Noel Langley’s ‘Land of Green Ginger’: An appreciation

❉  After Aladdin – Love, adventure and a button-nosed tortoise… We celebrate a timeless Winter warmer.

“And they lived happily ever after” is a wonderful phrase, full of hope and happiness and immortality for all the heroes, heroines and sidekicks involved. It’s the perfect way to end fairy tales and children’s books but ah, if only real life worked that way.

In 1937, an author by the name of Noel Langley covered the question that few had asked till then – what happens after ever after? His novel ‘The Tale of the Land of Green Ginger’ (the title was shortened in later reprints) tells the story of Abu Ali, son of Aladdin, who by now is the Emperor of China, and how adventure, villains, magic and true love runs in the family. The book was so well received at the time that it was one of the factors that led to Langley working on and being credited as one of the three screenwriters on “The Wizard of Oz”.

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First Edition, 1937, illustrated by the author.

I first read the book in 1973, as it was one of a set of five paperbacks in a box set I’d had for Christmas 1972. Those of us of a certain age will have had our first experience with box sets at birthdays and Christmases because rather than being a downloaded full season of a television series to binge watch, a box set back then was an actual cardboard box case containing a set of hardbacks or paperbacks.

In this particular case, it was set of Puffin paperbacks, each of which was a children’s fantasy novel but unrelated. To revisit the book for this review, I got it down from the shelf where it’s resided for decades. I can’t remember all five in this set with ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ but two others were ‘Carbonel’ by Barbara Sleigh and ‘The Minnipins’ by Carol Kendall. I still have those two as well. And of course, like many of these children’s books, it was televised on BBC’s Jackanory, read in this case by the incomparable Kenneth Williams, in the week commencing Monday 30 December 1968.

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Faber & Faber’s unabridged 2005 reprint, illustrated by Timothy Banks.

Langley’s imagination and writing skills were a joy to me when I first read the book and that hasn’t changed in all the years since, as I smiled, giggled and laughed out loud with a mix of nostalgia and rediscovered gems. I’m sure that anyone who gives this book a try today will find the same child-like joy and mirth in its pages as I do. I’m frankly amazed that this has never been made into a panto, or musical, or animated tale as it’s perfect for such a transition (with the caveat of course that a Lot of Adaptations end up as Travesties of the Original Versions).

I’ve title-cased that last part deliberately for emphasis because much use is made by Langley of Title Case throughout the book. Normally I’d find this hugely distracting but here it serves to perfectly underscore Langley’s story as a Tale of Heroes and Villains, and you can’t help but read the book in the style of a pantomime or theatrical fantasy.

Each chapter also has its own explanatory sub-title, written in that same style, as shown below with the opening part.

CHAPTER THE FIRST – Which Explains How, Why, When, and Where There Was Ever Any Problem in the First Place.

The author is present indirectly too as a sort of Narrator, both by speaking to you at times, Gentle Reader and also by explaining the tale as it goes along if he’s reading the book to you at bedtime, particularly at the beginning and end of each chapter.

Bearing in mind it’s a children’s book from 1937, what struck me in re-reading this was that despite the fantasy aspects of talking animals, magic carpets, genies and crystal balls, there’s elements of grown-up relationships issues and humour too.

Aladdin’s the Emperor of China by now yet still treated like a boy by the Queen Mother (Widow Twankey of course) and the naming ceremony discussion for his Son and Heir reads more like we’re attending the Vicar of Dibley’s parish council meeting, or a ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ cabinet briefing. Bureaucracy, self-importance and confusion are universal it seems and universally comedic. I’m sure I probably just found the whole “lack of pencil” sequence at the naming ceremony silly and funny aged 6 but as an adult, I’ve been in too many meetings where somebody will have a minor issue like that, which they will not let go, and the person responsible for sorting out the problem adamantly refuses to deal with trivia as it’s not on the agenda, just as happens here between the Lord Chamberlain and the Grand Vizier.

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The classic 1970s Puffin paperback.

It’s probably the first time I read a book as a child that I can still appreciate as an adult, and Langley’s style shows how great children’s authors can have that sly appeal to us all when (and if) we ever grow up. It’s something that companies like Pixar now employ in films to keep the adults entertained while taking the kids to the cinema, but this must certainly be one of the earliest times such a device was employed by an author. The only earlier one that immediately springs to mind is Lewis Carroll, and a later example would be Roald Dahl, both of whom also had such a brilliant command of language beneath a lot of apparent nonsense and bizarre ideas.

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Detail from the first U.S. edition, published in 1938.

The Land of Green Ginger itself and the Button-Nosed Tortoise are examples of that clever nonsense, the latter especially as they are the first words spoken by Abu Ali when he was but One Day Old (and explains Chapter the First’s sub-heading), leading Abdul the Djinn, the Genie of the Lamp, to link Abu Ali’s future with the problems besetting the Land of Green Ginger where the Tortoise resides.

In particular, the names of so many of the protagonists in the book are both funny and clever, still bringing a smile to my face in 2016 – subtle they are not (and it’s open to debate whether there’s a culturally patronising tone to many) but they do their job so well for a kids book from 1937. The beautiful heroine is called Silver Bud, Abu Ali’s rivals for her hand are the Wicked Princes Rubadub Ben Thud (large, greedy, clumsy) and Tintac Ping Foo (thin, sharp, spiteful). Silver Bud’s mean and controlling father is none other than Sulkpot Ben Nagnag (you just have to dislike him, even before you find out what he’s actually like) and the large-nosed seer of all things via his Crystal Ball is called Nosi Parka.

As I noted earlier, perfect panto patter indeed. If you’ve never read it, or even heard of it before now, please give it a go. Even if only once, just to appreciate the style, wit and sheer silliness of the whole thing. I appreciated it as much in my 2016 re-read as I had done in 1973. Best Enjoyed with some Wine or Hot Chocolate, and an Open Mind, taking it for what it is – a Book that Deserves Far Greater Recognition than it has Achieved So Far.

May Fortune preserve you, Gentle Reader.


❉ ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ by Noel Langley was reprinted in unabridged form in 2005 by Faber & Faber as part of their Childrens’ Classics series, with a foreword by Neil Gaiman.

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