You’ll have a richer experience of life if you can look below the surface. Our lives have meaning beyond what they appear to be outwardly. A big part of learning to understand anything in more depth is to be able to make connections and recognize why and how things represent other things that are bigger in scope and more universal in significance.
That’s why I love the arts. Great works of art open the door for our empowerment by offering us resonant symbols to trigger our growth. Today I want to write about the movie version of a children’s novel, to see if I can get you to play around in this garden of symbolism. It’s the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.
I will assume you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it within recent memory, go get it and view it now. I’ll wait right here. (dum-de-dum doo doo la la lah) Back already? Fine. Now I don’t have to go over the plot of the film in much detail. A young girl gets caught in a tornado and she, her dog, and her house get whisked off to a magical land where she has adventures, makes new friends and enemies, and finally makes it back home by magical means, whereupon she wakes up and is told it was all a dream, which we don’t entirely believe. The film is in beautiful three-strip Technicolor, with sepia sequences, and features winning performances and memorable songs.
It’s not all that much like the book it’s based on. The book was about America in the 1890s. The movie is about America in the 1930s. Both the book and the movie are also about something more universal – the difficult quest undertaken by everyone when they grow up. We all have to follow a winding, golden path to greater maturity, freedom and understanding.
Dorothy lives in a monochrome place. She’s got no power and she’s been through a lot. She hasn’t any parents. She’s living on a shabby little farm with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. The only thing she can really call her own is her dog, Toto, and a nasty neighbor (Miss Gulch) is threatening to have Toto taken away and KILLED, because God forbid he messed up her flower beds or something. Every one of you has had to deal with a Miss Gulch, haven’t you? No wonder we’re on Dorothy’s side right away.
Ever felt like your life was the brown scene in a movie where other characters get to live in Technicolor? This movie was made for audiences that had just lived through the Great Depression. The farm reminds the audience of the Dust Bowl. It’s supposed to be taking place in Kansas, but tumbleweeds blow through. There aren’t tumbleweeds in Kansas. You couldn’t possibly grow decent crops in this Kansas.
Dorothy sings “Over the Rainbow” because the people watching the film needed hope to hang on to. They could see Europe was at war. Though in denial about it, they had an intuition America would eventually be at war also. In the worst of times, you cling to your dreams. Oh why can’t it be like when we were children, dreaming of flying?
Aunts and uncles aren’t parents. A parent would stick up for Dorothy in this situation. Auntie Em caves in to a trumped-up complaint ticket. Note the dog-catcher didn’t come, only the old b..uh, witch. It’s just not fair, and Dorothy is still too young to understand the difference between moral and legal rights so she runs away with the dog. Whether or not we do so physically, we all must leave home and experience the world outside in order to grow up. Our first attempts are clumsy, as is Dorothy’s. She meets a con man, a genteel Midwestern snake-oil selling type fortunately.
Professor Marvel makes up a story to help Dorothy get in touch with her need to be connected to her family, even if they don’t understand her. She returns home as the storm begins to blow. Unlike the book where she’s much younger, it’s obvious that the Dorothy of the film is nearly grown. Her last name is Gale. There’s a storm of hormones and emotions on her horizon. The experience of those adolescent years can knock your “house” off its foundations.
The adventure in the land of Oz is the awakening of wisdom, the enlightenment of maturity, the struggles we go through to cast off childish things. It requires a journey on a “golden path” that twists and turns until it reaches heaven/the Emerald City, the home of the almighty. She begins the journey among little people, for she’s been one until now.
Glinda, the good witch, appears in a pink bubble (womb). She’s the ghost of Dorothy’s lost mother, there to bless her and send her out into the world. Glinda also bestows upon her the “adult shoes” (the ruby slippers) she must grow comfortable with, another innovation of the film over the book. Growing up begins happening to us physically before we understand its significance and what to do about the power of our sexuality.
Along the yellow brick road, Dorothy meets aspects of an adult personality in the form of characters. She first meets Intellect, the smartest but also the clumsiest. Dealing with a straw man argument is an early part of learning logic. Then she meets Emotion, a being with a hard shell disguising deep sensitivity and compassion. Together these three encounter a representation of Self-Esteem (or the Self-Concept) at an early stage of formation, a lion without the will to be one.
What’s the deeper meaning of the Wicked Witch? Allow me to step out of this film and expand our context of consideration. In every human’s life there is an opposing force, a shadow self, a base nature. It’s following us wherever we are on our own yellow brick road. The Witch is our smallness, our stinginess and our fear. She’s green, the color of envy, and she seeks to steal Dorothy’s life-force, those jeweled slippers. The Witch commands a host of fears and doubts, the winged monkeys, who are available to pursue and capture us, remove us from our path and lock us away. If you become a captive in the castle of the Witch, you only have a limited time to escape before you will be robbed of your life-force. What kills the Witch? It’s that source of life I’ve referred to in earlier posts, the thing we are mostly made of, the substance that best represents our spirit when it is free – WATER.
The Wizard of Oz showed on TV every year since I was a child, so it has permeated my consciousness as familiarly as the Bible would have for people in times past. Some of you are younger. Your central accompanying myth might be the Star Wars films. Luke Skywalker’s quest to become a Jedi is exactly the same as Dorothy’s, the journey to adult maturity and understanding. In the Star Wars movies, the evil Emperor Palpatine demands exactly the same thing of Luke that the Witch demands of Dorothy – SURRENDER. Surrender to the Dark Side.
Toto means “whole”. Toto is the hero in The Wizard of Oz, even though it’s Dorothy we identify with. Only Toto can do what is needed without fear or hesitation. When Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch, Toto escapes on his own, runs past the whole palace guard and brings the others to help. He’s there to gather the separate parts of the adult being together, so they can be whole too. When the “wizard” tries to con Dorothy once more, Toto reveals him as a fraud. He’s not a fraud as an adult. He just isn’t magical or all-powerful. Like when you first realize Daddy can’t fix everything. As he admits, he’s “a very good man, just a very bad wizard.”
I think the re-framing presented by the unmasked wizard when he empowers Dorothy’s companions is the cleverest part of the film. Funny how as a child I liked that part the least. It’s the part that’s pitched right to the adults of the audience. The wizard gives adult validation to the characters by placing their abilities within the contexts of educational achievement, social advocacy and honor for service.
He attempts to grant Dorothy her wish too, but Toto goes cat chasing, preventing her departure. I think Toto knows the only way back is to grow up, and Toto doesn’t hesitate, he acts. It is the return of Glinda, the angel of womanhood that allows Dorothy to go home. Glinda reveals to Dorothy that she’s always had the power to return (at least once she understands).
I hope you will begin to re-examine this and other familiar films in a new way. Things we think we know all about can still embrace hidden treasures.
There’s no place like wholeness.