Much as I love reading, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz probably had a greater influence on me through the movie version, which I watched on TV every year — this was before recordings made it easy to watch our favorite films at the touch of a button. It was a kind of annual religious rite for me, which I anticipated, savored, and remembered until the next time came again.
What made this story so special for me? It’s a quest narrative, with Dorothy whirled away from her dreary Kansas home by a cyclone and dropped into the colorful, dangerous land of Oz. She wants to return home, while the quirky characters she meets — an animated scarecrow, a living tin man, and a lion — want to find inner qualities: brains, heart, courage. It turns out they already have these, that the resources they search for are within them, but they don’t want to hear that message. Instead, the humbug Wizard of Oz, astutely applying the placebo effect, gives them symbols to which they can attribute the power they fail to recognize in themselves.
This does not apply to Dorothy in the book, who bears no responsibility for being torn away from her home, and goes through no inner development at all. She is the same innocent at the end as at the beginning, and her actions are those of a young child: looking for companionship, acting out of trust, doing harm only by accident. But in the movie, Dorothy goes through a transformation that is real, not faked — even if it is framed as a dream. (That only means it’s a journey into the inner world, where symbols represent the truths hidden from ordinary consciousness.)
She is caught up in the cyclone after she tries to run away from home, and can only return home once she realizes the futility of looking for her heart’s desire outside of her own back yard. As played by an adolescent Judy Garland, she’s not a child, but a young woman on the threshold of adulthood, and she has to mature in order to find her way forward. Painfully, she realizes that her thoughtless action has hurt her caregivers, and recognizes that what she wants above all things is to restore their relationship.
The book has more incident and detail than the movie, which compresses Dorothy’s adventures in Oz and omits some of Baum’s more subtle satire. But the movie is more vivid and lively than the book, with its stellar performances by all the leads, its visual spectacle, and its musical numbers that enhance the emotional impact in manifold ways.
I remain fond of both versions, and as I re-experience them as an adult, having since developed an interest in spiritual development and esoteric Christianity, I can see the traces of my current fascination with our deeper human nature. Dorothy’s three companions, for example, clearly exemplify the soul-forces of thinking, feeling, and willing, which must be kept in balance by our center of consciousness if we are to develop in a healthy way. Dorothy represents that center, the ordinary human I or ego; she is guided and protected by the wise Good Witch of the North, as we are by our higher self, and accompanied by her dog, Toto, as we are by our lower, animal nature.
Dorothy’s journey, during which she must bravely confront evil and see through deception, thus represents our journey through life. And the most vital element of her successfully coming through these trials, it’s clear, is the way she and her companions support one another. Even when they believe they don’t have brains or heart or courage, the desire to help others calls forth these abilities, and makes them real and effective.
And what is the origin of those abilities? The Tin Man’s longing to feel is explicitly connected to the heart, but the courage the Lion seeks has also long been seen as a function of the heart — the very word stems from the French “coeur.” And thinking with the brain, divorced from the heart, becomes an empty and mechanical activity. A sixteenth century prayer invokes both: “God be in my head, and in my thinking … God be in my heart, and in my understanding.” It may be the brain that thinks, but it is the heart that understands, bringing wholeness.
Thus, the quest in The Wizard of Oz is a quest for the threefold heart. Fourfold, if one counts Dorothy’s quest for home, “where the heart is.” And the land of Oz is itself a heart-image, with its four realms evoking the heart’s four chambers, and its central city mimicking the heart’s central position in our body. Even the different coloring of the various lands is reminiscent of the contrast between red arterial and blue venous blood.
But something is wrong in this heart-land. Two of its regions have been taken over by wicked witches, and the good witches who rule the other two parts, while powerful, seem to be either not powerful enough or not interested to oppose the wicked. Meanwhile, the central city of Oz is ruled by a mere human being who, upon accidentally traveling there in a balloon, was hailed by the people as a great Wizard. Afraid to disabuse them of this notion, he ends up creating more and more elaborate layers of deception, and has to keep everyone at a distance, unable to reveal his true self. It takes the innocent Dorothy and her companions, whose quest moves them to travel through the land — periphery to center and back again — to disturb this unhealthy state of affairs, bringing about the opportunity for change.
When Baum wrote the book, the heart was still a very mysterious organ, with much mystique surrounding it — not yet the prosaic pump we think of today. But Baum had an insider’s knowledge, for he himself had a heart condition; his was weakened by rheumatic fever as a child. The soul-body connection that medicine is only now starting to acknowledge as central to heart-functioning was a visceral experience for him. He didn’t do well under intellectual or militaristic pressure, and after two miserable years at a military school he collapsed and was sent home.
Perhaps this aversion to traditional male aggression helped him to develop the imaginative qualities that became his greatest strength. They didn’t always lead him to commercial success — even after Oz became a hit, his financial fortunes rose and fell, almost with the regularity of a heartbeat — but they always led him toward enchanting inventions, with which he amused and delighted generations of children.
He can’t be considered a truly great writer, for his remarkable inventiveness was not always matched by a remarkable literary style, and his financial troubles often drove him to hasty productions that lack full artistic integrity. But he had a great heart, in spite of its physical weakness. Kindness, integrity, insight, wonder, beauty, and joy were the ideals toward which his adventures sought to lead readers. And from my first step onto the Yellow Brick Road, I knew that was the adventure I wanted to be on, too.
With my blogging friend Deb of The Book Stop, I’ll be reading through all of Baum’s 14 Oz books over the next year, and after this first installment, I’m greatly looking forward to revisiting these childhood favorites. I hope you’ll join us, whether for a book or two or more. If you write up your own post, link it in the comments, and I’ll include it in my wrap-up post at the end of the month. You don’t have to read our book of the month, either — feel free to link up any time.
What have been your discoveries in Oz?