The Wizard of Oz: The Perilous Journey
By John Algeo
Reprint from Quest 6.2 (1993 Summer): 48-55 and American Theosophist 74 (1986): 291-7.
Although The Wizard is an extraordinarily popular story, both in America and abroad, few people know that its author, L.Frank Baum, was a member of the Theosophical Society and wrote about Theosophy in a newspaper he edited for some sixteen months in Aberdeen, South Dakota. And fewer yet have recognized that his great American fairy tale is also a Theosophical allegory.
The plot of The Wizard, for anyone who has not seen
it recently, is briefly this: Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and her Uncle Henry on a farm in Kansas. One day a cyclone comes; while her aunt hurries to the cyclone cellar for protection, Dorothy looks for her little dog, Toto, who has hidden under a bed. Consequently, Dorothy and Toto are picked up in the house by the cyclone and carried into another world–the Land of Oz.
In Oz, Dorothy’s house is plopped down in the eastern most part of the land, right on top of the wicked Witch of the East, thus killing her and freeing the Munchkin inhabitants of that land, whom she had enslaved. Dorothy, understandably upset by all these strange events, wants only to get home to Kansas. She is advised to consult the Wizard who lives in the Emerald City in the center of the Land of Oz. She is also advised to wear the silver shoes (which the movie transformed into ruby slippers) that belonged to the wicked Witch, because everybody knows they are magic, though nobody knows just what they do.
Dorothy and Toto set out on a Yellow Brick Road fo rthe Emerald City. On the way she meets three companions, each of whom joins her in the hope that the Wizard of Oz will be able to give him what he lacks. The first is a Scarecrow, whose head is stuffed with straw and who wants some brains so he can think. The second is a Tin Woodman, who was once an ordinary being of flesh in love with a beautiful Munchkin maiden. Unfortunately, however, he was under a spell cast by the wicked Witch, so he kept chopping off parts of himself and being repaired by a tinsmith until he became the first fully bionic man, with a completely mechanical body. In the process, he lost hi sheart and thus is no longer able to love the Munchkin maiden; now he wants a heart so he can love again. The third companion is a Cowardly Lion, who ought to be King of the Forest but who is afraid of everything; he wants courage and the will to act.
After many adventures, Dorothy and her three companions reach the Emerald City, where they each gain an audience with the Wizard. The Wizard says that he will grant their requests, provided they first do something to prove themselves worthy. They must go to the westernmost part of Oz and there kill the wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy and her companions are not very keen on doing that, but since there seems to be no alternative,they set out for the western land. After many adventures, they succeed in their quest when Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the witch, which dissolves her. Wicked witches, like naughty children, cannot stand water.
When the four companions return to the Emerald City to claim their rewards from the Wizard, he puts them off for a long while. Finally, the Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz confesses that he is really a humbug. He was a balloonist in Nebraska who worked for a circus, going up in his balloon to attract a crowd for the performance. One day a strong wind blew him all the way to Oz and dropped him in the middle of the land. When he fell from the sky, the inhabitants thought he must be a very great wizard indeed, so they accepted him as their ruler, and he led them in building the Emerald City, where he could hide without his humbuggery being discovered by the Witches of the land, of whom he was very much afraid.
Although he is a humbug, the Wizard says he will do what he can to keep his promises to the four companions. He fills the Scarecrow’s head with a mixture of bran and pins and needles, so that he will have brand-new brains that are sharp as a pin. He puts inside the Tin Woodman’s chest a heart made of stuffed silk, guaranteed not to break. And he gives the Cowardly Lion a little green bottle filled with courage (Dutch courage, presumably), from which the Lion is to drink whenever he feels the need.
To help Dorothy get home, the Wizard builds a hot-air balloon to try to sail with her back the way he came. But just as he and Dorothy are ready to cast off, Toto runs into the crowd and gets lost. As Dorothy hurries to find her dog, the ropes holding the balloon break, and away it sails with the Wizard, who cannot control it. Thus Dorothy is still stranded in Oz.
The inhabitants of the Emerald City suggest that Dorothy should seek the aid of Glinda, the good Witch of the South. So Dorothy and her companions set out on a third journey. After many more adventures, they reach the court of Glinda the Good, who tells Dorothy that she has all along had the power to go back to Kansas whenever she wants to. The magic silver shoes she is wearing will carry her to any place in the world with three short steps. Dorothy need only say where she wants to go, click her heels thrice, and she will be there. Dorothy now bids good-bye to her friends, says she wants to go home to Kansas, and in three steps, she is there. And so the story ends.
The Wizard of Oz has all the essentials of a true fairy tale. It is set in a perilous, enchanted land, where the human protagonist is engaged in a quest. The protagonist, an ordinary person like you or me, faces great dangers, trials, and difficulties, but is helped by some extraordinary and magical friends. After many perilous adventures, the protagonist returns home, having fulfilled the quest. The Wizard of Oz is also a remarkably Theosophical fairy tale. It is indeed a Theosophical allegory.
Consider first the two lands of Oz and Kansas. They are the setting of the story and provide its chief theme: Dorothy is questing in Oz, with the aim of returning to Kansas. The two countries are obviously of cardinal importance to the story and its meaning. Kansas is depicted as a gray, colorless, flat, featureless landscape, and so it is sometimes thought to represent the ordinary, dull world of reality. Oz, on the other hand, is vibrant with color and adventure and interesting people and things, so it is thought to represent the world of the imagination and of fantasy.
Such an interpretation, however, does not comfortably fit the overall plot of the story. Although Dorothy enjoys Oz, while sometimes being a little frightened by it, all she wants to do from the time she first arrives there until the silver shoes carry her away is to get back home to Kansas. Oz is a nice place to visit, but Dorothy wants to live in Kansas. In the story, Kansas, not Oz, is the desirable place to be.
See part 2