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Road Essays
The transformative power of the cornfield: magic in the Marvelous Land of Oz

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The transformative power of the cornfield: magic in the Marvelous Land of Oz: 01/17/17

The transformative power of the cornfield: magic in the Marvelous Land of Oz

This essay covers the first two chapter of the Marvelous Land of Oz.

The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1904) opens as The Wizard of Oz does, on a farm in the countryside. As Oz doesn't have a middle of nowhere because it's capitol is in the center of kingdom, the farm is located in the north, in the land of the Gillikins. It is there in a cornfield, hiding from his guardian Mombi, that we meet Tipperarius (Tip). That Tip and Mombi's introduction is done on a farm and from the perspective of a cornfield (a place to hide, (p. 2)), the cornfield as an important motif to Oz is re-established. The title itself is another indication of the importance of land — and of farm land — the first thing to appear in the book — to the magic of Oz.

In Crossing the Cornfield I suggested that Oz is encircled not only by the deadly dessert and the sea, but also the cornfield. After sitting through a lengthy discussion between my husband (a math PhD) and our son (currently the D.M for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for his friends and sister) on the geography of the tesseract, I'm going to expand my notion of where Oz lies relative to Earth and suggest that it and the other lands, are contained within the tesseract that also contains the Earth (or more broadly, our universe). It would explain the reversal of east and west between the worlds and the oddball ways it's possible to travel between Earth and Oz and Oz and other lands, while still keeping them separate. The thing though that separates or hides or otherwise obscures the borders between cubes (worlds) within the New World tesseract is the cornfield.

Mombi, though she has magic, cannot by Oz law call herself a witch or practice witchcraft. Unlike the Puritanical belief that witchcraft is inherently evil, Ozian magic is hierarchal with Witch being the highest magical rank available, and with there only being for spots available: one for each of the Lands (though Dorothy of course, took out the witches of East and West with a house and a bucket of water, leaving presumably only the North and South under the rule of a Witch. Here then Witch is a title like Duke but with magical benefits. Mombi, then can only at most be a Wizardess or Sorceress (p. 2) Nonetheless, it is established Mombi is a practitioner of magic (whether lawful or not) and she maintains a farm with a cornfield large enough to hid the antics of a boy as well as a pumpkin patch.

Readers familiar with the Oz series know who Tip. Reading it with modern, twenty-twenty hindsight, it is easy and tempting to peg Tip as the first transformation of this book and of this cornfield. Let us instead put ourselves in the mind set of a 1904 reader. The cornfield and pumpkins and magical old woman (keeping in mind that Witch by Oz standards isn't the correct term for Mombi) would be a familiar set of motifs. Readers would be drawn to expect a pumpkin headed scarecrow to be brought to life based on Nathaniel Hawhtorne's short story "Feathertop" (1852). Mombi and Tip together (magic and a desire to play pranks) share the key pieces of Mother Rigby's character traits. A literal reading of "Feathertop" would be that all (or most) of the denisons of the nearby village were at one time, creations of Mother Rigby, as noted by her exclamation, "He'll meet plenty of his brethren at every street corner!" (Hawthorne, Feathertop).

Feathertop, the precursor to Jack, begins as a "a mere thing of sticks, straw, and old clothes, with nothing better than a shrivelled pumpkin for a head." (Hawthorne, Feathertop). Tip's creation is made from "stout, straight saplings, which he cut down and trimmed of all their twigs and leaves." (p. 10). The body is made from "thick bark from around a big tree, ... fashioned ... into a cylinder of about the right size (p. 11). Everything is then jointed and pinned together with "pegs whittled into shape with his knife." (p. 11). After fashioning a neck to hold the pumpkin head, Tip selects the clothing: "purple trousers, red shirt, and a pink vest dotted with white spots." (p. 12). To that he adds a pair of Mombi's knit stockings and his old shoes. Compare that to Feathertop: a plum-colored coat, a faded golden velvet waistcoat, and a pair of scarlet breeches ((Hawthorne, Feathertop). The clothing is similar as are the colors, though not identical. The two are similar enough for Jack to harken to mind, Feathertop.

Thus a retelling of a familiar story only fifty two years old at the time (the same age difference as 2017 and Fox in Socks and Lyle, Lyle Crocodile,, sets up the expectation of a transformation from pumpkin headed scarecrow to living man. Oz, being Oz, Jack isn't glamoured up to appear more than he is and when Tip laughs at his creation brought to life by Mombi, Jack admonishes, "'I hope you are not reflecting on my personal appearance." (p. 21).

Jack's discomfort at his appearance, or perhaps, his demands to be accepted as is, is the first clue to the final transformation of the book. It's also telling of how internalized self expectations can be expressed as disregard or disrespect for someone going through same thing. The final transformation in these introductory chapters, is in fact that of Tip. Rather, it's a threatened transformation. Rather than deciding to "beat him black-and-blue" (p. 17), Mombi cooks up a potion of "equal parts of milk and vinegar", "several packets of herbs and powders" in a kettle. (p 24-5). The concoction when drunk will turn Tip into a marble statue for her flower garden (p. 25-6).

This threat of transformation is what prompts the rest of Tip's story. He will flee Mombi and the cornfield. That he is an orphan, or a boy who "remembered nothing of his parents," (p. 7), Tip at this point has orphan magic at hand — just as Dorothy did, which allowed her to travel safely to Oz, survive on her quests, and find her way home.

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