Tuesday, July 30, 2019

80 Years Of The Wizard of The Emerald City

This past weekend was OzCon International 2019. I attended and presented a panel on Alexander Volkov's Magic Land series as it was 80 years since his original version had been presented. I have blogged about the series indepth, but this panel was designed for those who were not familiar with the series and might be interested in finding out more. Below is what I'd written to read during my panel as well as the videos I'd planned to show during it. Not represented are the questions I received during the panel and the clips of other television adaptations I showed afterwards as we had extra time.

So, you probably didn't understand a word of that. But I think it's fair to say you recognized the story it was celebrating. Over in Russia, generations have grown up with the story of a little girl lost in a fantasy world seeking the help of the magical ruler so she can get home. But it's not Oz, but Volshebnik Izumrudnogo Goroda: translated, the Wizard of the Emerald City.

The one behind this switch was Alexander Melentyevich Volkov. He was a teacher who came across the original Baum book about 1937 when he was given the book to translate as part of his mastering the English language. He enjoyed the story and decided he would publish his own translation. His version of the story, however, would change a few things.
Now, at this time, Russia did not honor international copyright law, allowing writers to freely borrow from other works. Volkov's essentially rewriting an existing work into a new one was not unprecedented, as Pinocchio had become the Russian Buratino at the hands of Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Yet it was not even original to Russian writers. A very famous example is none other than Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, which was inspired by a part of a believed to be fictionalized memoir of the real life d'Artagnan. So before one writes Volkov off as simple plagiarism, just remember that it's a long-established tradition in literature.

Originally published in 1939, Volkov's translation was mostly a straightforward retelling of the original Oz story. The name "Dorothy" wasn't common in Russia and didn't have a real equivalent, so Volkov renamed the heroine "Ellie." Toto's name was translated to "Totoshka." The Tin Woodman was now changed to the Iron Lumberjack as iron actually rusts. The Good Witch of the North and Glinda were now renamed Villina  and Stella, respectively, while the Wicked Witches of the East and West were Gingemma and Bastinda. "Oz" was also renamed "Volshebstrany" or "Magic Land."

However, Volkov had some ideas for Magic Land and twenty years later in 1959, he revised and reissued the book with even further changes. Ellie Smith now lived with her parents in Kansas with her dog Totoshka. As the story opens, her old shoes are wearing out and her mother reads her a story about a Wicked Witch who tries to conjure a hurricane to wipe out all life on earth that she doesn't find useful. Lo and behold, this story is actually happening in Magic Land with Gingemma being the Witch. However, Villina, the Good Witch of the northern Rose Land, alters the spell so that a house that should be abandoned will be dropped on Gingemma.

But the best laid plans of mice and men so often go awry and just like Dorothy, Ellie arrives in the eastern Blue Land of the Munchkins. To her surprise, Totoshka can now talk and expresses himself quite enthusiastically. She is told that in order to return home, she must help three beings fulfill their fondest wishes. She takes with her Gingemma's Silver Shoes and along her way down the yellow brick road, she meets Strasheela who wants a brain, the Iron Lumberjack who wants a heart and then an ogre who wants to eat her after she takes a detour into a trap. Surprise! Shortly after Strasheela and the Lumberjack rescue her and Totoshka, they are joined by the Cowardly Lion on the way to the Emerald City.

There's a few expansions, such as many characters that Baum didn't name in his first book now having names. The Queen of the Field Mice is Ramina, the Guardian of the Gates is Faramant, and the Soldier who guards the palace is Din Gior. Instead of Kalidahs, we have sabre-tooth tigers. The Wizard is named Goodwin.

Volkov also made a few interesting changes. Bastinda has a cook named Fregosa who Elli confides in and makes her question just how powerful Bastinda is. When Goodwin is leaving Magic Land, an eclipse occurs, making the people believe he has actually gone to the sun. When Ellie and her friends journey south, there are no fighting trees or China country. Instead, they attempt to cross a river and it turns into a flood that separates the friends. When it comes to the colors of the Land of Oz, the eastern Munchkin Country is Blue Land and the Emerald City is still green, but the western country is now Violet Land, the northern country is Yellow Land, and the south is Rose Land.

So, there was a brand new, distinctly different Oz tailored for Russian audiences, and over the next sixteen years, Volkov wrote five sequels. These were serialized in magazines before being collected in book form, the last one actually being released five years after Volkov's death in 1977.

 The first sequel was titled Urfin Jus and his Wooden Soldiers. A woodcarver who served Gingemma finds his property overrun with mysterious thorny plants. After burning them, he discovers the ashes will bring things to life, so he creates wooden soldiers called the Deadwood Oaks to conquer Magic Land. While he quickly conquers the Munchkins, Strasheela puts up quite the defense at the Emerald City, until a traitor named Ruf Bilan helps Urfin win. After Urfin captures both Strasheela and the Iron Lumberjack, Kaggi-Karr the crow is sent across the mountains to Kansas to ask Elli and her peg-legged sailor Uncle Charlie Black to come to Magic Land.

Just so we're clear, Urfin is basically a male Mombi mixed with Jinjur with a dash of the Nome King. Uncle Charlie clearly feels a lot like Cap'n Bill. And in a nod to The Road to Oz, the return to Magic Land is achieved through a wheeled boat. Just don't ask why there's a mountain range and a desert in Kansas with all of Magic Land hidden there that no one's noticed.

In Magic Land, Elli and Uncle Charlie meet up with the Lion who helps them free Blue Land, and then with the help of Ramina and her knowledge of underground tunnels, they free Strasheela and the Iron Lumberjack to help them free Violet Land. With Urfin's supply of magic ashes now exhausted, the Deadwood Oaks at the Emerald City are taken out with flaming debris and Urfin is sent home. The remaining Deadwood Oaks are given new faces and serve Strasheela.

 In The Seven Underground Kings, Ruf Bilan fled into the Land of the Underground Ore-Diggers, who have a system of seven Royal Families who take turns ruling. This is acheieved thanks to the Soporific Waters, which send people  to sleep for an extended period of time and wipes their memeories. When each family and their court awakens, they are re-educated as to who they are and then allowed to rule for one month. Ruf Bilan has damaged the source of the water, stopping the system, meaning that over time, each family has awoken.

Back in Kansas, Ellie and her cousin Fred Canning explore a cave, but are trapped and journey to Underground Land, where Ruf Bilan claims that Elli is a powerful fairy who can restore the waters, so she and Fred are kept prisoner. Totoshka is sent to find Strasheela, who arrives with Ellie's other friends to advise on the matter, though the underground climate isn't favorable to any of them.

When Fred suggests finding another source of the Waters, they manage to set up a pump, and each of the Seven Kings decides to send the others to sleep. However, the Timekeeper Rujero decides that all of the Kings will be sent to sleep and he will take permanent ruling duties, with the former kings being sent to new jobs to work with their people.

As the Underground People move above ground, Ramina predicts that Ellie will not be returning to Magic Land before she rides home on the back of Oyho the Dragon.

 So, now on to The Fiery God of the Marrans. Urfin Jus goes south and convinces the Marrans that he's a god using Charlie Black's abandoned cigarette lighter. The Marrans are a short, primitive people who can jump high who Volkov used to replace Baum's Hammerheads. And so, he decides to go conquer the Emerald City again. Strasheela now has a Magic television set that shows him anything he wants to see in Magic Land and has dug a moat around Emerald City. Yet, even with this, the Marrans are able to conquer.

Over in Kansas, we are introduced to Annie, Ellie's seven year old sister and Arto, the son of Totoshka. She and her friend Tim O'Kelly are obsessed with Ellie's tales of Magic Land and when Fred Canning sends them two solar-powered mechanical mules, the two children ride them to Magic Land. Once there, Annie helps to free a fox who gives her a circlet that makes her invisible. As she heads into Munchkin Country, she discovers what's going on with Urfin and grabbing some Soporific Water, she manages to free Strasheela. Urfin lies to the Marrans that the defeated Marrans were killed, but when he arrives, the Marrans see their supposedly dead friends playing a game of volleyball, causing them to revolt against their "Fire God." So all goes well as Tim, Annie and Arto return to Kansas.

 Now, over to The Yellow Fog. The giant witch Arachna awakens from her five thousand year slumber and catches up on the history of Magic Land. She decides she will conquer Magic Land. She tries brute force, but the combined forces are able to repel her. So she casts the yellow fog, which begins to irritate the throat and eyes, but the people of Magic Land manage to find ways to allieviate the effects. It's not until it brings severe winter weather that Oyho goes to fetch Annie and Tim to tell them how to deal with the new climate. However, uncle Charlie makes his return and helps the people defy Arachna with a giant robot named Tilly-Willy who comes to life and fights the witch, making her fall to her death.

 All right, now on to the final book, The Mystery of the Deserted Castle. Now, if you thought Magic Land is sounding a little strange, hold onto your seats. Magic Land is invaded by aliens from the planet Rameria. The cruel Menvits control the peaceful Arzaks with their hypnotic gaze, and soon make it clear to the people of Magic Land that they're up to no good, so the people create an elaborate ruse to keep the invaders in check. But when the Menvits kidnap some citizens and even Annie when she comes in for a visit, mice manage to pipe the Soporific Water to the castle to send the Menvits to sleep. The Arzaks discover that emeralds counter the Menvits' powers and taking a lot in the rocket ship, they head back home to free Rameria.

There's some debate as to if the final book was possibly finished by a ghostwriter.


There's a major difference between Baum and Volkov I noticed when I read through the series. After the first story, Villina and Stella only get mentioned and aside from Annie and Arachna, most of the new characters are male. In The Yellow Fog, Tim even quotes a maxim saying that men go out on adventures and seeking fortune while women care for the home. Compare this with Baum's world where women are often the adventurous protagonists and leaders and in the case of the Patchwork Girl, even reject having a domestic role to life a life of independence. That said, after reading a number of fan sequels to The Wizard of Oz in which Oz is in trouble and they send for Dorothy, it was refreshing to see the people of Magic Land come together and face threats as a community.

The series promotes people coming together as a community and working towards a common goal. In a common fairy tale trope, Ellie in the first story must first help others before she can expect to be sent home. While it gives Ellie some motivation to befriend her companions, I think I prefer the original Oz story in which Dorothy just befriends them because she wants to help them. Giving her a motivation makes it seems like her friendships are a means to an end. Totoshka, however, is a great twist on Toto with his winsome and energetic personality.
Now, the books have been popular over in Russia and other nearby countries, and they've inspired a number of adaptations, from stage productions to live action television productions to animated versions. However, the most popular seems to be a 1973 10-episode series adapting the first three books. The series was animated via stop motion. That song I opened this presentation with is "The Song of the Friends," which thematically combines "We're Off To See The Wizard" with "If I Only Had A Brain," "If I Only Had A Heart" and "If I Only Had The Nerve." How popular is this song? Well...

I have some bad news if you think those puppets are charming. The series was produced by Soyuzmultfilm, who lost their puppet building to the Russian Orthodox Church about 1990 who did not give notice to the animators before sending in a squadron who threw out the puppets, saying they were "satanic" and "animated with the blood of Christian babies." No salvaging of the puppets or other materials was allowed. So, sorry for a depressing episode of "Where Are They Now?" *

The series has had its continuations. Leonid Vladmirsky, who illustrated the series, wrote Buratino in the Emerald City, sending the Russian version of Pinocchio to Oz.

Yuri Kuznetzov wrote at least four books properly continuing the series.
However, one Sergei Sukinhov has written no less than twenty books set in a version of Magic Land that only went off the first book and then created its own continuity.
If you're wondering about the proper Oz series being translated to Russian, yes, that's since happened, allowing readers to experience both series. For America, thanks to Peter Blystone, Volkov's books are available in English in the "Tales of Magic Land" series, and he's also translated a number of Sukinhov's books. I couldn't tell you about every plot beat, so my summaries there just had to skim the basics of the stories. I highly recommend checking them out.

So, back to that song, I found the lyrics and managed to translate them. The lyrics are only functionally translated, so they don't rhyme, but at least you'll get an idea of what the characters are saying. So, let's head down the yellow brick with Ellie and her friends one more time.

* Despite having seen the series lumped in with Soyuzmultfilm's work, after posting this blog, I was informed that the series was produced by Ekran, a separate company. It is entirely possible that the puppets survive!