Fantastic Function Follows Form


Hugh Pendexter III’s article on magic in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books, which was printed in the Autumn 1978 Baum Bugle, notes, “It seems wise to distinguish between magical technology, in which magic tools and devices imitate the advances of the outside world, and magical talismans which have powers in no way connected with the normal functioning of the object. Pendexter mentions the Magic Belt, King Mustafa’s ring, Pastoria‘s old robe, the Rash Rubies, the Big Wigs, the Wishing Necklaces, and the Silver Hammer as examples of the latter. This distinction hardly only applies to Oz; myths and fairy tales have long had both objects that enhance the abilities normally associated with them, and others that are totally unrelated. Seven-league boots, for instance, reflect the normal use of boots for walking (as Nancy Sinatra would be glad to remind you). A wishing ring, on the other hand, seems to have an unrelated form and function.

I guess that’s true of most objects that grant wishes, and most magical jewelry. As far as belts go, I suppose the girdle that makes Aphrodite irresistible kind of works with how a girdle is considered a glamorous item, although it has nothing to do with holding up skirts.

Invisibility cloaks are also borderline, as one possible use for a cloak is to disguise yourself, although I wouldn’t say that’s the primary use. It’s not entirely clear why witches often have flying brooms, although I have heard the suggestion that it’s because sweeping was considered women’s work. But then, in some modern media, male magicians also ride brooms.

L. Frank Baum’s Oz had a few magic tools that imitated and enhanced the regular uses of such things. The Magic Picture uses its display to show whomever or whatever it’s asked to, and the Great Book of Records collects information on its own. In The Magic of Oz, the Wizard of Oz has a tiny axe and saw that are automated and incredibly fast. Ku-Klip has a magical glue created by the Wicked Witch of the East that can be used to mend flesh.

Even the Silver Shoes are much the same as the traditional seven-league boots. The transportation powers of the Magic Dishpan are clearly in talisman territory, but there’s also the question of why a dishpan would make someone a better cook.

They’re both used for kitchen work, but not the same variety. The several flying and parachuting umbrellas that turn up have powers based not on the typical function of an umbrella, but on their appearance.

In the Thompson books, there’s a little fan that causes great winds to blow away invaders, a mirror that describes a person’s (or animal’s) nature, super-distilled baking powder that can make anything rise, and a magnet that will attract whatever its owner wants. I’d like to connect Mustafa’s ring that changes color when someone disobeys him with mood rings, but they weren’t invented until 1975.

Thompson was quite fond of puns, probably even more so than Baum, and many of her magic items had functions based on wordplay. Sometimes these can overlap with the enhanced tools, but not always. Pendexter refers to the Hardy-Hood, which protects it wearer from harm, as something that could be considered either tool or talisman, but it’s definitely a pun.

Stepping stones step around by themselves, a jumping rope enables its bearer to jump long distances, and a searchlight can magically find anything.

Others pun-based magic items that don’t have anything to do with their normal functions include shrinking violets (which reappear in a more potent form in a Rachel Cosgrove Payes story), a Nap Sack, a flying field, an Es-Cape, looking glasses, stumbling blocks and tumbleweeds, and a shooting tower. Thompson shows us a thinking cap that improves thoughts in Giant Horse, although Baum had already used the pun in Queen Zixi of Ix.

The Wizard also has different varieties of such a cap in Bill Campbell and Irwin Terry’s Masquerade and Margaret Berg’s stories. I suppose creators of magic items must be notorious punsters.

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5 Responses to Fantastic Function Follows Form

  1. James says:

    Funny that you mentioned puns as it’s a running joke with one of my friends, fellow Oz author, that I can’t do them and he says them like a sailor cussing…

    I’m quite content having had the Magic Belt being used for what it was created for and then being gone in my novels.

  2. Glenn I says:

    I rather liked the hurry-cane (sp?) … that was in Hungry Tiger of Oz, I think.

    • Nathan says:

      Yeah, they had them in Rash. It’s funny to me that there was actually a product released in the past few years or so called a HurryCane. The Pasha should sue!

  3. Pingback: What’s the Punishment for Puns? | VoVatia

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