The Wizard of Oz as a Parable, by Lillian Firestone

What makes the Wizard of Oz an iconic American tale that has entered into the language? Some expressions are so well known they need no further explanation, as for example “You’re not in Kansas anymore”.

The Wizard of Oz (MGM Studios, 1939)
The Wizard of Oz (MGM Studios, 1939)

What makes the Wizard of Oz an iconic American tale that has entered into the language? Some expressions are so well known they need no further explanation, as for example “You’re not in Kansas anymore”.

According to author Steve Adams in his searching new study The Wizard of Oz as a Parable, it is an allegorical tale of the soul’s journey along the spiritual path, which in the story is called “the yellow brick road”. In Buddhism it’s called “the middle path”. Our recognition of the symbolism, whether conscious or unconscious may point to the reason the story of Oz has been translated into virtually a hundred languages and into plays, movies and various retellings. The following notes are my attempt to sample some of Adam’s ideas – in his own words – as much as possible.  His book is based on his own ideas and enriched by the hero monomyth of Joseph Campbell, a bit of Jungian thought – without the reductionism – theosophy and ancient texts. Adam’s fascinating analysis of the many aspects of Oz dives deeply into its varied meanings. A sampling of Adam’s text is condensed in italics.

Steve Adams, The Wizard of Oz As a Parable
Steve Adams, The Wizard of Oz As a Parable

Who is Dorothy and what does she represent? According to Adams: Dorothy is everyman/woman, each of us. Since everything external is symbolic of everything internal, the characters that accompany Dorothy are all parts of herself that need to develop. The external tornado reflects the one inside her. The whole of herself is thrown into deep questioning and begins her quest for meaning. The house, and the twister that carries it away takes it out of the world of Kansas – the real world….. Since Kansas represents living in reality, Dorothy’s journey to return to the real world, and true spirituality requires danger, suffering…. Reality does not cater to our dream world like some colorful and mysterious realm called Oz.

Aspects of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion represent parts of Dorothy, and need to evolve before she can become a wholly mature human being. For example: …the lion is cowardly and grateful for the offer to join them so he can ask the wizard for courage…. As with the mind (scarecrow) and the tin Woodman (heart) the beginning of the true acquisition of a trait always appears as a lack of it…..The lion represents will, and Dorothy has seen the Cowardly Lion in herself. To complete this journey Dorothy needs to draw on and develop her intellect, her heart, and her courage. In Theosophy this is called the ‘threefold flame’.

Do theosophical ideas underlie the Oz story? To an extent we can trace Theosophical influence to some aspects of this tale. However the story is also enlivened by the symbols of many ancient teachings, as Adams uncovers.

…And who or what is Toto? Dorothy’s dog. With his short legs, Toto is close to the earth, darting this way and that, taking in everything. If something is alarming or of special interest he barks.

The dog represents the instinct in its full range. The dog lives in the present moment. He is the natural expression of the Tao of Lao Tzu. He knows how to be. Who needs a Zen master when you have Toto? With simple actions or just being present, the dog is pivotal to the plot, the navel of events…. It is threat to Toto that begins the tale of Oz.

…The Wicked Witch of the West represents fear. Fear and doubt may seem to offer good advice against foolhardy undertakings but in reality they merely limit out possibilities…. Her words distort reality, limit us and are really wicked…

….What does Glinda, the Witch of the North stand for? She appears to Dorothy first in a bubble that descends from the sky, from a higher state of being. The bubble is a perfect sphere symbolizing wholeness and something holy. The bubble stops before Dorothy and becomes a beautiful woman with a magic wand. She introduces herself as Glinda, the Witch of the North. Here as she herself reports, beauty represents goodness. Her role as a witch represents powers of a supernatural and therefore a transcendental nature….. Glinda is always there, but we are not there to receive her….. She is so close to us, yet we are so far away….But when Dorothy is ready for her help, the appearance of Glinda is inevitable…. “Oz, the Great and Terrible” does not represent God.

Glinda represents God.

And what of the wizard himself, the goal of Dorothy’s quest? …He has been represented to her as the goal and means of salvation for her return to Kansas. But Baum was not content to make the wizard merely an ineffectual ruler, given how he stresses the wizard’s phony contrivances and lack of magic powers…There are diverse grounds for perceiving the wizard as a charlatan guru or phony spiritual leader as we find in over-abundance in all traditions from celebrity evangelists to the countless narcissistic pseudo-mystics of the New Age movement.

When our protagonists finally reach the Emerald City, once again it is the dog Toto who enters the temple, doesn’t wander about aimlessly but goes straight for the curtain that hides the wizard. He needs to reveal the truth, and pulls back the curtain…. The theme of exposing the truth by pulling back a veil or curtain is universal, with one of its clearest expressions in the veil of Isis, the Egyptian goddess. Her temple is said to have carried the inscription: “I, Isis, am all that has been, that is, or shall be; no mortal man hath ever me unveiled.”

When we come to the end of Oz, the wizard has departed in a balloon, and Dorothy is finally free of her illusion: The last remnant of attachment to the wizard as a source of hope has left her completely, drifting into the sky. There is no more charlatan guru, no more shabby theology, no more looking to an external mythical personification as the referent of religion.

This scene may show us that the flying away of outer form is at the very point when we no longer need it…. And then perhaps we can open to something greater…..

Glinda appears when we let her….

Dorothy has grown whole, and grown up. Now she can return to Kansas. ♦


By Lillian Firestone

Lillian Firestone, Parabola's editor-at-large, is the author of The Forgotten Language of Children: Discovering Courage, Creativity, and Consciousness and of the forthcoming The Last Jew in China & Other Stories.