Tuning Up - Spring 2016

Off to See the Wizard

Finding the virtues of Homer, Plato, and Jesus in Technicolor Oz

By Mark Edmundson | February 29, 2016
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek

 

My mother wasn’t prone to idealizing her childhood. She was born in 1928, the year before the great stock market crash, and she thought of herself as a child of the Depression. Most of her early memories were sad. The one that seemed strongest was of her dear and usually stoical father in tears, the day he lost his job.

But there was one very bright memory that my mother brought up again and again: the day she saw The Wizard of Oz. She found the opening phase of the film slow enough, she told me. She did not much care for the black-and-white segment, set in dreary Kansas.

But when the movie went to Oz and exploded in Technicolor, my mother was thrilled. She had never seen a color film before. She, like millions of other people who’ve loved it, felt the greatest pleasure in being transported beyond her own world, a black-and-white world if there ever was one, into a more colorful land alive with delight and danger.

It’s also a world alive with meaning. People in Oz have strong identities: the Wicked Witch, the Wizard, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the scatterbrained Scarecrow, and even the Munchkins, with their officers and their guilds. Then there’s Dorothy, whom my mother loved most: an unformed, kindly American girl who, it happens, can sing like an angel.

In Oz, people want things: and if they persevere, they can get them. The Tin Man wants a heart; the Cowardly Lion wants courage (he’s prone to tears); the Scarecrow could use a brain (he’d like to be “another Lincoln”); and Dorothy wants to go home. Or that’s what she says. I suspect she does want to go home, but as someone different from the goodhearted, commonplace girl she is.

Watching her genial friends struggle in their sad and comic and touching ways for what they need, she learns about what’s worth striving for in life. She sees that to have a brain, you’ve got to struggle to think; that to have courage you must fight for it; and that to have a heart, you’ve got to greet others with love and hope for the best. By the end of the movie, Dorothy is smarter, kinder, and braver than she was.

The virtues on display in the movie have an ancient and venerable lineage. I’m not sure
L. Frank Baum, who wrote the novel the movie is based on, or the hundreds of people who created this wonderful film, knew or cared about that fact, but it’s true. Courage, compassion, and wisdom are the three primary ideals of the ancient world. You can learn about courage from Homer, wisdom from Plato, and compassion from Jesus of Nazareth—and also from Confucius and Buddha.

Homer teaches us about heroic bravery. He dramatizes the two archetypes of the warrior hero. The first is Achilles, the man-god who fears nothing and is determined to become the greatest warrior who ever lived. Achilles is always ready to die to make his name. The second is Hector, the archetype of the citizen soldier. He’s not a natural warrior—he says he has had to learn to be a soldier. But he fights bravely and eventually dies defending Troy.

All philosophy, we hear, is a footnote to Plato, and indeed Plato is the archetypal philosopher. Plato sought absolute knowledge: he wanted to grasp truths that would be true for all time. And in his masterwork, The Republic, he believes that he has.

Love your neighbor as yourself, says Jesus. He tells the tale of a man who is beaten and thrown in a ditch. Travelers pass him by without stopping. But a Samaritan, a man who comes from another tribe, stops and binds the injured man’s wounds and takes him to an inn and sees to his care. That is what a neighbor does; that is how a man or woman of compassion behaves.

Ideals remind us that there is more to life than serving ourselves. They offer us the chance to do something for others. Ideals also promise unity and focus and the chance to live fully in the present.

Both Baum and the film’s makers divine the centrality of ideals to human life, and then bring them down to earth. The Wizard of Oz makes ideals accessible in a form that’s unintimidating and even comic. In the most light-handed way, it shows how much ideals can matter to a little American girl with some growing up to do.

At the climax of the movie, the Witch, having cornered the friends in her castle, says she’s going to do away with them all, and Toto (“your mangy little dog”), too. Dorothy, the Witch says, will be the last one to go. She lights her broom on a torch and sets the poor Scarecrow on fire. He’s about to burn to death. The Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man freeze, but Dorothy, who is a little less afraid than the rest, has the brains to pick up a bucket of water and douse her friend, whom she loves and dearly wants to save. Some guts, a little quick thinking, a lot of kindness: Dorothy summons each of the ideals when the chips are down.

The water from her bucket flies beyond the Scarecrow and soaks the Witch, who cries out the immortal words: “I’m melting, melting. … Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness.” What the Witch doesn’t know is that after her adventures in Oz, Dorothy is more than just an everyday “good little girl.” When you’ve acquired some guts and brains and heart, you can make a little luck for yourself. Then all good things become possible, including the defeat of a wicked witch or any other worrisome antagonist who might cross your path.

The Wizard of Oz is a movie you can laugh with (and occasionally at), and still learn from. I wager it’s been an installment in the education of plenty of kids. And it was part of my mother’s education, too. Child of the Depression, she needed a measure of all those ideal qualities, which she developed over time. And The Wizard of Oz helped her do it.

 

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