Recently, I had the pleasure of re-reading L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I think it must have been at least 15 years since I picked it up, and I experienced that wonderful sensation, akin to conversing with a long-lost friend, that one feels upon reading a book that was a childhood favorite. Good books allow us to gain perspective on the real world (what Tolkien calls “the primary world”) by delving into a fantasy or secondary world. From the vantage point of fiction, we look back at our lives with new understanding. The effects of this vantage point are greatly magnified when we re-read a childhood classic, because the landscape includes both our past and present selves. We remember our greatest loves and deepest fears. We revisit those places of longing and dreaming awakened in us by imaginative stories. And we view the events and characters of the story through the double lenses of our childish and adult perspectives. That is why multiple readings of great books are so important. Not only do we delve more deeply into the layers of meaning that we missed the first time around, but as we ourselves change, different elements of the story take on fresh meaning. I thought the character of Nancy Lammeter in Eliot’s Silas Marner was stuffy and superficial until I experienced a childless life for myself. Suddenly her actions seemed full of heartbreaking restraint and her words heavy with unspoken grief. Age matters in reading.
Shortly after re-reading Oz, I also finally got around to reading an essay by J.R.R. Tolkien called “On Fairy Stories.” This marvelous text shed light on every fanciful story I’ve ever read, from fairy tales to fantasy novels to science fiction to magical realism. Tolkien defines what a fairy story is and is not, but in doing so, he makes a compelling argument for the intrinsic value of all well-written, imaginative literature.
I naturally had the land of Oz in my mind as I read through this essay, and I found that Baum’s tale fit Tolkien’s definition quite well. Incidentally, I also felt quite vindicated for my primary reason not liking the 1939 film version as much as the book: the film explains away the magic of Oz through the frame story of a dream and is therefore not a true fairy story. Tolkien sums it up beautifully when he states that when an author uses the machinery of a dream, “he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.”
The essay also made me realize that my childish enchantment with Oz and with other fairy stories was not pure escapism. In his essay, Tolkien argues that “the magic of Faerie is not an end in itself. Its virtue is in its operations: among these are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is…to hold communion with other living things.” The Land of Oz speaks to both of these desires. Dorothy, the unwilling Journeyer, is plucked out of her home and swept off to a land that seems outside of the influence of time and geographical context. There, she finds true communion with her companions in a side-by-side or “forward facing” relationship. They begin their journey facing toward Oz, but find the goal of their quest only when they face toward each other and inward to themselves. Every Journeyer, from Dorothy to the Redcrosse Knight to Odysseus to Huckleberry Finn, sets out on a quest for a stated reason that has nothing to do with the quest’s true aim, which is almost always self-discovery. The Journeyer is given the opportunity to discover hidden strength, generosity, valor, or compassion which he never knew he possessed, but the journey also creates and develops the sought-after virtue in the Journeyer. For Dorothy and all her companions, the journey toward home, heart, brains, and courage is merely a journey into the recesses of the self. But it is a lesson that could never have been learned in Kansas.
The relationship between the internal and external journey is perhaps more highly developed in the cases of the Scarecrow and the Tin Man because they perceive that the concrete and external objects of their quest will bring about a desirable internal state of being. This bears a relationship to another “ancient and widespread folklore notion” which was, according to Tolkien, “the notion that the life or strength of a man or creature may reside in some other place or thing; or in some part of the body (especially the heart) that can be detached and hidden in a bag, or under a stone, or in an egg.” One of the oldest stories in recorded human history is an Egyptian tale of a man who decided to enchant his heart and hide it in a cedar tree. He instructs his brother to search for the heart “even though thou pass seven years in seeking it; but when thou has found it, put it into a vase of cold water, and in very truth I shall live.” The stories of the Scarecrow and Tin Man, it would seem to me, are variations on this theme, suggesting that although the characters believe that an essential part of themselves exists externally, “in very truth” they have what they need inside them all along.
What then is my own take-away from Oz and other fairy stories, particularly as a Christian thinker? The concept of finding everything necessary for salvation and happiness in the depths of your own heart is indeed inimical to the concept that you are incapable of saving yourself and must look to Christ for salvation, but it is hardly a novel idea. It is an articulate expression of the default setting of every human heart. We are born self-savers. So while I don’t find truth in the overarching message of Oz, I do find truth in the concept of the fairy story itself and therefore very present in the Land of Oz. Baum and other authors of fairy stories express a reality deeply embedded upon the human consciousness: the truth that this world is not the be-all and end-all of reality and that a more fantastic existence awaits us in something of an “alternate dimension”, a world that truly fulfills our desire to survey the depths of space and time and to hold the most meaningful possible communion with God and with other people. Oz, Wonderland, Narnia, and of course Middle Earth all point us to the knowledge that there is more to life than this temporal world, and even the most fantastic imaginings of the human mind and mere shadows in comparison with the reality that is to come.