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Dorothy's Progress: The Wizard of Oz as Spiritual Allegory

This article was written by David F. Godwin
posted under Magic & Ritual

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of a children’s book-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. And 1999 was the sixtieth year since the release of the motion picture based on the book starring Judy Garland. Baum went on to write a total of 14 books about Oz before he died in 1919. All of these books are still in print. At this moment, an amusement park based primarily on the movie is being built in Kansas. We might be curious about what accounts for the continued popularity of this fantasy over a period of a century. Other children’s books published around the same time, including a few of Baum’s, have languished into obscurity. What’s special about The Wizard? Obviously, the story appeals to a wide spectrum of people of all ages and has continued to do so for a good long while. It takes more than just a good fairy tale or even Madison Avenue hucksterism to achieve this popularity. There’s more here than meets the eye. Almost everyone is familiar with the outlines of the tale. That fact alone attests to the universal-dare I say “mythical”-nature of the story. The story begins when Dorothy, a little Kansas girl, is carried away by a cyclone. She soon arrives in another world altogether-the magical fairyland of Oz. So far, this sounds like an allegory of death and transfiguration. The tale then follows the classic lines of the archetypal hero myth as outlined some years ago by Joseph Campbell: She receives help from a goddess-like being (the Good Witch of the North), meets several companions, and finally defeats the Wicked Witch of the West. At last, she returns to Kansas with a wisdom she did not possess before she left. This new knowledge is represented in the movie in a rather watered-down form as “There’s no place like home.” Of course, both the book and the movie stress that you already possess whatever your heart desires-be it a brain, a heart, courage, or a trip back home-it’s “right in your own backyard.” This sounds an awfully lot like the doctrine of the mystics of several religions that you are already spiritually fulfilled; you just have to open your eyes and realize it. Tat tvam asi-“You are it.”

Political Interpretation
It was suggested some years ago that The Wizard of Oz is an allegory of Populism, a grass-roots political movement of the late 19th century involving the free coinage of silver. It was the doctrine of the People’s Party. In this schemata, which was widely accepted in academic circles for a number of years, the yellow brick road represents the gold standard, the Cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan, the Wizard William McKinley, and so on. In more recent times, this interpretation has been given a socialist cast, with the Scarecrow representing farmers and the Tin Woodman industrial workers. However, the Populist theory was well refuted in 1994 by David Parker in the Journal of the Georgia Association of Historians, the strongest argument being that Baum is known to have been a Republican. Parker later substituted his own interpretation, which is that The Wizard of Oz is an allegory for a Theosophical utopia. Baum was a card-carrying Theosophist for a while (as verified by John Algeo), and Theosophy influenced some of his editorials when he was editor of a newspaper in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Darren John Main elaborates on the Theosophical connection in his recent book, Spiritual Journeys Down the Yellow Brick Road, from Findhorn Press. Main details the central tenets of Theosophy and relates them to The Wizard. Thinkers of a mystical or magical bent have lent their own interpretations to The Wizard. In one such theory, Dorothy is the real “Wizard of Oz” because she’s the only one who ever really accomplishes anything. In another, Toto is an allegory of Anubis, the dog-headed Egyptian guide of the dead. It is because of Toto’s antics that Dorothy fails to get into the storm cellar and is taken to Oz in the first place. Once there, it is Toto who exposes the Wizard as a humbug by knocking over a screen (in the movie, he draws aside a curtain). When the Wizard is about to take Dorothy home in his hot-air balloon, Toto chases a cat, forces Dorothy to miss the ride, and throws her back on her own inner resources, symbolized by the ruby slippers (which, by the way, are silver shoes in the book).

Mystic/Psychological Views
A recent psychological interpretation by Baum’s great-granddaughter, Gita Dorothy Morena, The Wisdom of Oz, claims that the book enables the reader “to honor their inner child,” and elaborates the book from a psychotherapist’s perspective. Another recent author, Joey Green, suggests that the good witch Glinda is a Zen master, and that “Never let those ruby slippers off your feet” really means “Never let go of your inner spiritual essence.” In Secrets of the Yellow Brick Road: A Map for the Modern Spiritual Journey, Jesse Stewart applies Jungian concepts to the book and describes Dorothy’s trip down the yellow brick road as a spiritual journey toward individuation. Her “outer world” is Kansas, and her “inner world” is Oz. Dorothy’s task is to resolve the duality between the Wizard and the Witch. Samuel Bousky, in The Wizard of Oz Revealed, goes into some detail applying detailed esoteric allegories, such as relating the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion to the three friends of Job. He points out that in the Hebrew words for the tree of life, otz chaim, otz could be spelled as Oz. “What a tremendous term,” he says, “for the name of the Worlds [sic] Greatest Wizard. ”The interpretations proliferate, and each person who approaches the book or the movie in an analytical frame of mind seems to have very little difficulty in coming up with one of his own. For example, it would be easy to say that Dorothy and her companions are allegories of the four elements, the four evangelists, or the four cardinal virtues. The number four occurs in the story more than once; for example, there are four countries or sections of Oz, Munchkinland being one of the four. (The other three are the lands of the Winkies, the Quadlings, and-not named until later in the series-the Gillikins.)

Those Ubiquitous Masons
We can also look at The Wizard of Oz with a Masonic lens. Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty are said to be the “three grand pillars of Masonry.” A learned Freemason recently delivered a paper saying that each of us meets Beauty, Strength, and Wisdom on their inner journey. Could this be the journey down the yellow brick road? After all, it is no big stretch to say that the Scarecrow represents Wisdom because of his desire for a brain, the Tin Woodman Beauty because of his wish for a heart, and the Lion Strength for even more obvious reasons. We could further point out that the witches of the East and West-the horizontal axis, the material plane-are evil, while the witches of North and South-the vertical axis or spiritual dimension-are good. In the book, Dorothy begins in the east and travels to the center, thence west, then back to the center, then south to consult the good witch there. It is noteworthy that she does not visit the north, the place of darkness.

Beyond The Wizard
Unfortunately, all of these “self-help” books published so far (that I have been able to consult) have their limitations. To begin with, many of them make what I consider to be the basic error of confounding spirituality and psychology, as if all mystical experience were merely some sort of epiphenomenon of the brain. I suppose we can blame Jung, or misinterpretations of Jung, for this trend in New Age thought. Second, all of them totally ignore the rich lore of Oz beyond The Wizard of Oz itself, whether book or film. If we consider Baum’s 14 Oz books as a connected whole, we can see Oz evolve into a utopian paradise where prepared food and other needs simply grow on trees, a land without sickness, aging, or death, clearly an allergory of heaven. Furthermore, beginning with the end of the second book in the series, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), the land of Oz is a matriarchy ruled by a goddess-like princess, Ozma. The Wizard leaves the Scarecrow in charge of Oz when he departs. After a short period of attempted rule by rational thought, which the Scarecrow represents, Ozma, the personification of love and compassion, takes the throne and Oz becomes more and more an earthly paradise, a new Jerusalem, where even death is abolished. By this time, Dorothy and Toto have become permanent residents of Oz, as have Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. One of the most glowing and developed descriptions of Oz occurs in The Emerald City of Oz (1910):

“No disease of any sort was ever known among the Ozites, and so no one ever died unless he met with an accident that prevented him from living. This happened very seldom, indeed. There were no poor people in the Land of Oz, because there was no such thing as money, and all property of every sort belonged to the Ruler.… Each person was given freely by his neighbors whatever he required for his use… They were peaceful, kind-hearted, loving and merry, and every inhabitant adored the beautiful girl who ruled them, and delighted to obey her every comand.”

That’s All It Is
Salmon Rushdie-and the Heart comic strip-point out what seems to be a flaw in the story of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy has been leading a rather bleak existence in Kansas when she is transported to a lovely paradise in Oz. Once there, her only wish is to return to Kansas, and this wish motivates her journey to see the Wizard. Other than her attachment to her aunt and uncle, why should she wish to leave this ideal fairyland and go back to her humdrum life on the gray Kansas prairie? The moral seems indeed to be that “there’s no place like home.” A deprived existence in a miserable shack is preferable to the Garden of Eden because it’s home. The truth concealed behind this platitude is that the ultimate spiritual reality lies within each individual person-in their “own backyard”-and not off somewhere over the rainbow. “The kingdom of Oz is within you.”

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