Oz as Myth and Mysticim

Originally printed in the November-December 2000  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Algeo, John. "Oz as Myth and Mysticim." Quest  88.6 NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000): pg 219-222.

By John Algeo

One hundred years ago, a children’s book was published which has attained the status of a classic, not for children only but for many adults as well: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by the Theosophist Lyman Frank Baum. That book is a phenomenon in its appeal, its popularity, and its character.

Appeal. The phenomenon of a book written ostensibly for children having an appeal for adults is not unique. Lewis Carroll’s stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are well known examples, as also are Kenneth Grahame’s fable The Wind in the Willows, A. A. Milne’s books about Winnie the Pooh, J. R. R. Tolkien’s fairy story The Hobbit, and most recently J. K. Rowling’s magical stories about Harry Potter. The Wizard of Oz is in that company.

Adults may adopt a "children’s book" as their own for many reasons, of which the most obvious is nostalgia for childhood. But other reasons are stronger. Personal nostalgia is, in fact, a weak explanation because many persons first encounter these books in adulthood. Of course, it may be argued that such books represent a generalized nostalgia for the state of childhood, the condition of lost innocence, the condition described by Wordsworth:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home.

If that is the reason certain children’s books appeal to adults, a reductionist theory of nostalgia for childhood is irrelevant, for it is not a personal memory of one’s own child state that those books appeal to, but a different sort of memory of a different sort of state. The state is one of spiritual wholeness and simplicity, which is quite different from the complexities of biological childhood, and the memory is a transcendental one of the realm of the clouds of glory.

Popularity. Related to its appeal across age levels is the continuing popularity of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The best-selling children’s book of Christmas 1900, it has never been out of print since, and the story has acquired a life of its own. Although its author, Frank Baum, wanted to turn his attention in other directions, and tried several times to do so, the popularity of the story repeatedly forced him back to Oz. Between 1900 and his death in 1919, Baum wrote fourteen Oz books and produced a number of spin-offs.

The series was continued after Baum’s death in twenty-two books by Ruth Plumly Thompson and in eighteen other books by eight other writers. Oz stories in various genres continue to be produced right down to our own time, often explicitly for adults. Sean Connery’s film Zardoz, the black musical The Wiz, and the novel Was, by Geoff Ryman, are examples of adult-focused Oz productions.

The Judy Garland movie of 1939 was a major impetus in continuing the popularity of the Oz story. Its release to television in 1956 and subsequent annual broadcast kept the story alive in the collective consciousness and drummed it into the collective unconscious. Today, themes, lines, and allusions to the story and its characters are rife in popular culture, and their reference is almost invariably to the MGM movie version.

Character. The story of Oz is not just an adventure in an imaginary land, however; it is also a myth. Myths are works that embody the ethos of a people and at the same time deal with concerns that are common to all human beings. They explain us to ourselves in a way uniquely suited to a time and place. Oz is an archetypically American myth; it is also a spiritual allegory of the journey that all of us, as strangers in a strange land, find ourselves engaged in.

Like all true myths, the story of Oz can be told in many ways, according to the perception of the teller and the interest of the audience. The character of Oz is multifaceted: an amusing and entertaining story on the surface, it has depths of interpretation. We may say about it what has also been said of Theosophy: it has shallows in which a little child may safely wade and depths in which even a giant must swim. The comparison of Oz and Theosophy is appropriate, for Frank Baum was a member of the Theosophical Society, and The Wizard of Oz can be read as a Theosophical allegory.

The six books that are the focus of this essay are evidence at century’s end of the wide appeal, enduring popularity, and multifaceted meanings of L. Frank Baum’s "modernized fairy tale," as he called it in his introduction of April 1900. They envision the story of Oz, the American myth of the twentieth century, from several viewpoints.

In Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum, Michael Riley, a teacher of children’s literature at Castleton State College, Vermont, surveys the evolution of the Oz myth during Baum’s lifetime. He is concerned exclusively with Frank Baum’s work, the fourteen Oz books and some related publications and productions. Post-Baum children’s stories are briefly treated in an epilog, but the movie and adult spin-offs not at all.

In tracing the stages by which the Oz fantasyland developed and evolved in Baum’s writings, Riley notes a reversal in value of the Land of Oz. In the first book, the 1900 Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Land of Oz is a wonderland, but like the traditional land of Faërie, it is a place to escape from, not to get to. Dorothy has been carried willy-nilly to Oz, and her one desire while she is there is to find her way back home to Kansas. In the later books, Dorothy’s quest is to get to and remain in Oz.

Oz was originally a world of illusion. As Riley (88) says: "Illusion--whether interior (as in the self-deceptions of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Lion) or exterior (as in the tricks of the Wizard)--plays a part in all of Baum’s fantasies . . . almost no character is what he appears to be or what he thinks himself to be." Oz, like our own world, is mayavic. The original contrast between Kansas and Oz is between permanent Reality and fluctuating illusion.

At the end of his detailed, informative, and perceptive account of the historical development of the Oz theme in Baum’s writings, Riley addresses the important question of why the Oz stories have had such appeal and been so popular:

The question is: Why Oz? Why did Oz capture the imaginations of his readers? . . . The most generally accepted answer is that the uniqueness and appeal of Oz lie in its American quality. . . . Oz is an authentic American fairyland, . . . a place--unlike the German forests of the Brothers Grimm or the English Wonderland of Lewis Carroll--that can be just over the hill or beyond the prairie in this land of limitless possibilities. [228–9]

Baum’s Oz also has another quality. It is "an authentic and recognizable Other-world." Just as Arthur Conan Doyle (another author with Theosophical connections) created in Sherlock Holmes a character with a life apart from Doyle’s books, so Baum created a land with a history of its own:

The "existence" that these creations have outside the narratives in which they figure is what makes them such real, living entities that actually seem to have a life apart from their creators. Sherlock Holmes is still solving cases long after Doyle’s death; every year sees the publication of new Holmes stories by various writers. The same is true with Oz; that marvelous fairyland continues to be explored and mapped in new books and stories. Baum’s Other-world did not die with him. [229]

Oz is typically American, and it is authentic with a life of its own. But those qualities, important as they are, do not fully explain the appeal of Oz. For that fuller explanation, one needs to look in another direction.

In Secrets of the Yellow Brick Road: A Map for the Modern Spiritual Journey Based on The Wizard of Oz, Jesse Stewart blends the 1900 book and the 1939 movie in an interpretation of their archetypal symbols. His reading is highly suggestive of the spiritual depths of the story.

Dorothy is an orphan; humanity is "the great Orphan," according to Kuthumi Lal Singh, one of the early Theosophical teachers. Dorothy is brought into the world of illusion by a cyclone, the cycle of birth and death; she begins her journey home by following the Yellow Brick Road, which is an unwinding spiral, thus complementing the cyclone by reversing the path of her involution. Her three companions represent both three aspects of the human personality (thinking, feeling, and will) and the three paths of Yoga: knowledge, devotion, and action.

Dorothy and her companions wander off the Path, however, and come to a broad river; they try to cross to the other side (shades of Buddhist metaphor), but find themselves in deep water, drifting out of control. Eventually they get to land and enter a field of soporific poppies; the flowers are like those in the Hall of Learning of The Voice of the Silence: "the blossoms of life, but under every flower a serpent coiled."

In the Emerald City, Dorothy meets the Wizard, who finally turns out to be an impostor. He is the ego-self within us, "just a common man." When Dorothy says, "I think you are a very bad man," the Wizard replies, "Oh, no, my dear; I’m really a very good man; but I’m a very bad Wizard." The ego-self is very good at what it is, but if we try to make it more than that, we make a humbug out of it. When the Wizard has given Dorothy’s three companions illusory substitutes of what they long for, he muses: "How can I help being a humbug . . . when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?" It is we who make the ego-self a humbug wizard by expecting it to do what it can’t.

The Zen of Oz: Ten Spiritual Lessons from Over the Rainbow is based on the movie. In it Joey Green analyzes the story in terms of ten Eastern qualities: karma; the inner spark (atma); the Yellow Brick Road, "a path paved with the promise of golden opportunity" (marga); spiritual essence, pure consciousness, or intelligence (buddhi); doing good for others (altruism); courage (virya); self-surrender (vairagya or nishkama karma); energy (prana); the guru; and Enlightenment. In this reading, Glinda is a Zen Master, Dorothy a chela, and "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" her mantra.

Not all recent interpretations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are general symbolic readings like the two books mentioned above. Some are more personal. The latter sort is exemplified by The Wisdom of Oz, whose author is a great-granddaughter of Frank Baum, Gita Dorothy Morena. Her given name was "Dorothy," but in the course of her own journey through Oz, she adopted the name "Gita" or "song." The combination of the two names, Eastern and Western, together signifying "The song that is the gift of God," is a sign of the linkage of Eastern and Western wisdom in Oz that would surely have pleased Frank Baum.

Gita Dorothy reads the Oz story as a psychological allegory with special reference to the challenges in her own life and the path she followed on her own Yellow Brick Road of personal discovery. She is a psychological counselor who uses the Oz myth in her practice. The story, as reflected in her life, thus becomes a model for her readers. The book also contains photographs of four generations of the Baums and a final note from the author’s mother, Ozma Baum Mantele, named for the Princess of Oz.

Another work that treats the Oz myth primarily not as a story, but as a framework for psychological exploration is Golden Wizdom beyond the Emerald City: A Conscious Journey to Wholeness by Ilene Kimsey. In it, eight characters from the story articulate what they have discovered about themselves in Oz. They are Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion, the "Witch of Celebration" (a.k.a. the Good Witch of the North), the "Witch of Transformation" (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West), and the Wizard. These characters are roles we all fill, members of an inner Emerald Council that can serve as mentors to our outer selves. The book also includes fifty Golden Touchstones, or aphorisms for contemplation and internalization.

What, then, is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--a fairy tale for children, a fantasy world for adults, an allegory of spiritual archetypes, or a guidebook for therapeutic techniques? It is, to be sure, all of those, and more. But how did Frank Baum come to write a book that appears to be all things to all readers? That question is addressed in admirable detail by Nancy Tystad Koupal in Baum’s Road to Oz: The Dakota Years.

Frank Baum spent only a few years in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, arriving there on September 20, 1888 (just one month to the day before the first volume of H. P. Blavatsky’s most important book, The Secret Doctrine, came off the press), and leaving in the spring of 1891, about the time of Blavatsky’s death. Baum’s two and a half or so years in Aberdeen were, however, important times for him and presaged his future. In the Aberdeen weekly newspaper he edited for fourteen months, he acknowledged his familiarity with Theosophy and alienated some of his readers and neighbors with his unconventional views.

Nancy Koupal recognizes Theosophy’s seminal importance for Baum:

Baum had not formed his ideas about religion within the local community but under the longstanding influence of his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage of Fayetteville, New York. A well-known supporter of woman suffrage, . . . Gage, who became a member of the Theosophical Society in 1885, had long been sharing its magazine, the Path, among family and friends. Sending a recent issue to her son T. Clarkson Gage in Aberdeen in 1887, for example, she reported that Baum’s wife Maud and other members of his family, who then resided in Syracuse, New York, were reading Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877) and other texts on Esoteric Buddhism and eagerly anticipating Blavatsky’s forthcoming book The Secret Doctrine (1888). [66]

The "Editor’s Musings" [in Baum’s newspaper] began as a weekly feature, occupying a prominent place on the editorial page. . . . He began with a topic that would become increasingly important to him through the year and in the rest of his life--Theosophy. . . . In ways small and large, the ideas of Theosophy permeate most of Baum’s "Editor’s Musings" columns [which are reprinted on pages 107-33 of Koupal’s book]. [62 -63]

Evidence also supports the fact that Baum’s interest in the East and its religions was operating strongly at the time that he was creating The Wizard of Oz. He and his wife joined the Theosophical Society in 1892. . . . [Mabel] Collins was another of the modern authors that Baum mentions. . . . In 1896 or 1897, Gage, who was living with the Baums in Chicago, recorded that Frank had acquired the book The Astral Plane by C. W. Leadbeater. [72-3]

It is clear that, whatever else it may be, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an expression in archetypal symbols of the Theosophical ideas that occupied Frank Baum’s attention during the ten years before the publication of the book. That thesis is explored elsewhere: John Algeo, "A Notable Theosophist: L. Frank Baum," American Theosophist 74 (1986): 270 -3, and "The Wizard of Oz: The Perilous Journey," American Theosophist 74 (1986): 291 -7, reprinted in Quest 6.2 (Summer 1993): 48 -55; both are on the Web site www.theosophical.org under "The Wizard of Oz: Archetypes and Metaphysics."

John Algeo is Professor Emeritus of English from the University of Georgia and National President of the Theosophical Society in America.

Oz and Beyond: The Fantasy World of L. Frank Baum. By Michael O. Riley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997. Hardback, $29.95; paperback, $15.95, xiv + 286 pages.

Secrets of the Yellow Brick Road: A Map for the Modern Spiritual Journey Based on The Wizard of Oz. By Jesse Stewart. Hygiene, CO: SunShine Press, 1997. Paperback, $14.00, 175 pages.

The Zen of Oz: Ten Spiritual Lessons from Over the Rainbow. By Joey Green. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998. Hardback, $16.95. 140 pages.

The Wisdom of Oz. By Gita Dorothy Morena. San Diego: Inner Connections Press, 1998. Paperback, $15.95, 232 pages.

Golden Wizdom beyond the Emerald City: A Conscious Journey to Wholeness. By Ilene Kimsey. Loveland, CO: Toto-ly Ozsome Publishing, 2000. Paperback, $21.95, 239 pages.

Baum’s Road to Oz: The Dakota Years. Ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal. Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2000. Hardback, $29.95; paperback, 15.95, [vi] + 182 pages.

Theosophical Society PoliciesTerms & Conditions • © 2020 The Theosophical Society in America