Grabbing the Brass Ring
The Creation of Merry Go Round in Oz - Part III
The first "authors' copies" of Merry Go Round in Oz were shipped from the publisher on October 24, 1963. The book is dedicated to Christopher, Wagner's son, who had, a month earlier, celebrated his first birthday.
|Eloise McGraw holding her first grandson, Christopher.
I am feeling and behaving in as dislocated a way as 180 million other Americans today, so forgive me if this letter is abrupt and not very intelligent. I finally decided it was the ACME of uselessness to do nothing but listen to broadcasts all day, so, since work was out of the question, decided to tackle some piled-up correspondence. This is hard on the recipients, but anyway that’s what I’m doing.
I should have written before to say how much I like the Oz book in its final form. I think it’s a honey, Dick’s illustrations are just right, and everything about it is just keen. I kind of hope circumstances warrant our going on with some more; it’s been a lot of fun and an awful lot less work than my other books, about which I tend to get hag-ridden and insecure for no really good reason.
After Rieckhoff’s visit to the Ozmapolitan Convention that June, when it had become public knowledge that there would be a new Oz book, Oz fans began writing McGraw fan letters. She was amazed at first by how smart and eager Oz fans were, but quickly became overwhelmed. Toward the end of the above letter to Rieckhoff from November 24 (a month since the book had been published) McGraw wrote:
My Ozzy mail has settled down to become a plain, simple burden to me. I thought it would stop once I’d answered all the letters, but it goes right on—some are repeats, some are fresh ones. I think I’m going to start nagging you to airmail me out a secretary. If there’s anything a working writer doesn’t have time for (besides book-fairs) it’s a lot of chatty, voluminous, and continuing correspondence.
"Book Fair" an etching by McGraw
Yet I can’t bring myself to ignore these letters entirely, and I am certainly aware that these people are important to the success of the book. What’s more, I honestly appreciate their interest and think they’re nice and often quite interesting people.
Clearly, McGraw was being overwhelmed by her Ozzy correspondence[i], but as she finishes the letter she is clearly very distraught over the assassination: “I see I’m just rambling on, so I’ll let go of your lapel and find somebody else to bother. What a horrible weekend this has been anyway! Not only horrible but surrealistic, unbelievable. . . . The grim and persistent sensation that maybe everything is coming apart. Absolutely everything.”
McGraw had hoped to jump right in and write another Oz book for Reilly & Lee. But Rieckhoff wrote on July 10, 1964:
About the Oz book—It is almost impossible to get a decision here on the future of the Oz series. Several of the Baum titles are out of print, and are gradually being redone. In the meantime, the back orders that are piling up indicate that there is still a healthy interest in Oz. Some of the non-Baum titles will be dropped as they go out of print because their sales do not justify a reprinting. I am mentioning all this to tell you that our position is rather fluid at this time.
Merry Go Round sold rather well initially, I thought. However, there have been a discouraging number of returns this spring. Our sales manager says the returns probably represent a Christmas over-stocking. He fully expects the books to be reordered. . . . As to whether we want another Oz book, we simply have made no decision and I don’t think we will be able to until we have another six months sales to consider. Certainly, if we decide to add another book to the series, I want you and only you to write it, but that is as specific as I can be at this time.
Rieckhoff goes on to discuss some of the Merry Go Round reviews:
Make no mistake about it, Virginia Kirkus was panning the book, but please don’t let it disturb you. She seems to have a stable of flippant young reviewers. . . . That is not just our experience. Other editors have told me the same thing.
You might be interested in what Edward Wagenknecht said about Merry Go Round. I quote: “I did not think the Merry Go Round book terribly ‘Ozzy’—there was too much blending of traditions in it, and I think it is the only Oz book that includes distinctively Christian references[ii]—but it is a very good story, and I thought it technically the best-written of all the Oz books, not excluding Baum’s.” Wagenknecht is an intellectual and a well-known writer. He is also a devoted Ozite.
the spring of 1963, McGraw had written Rieckhoff: “I have no idea whether the
children will think this ms. has the proper and authentic Oz-touch or not. I
will be flattered if they do, but not surprised if they do not. Nobody can
write exactly the way Baum did about Oz, naturally—but Ruth Plumly Thompson
managed to be a worthy successor writing in her own way—and that is all I’m trying for.”
In several basics Merry Go Round bears resemblance to McGraw’s favorite Oz book, Grampa in Oz. Both Ragbad and Halidom are bedraggled little kingdoms. Objects of great national importance—the King’s head and the Magic Circlets—have been stolen, and the Crown Princes of each kingdom—Tatters and Gules—set out on quests to recover the missing objects. McGraw’s character description of Queen Farthingale could easily describe Mrs. Sew-and-Sew, Queen of Ragbad: “Stout, dignified, very domestic—but never loses her dignity while washing dishes or mending curtains . . .”
Both books contain small animal mascots, Bill the Weather Cock and the Flittermouse, that pepper the novel with announcements or poetry. Gorba's sentence-writing flowers and Winding Stairway are strongly echoed in McGraw’s Sign-Here and Fire Escape. But that is where comparisons stop. Merry Go Round in Oz might be viewed as a superbly written Thompson book, but the novel moves from Thompson pastiche to become, by far, the most tightly-plotted book in the entire Oz series.
The Land of Oz Robin encounters seems to have been informed by his needs and neuroses, by his interests and subconscious—not unlike the conceit of MGM's Wizard of Oz and Disney's Return to Oz in the way that the fantasy of Oz reflects Dorothy's problems at home.
An unhappy orphan who loves horses and knights goes to Oz on a merry-go-round horse after grabbing the brass ring from a carousel. He lands himself in an Oz adventure centering on the search for more rings/circles.
Robin feels like he’s invisible and that no one listens. Merry Go Round wants to be a “real” horse. They are both looking for acceptance and for a real home. Much as in the foster-child system in Oregon, Robin is bounced from one well-meaning but controlling Oz country to another. In both View-Halloo and Roundabout Robin is well taken care of, but not loved, not free. He is essentially a prisoner.
Circular imagery fills much of the book, building on the idea of the carousel and its brass ring. The three Circlets of Halidom echo Robin’s brass ring—and the ring itself turns out to be the missing third Circlet. The quest for the Circlets is a circle, too, since the final solution is only found when the questers return to their starting point. The Oracle in the Coracle is a crystal ball. (Martin’s illustration makes clear that it sails in circles, but this detail isn’t actually in the text.) Roundabout, a large city in a giant crystal ball, is surrounded by a spinning road much like a merry-go-round—and not by accident the word “roundabout” is a British term for a carousel. And in the end the solution to all the Oz characters' problems is Pi, a round delicacy that is spelled the same way as the mathematical constant that is defined as the ratio of a circle’s circumference.
Robin’s interests inform the text in other ways, too. He loves the King Arthur legend, knights in armor, and, of course, horses. So how appropriate that Halidom and Troth are essentially pseudo-British medieval monarchies. It seems especially good luck for a little boy who loves horses to end up in an Oz adventure containing three: Merry, Fred, and the horse-like Unicorn.
Prince Gules’s party seems to encounter Robin’s fears and worries even before they meet him, as when they come to the Land of Good Children (orphans, like Robin) in a glorified orphanage called, somewhat ironically, “home.” But Robin is looking for a real home, where he is accepted and loved, not just a place to reside like the McGudgeys' or the Land of Good Children.
Robin's desire for acceptance and love is echoed by Merry herself and by Sir Greves. Merry longs to fit in. She longs to become a “real” horse—the kind of horse Robin says he has always wanted.
Sir Greves is looking for acceptance too. But unlike Robin, Greves has unmet emotional needs that have festered into a serious problem. Sir Greves is almost written as if he’s deeply in the closet. Sir Greves wants to be accepted as the jolly, friendly, non-violent cook he secretly is. But he has become neurotic by living a lie. He pretends to carry on the feud with Sir Gauntlet; he lies to wriggle out of jousting tournaments (sports); and he feeds his need for recipes and food through a secret network. It is Greves’s double life and inability to be true to himself and to find love and acceptance that lead to his betraying Halidom and facilitating the theft of the last remaining Circlet.
In the end Sir Greves functions as a mirror image of Robin and Merry—an example of what can happen to you if you aren’t loved and accepted for who you are. Robin might not have been very happy with the McGudgeys, with the Fox Hunters in View-Halloo, or as King of Roundabout—but he was a centered and self-sufficient little boy. Robin doesn’t fit into the roles these groups try to force him into, and he repeatedly says so, whether his oppressors listen or not.
|An unpublished drawing of Sir Greves by Dick Martin
Poor Sir Greves, on the other hand, can’t speak up for himself. He runs round and round to avoid exposing himself, but his public life is a hollow suit of armor. He has become a neurotic liar, spinning in circles, getting nowhere in his life. Luckily Ozma is able to use Pi as a solution for the unhappy knight’s previously unsolvable problems.
Merry Go Round in Oz is an extraordinarily rich book.
Too bad Reilly & Lee chose to end the series in 1963—especially since McGraw and Wagner hoped to write more Oz books immediately to continue the series. It would be quite some time before they finally returned to Oz in 1980 with the Oz Club’s publication of The Forbidden Fountain of Oz and in 2000 with McGraw’s solo effort The Rundelstone of Oz from Hungry Tiger Press.
least from a stylistic point of view, it’s arguable that the best written books
in the Oz series are the very first, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the very last—the book that rounded
out the series in more ways than one—Merry
Go Round in Oz by Eloise Jarvis McGraw and Lauren McGraw Wagner.
Rieckhoff asked Dick Martin if he could tactfully explain to the Oz Club
members that McGraw was under a heavy burden, finishing a book, and that she
simply couldn’t respond to each and every letter she received.
[ii] It is
not known where the Wagenknecht quote comes from. Wagenknecht is referring to
the Easter Bunny, but he has clearly forgotten Baum’s own introduction of Santa
Claus into the Oz books.
Eloise and William McGraw Papers. Special Collections
and University Archives. University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
Martin, Dick. “The Road to Reilly and Lee.” The Baum Bugle 27, no. 2 (Autumn 1983):
McGraw, Eloise Jarvis. “On Wearing Well.” The Baum Bugle 34, no. 3 (Winter 1990):
McGraw, Eloise Jarvis. “The Magic Land.” Childcraft: The How and Why Library.
Vol. 13, People to Know. Chicago: Field
Enterprises Educational Corporation, 1964.
McGraw, Eloise Jarvis, and Lauren Lynn McGraw. Merry Go Round in Oz. Chicago: Reilly
& Lee, 1963.
Thompson, Ruth Plumly. Grampa in Oz. Chicago: Reilly & Lee, 1924.
The author would like to thank Inanna McGraw for her
friendship and memories of writing Merry
Go Round in Oz, and Eric Shanower for his critical eye. Special thanks also
to Special Collections and University Archives at University of Oregon
Libraries, Eugene, Oregon, for their assistance and generosity in giving access
to the Eloise and William McGraw Papers.