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Safe Fiction And The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

In western culture we have Man, clawing up behind Satan, trying to replace God. In part because of a piece of “safe” fiction.
| May 26, 2014 | 20 comments | Series:

The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz coverSome time ago I was talking with a group of friends, and the topic of “safe” fiction came up. Since two of these Christians are moms and the other is a school teacher, they had a vested interest in the topic. At one point, we began discussing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, primarily the film version so well-known today.

In most circles, this book and movie would be an illustration of safe fiction, the kind we want our children to read. After all, the story upholds the importance of home, the value of courage, heart, wisdom and honesty.

From Wikipedia:

Regarding the original Baum storybook, it has been said: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is America’s greatest and best-loved home grown fairytale. The first totally American fantasy for children, it is one of the most-read children’s books . . . and despite its many particularly American attributes, including a wizard from Omaha, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has universal appeal.” The film itself is widely considered to be one of the most well known, beloved films of all time, and was one of the earliest films to be deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress.

“Culturally significant” is an apt description, I think. The movie and book, in my opinion, prepared several generations to accept secular humanism in place of Christianity. A bold statement, perhaps, but not without grounds.

First, the author himself, L. Frank Baum, was a theosophist. From “What Is Theosophy”:

Theosophy teaches that all religions contain elements of the “Ancient Wisdom” and that wise men throughout history have held the secret of spiritual power. Those who have been enlightened by the divine wisdom can access a transcendent spiritual reality through mystical experience.

Dorothy and friends-Wizard_of_ozNo wonder, then, Dorothy and friends arrive in Oz only to discover that the wizard, as the supposedly all powerful ruler (and therefore a God figure), is a fraud. No wonder in the end, good witch Gilda tells Dorothy she’s had the ability to go home all along, she just had to find it inside her. No wonder the Tin Man discovered he had heart all along, the Lion learned he had courage, and the Scarecrow, brains. Throughout the story, there is this strong thread—You can do it, you can do it, you can.

And what a popular message that is today. Self-help seminars, books, infomercials, all proclaiming this belief in the human spirit. How many athletes say something similar in wrap-up interviews! We just had to believe in ourselves.

So now in western culture we have Man, clawing up behind Satan, trying to replace God. In part because of a piece of “safe” fiction.

There were, I’ve heard, some objections to the movie when it came out—because it had witches in it, I was told. So if the good and bad witches had been replaced by good and bad shoe salesmen, the problems would be taken care of?

The search for safe fiction can be a dangerous, dangerous pursuit. Too often those engaged in the quest are looking for whitewashed walls, all the while oblivious to the fact that behind them may lie a tomb.

This article first appeared, minus some editorial changes, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in June 2008.

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For those in the US celebrating Memorial Day, may you enjoy your holiday in whatever manner you choose.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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D. M. Dutcher
Member

I’m sorry, but I have to call you on this. You’re really reading into the Wizard of Oz motives and connections that aren’t there.

I don’t think Oz had much of an effect on self-reliance as a substitute for God or as promoting secular humanism. Self-reliance has been a part of American culture before Oz, and is hard to isolate the sources of. You have the Protestant work ethic, you have the Transcendentalists, you have Horatio Alger Jr, and probably many more influences than any of us can think of. I don’t think Oz particularly pushed that enough to blame it specifically or view it as unsafe. It’s just an American fairy-tale; one that uses the old models of the Grimm works and sets it in cornfields and other odd locations.

The theosophy I don’t know. There are books that state theosophy explicitly or use it heavily in its themes; Lord Dunsany’s faerie tales come to mind. Charles Williams ironically is a heavily theosophic writer, albeit a redeemed one; he was a former theosophist, and his novels are full of that imagery. I’m not sure though reading Oz you can make the claim its influenced by it in any way, any more than Edith Nesbits works were.

I think again you are using an example that overstates the threat the work has. A better example would be Gregory Maguire’s Oz retellings, like Wicked. That has serious, harmful issues about sexuality and is often consumed by teens in the same manner that they now consume Frozen. I think that its better to make the case about popular works that deserve critical readings; overselling the threat of other books works against your argument.

Daniel Oaks
Member
Daniel Oaks

What???

This interpretation is ridiculous, and shows the dangers of looking for demons everywhere – you’re sure to find some that don’t exist.

The meaning of the Wizard of Oz is well known.  It is an allegory on monetary policy and satire about the political environment of the time.  Baum was a supporter of bimetallism (a currency based on both gold and silver), a monetary policy that would cause mild inflation, and so help debtors.  The primary champion of this policy was William Jennings Bryan, who gave the famous “cross of gold” speech. 

The golden road represents the gold standard that leads to the Emerald city (Washington DC) which in the book is not actually emerald, but rather everyone is required to wear green goggles to make everything appear green (this was commentary on how politicians believe that if everyone pretends things are a certain way, then they are that way – possibly a reference to fiat money).  The Wizard of Oz represents the President of the United States, who appears all powerful, but actually is just a conman.  Which is why the mighty wizard with a man behind the curtain has been cartoonist short hand for puppet politicians ever since.

Dorthy herself represents America (who is traditionally depicted as a young girl), while her companions represent the coalition Bryan tried to put together.  The farmer (the Scarecrow) who is told he’s stupid and uneducated, and the urban working man (the Tinman) who is treated like an unfeeling machine.  Baum through his story suggests that the opposite is true, the Scarecrow comes up with all the ideas, while the Tinman is the most emotive of the group.

The Lion is William Bryan himself, and is Baum’s way of encouraging him to find his courage and run boldly on the bimetallism platform instead of threading a more moderate path.

The Wicked Witch of the East represents the business interests of the east coast imposing their will on “the little people” (the Munchkins).  The Wicked Witch of the West is the drought afflicting the farmers (and driving them into debt, which is why they supported an inflationary policy).  Hence the Wicked Witch of the West being vulnerable to water.

Dorthy’s silver slippers (changed to ruby in the movie) provide the true method of her getting home, and not the fake Wizard’s power, nor the gold road.

This is the overwhelming accepted hidden meaning of the Wizard of Oz.

Juliet Nicole
Guest

The point of the Scarecrow, the Tin man, and the Lion’s search for the things they wanted was not that ‘it was inside them all along’, or ‘they had to believe in themselves’, it was that they were looking for the wrong things (and they didn’t even realize their error in the end, either, they went on thinking it). The scarecrow thought he was stupid because ‘he knew nothing’, but he was really quite intelligent, and the ignorance that comes from being very new can easily be mended by learning things. The tin woodman thought he was ‘heartless’ because he literally was, but it had no effect on whether he felt and showed compassion and tenderness. The lion thought he was a ‘coward’ because he always felt afraid, but the important thing isn’t really to feel not afraid, it’s to do what you need to do anyway, which he always did.

And all of those things are _good_ lessons.

And seriously, the way people pick on the wizard makes me feel sad. He doesn’t have to ‘represent God’ if you don’t say he has to. If you wanted to make it a political theory, you could say he represents a bad government (a tyrant, or some such thing), and that the point of the story is that evil men only hold sway through a lot of politicking smoke and mirrors, and that the way to get to the heart of things is to stop playing along with it all. And another point could be that the government can’t fix everything, and even when it says it does it often isn’t actually a fix.

There are something like seven perfectly plausible and perfectly independent theories about what this book ‘represents’, and somehow I doubt that Baum stuck all of them in. I doubt he put any of them in. It’s just a story with imagery that is very easy to match to things, with a little creativity.

R. L. Copple
Member

There is a big difference between the book and the movie on this point.

 

In the book, the Scarecrow thinks he’s not smart, but is always coming up with the brilliant plans. The Tinman doesn’t think he can feel, but is the most sensitive of the bunch (feeling sorry for a bug he stepped on, for instance). The Lion thinks he is  a coward, but constantly faces the dangers with bravery.

 

The movie loses this aspect. The Scarecrow really is stupid. The Tinman doesn’t act with feeling. The lion actually acts scared. It isn’t until they get to the Wizard that they are told they already have it. It is then they begin acting like they’ve got it.

 

In the book, I don’t recall that being stated, but the Wizard gives them something to make them believe they now have it, when to the reader it is obvious they’ve had it all along through the whole story.

 

The movie has more of the feel of the “Power of Positive Thinking” concept. The book, not as much, though one could interpret it.

 

That said, despite the various interpretations, yours is a valid way of looking at it. However, I’d suggest at best the book and the movie supported a secular culture in that regards, rather than single-handedly influencing a generation of kids into that philosophy that otherwise wouldn’t.

 

Indeed, one could posit that a core teaching about writing supports a secular view of man. Writers are told that a satisfying story is when the protagonist is active in resolving the conflict and climax. No duex ex machina endings. No passive victories for the hero. The resolution has to come from within the protagonist.

 

So are modern stories by default, based in secular philosophy because the protagonist at some point has to rise to the occasion?

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Looks like my comment was eaten, so I’ll try again.

I’m wondering why we’re supposed to be so scared of theosophy. It sounds pretty much the same as CS Lewis’s Tao. And why are we making such a bogeyman of secular humanism? Most of it aligns with the Lewisian Tao, being mostly about helping other people or at least not being a turdbucket. Yes, it’s framed in terms of willpower rather than God looming over you, but I don’t find much wrong with that.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Yet if God is real and active and the supreme Best in the universe, it would be rather offensive to Him to leave Him out of the whole “helping people” thing.

Also without Him, “helping people” ultimately becomes a rather vague and confusing activity. After all, you can “help” a man by giving him money. You may also help him by taking him to court and locking him in a small room.

Sure, you can be “helping people” while disbelieving in God. But you must steal from certain ideas about God and what He wants in order to go about “helping people.”

Leah Burchfiel
Member

So? Let ’em steal it. “He who is not against us is for us” and that jazz, and most of the opposition comes from way and means and not intentions.

Christian Jaeschke
Guest
Christian Jaeschke

I found myself nodding in agreement while reading much of this article. The politics/history went over my head, but even as a child I could detect the harmful humanist overtones of the book and movie. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never felt an affinity for Oz. That said, the Wicked Witch on the TV series Once Upon A Time is deliciously creepy.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Sharp replies. I’m glad to see each of us putting thought into this.

 

My first idea was, “If you were to rewrite the plot with Oz clearly representing the Father, and their interwoven lives as a wonder journey to Him, what would that look like?”

 

I’m not familiar enough with the book to be as definite as I’d like to, but I wondered if the text really forces Oz to be a God figure. I can see how if you read it that way it would be at the very least insulting toward Him and blasphemous.

 

It might not be the tidiest and most broadly accepted, but why couldn’t Oz be simply a specific king (for the sake of argument, say, King David), if what you are responding to is Oz’s rulership? Another try: could Dorothy be a Christ figure?

 

Lots of possibilities.