The Spirituality of Oz: The Meaning of the Movie

Originally printed in the November-December 2000  issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Johnson, Andrew. "The Spirituality of Oz: The Meaning of the Movie." Quest  88.6 NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2000): pg 212-217.

By Andrew Johnson

What is the meaning of "true home"? . . . We talked about a wave. Does a wave have a home? When a wave looks deeply into herself, she will realize the presence of all the other waves. When we are mindful, fully living each moment of our daily lives, we may realize that everyone and everything around us is our home. . . . A wave looking deeply into herself will see that she is made up of all other waves and will no longer feel she is cut off from everything around her. [Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, 40–1]

Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home—home! And this is my room—and you’re all here—and I’m not going to leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all. And . . . oh, Auntie Em, there’s no place like home! [Dorothy Gale in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz]

Spirituality, Truth, and Reality

Spirituality can be viewed two ways. First, in a secular sense, it can be seen as an accumulation of one’s higher values, virtues, and ideals. It is the higher part of self, superego or superconsciousness. Second, spirituality can also be seen in a sacred sense as the part of one’s self that is connected to the universe, one’s divine essence, or the perfume within the clay jar.

Truth

The first thing to be said about The Wizard of Oz is that it is true, absolutely and completely, or as Munchkins would say, "Morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely . . . true."

There is a difference, however, between truth and facts. Although facts may be true, they do not always lead to Truth. Indeed, there are many instances where a series of facts have led to the wrong truth simply because of which facts were attended to and which were ignored. Although Holy Books may not always contain facts, they contain symbols, metaphors, myths, and dreams, which are signs pointing to Truth. One of the shortcomings of humankind in this past millennium is that we have attended to the sign, but not to what it is pointing to. We declare the stop sign to be holy and good while proceeding right through the intersection without stopping. And then we wonder how a good and loving universe can allow car accidents to happen.

Reality

The Wizard of Oz is very real. If you look deep enough, you see that there is no difference between reality and fantasy, between this and that, here and there, the idea and the thing. All are variants of the same reality. All are waves; temporary forms of the same water.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), the Buddhist mystic, describes two levels of reality that exist simultaneously. Phenomenal reality is the reality of things seen: that which we are used to experiencing, the waves, bits of reality coming into temporary form. Noumenal reality is the reality inaccessible to logic or the normal senses. This is the water, the essence of all things, the ground of all being, God, Allah, Jehovah, WaTonka, Brahman, Oz.

Universal or Collective Unconscious

The Wizard of Oz is true on a noumenal level. It is filled with symbols and metaphors, all pointing to other things. Carl Jung and later Joseph Campbell described how certain symbols and motifs appear in mythology, fairy tales, stories, and religions throughout the world. According to Jung, these symbols are an expression of the collective unconscious, a concept similar to the akashic records mentioned by ancient mystics. It is a psychic cyberspace, a place where every thought, feeling, and action of humanity is recorded. Whether or not we are aware of it, we are all connected, we are all online.

It was from the collective unconscious, a bubbling cauldron of archetypal images, that The Wizard of Oz was birthed into existence in 1900 as a book and later reincarnated as a movie in 1939. The movie, released the same year as Gone with the Wind, was the product of five different directors and a myriad of studio writers, continually assigned and reassigned. Thus the film did not come from any one person, but was truly a collective.

Movies are like dream states in which archetypal images appear, Hollywood itself being the land of dreams. A movie is like a group dream, a conscious decision to suspend reality, alter our consciousness, and let the images play out in front of us (Nathanson 1991).

Bits of the collective consciousness of its time crept into the movie. The Wicked Witch of the West is a dark, controlling presence who seeks to dominate and control very much like Hitler. The Guards at the Witch’s castle (the Winkies) are dressed in Russian-like costumes. Their "Yo-ee-oh" chant, which uses the interval of the fifth and distinctively low pitches, is reminiscent of the ancient liturgical music favored by the Russian Orthodox church (Nathanson 1991). The flying monkeys have helmets that look very much like those of Japanese imperial warriors.

Of Archetypes and Journeys

Dorothy’s journey away from Kansas and back again represents a spiritual quest, an expedition to inner dimensions to face all aspects of the Self (Stewart, 1997). It is a move towards self-actualization, atonement or at-one-ment, whole-ness or holiness. It is a remembering or becoming again one member with what we once were.

Dorothy is a prototypical hero very much like Jesus, the Buddha, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, or Arthur. Both Dorothy and Jesus (a) had questions regarding their parentage, (b) started out life as very common ordinary persons, (c) had to flee in the early part of their lives, (d) traveled a path with a clear beginning and unavoidable end, (e) battled evil in different forms, (f) found companions along the way to help with the journey, (g) had companions who were scattered in times of turbulence, (h) went through wilderness, forest, or desert, (i) found or possessed an inner power to help transcend their experiences, (j) eventually went home or returned to another dimension leaving sad companions behind, and (k) were not afraid to take a stand on moral issues or principles.

The First Lesson

As the story begins, we see Dorothy, a girl of twelve, running down a road. Her age is pertinent, as it is the end of childhood and the beginning of the transition to adulthood. In it two realms or ways of seeing meet: the dependent, intuitive childlike and the independent, logical adult.

Miss Gulch arrives at the farm. It appears that Toto, Dorothy’s dog, has bitten her on the leg. She wants to take him to the sheriff to be destroyed. According to the law, Miss Gulch was right. One person’s animal does not have the right to invade the space of another, much less bite that person on the leg. In accordance with the law, Miss Gulch had every right to seek restitution and demand that Toto be destroyed. But are right and wrong defined by the law?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1984) has described six levels of moral reasoning: punishment, reward, social approval, law, social contract, and universal principle. Miss Gulch was operating at the level of right and wrong as determined by law. This is the level of the fundamentalist, the literalist, the insurance document. However, what is legal is sometimes not ethical or moral. Those who let laws, holy books, religious edicts, or religious figures determine right and wrong without questioning are abdicating their responsibility as human beings. For example, at one time, segregation and overt racial discrimination were legal. Thus it takes principled beings to challenge and shape the law.

Not being bad is not the same as being good. At first, Uncle Henry took a moral position:

Dorothy: "Destroyed? Toto? Oh, you can’t . . . you mustn’t . . . Auntie Em – Uncle Henry – you won’t let her . . . will you?"

Uncle Henry: "Uh . . . ah . . . course we won’t . . . eh . . . will we Em."

However, when Miss Gulch threatens to bring a damage suit that will take away the farm, Uncle Henry suddenly has a moral revelation: "We can’t go agin’ the law, Dorothy." For Uncle Henry, right and wrong are determined by the possibility of punishment. So Uncle Henry, like a Skinnerian rat in a maze, seeks to avoid punishment in giving Toto to Miss Gulch.

Dorothy is the only person in this movie to take a stand based on moral principle regardless of the consequences. When Lion jumps out of the bushes and begins growling at Toto, in the face of what might have been great risk to herself, she slaps Lion on the nose and admonishes him for picking on poor little dogs. Here, Dorothy acts courageously from a moral stance: It is wrong for more powerful things to pick on weaker things. Again, at the final scene in the throne room of Oz, the group is met with flame, smoke, and a thundering voice in an attempt to scare them. Lion faints. Dorothy stands up to the great and powerful Oz and says: "Oh . . . oh! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! Frightening him like that, when he came to you for help!" Again the moral decree: More powerful things should not frighten weaker things that are in need of help.

Cyclones

Cyclones represent those unpleasant events in our lives that move us to higher places. This reflects Dabrowski’s (1964) theory of positive disintegration, which states that advanced development requires a breakdown of existing psychological structures in order to form higher, more evolved structures. Inner conflict, neurosis, guilt, depression, anxiety, adverse conditions, or unpleasant life events can, through assimilation, lead us to higher levels of moral or ethical behavior. Growth requires that old psychological or spiritual structures give way to new ones. New wine cannot be put in old wineskin. The disintegration process can result in inner tension as a sign of growth in a healthy individual.

Had Dorothy not been transported to Oz, she would never have attained the insight, growth, understanding, and realization of her power that she did. Miss Gulch would still be a presence in her life. Thus the cyclone, while unpleasant, is neither good nor bad; it is merely a byproduct of life outside the Edenic realm. Cyclones may be the loss of a job, life transitions, death of a loved one, or the dissolution of a relationship. They are the internal tension that brings us to a higher place.

Toto the Dog

Toto represents the inner, intuitive, instinctual, most animal-like part of us. Throughout the movie, Dorothy has conversations with Toto, or her inner intuitive self. The lesson here is to listen to the Toto within. In this movie, Toto was never wrong. When he barks at the scarecrow, Dorothy tries to ignore him: "Don’t be silly, Toto. Scarecrows don’t talk." But scarecrows do talk in Oz. Toto also barks at the little man behind the curtain. It is he who realizes the Wizard is a fraud. At the Gale Farm and again at the castle, the Witch tries to put Toto into a basket. What is shadow will try to block or contain the intuitive. In both cases, Toto jumps out of the basket and escapes. Our intuitive voice can be ignored, but not contained.

In the last scene, Toto chases after a cat, causing Dorothy to chase after him and hence miss her balloon ride. This is what leads to Dorothy’s ultimate transformation, to the discovery of her inner powers. The balloon ride is representative of traditional religion, with a skinny-legged wizard promising a trip to the Divine. Toto was right to force Dorothy out of the balloon. Otherwise she might never have found her magic. This is a call for us to listen to our intuitions, our gut feelings, those momentary bits of imagination that appear seemingly out of nowhere.

The Window

The window is an opening between one dimension and the next, the air hole through which eternity breathes through to the temporal world. We too have a window, the place where the collective unconscious and the personal unconscious meet. It takes a journey to find this place.

In a startling bit of movie magic, Dorothy is actually hit on the head with a window as she begins the journey from Kansas to Oz. She pulls herself up from the bed and peers fearfully out of the window at the wreckage floating past: a chicken roost, a fence, a house, a buggy, a tree, a henhouse, a crowing rooster. This window represents the inner world, a dream state, personal unconscious, prophecy, and archetypal images.

Munchkins and Glinda

Munchkins, by their childlike appearance and mannerisms, represent the spiritual ideal, which is the child state. Children forgive easily, are quick to love, and are content to live in the moment. The Munchkins also live in communion with Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Glinda is a figure not represented in the other dimension—Kansas—thus she can be said to be truly other-dimensional. She is a being of light, a spirit or celestial power who appears both in physical form in Munchkinland and in nonphysical form in the poppy field. Poppies represent spiritual sleep. Glinda was a force to help wake Dorothy from that sleep.

Shadow Witch

The Wicked Witch represents our Shadow side, the dark or unconscious part of the personality that the conscious ego tries to ignore. The Shadow is Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll.

At the castle, Dorothy throws water on the witch. The water represents consciousness. When Jesus walked on water, he was above consciousness. Self-actualization or at-one-ment is not a matter of destroying the shadow. All humans have shadows. Individuation is a matter of facing the shadow and coming to grips with it. Thus Dorothy confronts the Witch, who melts. Dorothy assimilates the power of the Witch in the form of the guards, the flying monkeys, and the broomstick.

The Path and the Wizard

The Yellow Brick Road represents our Spiritual Path. The whole problem in the movie is that Dorothy followed it looking for the Wizard of Oz, instead of for Oz. Oz is the transcendent power, Love and Light. The Wizard represents those humans who sip the nectar of their own illusion and become drunk with greed, power, and control. These are the religious charlatans who claim to speak for God, while they are building theme parks. They are all little men and women standing behind curtains.

The Point of the Movie

Dorothy asks Glinda, the Good Witch, "Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?"

"You don’t need to be helped any longer," A smiling Glinda answers. "You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas."

"I have?"

"Then why didn’t you tell her before?" Scarecrow demands.

"Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself."

The Tin Man leans forward and asks, "What have you learned, Dorothy?"

"Well, I . . . I think that is . . . that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em . . . and that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t here, I never really lost it to begin with."

This is what Dorothy learned:

1. We have the power. We have Ruby Red slippers to transport us to Kansas, to bring about the Edenic state, or to create our heart’s desire.

2. Witches and cyclones, while bad, can be a means for spiritual growth.

3. We must learn for ourselves. Truth is not given so much as it is realized. Look within. You do not have to go off in search of a mystic or seek truth from a variety of exotic religions. Truth is found in your own back yard.

4. Reality is very simple. We create our own reality. We tend to make it more complicated than it need be. The simple universal fact is that, if we believe it to be so, it is.

5. There’s no place like home. The kingdom of heaven is not a place; but a condition.


References

Dabrowski, Kazimierz. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown.

Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1984. The Psychology of Moral Development. New York: Harper and Row.

Nathanson, Paul. 1991. Over the Rainbow: The Wizard of Oz as a Secular Myth of America. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. 1999. Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. New York: Riverhead Books.

Stewart, Jesse. 1997. Secrets of the Yellow Brick Road: A Map for the Modern Spiritual Journey. Hygiene, CO: Sunshine Press.


Andrew Johnson, a former second-grade teacher, is codirector of the Center for Talent Development at Minnesota State University. He can be reached at thinkingskills@aol.com.


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