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For those who have written in praise of Noel Langley's "The Land of Green Ginger", I would wholeheartedly concur. I might respectfully point out, however, that it's not correct to say the first publication of this remarkable children's (and grown-ups') fable was in the 1960s, unless youre referring strictly to the paperback. I have a treasured hardback first edition of the book, properly entitled The Tale of the Land Of Green Ginger, first published in 1937 by Arthur Baker Ltd (London), written and illustrated by Noel Langley. It's a lovely edition, with full-colour drawings nothing like those by Edward Ardizzone in the later paperbacks. That said, the first edition compares like a prototype to the later editions - which, presumably, were updated by Noel Langley himself. (Have you read elsewhere that he was one of the team that created The Wizard of Oz?) The 1966 Puffin version was by far the best, many of its choicest passages being cruelly cut from later versions including a delightful song, campily sung by the dragon, to the tune of Teddy Bears Picnic. In many ways it reads like a movie script - hardly surprising, given its pedigree - and one can almost hear the characters speak from the page. Ardizzone's realistic line drawings, too, have a light and whimsical style which far surpasses the rather heavy execution of the caricatured Langley originals, and suits the story to a 'T'. In the absence of the 1960s paperback, I would heartily recommend readers to get their hands on any copy/edition they can. If you read it aloud to the kids, be prepared to abandon all decorum and roar and bellow through all the best bits. Guaranteed to have all but the most cynical and jaded millennium children rolling on the floor. But don't just read it for your children; read it for yourself!
You know the story of Aladdin, right? The classic fairy-tale, popularised in pantomimes and also by Disney. He has a wicked uncle, and a magic lamp which summons a genie... a complex story, with many variations, but in the end he marries the princess he loves despite being a commoner himself, and they all live happily ever after. In China.
But did you ever wonder what happened 'after'? If so, then 'The Land of Green Ginger' is the book to read. It starts on the day after Aladdin's son and heir is born. The opening scene describes the Special Meeting of State which has been called in order that a name can be selected for the baby. It's clear right from the start that this isn't a book to be taken seriously; for one thing there are rather a lot of Extra Capital Letters scattered throughout the book, for another we quickly learn that the Grand Vizier forgot about the meeting he had summoned and arrived late after slipping on a mat.
The important ministers are busy sucking their pencils and trying hard to think of appropriate names, peering over each other's shoulders and bickering gently, when Aladdin is summoned by his mother, Widow Twankey. She complains that her new grandson has just called her a Button-Nosed Tortoise. Aladdin doesn't believe her, but to humour her goes to see the baby, and discovers to his amazement that his son can talk fluently, and moreover he did say that his grandmother looked like a button-nosed tortoise.
Very worried about having a day-old child who can talk, Aladdin summons Abdul, the genie of the lamp, for the first time in many years. Abdul tells him that his son (who is to be called Abu Ali) is destined to break a spell when he comes of age. The spell has turned an eminent magician into a button-nosed tortoise, and he can be found in the Land of Green Ginger, a sort of portable back garden which flies around the world landing in different places.
That's chapter one. Or rather, Chapter the First: Which Explains How, Why, When, and Where There Was Ever Any Problem in the First Place. There are thirteen chapters in all, each of them with subtitles in the style of Victorian novels. Actually, the final chapter is not called the Thirteenth, but the Twelve and a Halfth.
Chapter the Second jumps forwards to Abu Ali's coming of age, where after further consultation with the genie Abdul, he sets out on his quest to rescue the magician. He also hopes to win the hand of the beautiful Princess Silver Bud of Samarkand. Lots of humorous adventures follow, as Abu Ali comes up against the delightfully wicked princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud.
It's a children's book of course. According to my notation in the front of the book, I bought this when I was thirteen, and probably read it shortly afterwards. I read it again as a young adult, when I went through all my books and decided which were worth keeping, although it was then boxed away until my sons were about six and eight, when I read it aloud to them. A confident reader of about eight or nine would probably be able to tackle this alone, although it's certainly not in easy-read vocabulary, but I really think it's best as a read-aloud book since there's so much humour and word-play. There are some delightful line drawings every two or three pages by Edward Ardizzone which complement the story beautifully, and which provided much focus for discussion when I read the book aloud.
A few days ago I wanted something light and non-gripping to read while I was making jam, and picked this book out of our shelves. I read it in about a couple of hours, all told - it's a little under 200 pages - and found slightly to my surprise that I enjoyed it as much as ever. There's a delightful irony running through much of the book which was probably lost on me when I was younger; I particuarly like the section describing Abu Ali as a young man. His 'Faults' include being good-natured, honest, considerate and sympathetic... indeed, quite hopeless! Obviously not usual Emperor material. I suppose he could have turned out to be rather a boring hero with all these qualities, but somehow he's very likeable, even before he meets the two contrastingly ultra-wicked princes who are to be his rivals in the hand of the princess.
There are some tense moments towards the end of the book when Abu Ali is imprisoned, and threatened with a horrible death - but it's a fairy-tale, a light-hearted story for children, so of course it's not going to end with the hero meeting an untimely end. Even my normally sensitive son wasn't scared by the visions of pots of boiling oil when I read the book aloud; I think I probably find it slightly more disturbing as an adult, knowing about the horrors that people can and do inflict in each other in real life.
Ideal for boys or girls, children or teenagers - anyone who likes fairy tales and happy endings, and a good dose of humour. While of course it's suitable for children and there's no hint of what we'd call bad language, I suppose some might object to the way the wicked princes keep fighting and calling each other names. One is tall and thin, the other short and extremely fat. Unfortunately we seem to have become over-sensitive to body shapes and sizes in recent years, so if you don't like the idea of your children calling a tall thin person 'bean-pole' or 'clothes-horse', or a short fat person 'pudding' or 'tub', then I suppose you might want to keep them away from this book.
'The Land of Green Ginger' was first published in 1966; my edition is a Puffin paperback published in 1970. Unfortunately, this version does not seem to be in print any more, although it's often found in libraries and can sometimes be found in second-hand bookshops. Amazon sell a somewhat abridged version of the book, published by Faber Classics, for £4.79 after their usual discount; I gather it's fairly well abridged, and retains much of the humour of the original, but that it's rather disappointing to people who remember the full version. Perhaps it was abridged to make it easier to read, or even more politically correct - but if you can get hold of the 1966 version, then that's the one I would recommend.
"May fortune preserve you, gentle reader. May your days be filled with constant joy, and may my story please you, for it has no other purpose." There, now we're friends, I do hope you're smiling already. You must imagine you're in the theatre and we're telling our story just for you. We're in pantomime land and so we must begin at the beginning –we're at Chapter The First which will explain, "How, Why, When and Where There Was Ever Any Problem in the First Place". Well, it all begins in the city of Peking in ancient China and with the birth of a son and heir to the Emperor Aladdin, yes, the Aladdin, son of the awful Widow Twankey. She's still about you know, and just as awful as she ever was, just as crotchety and snappy and mean. Even Aladdin sighs when she appears. As you can imagine the city of Peking is full of the joyous news. A huge firework display is planned but before it begins a name must be chosen for the new Prince. At a Special Meeting of State each guest is given a pencil and a piece of paper on which he must write five names, the Emperor will choose from all submitted. Even the Unidentified Friend of The Master of the Horse must think of five names. As the guest scratch their heads with comic perplexity at their lack of inspiration, and it is feared that the Firework Display will be delayed, Widow Twankey appears. She's in a rage. Everyone sighs because, after all, she's always in a rage. It appears that the newborn Prince has taken one look at Widow Twankey and called her a button-nosed tortoise. This has thrown her into the usual rage and everyone else into confusion. Fireworks forgotten, the Emperor Aladdin hastens to The Yellow Lacquer Nursery to check on this infant prodigy, a newborn baby who can talk. "Hootchie-cootchie my itsy-witsy," he says. "And hootchie-cootchie to you too," his son replies politely. A baby who can talk? And who calls t
he Queen Mother a button-nosed tortoise? What to do? There's only one thing for it. The magic lamp is rubbed and the Djinn Abdul summoned. On hearing the story he's not at all perturbed. It's all been foretold. The button-nosed tortoise is, in fact, a magician who created for himself The Land of Green Ginger, a kind of magic, portable garden of Eden growing every herb and spice you'd ever imagine – the magician is rather an epicure you see. Unfortunately, his spell went wrong at the last moment, as they so often do, leaving him a button-nosed tortoise and the Land of Green Ginger floating around the world at will, waiting for the foretold prince, the only one who can break the spell and restore the magician to his normal shape. That prince is, of course, Aladdin's son, and his name is also foretold, it is Abu Ali. And with that, Abdul vanishes, leaving the troublesome Widow Twankey frozen as still and quiet as you could wish her to be. They leave her to ornament the White Lacquer Room of State. When he comes of age Abu Ali sets out to fulfill the prophecy, to find The Land of Green Ginger, to resuce the magician and to win the hand of the beautiful Silver Bud, daughter of Sulkpot Ben Nagnag, the richest jewellery merchant in all Araby. Like a good hero should, he does so with the dire warnings of Abdul the Djinn ringing in his ears: "You'll run afoul of the wicked Prince Tintac Ping Foo of Persia, and the wicked Prince Rubdub Ben Thud of Arabia. Don't trust either of them further than you could push a pack of peppercorns up a perpendicular precipice! And, if you DO get into serious trouble – and one invariably does – I'll allow you ONE rub of the lamp. Only one mind! And before you rub it, be sure your need is urgent!" Of course both villainous princes are dreadfully evil. They steal, they lie, they cheat, but they are both very stupid indeed, one is fat and dense, the other foppi
sh, theatrically camp and spiteful, and they are both terrible cowards. The merchant Sulkpot is a horrid, greedy man who threatens to boil in oil anyone who thwarts him, particularly impoverished suitors for his beautiful, gentle daughter. Aladdin must outwit the princes, the merchant, his guards, a dragon, he must avoid capture and find three feathers from the tail of the Magic Phoenix bird to win the hand of Silver Bud. And all the time he knows that for any of this to happen he must find The Land of Green Ginger and release the magician from his gone-wrong spell. I expect you know already what happens, but I'll pretend not to spoil it by not telling any more. Oh, but we thoroughly enjoyed the Land of Green Ginger. I'd forgotten all about it until it arrived (uncorrected proof copy you know) through the post. A long time ago I laughed at it with my parents and a short time ago I laughed at it again, with my children. Lovely. From the first few words of welcome which really did make Conor and Kieran believe that it was written just for them, to the last, happy-ending page we had fun reading it. We sneered and poked fun at the Wicked Princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud and we drew theatrically large intakes of breath at every trial and tribulation of our hero, Abu Ali. We shivered at the thought of boiling in oil and we shuddered in fear of the wrath of the genie Abdul. We booed the greedy, nasty Sulkpot Ben Nagnag and we cheered Omar Khayyam the faithful friend. And all the time we laughed. The Land of Green Ginger I think fills you with the magic and fanciful adventure of pantomime and theatre, Conor and Kieran and I almost found ourselves shouting "BEHIND YOU! BEHIND YOU!" as we read. It's a glorious, silly, funny, old-fashioned nonsense of entertainment. You won't learn anything from it, it won't teach you any worthy lessons and it won't make you ponder the meaning of life, but it will make you laugh,
I promise. And sometimes that really is the most important thing, isn't it? We found the anachronistic language, the capitalisation of just about everything, the endless stressing of just how CROSS, or HAPPY, or SAD the characters were feeling all hilariously funny, but most of all we laughed at the sheer slapstick of the action. Somehow, in Noel Langley's very artifical, very theatrical way of writing that most visual of humours translates perfectly to the verbal. The best of pantomime takes human virtues and failings and renders them through cartoon-like lampooning into something to cheer for, to hiss and boo at and something to make us laugh for all we're worth. The Land of Green Ginger does this, because underneath all the silliness the observation is so accurate. Nasty people, greedy people, selfish people are all perfectly exaggerated into overblown stereotypes and set up for their comeuppance in a way that is equally exaggerated and equally funny but not equally nasty. Some people think that these jokes in pantomime are for the adults but I don't think so. I think that the children understand the humour in satire as easily as the grown-ups and that is why they find the slapstick such fun. Children aren't fools, and a chance to laugh at adult failings is something they will always jump at. Politically correct it ain't, and at first sight The Land of Green Ginger may appear old-fashioned and quaint, but really it's timeless, just as the best jokes are, especially the bad ones. And if you don't like a bad joke, then I'm afraid there's no hope for you. Faber are reissuing The Land of Green Ginger complete with original Ardizzone illustrations next month and also a full, uncut version of his screenplay of The Wizard of Oz. I managed to get hold of an uncorrected proof copy (I've sources you know), but you can pre-order from Amazon. Go on. It's fun. But before you do… IT'S BEHIND YOU!
PS - Title is Kieran's, answers on a postcard please!
This well-known and well-loved fantasy adventure was written by Noel Langley, the screenwriter for The Wizard of Oz, and contains original Edward Ardizzone illustrations throughout. The Land of Green Ginger is the story of Prince Abu Ali, the son of the Emperor Aladdin of China. When Abu Ali is born, the Genie of the Lamp announces that his destiny has already been foretold; he was the one chosen to break the spell of the Land of Green Ginger and restore the Magician - turned into a Button-Nosed Tortoise by a spell that went wrong - to his normal shape. You'll find magical fantasy, adventure and excitement within the pages of this book - but most of all, you'll find ridiculous wit and humour to appeal to all age groups (whether child or adult).