(1856-1919). Theosophist, writer and playwright. Baum is best known for his popular stories for children and in particular his fantasy story The Wizard of Oz. He was born May 15, 1856, and grew up in a fairly prosperous family, but financial reverses experienced by his father forced him, at an early age, to earn his living in diverse ways as an actor, playwright, reporter and newspaper editor. In 1882, Baum married Maud Gage and settled in Chicago. He joined the Theosophical Society (TS) in 1892, having been introduced by his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage who had joined the TS in 1885. His mother was an early women’s rights activist in the US.
In 1890 Baum was editor of the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, and in its first issue he aired the subject of theosophy. In 1900 the first edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared. The story and characters in The Wizard of Oz (the adjective “Wonderful” was dropped in later editions), reflect theosophical ideas and it has been very popular, not only as a children’s book, but as a musical film and stage play. The definitive film version was released by MGM in 1939 and featured Judy Garland who became America’s foremost juvenile film actor as the result of her portrayal of the little girl, Dorothy, who is transported to the land of Oz. The initial name of Oz was “The Magical Kingdom.” But Baum’s publisher did not like that name and urged Baum to select a different one. Casting about for an alternative, Baum noticed that the editor had two files in his office, one labelled A-M and the other labelled O-Z. Baum selected “Oz” on the basis of the label of that second file!
The principal characters in the Oz stories are Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. It has been suggested that these characters embody theosophical symbolism. Dorothy, when in Kansas, symbolizes the human soul awaiting incarnation in the physical world; Baum apparently chose Kansas because it is almost a perfect square, symbolizing what is termed the lower quaternary in theosophical literature. Note that in the movie version, it is portrayed in black and white, indicative of a state of unitive consciousness. When Dorothy is transported to Oz (in the movie version by a tornado, representing the channel of incarnation), she has incarnated. In the movie, Oz is depicted in color, indicative of the idea of an illusory world, which is what theosophical literature says of the incarnate state (physical, emotional or astral, and lower mental). The Scarecrow, who lacks a brain, symbolizes our imperfect mental body. The Tin Woodman, who lacks a heart, represents our imperfect emotional body (often termed “astral” in early theosophical literature because it appears luminous to clairvoyant sight). And the Cowardly Lion represents our imperfect physical body. The fraudulent wizard in Oz represents the human sense of ego, which is not our actual Self, although poses as such. When he is exposed as a fraud, Dorothy is able to return to Kansas. The Wicked Witch of the West in the movie version represents the human tendency to cling to our illusory ego rather than realize our true Self (termed ātman in theosophical literature and Indian philosophy). In the movie, she attempts to prevent Dorothy from getting back to Kansas, but is ultimately destroyed by water, representative of purification of our psychic nature, which destroys our illusory ego.
The story, of course, stands on its own merits. Undoubtedly very few readers realize that it veils theosophical ideas. And, as is common in many fairy stories, the central theme is the eternal contest between good and evil or, in other words, in theosophical terms, the struggle between the supporters and opponents of the Divine Plan. The interesting thing is that Baum’s initial story was so successful that his publishers cajoled him into writing a series of 15 follow-up Oz books, none of which have the same theosophical symbolism in them — although they are wonderful stories in their own right. Baum died in Hollywood, California, May 6, 1919.
Baum, Frank Joslyn & Macfall, Russell P. To Please a Child. Chicago: Reilly & Lee Co., 1961.
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