the weirdness of the wonder of oz

It’s based on a book that’s over a hundred years old. The movie version is itself over sixty years old. What then, after all this time, is still so wonderful about The Wizard of Oz?

The answer is: everything.

Written by Lyman Frank Baum in 1899 and published in 1900, The Wizard of Oz owes its popularity as novel, stageplay, musical, and film to its astonishingly prophetic prediction of what has been called the American Century. As beneficiaries of that prediction’s fruition, Americans for the last hundred years have favored the film with special status in their hearts, minds, and VCRs.

But if we among the living are the beneficiaries of Baum’s vision, honesty compels us to remember that untold millions must have also been its victims. Only now, with global terrorism and a third world war suggesting something gone deeply awry, can we look back with 21/20 vision and understand Oz for what it truly was and begin to see why Baum’s utopian vision of an Emerald City turned out to be so unlike any city that subsequently sprang forth.

a scientific fairy tale

When Nietzsche declared the death of God in 1882, L. Frank Baum was 26 years old. As a journalist, Baum more than others had a sense, perhaps, of the obviousness of Nietzsche’s statements. In 1890, Baum wrote, “The age of faith is sinking slowly into the past.” Instead, he declared, we had a new “unfaith” and an “eager longing to penetrate the secrets of Nature—an aspiration for knowledge we have been taught is forbidden . . . the number of churchgoers is gradually growing less. The people are beginning to think that studying science . . . is the enemy of the church. Science we know to be true.” (quoted Leach 247)

But Baum was more than just a journalist. He was also a shopkeeper, a window dresser, and a storyteller. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was, in fact, part of the founding of the public relations industry. As such it is telling much more than a mere pleasant tale for children. His was a parable of economics and moral philosophy that prefigured humanity’s first century devoid of God.

At the popular level, the convergence of three trends explains much of the story’s context: the death of God, the rise of the consumer economy, and the birth of the film medium occurred at precisely the cultural moment we’re discussing—1900. Imagine in hindsight L. Frank Baum in April of that year writing his introduction as a kind of symbolic Easter farewell to the Christian God at the dawn of a century that felt it no longer needed Him. Baum ushered in the popular version of the new pragmatism that subsequently swept the culture with this introduction:

Folklore, legends, myths, and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous, and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as “historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.

Baum’s last line has, wittingly or not, served as the guiding philosophical principle of the advertising industry ever since. As Neil Postman, Sut Jhally, James Twitchell, Ken Sanes, and others have pointed out, most advertisements operate precisely as “modernized fairy tales” or “updated religious parables,” delivering the citizen from the hell of their sinful non-consumer existences to the heaven of their material desires fulfilled beyond measure.

a crummy commercial?

And The Wizard of Oz is an advertisement for the good life like no other, for it is an meta-advertisement, an advertisement that ultimately advertises the advertisers themselves.

Seen plainly, The Wizard of Oz is a symbolic story of how America’s four major sociological elements can progress if and only if they adopt Ben Franklin’s aphorisms over the lessons of the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves” is the Aesopean moral to the story, and to get there, we follow the adventures of Industry (the Tin Man), Agriculture (the Scarecrow), Military (the Lion), and Citizenry (Dorothy) as they make economic progress down a street backed by the gold standard, to reach the city of Ounce (oz.) which is green like money, wherein they find and then expose the fraudulent myths of Religion (The Great Oz), whose true identity Baum seems to have named Professor Humbug as a tipping and toppling of Charles Dickens’s hat—Dickens, whose Scrooge made the phrase “Bah, humbug!” famous in association with what that character conceived of as bad religion.

The Great Oz, it turns out, is a very bad magician, but a very good man, because his intentions are good despite his inability to actually effect any miraculous cure for what ails our heroes. By sending them on a quest to kill the Wicked Witch of the West—herself symbolic of the Catholic side of Christianity’s by-then dual nature—the great Oz forces our heroes to look within and discover the strength they already possess. As the seventies’ rock group America put it, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man, that he didn’t, didn’t already have . . . ”

And so the four heroes conquer their fears, realize their goals, and Dorothy is sent back home to realize her dream—that all of the characters in her story are locals in her daily life, and that they can only get beyond the backwater religiosity of Kansas by following Baum’s lovely vision.

visions are as visions do

The problem, of course, is that Baum’s is a Satanic vision. Oz, like the old crafty serpent himself, is a trickster, a magician who thinks the human psyche can literally be psyched out of belief in a real and ultimately knowable God in exchange for a cornucopia of consumer goods and wish fulfillments of the material kind.

As a parable, viewers will notice that Star Wars is remarkably similar to The Wizard of Oz, in that Leia, Luke, Han, and Chewie are just updated representations of Dorothy, Scarecrow, and the Lion, while C-3PO plays the Tin Man and R2-D2 plays Toto, with Ben Kenobi as Oz to Darth Vader’s Wicked Witch. The background radiation of both films might also seem similar—Lucas hired comparative religion professor Joseph Campbell to make sure his screenplay fit the formula of the hero’s journey outlined in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but Campbell’s formula is about as original as Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Plagiarists—Covey took his inspiration from a prayer of St. Francis while Baum and Campbell have taken theirs largely from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. As William Leach points out in his excellent book Land of Desire, both Baum’s and Bunyan’s stories share

the same archetypal journey motif and same symbol—the silver slippers (changed to ruby slippers in the 1939 film version). In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian flees the City of Destruction, suffers terrible nightmares and seductions, and finally reaches the bejeweled Celestial City, whose streets are paved with gold. Lifted out of gray and dismal Kansas, Dorothy is dropped into Oz , overcomes many adversities, and eventually enters the bejeweled Emerald City, with its streets covered with gold and jewels. On his journey, Christian meets “By-ends,” who lacks interest in religion except as it helps him become wealthy and respectable. “We are always most zealous,” he says to Christian, “when religion goes in silver slippers.” And Christian responds: “You must also own religion in his rags as well as when in silver slippers.” In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s deliverance and salvation “go” only in “silver slippers” (Leach 249-250).

The Wizard of Oz is thus really a sermon on the Protestant work ethic without the nuisance of Protestantism. That Professor Humbug’s Oz character is indeed a well-meaning but bumbling magician is a charming character flaw in a lovely film. That the road to Hell is paved with good intentions is the history and legacy of the insane twentieth century.

If you want to see what happens next in The Wizard of Oz, after Dorothy grows up, leaves the farm, and finally moves to the city of her dreams, watch the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. In that film, Audrey Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a country-come-to-town girl whose real name is Lulamae Barnes, as we find out when her long lost farmer-husband comes back calling on her. Her husband, played by actor Buddy Ebsen, is the same actor who plays the Tin Man in the Oz, film, and is thus both the reason she left the farm and the one who is metaphorically responsible for creating the industrial nightmare of New York City (OZ is one letter away from NY, just as 2001's HAL was one letter away from IBM). But this time our heroine refuses the return to Kansas, and by the end her search for identity is so desperate that she tells her new beau Paul Varjak, "I'm not Holly Golightly, I'm not Lulamae, I don't know who I am!" As Madonna Kolbenschlag's 1988 book would later reveal, Holly is truly lost in the land of Oz, searching for identity and community in an American city that simply cannot provide it for her. The Emerald City is green with money and envy, but it is absolutely devoid of any sort of life-giving sustenance for its inhabitants. One imagines Holly and Paul getting married and having children in the form of Elaine Robinson and Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate, who then grow up and become Kramer vs. Kramer, whose spiritual orphan offspring turns out to be the fiendishly obnoxious child actor Jonathan Taylor Thomas, haunted forever and ever by the sins of his cinematic forefathers.

L. Frank Baum would be pleased and horrified to learn just how accurately his prophecy was fulfilled at the end of the American century. Now that we’re entering the twilight of a new dark age, it is only fitting that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series should offer “wizardry” as our only hope. It is nothing of the sort, of course, but in the pitch black of these nightmarish times, even the illusion of a candle seems more realistic than cursing the darkness.

further reading

  • William Leach. Land of Desire (Vintage 1994).
  • Tim Ziaukas. Baum’s Wizard of Oz as Guilded Age Public Relations (Public Relations Quarterly, Fall 1998).
  • Madonna Kolbenschlag. Lost in the Land of Oz: The Search for Identity and Community in American Life (HarperCollins 1988).
  • Mark Evan Swartz. Oz Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage and Screen to 1939 (Johns Hopkins UP 2000).
  • Library of Congress exhibit
::: read
Copyright � 2002–2003 CLEAVE - The Counter Agency. All rights reserved.