John Algeo - USA
The author of The Wizard of Oz was a Theosophist. And his book is full of Theosophical ideas and ideals. Those two facts were first established in the American Theosophist in 1986. The Theosophical background of the book and its author, Frank Baum, has been largely ignored by literary critics, many of whom believe that “children’s literature” (or “kid lit”) is not worthy of serious consideration. (Never mind that most of today’s Oz fans are almost certainly adults rather than children, even if they first encountered the story during childhood.) In addition, Oz fans for the most part do not understand the Theosophy of the story and may not be comfortable with the author’s subliminal adoption of Theosophical thought.
However, a new biography of L. Frank Baum establishes the centrality of Theosophy to both the author’s life and The Wizard of Oz. That biography is Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story, by Evan I. Schwartz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). This book is a great read, a sort of mystery story leading from Baum’s failures and frustrations to his amazing success with Oz. It shows how early events in the author’s life are paralleled in the book and were doubtless sources from which he drew, perhaps unconsciously, in writing it. But it also forthrightly acknowledges the importance of Theosophy to both Baum and Oz.
Frank and his wife Maud were introduced to Theosophy by his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, one of the three leaders in the nineteenth-century struggle for women’s rights and especially an effort to gain the voting franchise. She was a passionately devoted Theosophist, in character not unlike H. P. Blavatsky, especially in her scorn for organized religion, although her political activism was all her own. Having rejected conventional faith and the churches that espouse it, Matilda discovered a kindred soul in H. P. Blavatsky and proceeded to share the discovery with her children and grandchildren. Frank Baum was in the doldrums at the time:
“He was in desperate need of something spiritual to grasp. Matilda had told Frank many times about her beliefs in Theosophy. Frank had even written about Theosophy from an intellectual point of view in his newspaper columns. He knew that the word means ‘divine wisdom.’ ‘Theosophy is not a religion,’ Frank wrote. ‘Its followers are simply “searchers after Truth.” Frank knew the critical difference between truth with a small t and Truth with a big T. Theosophists [he explained] ‘accept the teachings of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed, acknowledging them Masters, or Mahatmas, true prophets well versed in the secrets of nature. . . The Theosophists, in fact, are the dissatisfied of the world, the dissenters from all creeds. They owe their origin to the wise men of India. They admit to the existence of a God—not necessarily a personal God. To them God is nature and nature God.’
“Now that Frank sensed a deep need for a new way of coming into contact with the center of his personal sphere, he turned to the underlying principles of this ancient mysticism on a deeper level. By now he could see that his old way of being was no longer working, leading only to cycles of ups and downs, zigs and zags that would repeat as endlessly as the seasons. In a house filled with literature of ancient wisdom, Matilda had the tools to persuade her son-in-law to begin his transformation in earnest. With these books Matilda would be able to show Frank the particular disease of the soul from which he was suffering, for it was an exceedingly common disease. According to Mrs. Gage, almost everyone in America had it, as it was at the root of all racism and materialism.
“The book she would have given to Frank at this time was The Key to Theosophy—published just months earlier—Blavatsky’s most accessible book for the beginner. The passage that applied to Frank the most was based on wisdom that showed how the soul was composed of two parts, what both Aristotle and Plato called the animal soul and the reasoning soul: ‘The future state and the Karmic destiny of man depend on whether Manas [the soul in general] gravitates more downward to Kama rupa, the seat of the animal passions, or upwards to Buddhi, the Spiritual Ego’ [Key, p. 82].” (p. 190-1)
Schwartz finds a number of connections between Theosophy and Dorothy’s adventures in Oz, most notably in the Land of Oz itself, which he sees as a fictionalized version of Theosophy’s astral plane:
“One can find many subtle references to the views of Madame Blavatsky throughout the works of L. Frank Baum and the movie based on his book, yet there’s one grand overriding Theosophical allusion: the Land of Oz itself. To get to the Land of Oz, one projects a phantom of oneself, magically flying to a spectacular place, just as Dorothy does. In Theosophy, one’s physical body and one’s Astral body are connected through a ’silver cord,’ a mythical link inspired by a passage in the Bible that speaks of a return from a spiritual quest. ‘Or ever the silver cord be loosed,’ says the book of Ecclesiastes, ‘then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.’
“In Frank Baum’s own writing, the silver cord of Astral travel would inspire the silver shoes that bestow special powers upon the one who wears them. ‘The silver shoes are yours,’ says the Good Witch of the North, ‘and you shall have them to wear.’ She reaches down and picks up the shoes, ‘and after shaking the dust out of them,’ she hands them to Dorothy. In the film the color of these silver shoes was altered in a late draft of the script, becoming the ruby slippers. It turned out that the glittering red contrasted much more brilliantly with the glow of the Yellow Brick Road.” (109)
“The special world [of Oz] itself was inspired by Theosophy and its concept of the mystical realm known as the Astral. This is ‘a plane of existence created by the uncontrolled use of the creative imagination,’ wrote Charles W. Leadbeater, one of Blavatsky’s most ardent followers. In 1895 this former Anglican priest published a book called The Astral Plane: Its Scenery, Inhabitants and Phenomena. The short book was so popular in the Baum and Gage families that a letter written by Matilda indicated there may have been three copies of this ‘very interesting’ work circulating, one owned by Frank, one owned by Clarkson [Matilda's son], and one that Matilda sent to her daughter Helen. In the book Leadbeater explains that one’s thought energy can create a temporary Astral body to be projected onto the Astral Plane. This was not a dream world, but ‘a realm of nature within our solar system,’ a place ‘as real as our bodies, furniture, and houses’ and ‘visited exactly as a foreign country might be visited, like Greenland.’
“. . . ‘Only the trained visitor from this life who is fully conscious on both planes can depend upon seeing both, clearly and simultaneously,’ wrote Leadbeater. Frank Baum adopted many of the rules of this ‘realm of illusion,’ as they were defined by Leadbeater: inhabitants can change their forms with Protean rapidity, sight is different here, as objects are visible from all sides, and every physical object in common space has its Astral counterpart. In the Astral light one meets with experiences of all kinds, both pleasant and unpleasant.” (266-7)
In addition, Schwartz points to parallels between Dorothy’s three companions and the Theosophical principles, both human and evolutionary:
“To reach her goal, Dorothy must embark on her difficult journey, and she cannot do it alone. Each of the comical companions that she meets along the Yellow Brick Road ends up joining her, to complete their own quests. . . . Taken together, the three companions also seem to symbolize the three kingdoms of nature in the world of the Astral—the Lion is animal, the Scarecrow is vegetable, and the Tin Woodman is mineral. As The Secret Doctrine states, human consciousness ‘has to pass through its mineral, vegetable, and animal forms before the Light of the Logos (the spirit of the universe) is awakened in the animal man.’
“Even more significant than the outward appearance of the comical trio is, of course, the symbolic goal of each character. The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Woodman a heart, and the Cowardly Lion some courage. Dorothy herself, on her quest to get back to her home, would lead them all to the Emerald City to ask the Great Wizard to grant them these things. These goals are reflections of the Four Yogas of Swami Vivekananda [jāna, bhakti, karma, and rāja Yogas], detailing the four paths to one’s true self. But since this is a journey of self-discovery, each character needs to learn from experience, not from someone else. Neither a swami nor a wizard can give them what they want, for they already possess it inside.” (276)
An important event in the years leading up to the publication of The Wizard of Oz in 1900 was the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, with which the Theosophical Society was connected, as it was also with the 1993 centennial Parliament, when the Society sponsored the participation of young people from various religious traditions, as a neutral party between what were often contentious relations on the part of older members of those traditions. At the 1893 Parliament, the Society held its own well-attended Theosophical Congress. It has been widely recognized that the Parliament provided Baum with a number of images and themes for his Oz book, including the marvels of the Emerald City. For Matilda and the Baums the Parliament was a Theosophical event:
“Matilda Joslyn Gage wouldn’t be missing the Parliament of Religions for the world. By August she was already in Chicago, staying with the Baums, and she wrote a letter describing a mystical Theosophy meeting that she, Maud, and Frank had attended. After some debate, Theosophy had been fully included in the parliament as one of the represented faiths, along with Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the major Protestant denominations. (Some smaller and newer religions that weren’t officially represented sent envoys anyway. For instance, Mary Baker Eddy was in attendance, representing Christian Scientists.) Matilda’s long-standing belief in Theosophy told her that every faith holds a portion of the whole truth, and this was an opportunity to see if this were true, as it was the first time in the world’s history that leaders of all the religions would be assembled under one roof to seek common wisdom. As members of the Theosophical Society, Matilda, Maud, and Frank would be able to gain seats for many of the sessions of the parliament.” (234-5)
The verbs in the title of this biography—”Finding” and “Discovered”—reflect the central theme in the book:
“Years later, asked how he came up with this story, Baum in an interview described his extraordinary moment in the simplest terms he could. ‘It was pure inspiration,’ he said. ‘It came to me right out of the blue. I think that sometimes the Great Author has a message to get across, and He has to use the instrument at hand. I happened to be that medium, and I believe the magic key was given to me to open the doors to sympathy and understanding, joy, peace and happiness’.” (264)
Frank Baum’s story about Oz was not planned or made up or invented. It was found or discovered. And the locus of the discovery was in Frank’s life. Everything Baum experienced and all that he came to hold as Truth entered into his own subconscious mind and there connected with the collective archetypes present in every human soul. An alchemical transformation of personal experience into universal archetypes produced The Wizard of Oz. And Theosophy was the central catalyst of that transformation.
Algeo, John. “A Notable Theosophist: L. Frank Baum.” American Theosophist 74.8 (August-September 1986): 270-73.
———. “The Wizard of Oz: The Perilous Journey.” American Theosophist 74.9 (October 1986): 291-97. Reprinted in Theosophy in Australia 51 (1987): 27-32, Quest 6.2 (Summer 1993): 48B55, and Theosophy in New Zealand 60.2 (June): 9–15. Translated into German as “Der Hexenmeister von Oz: die gefahrvolle Reise.” Adyar: Theosophische Zeitschrift 45.2 (June 1990): 63-68.