Even if you've not heard of Frank Lyman Baum, it's highly likely that you will have heard of the Wizard of Oz. Not this time an Australian magician but an American writer for children whose most successful story was The Wizard of Oz
published in 1900. Very few kids I've met have actually read the original book, even though it was a bestseller at the time, and in its many sequels. These included The Marvellous Land of Oz
(1905), Ozma of Oz
(1907), and The Emerald City of Oz
After Baum's death in 1919, Ruth Plumly Thompson continued to write further sequels up until the start of the Second World War. The whole thing took on new life, first with Baum's own adaptation for the stage in 1902, and then in early films (Baum was a cinema nut), and much later in the well-known film musical with Judy Garland. It was in this film that the munchkins appeared. I'm pretty confident that you've heard of those.
The film was released by MGM in 1939 and has been popular ever since. Who can ever forget E Y Harburg's song Over the Rainbow
or Ray Bolger's If I Only Had a Brain
, a sentiment most of us feel from time to time? Much later in the 1970s came The Wiz
with Diana Ross in the Judy Garland role and Quincy Jones supplying some of the music. In a new version of this, in 1978, Clarke Peters and Elaine Duncan starred.
Ever since, despite its sentimentality, strident morality, and dubious casting, the package called 'The Wizard of Oz' has become iconic, an archetypal kids' book, a feast for sociologists and cultural historians (especially woke ones), and a metaphor for our times. This has enabled the original to take off like a rocket into the critical ionosphere of public consciousness where we all know about it and love it, even though we say we think it's crap. Nothing as tired as a tired musical, nothing so dated as a children's classic of yesteryear.
The most fruitful part of the metaphorical stuffing in The Wizard of Oz
is, of course, the Wizard himself. The adventures of Dorothy and her friends are all very entertaining, but – let's get to the heart of this – what do they find when they get there? They find that the huge man with the giant voice that everyone's afraid of is little more than a con, a scam, a munchkin himself with a device to magnify the voice. How are the mighty fallen – the emperor has no clothes, the king is a mere clothes horse and a nitwit, the rhetoric and the propaganda are phoney. How did we get conned into believing things were otherwise?
Recent months have seen a rich harvest of falls from grace. One is the imbroglio of a blustering Prime Minister expecting us to believe that he'd never been to a party.
Following the logic of one American commentator on the epistemological dilemmas posed by The Wizard of Oz
, above all to parents of children who accidentally find the book and want lion costumes, we should ask whether there is a point at which someone becomes so famous and so popular that the normal rules could not ever, conceivably, apply to them.
This, psychologists among us will recognise, is what children with a Piagetian conceptual development of under-eight regard as reality. Such a point – the inviolability threshold, the 'you can't catch me' moment – is classically shown when the wonderful and the marvellous drop in by chance or design on events like the Australian tennis championships and discover they've left their mask behind on the plane and inadvertently been missed out in the vax queue.
Then comes the bluster, the whinge, the 'why me?', the hordes of gullible sycophants and contrarians (defined as people for whom the preservation of self eliminates harm to others). In other words, like Dorothy and her chums, we have arrived at yet another Wizard of Oz moment: the Great Let Down, the Feet of Clay point, when metaphorically the great voice becomes the tiny tinkle, when it is time for readers and observers and all grown-up men and women to cry out 'get real!'. Because, when we add it all up, we no longer need as adults to live inside the fantasy of a children's book.
Now for the so-called ultimate exposure! God himself – sorry Himself. The real problem with this God figure or concept if you prefer is that he/she/it has been seen for centuries as a mystical entity. You know, Moses and the burning bush where you 'see' God but don't see him, a kind of metaphysical transcendence like the Cheshire Cat. Like Jesus Christ at the Transfiguration, when up he goes heavenwards, leaving his film crew behind to pass on the Good News.
Theologian Francesca Stavrakopoulou has devoted a lot of time to helping us all understand all this. In her new book, God: An Anatomy
(London, Picador, 2021), her approach is to examine the various parts of the body, one by one: the feet, the torso, the arms and hands, the head and mouth. Each one of these is of cultural, anthropological, archaeological, and theological interest. Not just for the Christian, Judaic or Islamic 'god' but for all the gods of the ancient or modern world. Each one, too, has a function: the arms and hands are anointing and protective, the breath enlivening, the penis a source of fertility, the eyes scrutinising.
She cleverly suggests that all that noumenal stuff is part of what people want of 'God' but let's get down to brass tacks here and look at all without being fey. Such a book, while not for one moment trying to undermine any traditional perceptions of 'God', challenges reader to consider something beyond what they think they know and what they believe they have been told. Let's ask some hard questions: after all, don't we all want the truth?
Do we, though? Cosy illusions are always nicer, aren't they? After all, what kept Dorothy and her chums going along the Yellow Brick Road but the hope of finding something wonderful at the end? What kept John Bunyan's Christian in The Pilgrim's Progress
going on his dangerous journey to the Holy City?
All these Wizards of Oz end up being disappointments, betraying us at the cut, not up to scruff. Yet we seem to need to believe there is a rainbow at the end of the road, hope in the end, leaders we can trust, royalty we can believe in, sportsmen and women we can genuinely admire.
That is what keeps us going as munchkins or as groundlings. Somewhere, we want to believe, there are honest people, altruistic motives, and genuine care. If we keep on discovering that it's only froth that rises to the top, we no longer feel we want to have the drink. There is, then, a 'sound and a fury' about it all: all sound from the top, and all fury at the bottom. Sad really.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a writer and reviewer based in Scotland