The Wizard of Oz?
ts based on a book thats
over a hundred years old. The movie version is itself over sixty
years old. What then, after all this time, is still so wonderful
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 predictions 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 Baums
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 Baums utopian vision of an Emerald
City turned out to be so unlike any city that subsequently sprang
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 Nietzsches 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 Naturean
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
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 humanitys first century devoid of God.
At the popular level, the convergence of three trends explains
much of the storys context: the death of God, the rise of
the consumer economy, and the birth of the film medium occurred
at precisely the cultural moment were discussing1900.
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 childrens
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
Baums 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 Americas four major sociological elements can progress
if and only if they adopt Ben Franklins 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 Dickenss hatDickens,
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 Westherself
symbolic of the Catholic side of Christianitys by-then dual
naturethe 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 didnt, didnt already have . .
And so the four heroes conquer their fears, realize their goals,
and Dorothy is sent back home to realize her dreamthat 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 Baums lovely vision.
visions are as visions do
The problem, of course, is that Baums 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 Vaders Wicked Witch. The
background radiation of both films might also seem similarLucas
hired comparative religion professor Joseph Campbell to make sure
his screenplay fit the formula of the heros journey outlined
in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but Campbells
formula is about as original as Stephen Coveys Seven
Habits of Highly Effective PlagiaristsCovey took his
inspiration from a prayer of St. Francis while Baum and Campbell
have taken theirs largely from John Bunyans Pilgrims
Progress. As William Leach points out in his excellent
of Desire, both Baums and Bunyans stories
the same archetypal journey motif and same symbolthe
silver slippers (changed to ruby slippers in the 1939 film version).
In The Pilgrims 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, Dorothys 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
Humbugs 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 were entering the twilight of a new dark
age, it is only fitting that J. K. Rowlings 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.
- William Leach. Land
of Desire (Vintage 1994).
- Tim Ziaukas. Baums
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