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Wonderment and joy in Oz

10 May 2019

Stephen Brown explores the wonderful world of Frank Baum, who died 100 years ago


Following the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Following the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

LYMAN FRANK BAUM died on 6 May 1919. He is best remembered for his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and various films derived from it. Some readers, but not all, regard it as Christian allegory.

He was born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856, into an affluent Methodist household. Frank — he hated his first name — took an early interest in writing. In his teens, he composed a satirical poem about Noah’s flood. He retained his religious scepticism as editor of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer in South Dakota. His first issue celebrated “the Age of Unfaith”, by which he meant not atheism, but a reverence for Nature unrestricted by dogma.

He subsequently used his columns to accuse the Church of teaching “the same old superstitions, the same blind faith in the traditional Bible, the same precepts of salvation and damnation”.

Baum was nominally a member of the Episcopal Church, primarily, it seems, to participate in his parish’s amateur dramatic society. He claimed an unswerving belief in science, which “we know to be true”. He and his wife became members of the Theosophical Society. For Baum, this meant accepting an invisible force that transcends the world that we see around us. This is evident in much of his work, including The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “I think sometimes the Great Author had a message to get across and I was the instrument at hand.”

BAUM believed in the power of fairy stories. Despite many authors who shared this view, he rebutted the Doctrine of Conditional Joy later extolled by G. K. Chesteron. In such tales, the characters must keep rules: don’t eat that apple, be home before midnight, never open the forbidden door, etc. Only then will you receive undeserved grace.

In 14 Oz books, and dozens of other stories, happiness comes by exploring a world full of enchantment, one where we are free to become our true selves. This may entail a seemingly quasi-divine being (e.g. a wizard) who encourages individuals to enlarge their self-limiting visions of reality. The Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion already have what they wish for. They just require a nudge.

The only place of worship ever mentioned in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a pottery one that was accidentally smashed by Lion’s tail. Even so, it is hard to imagine that Baum was unaffected by his church upbringing. The centrality of children in his plots owes something to Jesus’s dictum that unless we become like them, we will never enter the Kingdom of God. In Jungian psychology, the Child is an archetype, the puer aeternus, one that leads characters to redemption. The nativity is a biblical instance of this.

In Baum’s tale, Dorothy undergoes many of the classic stages of storytelling. There are a call to adventure, an initiation, and a return. The journey involves hardships but also blessings. There is an echo of resurrection: she is, at least in the book, no longer quite as at ease in the old dispensation. She knows that we can do better for ourselves if only we look beyond our earthbound existence. The name Dorothy means “gift of God”. That is what she brings back with her.

IT IS often suggested that Oz’s Emerald City was inspired by the White City constructed for Chicago’s 1893 World Fair. That may be so, but Baum’s description also has similarities to the Revelation of St John’s holy city, comprising gold, crystal, and other precious stones — the locus where divine restoration of our damaged, unfulfilled nature occurs. It parallels the Celestial City of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has in turn been considered as a monetary, political, agrarian, or philosophical allegory, but rarely as a Christian one. Even Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, interpreted it in financial terms.

In John Bunyan’s book, names such as Mr Worldly Wiseman or the Slough of Despond clearly indicate their allegorical character. J. R. R. Tolkien warned that “many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” Which was Baum’s intention?

In his introduction, he suggested that the first Oz book “aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out”.

This description of his doesn’t entirely ring true. Soon after publication, Baum shortened the title to The Wizard of Oz, hence dropping the description of the land as “wonderful”. If anything, it is a rather threatening environment inhabited by wicked witches, fighting trees, packs of wolves, vicious monkeys, etc. Only by the sixth book, The Emerald City of Oz (1910), does it truly become a beautiful wished-for place.

We may be on safer ground recalling that John Bunyan’s full title was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. For Baum, the World Which Is to Come constitutes the here and now. This is partly in keeping with the suggestion in St John’s Gospel that, if only we grasp it, we already possess the quality of eternal life.

Dorothy’s purpose is to find her own internal authority. For this, she requires help to follow the Yellow Brick Road, the chief helper being the Good Witch of the North. She provides Dorothy with the equivalent of a scallop shell and staff with which to make her pilgrimage — a pair of silver slippers (ruby in the 1939 film version) to give direction — before bestowing a purifying kiss of empowerment on Dorothy’s forehead.

Dorothy’s journey is the stuff of most quest narratives, including Jesus’s time in the wilderness. Encountering and overcoming fears and hesitancies are all part of our becoming fully alive which, in St Irenaeus’s view, reveal the glory of God. And the end of all Dorothy’s exploring — with shades of T. S. Eliot — will be to arrive where she started and know the place for the first time. She tells Aunt Em: “I’m so glad to be home again,” but that now means something else. Having spent time in a far country, Dorothy now feels at home with herself, irrespective of surroundings.

MGM’s 1939 film ends with a more ambivalent message about home than the book and previous film versions, in some of which Baum had direct involvement.

The most noteworthy silent-era adaptation was the full-length 1925 film, in which Oliver Hardy played the role we now know as the Tin Man. But the version best loved by most of us stars Judy Garland. This Oz has fewer hazards, and only by accident does Dorothy dispose of the Wicked Witch of the East. Most problems are resolved by a deus ex machina, such as the snowstorm that Glinda creates to break a spell.

The Emerald City rather than the dehumanised construction of the book becomes an embodiment of the technological progress that Baum queried. Unlike in the book, Dorothy is prepubescent. The ending seems to assert that her aspirations are just adolescent fantasies. Far from Oz’s being liberation’s springboard, it is domestication that triumphs.

“It wasn’t a dream, it was a place,” cries Dorothy. “Doesn’t anyone believe me?”

Well, many of us do. Despite the alterations, the film brings something supremely significant to bear on Baum’s fairytale. And that’s the song “Over the Rainbow”, composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg. As the historian Simon Schama observed in The Story of the Jews, The Wizard of Oz is not too far removed from Hasidic tales with its story of hope. Oz, he says, is any place where dreams of a better life really do come true.

The opening two notes with their daring octave leap from low C to high C describe the transition from dreary Kansas to heavenly Oz. The melody then proceeds yearningly from one note to another, before circling back to middle C and its associations with “home”.

But there is now a different understanding of what that means. Even if Dorothy alone holds on to the vision that is vouchsafed to her, she is now aware of a deeper reality to strive after. Perhaps that nicely reflects the genius of Baum’s tale. It speaks to many conditions. In Christian circles, its abiding legacy is to remind us that the Kingdom of God is very near. Or it can be.

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