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.
Undoubtedly the best known and most loved of all modernfairy tales is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Although it was firstpublished in 1900, the story is most widely known today through the JudyGarland movie of 1939. There are few Americans who have not seen the movie atleast once, and there are many who have seen it repeatedly. Through that film,the story has entered so deeply into our national popular lore that almostevery week there are allusions to it in newspapers and magazines. Moreover, thefilm has spread knowledge of Baum’s fairy tale over much of the world.
The Wizard of Oz is the archetypical Americanfairy tale, but like all fairy tales, it appeals to a wide audience--people ofall ages and from many cultural backgrounds. It has an optimism and afascination with gimmicks that are American, but it also deals with the truthsof the human heart that are eternal and have no boundaries. An American fairy tale isexactly what Frank Baum set out to write--a story that would be a modern fairytale for American children--but he was more successful than he could haveimagined.
Although The Wizard is an extraordinarilypopular 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 Theosophyin a newspaper he edited for some sixteen months in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Andfewer yet have recognized that his great American fairy tale is also aTheosophical allegory.
The plot of The Wizard, for anyone who has notseen it recently, is briefly this: Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and her UncleHenry on a farm in Kansas. One day a cyclone comes; while her aunt hurries tothe cyclone cellar for protection, Dorothy looks for her little dog, Toto, whohas hidden under a bed. Consequently, Dorothy and Toto are picked up in thehouse by the cyclone and carried into another world--the Land of Oz.
In Oz, Dorothy’s house is plopped down in theeasternmost 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 shehad enslaved. Dorothy, understandably upset by all these strange events, wantsonly to get home to Kansas. She is advised to consult the Wizard who lives inthe Emerald City in the center of the Land of Oz. She is also advised to wearthe silver shoes (which the movie transformed into ruby slippers) that belongedto the wicked Witch, because everybody knows they are magic, though nobodyknows just what they do.
Dorothy and Toto set out on a Yellow Brick Road forthe Emerald City. On the way she meets three companions, each of whom joins herin the hope that the Wizard of Oz will be able to give him what he lacks. Thefirst is a Scarecrow, whose head is stuffed with straw and who wants somebrains so he can think. The second is a Tin Woodman, who was once an ordinarybeing 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 offparts of himself and being repaired by a tinsmith until he became the firstfully bionic man, with a completely mechanical body. In the process, he lost hisheart and thus is no longer able to love the Munchkin maiden; now he wants aheart so he can love again. The third companion is a Cowardly Lion, who oughtto be King of the Forest but who is afraid of everything; he wants courage andthe will to act.
After many adventures, Dorothy and her threecompanions reach the Emerald City, where they each gain an audience with theWizard. The Wizard says that he will grant their requests, provided they firstdo something to prove themselves worthy. They must go to the westernmost partof Oz and there kill the wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy and her companionsare 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 theirquest 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 toclaim 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. Hewas a balloonist in Nebraska who worked for a circus, going up in his balloonto attract a crowd for the performance. One day a strong wind blew him all theway 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 acceptedhim as their ruler, and he led them in building the Emerald City, where hecould 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 dowhat he can to keep his promises to the four companions. He fills theScarecrow’s head with a mixture of bran and pins and needles, so that he willhave brand-new brains that are sharp as a pin. He puts inside the Tin Woodman’schest a heart made of stuffed silk, guaranteed not to break. And he gives theCowardly 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-airballoon to try to sail with her back the way he came. But just as he andDorothy are ready to cast off, Toto runs into the crowd and gets lost. AsDorothy hurries to find her dog, the ropes holding the balloon break, and awayit sails with the Wizard, who cannot control it. Thus Dorothy is still strandedin Oz.
The inhabitants of the Emerald City suggest thatDorothy should seek the aid of Glinda, the good Witch of the South. So Dorothyand her companions set out on a third journey. After many more adventures, theyreach the court of Glinda the Good, who tells Dorothy that she has all alonghad the power to go back to Kansas whenever she wants to. The magic silvershoes she is wearing will carry her to any place in the world with three shortsteps. Dorothy need only say where she wants to go, click her heels thrice, andshe will be there. Dorothy now bids good-bye to her friends, says she wants togo home to Kansas, and in three steps, she is there. And so the story ends.
The Wizard of Oz has all the essentials of atrue fairy tale. It is set in a perilous, enchanted land, where the humanprotagonist is engaged in a quest. The protagonist, an ordinary person like youor me, faces great dangers, trials, and difficulties, but is helped by someextraordinary and magical friends. After many perilous adventures, theprotagonist returns home, having fulfilled the quest. The Wizard of Oz is alsoa remarkably Theosophical fairy tale. It is indeed a Theosophical allegory.
Consider first the two lands of Oz and Kansas. Theyare the setting of the story and provide its chief theme: Dorothy is questingin Oz, with the aim of returning to Kansas. The two countries are obviously ofcardinal importance to the story and its meaning. Kansas is depicted as a gray,colorless, flat, featureless landscape, and so it is sometimes thought torepresent the ordinary, dull world of reality. Oz, on the other hand, is vibrantwith color and adventure and interesting people and things, so it is thought torepresent the world of the imagination and of fantasy.
Such an interpretation, however, does not comfortablyfit the overall plot of the story. Although Dorothy enjoys Oz, while sometimesbeing a little frightened by it, all she wants to do from the time she firstarrives there until the silver shoes carry her away is to get back home toKansas. Oz is a nice place to visit, but Dorothy wants to live in Kansas. Inthe story, Kansas, not Oz, is the desirable place to be.
We can see two important things about the Land of Ozif we look at a map of the country, such as one of those published by theInternational Wizard of Oz Club, Inc. (an organization of people who like theOz books and who share their enthusiasm with one another). One of the things tonote is that Oz has a central green area, the Emerald City, surrounded by fourregions, each with a different symbolic color (blue, yellow, red, and purple),within the overall shape of a four-sided figure. The land is bounded on allfour sides by an impassable desert, a "ring-pass-not," that isolates Oz fromall other lands. These ingredients of the topography of Oz--the impassablebarrier, the four-sidedness, the symbolic colors, the circle, and thecenter--are also the ingredients of a mandala.
Oz is a mandala. Mandalas represent the human psycheand the world of samsara--the manifold, beautiful, enticing, but alsofrightening world of differentiation and becoming. And that is what Oz is. Ozis samsara, the seductive world of earthly beauty, which draws the soulto it. You and I live in Oz. It is this world, this various, dappled world,this magical world of pied beauty.
Kansas, on the other hand, is that world from whichwe have come before we find ourselves in the perilous land of the separateself. Kansas is that world where there is no differentiation--but only Oneness:no color, which is diversity, not even any black and white, which areopposites, but only the unity of gray; no various hills and valleys, but onlythe uniform smoothness of the Great Plains; no water, which is the cause andsymbol of life and growth, but only the dryness of a world of unchangingreality. Kansas is the permanent world of Oneness from which we have all comeand to which we are destined to return. It is our source and our goal. Kansasis devachan or nirvana. Like Dorothy, we have but one purpose inthis world of Oz, this samsara of changing appearance, and that is to get hometo Kansas, the nirvana of permanent Truth.
In using Kansas to stand for perfection, Baum wasundoubtedly having a little fun. The reputation of Kansas, in Baum’s day orours, does not live up to what we expect of devachan or nirvana. Baum himselfundoubtedly was ambivalent about the Great Plains, including the Dakotas, wherehe lived for a while, and Kansas, the archetypically American state, the trueheartland of America. Baum makes much of the flat, gray, dry appearance ofKansas in the first chapter of The Wizard. It is not an attractiveplace. However, each of those negative features can also be thought of in apositive way--especially as characteristics of nirvana.
Part of Baum’s joke is that things are never whatthey seem. Dorothy seems to be a simple and harmless little girl, but it is shewho kills the wicked witches of both East and West. The Scarecrow seems to lackbrains, but he has all the ideas in the company. The Tin Woodman seems to lacka heart, but he is so full of sentiment that he is always weeping. The CowardlyLion seems to be a coward, but he takes brave action whenever it is called for.The Wizard seems to be great and powerful, but he is actually a humbug. Ozseems to be a glorious and delightful land and Kansas to be dry, gray, anddull--but Oz is a world of illusion and Kansas is really home. Things are notwhat they seem, in Oz or Kansas.
If we look at the map of Oz again, we can discover asecond important thing about it. The outline of the Land of Oz is that of arectangle. The Land of Oz is the same shape as the State of Kansas. Oz isKansas. The two places in the fairy tale are finally the same, just as nirvanaand samsara are the same reality, only viewed differently. Dorothy can go homeso easily, with just three short steps, because in reality she has nowhere togo. She is already home, and needs only to realize that fact in order to makethe homecoming real.
Other aspects of the story are also symbolic.Dorothy’s name (a variant of Dorothea, a reversal of Theodora)means "gift of God." As that name suggests, Dorothy is the soul sent from God,out of the nirvana of Kansas into the samsara of Oz, here to find her way backagain to the undifferentiated unity from which she comes.
Waiting in Kansas are Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, whorepresent the primordial feminine and masculine forces, which H. P. Blavatskycalled Mulaprakriti and the Unmanifested Logos. Baum’s wife was named Maud,and his mother-in-law (a strong woman and powerful influence in his life) wasnamed Matilda; the initial of their names is also the first letter of mother.Thus M, the initial and Auntie Em’s name, suggests the archetypalfeminine. By similar associations, Henry (which means "ruler of thehome") suggests the archetypal masculine.
Dorothy is brought from Kansas to Oz by a cyclone. Acyclone is a great circular wind, a gyre. The Greek word from which cyclonecomes means a circle or the coil of a serpent. The cyclone is the cycle ofnecessity, the round of birth and death, which catches us up and brings us intolife, that is, to Oz.
Dorothy is caught in the cyclone because she isdistracted by her little dog Toto. Toto expresses the archetype of themischievous beast. That archetype represents the animal nature in all of us;and when we are led astray by it, when we follow it heedlessly, we are caughtup by the passionate winds of the cycle of necessity and blown away to theworld of samsara. Toto is the little beast in each of us, our special pet fromwhom we are loath to part; and attachment to our mischievous animal naturebrings us into birth.
In Oz, Dorothy acquires three companions, in order(and the order is important): the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the CowardlyLion. These companions think they lack and thus have the need to develop(respectively) intelligence, love, and courage or the will to act. Dorothy’sthree companions are clearly thinking, feeling, and doing; manas, kama,and sthula sharira; the mental, emotional, and physical bodies. And sheacquired them in that order, from "highest" to "lowest," just as we do when wecome into incarnation.
A statement published by Annie Besant, but perhapswritten by H. P. Blavatsky, describes the three aspects of our personality asthey must be developed to respond to the perils of life: "There is no dangerthat dauntless courage cannot conquer; there is no trial that spotless puritycannot pass through; there is no difficulty that strong intellect cannotsurmount." Dauntless courage is what the Lion must develop. Spotless purity iswhat the Tin Woodman must achieve (he is constantly being polished in thestory, to clean away the rust that he is subject to). Strong intellect is whatthe Scarecrow wants above all.
The Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman also debate whichis more important to have: brains or a heart. And their debate is reminiscentof that section in H. P. Blavatsky’s Voice of the Silence called "TheTwo Paths," in which the intellectual Doctrine of the Eye is compared with thecompassionate Doctrine of the Heart. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodman’s debate isleft unresolved, with the implication that both are good but that, as Dorothydecided, it doesn’t matter so much which is more important if only one getsback to Kansas-nirvana. Attaining the goal is all-important. The means fordoing so is not.
Dorothy’s quest in Oz is to find her way home, backto Kansas, back to nirvana. But it has three phases. First, the journey fromthe East, where she lands in Oz, to the Emerald City in the center of the land;second, from the center to the West to slay the wicked Witch, with a return againto the center; and third, from the center to the South to consult Glinda theGood, from whom Dorothy learns the way home. The route that Dorothy follows hasthe shape of a big T, its three points defining an inverted triangle, thetriangle of matter. What do its three phases suggest?
In the first phase, Dorothy follows the Yellow BrickRoad to find the Wonderful Wizard at the center of Oz. The Yellow Brick Roadstrongly suggests the Path, the mystic way, that leads to enlightenment. Itsyellow is the yellow of gold--the metal that does not corrode or rust, theperfect metal. As Dorothy and her companions follow the Road, they are facedwith many perilous adventures (most of which were omitted from the movie). TheBesant-Blavatsky statement mentioned earlier begins:
"There is a Road, steep and thorny, beset withperils of every kind, but yet a Road, and it leads to the very heart of theuniverse." The Yellow Brick Road is that Road, and the Emerald City, to whichit leads, is the heart of the universe of Oz.
At the end of the Road are the Emerald City and theWizard. Emerald or green is the color of harmony, of balance; it is midway inthe color spectrum; it is the color of the fourth or harmonizing ray. The aimof following the Path is to establish that harmony. The aim is also to find theTeacher, the Guru, who can show us the way home. The Wizard represents, amongother things, that Teacher.
In the second phase of the quest, Dorothy is sent tothe West, to slay consciously the wicked Witch who rules there, just as sheunconsciously slew the wicked Witch of the East when she landed in Oz. East andwest are points of the compass with well-established symbolic meanings. East isthe place of sunrise; it betokens the beginnings of things; it is birth. Westis the place of sunset; it betokens the ending of things; it is death. In Irishmyth and other mythologies from all over the world, the land of the West is thecountry of the dead. The wicked Witches of East and West represent,respectively, the desire for birth and the fear of death that accompany ourcoming into and passing out of this life.
Dorothy’s quest is for salvation, liberation,enlightenment, freedom from birth and death. And during this mythic fairy tale,she achieves it. The story is, as it were, of her last incarnation; she isone of those who return no more. When she lands in Oz, she crushes the wickedWitch of the East, thus overcoming the desire for further birth. That is anunconscious feat because it is not the result of her actions in this life,which is just beginning, but rather is the fruit of past accomplishments. Thatthis is her last life is due to her karma from earlier, unrememberedlives. The crushing of the wicked Witch of the East is therefore unconscious onDorothy’s part.
During the second phase of her quest, however, shemust consciously meet and slay the other wicked Witch, that of the West, whorepresents the fear of death. The gaining of nirvana and the transcendence ofthe personal self is a kind of death, the death of separateness. To achieve ourquest, we must destroy the fear of death, we must slay the wicked Witch of theWest. And so Dorothy does. She liquidates the Witch; she dissolves the fear ofdissolution; she washes away the last stains of separateness.
We can overcome death and illusion only in the worldof death and illusion. We must pass through the valley of the shadow of deathto come to the land of eternal light. So Dorothy must go to the uttermost West,encounter the wicked Witch of death, and overcome her with water, the symbol oflife.
What shall we make, however, of Dorothy’s return tothe Emerald City after she has conquered her fear of death, when she discoversthat the Wizard, the Teacher, the Guru, is after all a humbug? This is perhapsthe most Theosophical of all details in the fairy story. The Wizard is a humbugbecause all teachers we find outside ourselves are humbugs. One of the cardinalmessages of Theosophy is that we can rely on no one to save us but ourselves.As The Voice of the Silence says, "Prepare thyself, for thou wilt haveto travel on alone. The Teacher can but point the way." Each student must walkthe way alone. Reliance on a teacher, on a guru, must inevitably end indisappointment. All teachers are humbugs, save one--the Teacher Within.
In a sense, the picture of the Wizard, ensconced inhis throne room in the Emerald City, where he tries desperately to disguise hishumbuggery, is a satire on all authority and particularly on religiousauthority. When visitors come to the Emerald City, they are required to put ona pair of green glasses, so everything appears green to them. The green glassesare like the dogmas that religious wizards insist their followers adopt sotheir ecclesiastical cities will look green and vital.
The joke is that the Emerald City really is made ofemeralds; it really is green, quite naturally. Religion really is what it saysit is--a place of treasures and marvels--but the humbug wizards who have gotthemselves put in charge of it--the priests and ministers--have no faith in thenatural value of their city, so they require the unnecessary and artificialspectacles. They think that emeralds need the assistance of green glasses. Inanother sense, the guru is a humbug only because we make one of him. We insistthat he tell us what to do. We want him to save us. When we ask the teacher todo for us that which only we can do for ourselves, we have made a humbug out ofhim. Finally, the teacher-wizard must sail off in his balloon, powered by allthe hot air he and we have forced into it. And then we are left by ourselves tofind our own way.
So Dorothy sets out on the third phase of her quest.This time she travels to the land of the South to seek the counsel of Glinda,the good Witch. To travel south is to travel deep within ourselves. TheMississippi River, that Father of Waters, like most rivers in the UnitedStates, flows southward. To travel south is to travel in the natural directiontowards the ocean of unity. Glinda represents the intuition within each of us--theglint of the light of Truth, the only true source of guidance. What Glindatells Dorothy is that she has always had the power to go back to Kansas;Dorothy needs no guru, for she is her own guide. She need only rely uponherself, upon her own feet, clad in the silver shoes that are her contact withthe earth of Oz, which is also the earth of Kansas. For Oz is Kansas; samsarais nirvana.
If there is a "moral" to The Wonderful Wizard ofOz, this is it: we must rely on ourselves, for we alone have the power tosave ourselves. That moral is made throughout the book also with regard toDorothy’s three companions. The Scarecrow thinks he needs brains; but wheneverthe four companions find themselves at an impasse, it is the Scarecrow who comes upwith the clever plan to help them. The Tin Woodman thinks he needs a heart; buthe is the one who is constantly worried that he may step upon a bug and harm itand who is ever in danger of rusting from his own tears because he feels suchcompassion for others that he freely weeps. The Cowardly Lion thinks he needscourage; but he is the one who acts bravely to save the company whenever theyare threatened by danger. Dorothy’s companions, like Dorothy herself, havewithin themselves the qualities they are seeking. We each have everything weneed; we lack only the intuition of Glinda the Good to tell us so.
The Wizard of Oz came to Baum as a kind ofinspiration. Baum was a remarkably motherly man. He looked after hischildren--all boys--in their sicknesses and accidents; he comforted them intheir sorrows. He told them bedtime stories. Baum’s stories became so famousthat neighboring children would come to the Baum house every day to hear theevening tale. One evening a story came to Baum that he recognized as havinggreat potential; so after the children were put to bed, he jotted down theessentials of the story on such scrap paper as he had at hand. The result wasthe outline of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In later years, when askedhow he had written the book, Baum said:
It was pure inspiration.... It came to me right outof the blue. I think that sometimes the Great Author has a message to getacross and He has to use the instrument at hand. I happened to be that medium,and I believe the magic key was given me to open the doors to sympathy andunderstanding, joy, peace and happiness.1
Baum certainly did not set out to write an allegory, buthe was inspired to write a story that, like all good fairy tales, has depths ofmeaning of which the writer himself would have been only dimly aware. Baum’smembership in the Theosophical Society and his background and beliefs were suchas to fit him for the writing of a fairy tale filled with the Ancient Wisdom,as is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
H. P. Blavatsky once wrote that the ancient Theosophistswere called analogists because of their custom of interpreting all scripturesand sacred symbols as metaphors for an inner reality. It is precisely in thisway that fairy tales, traditional ones and modern ones alike, are of value.Fairy tales are analogs of Truth. When we have "comprehended their hiddenmeaning" (as HPB said), we have seen into ourselves and recognized our ownpowers and potentials. We have learned that upon our feet are silver shoes thatcan carry us home whenever we will use them. For home is here, Kansas is Oz,heaven is all about us, waiting only for us to recognize it. That is theAncient Wisdom in all fairy tales.
Cited by Michael Patrick Hearn, ed., The AnnotatedWizard of Oz (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1973), 73.