptions of Cockaigne often place heavy emphasis on food, which can fall from the sky or make up the natural landscape.

Some descriptions mentioned animals that wanted to be eaten, like pigs that walk around with knives in them or fish that jump into people’s mouths. Other themes include the lack of death or illness, work being unnecessary, and a reversal of societal roles. Basically, it would be a total relief from the hardscrabble life of a peasant. Not surprisingly, the term was also used to mean a fools’ paradise, and Peter Bruegel’s painting known in English as “The Land of Cockaigne” gives an unflattering portrayal of such a place.

A more recent version of Cockaigne appears in the folk song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” telling of a place with lemonade springs, cigarette trees, and a lake of whiskey. There are many different versions of this song, but the one I’m most familiar with is Harry McClintock’s, as played in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Burl Ives also did a version, but it cut out some of the more overt hobo references, and they’re some of the most interesting.

According to the lyrics, “the boxcars all are empty,” “the cops have wooden legs,” and “the jails are made of tin, and you can walk right out again as soon as you are in.” In other words, it’s not a paradise because people there don’t have to be hobos, but because it accommodates the hobo lifestyle. I especially like the jail line, because it implies that, even in an earthly paradise, hobos are still going to be arrested on occasion.

According to David Hulan’s The Glass Cat of Oz, the Big Rock Candy Mountain is located in Oz, near the Kingdom of Oogaboo. He writes, “Directly opposite the cleft was the side of a mountain clear as the Glass Cat herself, set like a jewel into a cliffside of more ordinary rock that circled around to meet above her head. Just to her left a spring flowed lemonade into a deep pool, and near the center of the valley she could see the spouting of a natural fountain. Bluebirds, an unexpected sight so far from the Munchkin Country, were singing in the trees, and she could hear the hum of many bees doing whatever bees do.” David once mentioned that he intended to have the Bad Lads smoking cigarettes from the trees, but Peter Glassman considered that imitatible behavior. Oz itself has aspects of a Cockaigne, and TV Tropes refers to the land as a less surreal Cloudcuckooland. The weird thing is that people who use comparisons to Oz as insults implying naivete generally seem to be only aware of the MGM movie, and hence not of the country’s utopian aspects. Really, as far as L. Frank Baum’s writing go, it’s the Land of Mo that more accurately fits the Cockaigne description.

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This entry was posted in Art, Authors, Cartoons, Etymology, Fairy Tales, Food, L. Frank Baum, Language, Lewis Carroll, Music, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors, Places, Plays, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Absolutely Cuckoo

  1. Pingback: The Zozo Show | VoVatia

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