The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Oz Is Not As Down Under As Everyone Thinks It Is

Frank L. Baum's Oz isn't in the land of Aussies, as one might think, but in a far more magical setting.

“Oz” is a morpheme for Australia. Many know it to be an oblique nod to the other “Oz”, the fairyland setting of Frank L. Baum’s children’s classic. That connection could have had its genesis in Ozma of O” book No.3, published in 1907.

In it, Dorothy Gale’s uncle takes a vacation to recharge after working himself to exhaustion to rebuild his Kansas farmhouse — after it was swept away by a tornado in the maiden volume, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). He sails to Australia, with the little girl as his traveling companion.

But Oz isn’t a magical monarchy within the perimeter of Australia. The path to how the latter earned the moniker, Oz, is a convoluted one, punctuated by detours. In the mid-’60s, a group of expatriate Australians in London, led by Richard Neville, started an alternative magazine called OZ (which had begun its publication in Sydney, in 1963, before it moved to London in 1967.)

Its title had indeed, been borrowed from The Wizard of Oz, but as a play on the pronunciation of the truncated half of Australia (pronounced “Oz”). By the time David Williamson, one of Australia’s best known playwrights wrote Emerald City (1987), the notion of Oz as a nickname for Australia had taken firm root. It followed then that if Australia was Oz, then Sydney, its instantly recognizable metropolis, should be Emerald City.

The literary Oz is located likely somewhere in the Middle East, possibly Iran, because it’s curiously peppered with the hallmarks of a Persian society. The fictive kingdom is a rectangle, bordered on all four sides by undulating bands of deadly hot sands. It encompasses a quartet of provinces: the blue Munchkin (in the east), the yellow Winkie (in the west), the purple Gillikin (in the north), and the red Quadling (in the south.) It has a population of about 500,000, although not every of its citizen is made of flesh and blood.

In our own world, such desert nations are mostly, Islamic. Egypt is a vast sandy wilderness as is Saudi Arabia. The Sahara envelops vast swathes of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, among others.

In Oz, where the two diagonals of the geographic quadrangle intersect, is Emerald City, its capital and the seat to the monarch of Oz, princess Ozma, again, a decidedly non-Christian name. When Dorothy and her party arrive there, they’re dazzled by its green glitter. The pavement they walk over is green. The window panes are of green glass. The rays of the sun are green. Even the sky has a green tinge. It has 9,654 buildings, in which live 57,318 people. Those structures, like everything else in that pristine landscape, are also green.

Emerald City is green, literally, a color revered in Islam. In fact, the enormous, ornate mosque in Medina, Al-Masjid an-Nabaw, has an enormous green dome called, well, the Green Dome.

The interiors of the houses and palaces in Oz are adorned with a profusion of jewels, such as rubies, diamonds, sapphires, amethysts, and turquoises. On the outside, though, they’re studded only with sparkling emeralds, from which circumstance the place get its name.

Possibly because of its hue, these gemstones were much coveted by the Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire. The “Mogul Mughal” — one of the largest emeralds known — is a magnificent, lustrous dark-green slab, about the size of a McDonald’s “bone-shaped” chicken nugget, bought by the court of Aurangzeb, sometime in 17th century India. The nearly 220-carat stone was cut, polished, and engraved by skilled carvers of that era, with intricate foliate decoration on one side, and Arabic calligraphy in elegant naskh script on the other.

The “Throne Room” of the palace at Oz is an “immense domed chamber in the center of the palace.” The imperial throne, itself, is made of solid gold, and encrusted with jewels. Directly beneath it are “two electric fountains”, which eject “sprays of colored perfumed water shooting up nearly as high as the arched ceiling.”

The dome, a rounded vault, is an architectural favorite of Islam, typically, made from masonry, not timber. Likewise, the material of construction in much of Oz tends to be not wood or brick, but marble. In Bunnybury, a walled village, populated by urbane rabbits, described in book No. 6, The Emerald City of Oz (1910), the houses — which look like overturned kettles, with delicate slender spires and minarets — are made of white marble. Each is framed by a lawn of green clover, and opens into streets, which too, are paved with white marble.

Does then, a story that’s as American as apple pie celebrate certain facets of a culture, which at this juncture of history, has become a byword for the opposite of western values? If so, does this disrupt our notion of Oz as a utopia? Yes, indeed. And not in the least. We remain forever enchanted.