Saturday, 26 February 2011

Spring again

Another sign of spring arriving in Wiltshire.  The Snowdrops and crocuses have been around for a few weeks but these are the first daffodils in our garden so far.

Friday, 18 February 2011

What is it?

Here is a rather unusual looking object when viewed from this angle. They are not used much nowadays unless you have not quite got into the 21st century or like me, you are bringing old fashioned ...err ... things up to date.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Book Review – The Wizard of Oz (aka The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)

Most often this story is only known to people through the iconic 1939 Judy Garland film (or movie if you prefer) and like many books and film versions they are like chalk and cheese.
No farm hands that look like the Oz characters, no Ruby Slippers, silver ones, no ‘no place like home’ and six more chapters after the wizard’s balloon flies away stranding Dorothy, and so on.
Many people, in the UK in particular, are unaware that L Frank Baum wrote fourteen Oz books between 1900 and his death in 1919 and The Wizard of Oz was just the first. After he died, several authors including his illustrator kept the series going by writing a new book each year as a continuation of these stories. These have been kept in the traditions of the original and are given support by Oz enthusiasts.

My first encounter with the Land of Oz was via a book written in the same year as my birth, ‘Lucky Bucky in Oz’ by John R Neill. John R Neill was the artist who illustrated all but the first Oz book and several other Baum childrens’ story books not a part of the Oz chronicles.

As a child, Lucky Bucky in Oz captured my imagination to the extent that I remembered it in detail for years and years. I only read it a couple of times because I had borrowed it, but I now have my own copy. Like many other Oz stories which continue to be read by new readers and older readers alike, it is still in print.

In the 1950s, one of my aunts, whose name incidentally was Dorothy, took me with some of her other nephews and nieces to see the Judy Garland film version when it was re-distributed. In those days, films disappeared quickly after their release, since there were few means of seeing them other than going to a cinema (or movie theatre if you prefer). If the film was not on release you could not see it – period, so it was a special and rare occasion when a really good film was re-released. TV was in its infancy in the UK in the 50s and did not catch on to this for some years and then in the 1960s swamped the British viewers with film after film. Now The Wizard of Oz is a Christmas standard and almost invariably is on at least one channel every year at that time.

It was not until I was an adult that I decided to read the original book and found that it was very familiar territory after reading Lucky Bucky, but as I have mentioned, diverged a lot from the film.

I then went on to read more of the series and have yet to complete them all, because even though Baum stopped writing, there has been a new book issued regularly, written by an Oz approved author, which means that there are a lot of Oz books.
These books are not like the often disastrous attempts to write a sequel to a well known author’s classic, but books written by genuine enthusiasts of Oz and who require the approval of the myriads of fans that have been following Oz books all their reading lives. This is quite an institution founded by Baum and continued by dedicated fans.

The location of the land of Oz was debated constantly by the early fans and even Baum was not sure, but as the world has been explored and satellite mapped fully since then and no signs of a rectangular land surrounded by desert has been found it is assumed that like Narnia, it exits in a parallel universe. Similarly a number of portals exist that allow sporadic transfers from our world to Oz and different characters have found themselves transported to Oz by a whole lot of different circumstances.  Something that confirms that Oz is in another universe is that the laws of physics are very different in Oz from those of our universe because seemingly magical effects are possible there due to the differeing laws of physics.

Let me make one thing clear, Dorothy did not dream her trip to Oz as suggested in the 1939 movie and in its sequel made much later in the 1980s called Return to Oz, it is a real place. In the second Baum book about Oz, The Marvellous Land of Oz, she does not actually appear at all. So who was dreaming about this?
She visited Oz a number of times and it is as real as Kansas. I can vouch for Kansas, I have been there, although it is a great deal more cheerful and colourful than the Kansas described by Baum. I cannot vouch for Oz however, since I have not been there - yet. None of the Oz chronicles were written about as a dream, but as a report on a visit to a real place. 

The real Oz is not as pleasant a place as the movie would have you believe. The land is divided into four states each with its own leader, with an overall head of state, Ozma, residing in the Emerald City providing a central government that rules over the other four lands.Many areas of Oz itself and the surrounding lands are wild in the extreme and some very nasty inhabitants exist in the wilder areas. 
Surrounding Oz are a number of Sovereign states, many of which are hostile to Oz, but separated from Oz by the nearly rectangular Deadly Desert that encircles Oz itself and provides a lethal barrier which is passable only with special magic or flight. In 1900 when Baum was able to start reporting on Oz and became its first official historian, heavier than air flight was still Science Fiction and so transport across the deadly desert was only possible by balloon or magical means and it still represents a serious barrier to most beings.

One strange feature of Oz is the existence of creatures with a metabolism that cannot not tolerate much moisture and die horribly when they come into contact with sufficient water. The, allegedly wicked, Witch of the West being a case in point. How these creatures cope with rain is a question that never seems to arise but since there are rivers and clouds reported to exist in Oz, there must be rainfall and only in the Deadly desert is it known never to rain. Since the Deadly Desert is known to be fatal to normal protoplasmic life forms, including humans, one can only assume these strangely venerable water intolerant creatures have evolved in this desert. However, that does not explain why even the Witches could not safely cross the desert without flying or some other magical transportation.

Looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, it seems that in the distant past witches must have evolved away from some kind of ancestral proto-witch that could survive in the Deadly Desert. Modern witches must have evolved some degree of moisture tolerance but in the process have lost their immunity to the Deadly Desert’s deadly effects. This mutation would have enabled them to move out of the sparsely populated desert and live in the damper air of the Land of Oz, where they could prosper by being ‘wicked’ to the larger populations of the creatures living there.

Wicked witches seem to be fairly rare, so they probably evolved from highly efficient predators which do not hunt in large packs but hunt singly covering a large territory, like some large cats and carnivorous reptiles.
Other odd effects seem to exist in this dimension, enabling incorporeal entities to animate non-living bodies. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, Jack Pumpkin Head, the Glass Cat, the Sawhorse etc. being examples of this. It has been long surmised that poltergeists are able to animate inert objects in a crude manner in our universe but in the Oz universe, the strange physics there enable poltergeists to exist on a much more sophisticated level and given a suitably shaped physical object, or even a picture, can animate it as if it were a living body.

The Sawhorse, a typical animate

This is actually a problem since many things merely intended to be decorative have accidentally become animate. This rather implies that there are a number of loose hyper poltergeists with incorporeal forms permeating the land, just waiting for the right conditions to inhabit an inanimate object that represents a living form. Since many of these have turned out to be benign, the inhabitants have been quite lucky so far, but now and again a mischievous entity has animated something and caused a lot of trouble.

One of the less obvious but intriguing aspects of this land, is that whilst a number of normal appearing animals are sentient and able to communicate and mix in with the largely humanoid population of this land, Toto and one or two other unfortunate animals are not able to talk. Toto having been born in Kansas might have been understandable but Belina the chicken who is transported to Oz with Dorothy in the third book, Ozma of Oz, starts talking as soon as she arrives. There are many other animals that show no signs of intelligence and behave just like animals do in our universe. This has never been explained and many great minds have been puzzling over this for a considerable time.

The Yellow Hen Billina can talk

Toto is unable to speak
Extreme longevity is the norm in Oz and the surrounding lands for most of its inhabitants and life has been frozen for all individuals no matter what physical age, the young never grow up and the old no matter how decrepit never die of old age and there are whole families with children seemingly of various ages but who never grow older. This apparently was the result of a rather carelessly applied spell, which must have been intended to prolong the life of its creator but spread all across Oz. It seems to have been cast at some time in the distant past on what was at that time a normally growing population. Once established all normal growth ceased and this must be really difficult for any woman who was in late pregnancy at the time that the spell was cast, because they will never complete full term and have to carry an immortal foetus for as long as the spell remains in effect.
A tiny baby will require breast feeding on an on-going basis and children who were toddlers then, will be unable to complete their potty training. At the other end of the spectrum, since the spell simply prevented aging, and did not restore youth, any elderly people around at the time of the spalls casting, are frozen in their decrepit state forever, or at least so long as the spell remains, dementia and arthritis notwithstanding.
All in all the lot of an ordinary Ozian is not an easy one, particularly if you happen to be one of these more unfortunate inhabitants.
Above all this the child like ruler of Oz, Ozma, drifts about wearing pretty dresses, doing good to a select few and ignoring the plight of her more long term inhabitants.
In the Emerald City, she parties and entertains on a regular basis surrounded by a retinue of little girls and small boys. Amongst this elite group of immature but immortal chosen few, are some talking animals and a selection of hyper poltergeist inhabited non-living animates that have received her favour at some time or other over the past hundred years or so of her reign. Amongst her retinue there are a few who are physically grown up but not all of these seem to have matured mentally. The Oz army is a good case in point. (The army consists of a single soldier some of the time.)

All these children, motley creatures and animates are entertained in a very old fashioned kid’s party style of regular gathering, with the occasional parade thrown in from time to time.

Meanwhile a regular series of despots and criminally insane rulers, witches and magicians threaten her borders and regularly make forays into Oz, often capturing and imprisoning her subjects or the occasional innocent who has arrived in the land accidentally and got caught up in the local politics.
These events are what is reported by whoever is the current Historian of Oz and published in our world as another Oz adventure.
The two leading members of the ruling clique, Ozma and the Wizard, 
watch the amusing antics of the Army trying to control some unruly children

Although the Wizard was found to be a charlatan during Dorothy’s first visit and he then defected, he later returned to the Emerald City and started to study magic formally and eventually became quite a skilled magician. Although no longer the ruler of the Emerald City, he holds a very important post in the ruling clique as adviser to Ozma and he also provides magical services on behalf of the ruling community.
The replacement head of state, Princess Ozma has a confusing history. Allegedly a direct descendant of the original rulers of Oz, Ozma was hidden incognito for many years and emerged from obscurity to become the new ruler when The Wizard vanished. She has a particularly deep voice for a small girl, and tends to leave the toilet seat standing upright after a call of nature.
In fact she was known as Tip a small boy who was raised by the rather unpleasant but not quite ‘wicked’ status witch Mombi, (she failed her Wickeds)  who had used him as a domestic servant. Mombi had originally been given the infant child by the Wizard who bribed her to keep him out of sight. Mombi was disturbed to find as he grew, he showed a tendancy as a cross dresser and insisted he should be called Shirley. She cast a spell over him to magically supress this tendency and until contacted by Glinda the Good, Tip behaved like a normal boy.

Mombi casts a spell on Tip/Shirley

The politics of that time had a power vacuum after the defection of the Wizard, and Glinda the Good had been looking for a suitable replacement and decided because of the Wizards obvious desire to remove Tip from the scene, he would make a good case to be presented as the rightful ruler to replace the Wizard. The obvious snag was that the legend popular at the time, was that the missing heir was a girl called Princess Ozma, so Glinda, removed Mombi’s spell from Tip and took the now confused boy to one side. She told him that he was really the long lost descendant of the original ruler of Oz and to claim his right as ruler of Oz he must assume the name Princess Ozma and then he would be allowed to grow his hair and wear pretty dresses. Tip/Shirley immediately agreed on the proviso that it included nice shoes, jewellery and makeup. As a result, he/she has been the head of state ever since and can be seen usually wearing somewhat too frivolous dresses and inappropriate shoes.

All this happened after Dorothy’s original and catalytic visit, which resulted in the demise of the WW of the East and her sister the WW of the West and the sudden defection of the Wizard. These events also led to the insertion of the Tin Woodman and the Scarecrow as rulers, each of the two vassal states that had just been released from the tyranny of the two WW’s.

A few years later, Dorothy returned to Oz a second time, without Toto on this occasion, arriving via the land of Ev to find the royal family there captured by a nearby despot and Oz threatened. Ozma using her superb intelligence network had discovered the threat from the aggressive nation and been informed of Dorothy’s involvement. She quickly brought her army across the deadly desert to put things right and so meets the legendary Dorothy for the first time.
From there on, the following one hundred and ten years sees Dorothy become a resident of Oz, bringing her family with her eventually, but the instability of the whole region continues to create a more or less continuous series of flash points and plots which require intervention by the ruler of Oz and his/her friends.
Because Oz has a more or less one to one time manifold with our universe, unlike Narnia, there have been a lot of events of importance over the last one hundred and ten years of Oz history and they continue to be chronicled to this day.
All in all very entertaining and I give these books a eight out of ten for readability.