A while back I read an interview with Kenneth Anger in the Guardian. Now in his eighties, Anger is best-known as the director of the classic occult movie Lucifer Rising (1972) and the author of those two tale-telling, scandal-mongering books Hollywood Babylon (1965) and Hollywood Babylon II (1982). He’s also an admirer of magician, writer and mountaineer Aleister Crowley, who during the first half of the 20th century founded the esoteric religion of Thelema and enjoyed notoriety in the British press as the Wickedest Man in the World. During the Guardian interview, Anger mentioned L. Frank Baum, the American writer of the much-loved children’s book The Wizard of Oz and its sequels. “Baum,” claimed Anger, “was a secret occultist and the Oz books are full of secret little jokes for people that understand magic.”
Jings, I thought. Could The Wizard of Oz – the book and the celebrated 1939 film version with Judy Garland – really be a hotbed of occult themes and images? Could those generations of kids who thrilled to the adventures of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion have been secretly subjected to the ‘magick’ that Aleister Crowley spent his life pursuing and practising? So to find out if anybody else shared Anger’s opinion of Baum, I had a hunt around the Internet.
Well, I found a couple of websites that would have you believe that The Wizard of Oz is the work of the Devil. These sites were written, needless to say, by the sort of American religious-right fruitcakes who’d say similar things about the books of J.K. Rowling, alleging that Harry Potter is the Antichrist, Hermione Granger is the Whore of Babylon and Ron Weasley is, well… the Great Ginger-Headed Beast that the Book of Revelation prophesised will rise out of the sea shortly before the Day of Judgement. And no doubt those same fruitcakes would warn you that if your kids play their Judas Priest albums backwards, they’ll hear the voice of Satan urging them to vote Democrat.
However, I did find a non-hysterical, informative and detailed piece on the Vigilant Citizen site (http://vigilantcitizen.com/moviesandtv/the-occult-roots-of-the-wizard-of-oz/), which claims L. Frank Baum was a member of the Theosophical Society. According to my much-consulted copy of The Element Encyclopaedia of Secret Societies by John Michael Greer, the society was “(t)he most influential force in the great renaissance of occultism in the late nineteenth century” and was “founded in New York City in 1875 by the colourful Russian occultist and adventuress Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, her American promoter Colonel Henry S. Alcott and a handful of other students of the occult.”
The Vigilant Citizen piece details Theosophy’s three objectives as being to “form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour,” to “encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science”, and to “study the unexplained laws of nature and powers latent in man”. That all seems very worthy and reasonable, but when you get around to exploring their theories of reincarnation, which involve the human soul being reborn in seven different “root-races” in seven different “globes” and which refer to fabled lost continents like Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis, things start to sound a bit doolally. (Any remaining Theosophists out there shouldn’t take special offence at that, though – I think all religions are doolally.)
Among the features of The Wizard of Oz that the Vigilant Citizen article claims can be traced back to Baum’s familiarity with Theosophy are the following:
The yellow brick road. Uncannily similar to the concept of the Golden Path in Buddhism, the yellow brick road along which Dorothy and co spend much of the book and the film travelling is representative of the route the soul must take to achieve Illumination.
Spirals. It’s a violent, powerful spiral of wind that transports Dorothy and her house from Kansas to Oz. In Munchkin-land, the start of the yellow brick road unwinds out of another spiral. These spirals can be seen as representing the cycles of karma, the evolving self and the soul as it works its way up from the material world to the spiritual one.
The silver shoes. Dorothy’s footwear was famously a pair of ruby slippers in the 1939 movie, chosen because the filmmakers felt their redness would complement the yellowness of the yellow brick road. In Baum’s original book, however, the shoes were made of silver – supposedly a reference to the silver cord that is said to connect a person’s physical body with their astral one.
The Wizard. A scary, blustering being that, it transpires, is a façade whose smoke and mirrors conceal a cheat and a fake, the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz has been identified with the bullying, bow-down-and-worship-me-or-else God of Christianity, Judaism and other conventional, organised religions. He’s not interested in the personal enlightenment of his followers. Instead, He wants only their deference and obedience.
Toto. Dorothy’s faithful little dog has a knack for doing the right thing at the right moment. For example, he barks at the phony Wizard hiding behind his curtain, and later he springs out of the Wizard’s balloon – causing Dorothy to follow – before it takes off for Kansas. As such, he can be seen as Dorothy’s intuition or ‘inner voice’, which sees through artifice, as represented by the Wizard. Meanwhile, the evil that is represented by the Wicked Witch of the West tries on two occasions to imprison Toto. Both times, however, he manages to escape. In other words, one’s intuition can’t be locked away.
The Witches. The set-up in Oz can be interpreted as two contrasting axes – an East-West axis, which is ruled by two evil witches and represents the material word; and bisecting that a North-South axis, ruled by two good witches and representing the spiritual one.
Of course, even if the above things are true, it doesn’t mean that The Wizard of Oz should be treated as a piece of propaganda by the Theosophical Society and not as what it really is – an imaginative work of entertainment. If such ideas were important to Baum, it’s natural that, consciously or unconsciously, they should make their way from his head down to the page – just as Masonic symbols and imagery are said to crop up from time to time in the work of Alphonse Mucha who, when he wasn’t painting, was busy founding Czech Freemasonry and leading its Supreme Council. But those influences make absolutely no difference to one’s enjoyment of Baum’s or Mucha’s output.
To draw on another comparison from the world of children’s literature – I enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books while I was a kid at primary school, but I read them with absolutely no idea that they contained Christian themes. Indeed, I didn’t see Lewis’s Christian overtones until a Religious Education teacher at secondary school pointed out how in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Aslan had been crucified and had then risen from the dead.
The possibility that these themes lurk within The Wizard of Oz do, however, seem to give it an exoticness, an extra-special flavour. Perhaps that’s why the film version has attracted more than its share of urban myths over the years – for example, the story that a stage-hand hung himself during filming and his body can be glimpsed dangling in the forest beside the yellow brick road; or that if you start watching the film at the same moment that you start playing the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon, the film and the album will display a startling degree of synchronicity (Dorothy’s house rising within the whirlwind at the same time that the orgasmic backing vocals start for The Great Gig in the Sky, etc.).
Of course, The Wizard of Oz-the-movie has become a staple of TV schedules at Christmas-time and the image of Judy Garland and friends skipping their way along the yellow brick road seems as festive now as ivy, mistletoe or Santa Claus. In fact, Christmas as we know it today is not really that Christian — it’s as much a hotch-potch of things borrowed from pagan religious festivals such as the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia. So I rather like the idea that there’s a little bit of Christmas, as embodied in The Wizard of Oz, that Theosophists too can proudly point to and claim as theirs.