Understanding the Human Condition Using ‘The Wizard of Oz’

Telling the story of "The Wizard of Oz" in a remote aboriginal Taiwanese temple sparks one philosopher’s journey to delve deep into a secular myth and explore the ultimate questions of origin and the inner hero in all of us.

'The Wizard of Us' book cover

“The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons From Oz” by philosopher and visionary thinker Jean Houston brings to life the important qualities of beloved characters such as Dorothy, the Wizard, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion that are within all of us. Learn how to connect with your own Hero’s Journey, and build a better world with this guide on understanding the human condition.

Cover Courtesy Atria Books/Beyond Words

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Answer the call to transform yourself and your world with The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons From Oz (Atria Books/Beyond Words 2012) by Jean Houston. If a Hero’s journey awaits all of us, then this interpretation of the deeper messages within the classic The Wizard of Oz can awaken the profound adventure of self-discovery and new potential.  This thoughtful, layered guide offers new understanding of the human condition, the importance of myth and the critical nature of our role in creating a better world.  The following excerpt is taken from the introduction. 

Some years ago, I was sent to Taiwan on a traveling seminar with a small team sponsored by The Institute of Cultural Affairs International. We were to study the island nation’s remote peoples and explore areas that few urban Taiwanese and even fewer tourists ever got to see. Surrounded by mountains, we were caught one night in a raging typhoon that seemed endless. We huddled on the slate floor of an aboriginal temple while rain dripped onto our faces through cracks in the stone roof. Great sheets of water fell from an infinite sky that had become an ocean. Lightning illuminated the dark temple every few seconds, allowing glimpses of what appeared to be shrunken heads hanging from the ceiling. (In fact, that’s exactly what they were: shrunken heads.) Another flash, and a carved effigy of an ancestor loomed out of nowhere. Yet another blast of light, and a mask of demon power grimaced against the night.

My stomach was heavy with gristly snake meat. It was swimming in gluey poi paste that had been wrapped in a steamed banana leaf. The dish had been part of the festival dinner kindly offered to us by our hosts, members of the Hakka aboriginal village. They regaled us with songs and dances reminiscent of the Polynesian culture from which they were descended before coming to live in the center of Taiwan a thousand years before.

Having sought refuge with us, they explained the shrunken heads: “Oh, those are souvenirs of earlier days when we were headhunters.” The last head had been acquired in World War II when a poor Japanese soldier stumbled upon their encampment, to his everlasting regret.

Incessant rain pelted the roof. In the midst of Nature’s fireworks, our host declared that there was no point in trying to sleep. His grandmother, a spiritual leader of the community, sat beside him. She was a tiny woman, probably close to ninety, and a formidable presence. Her quick, little hands worked away at some beaded handicraft while her grandson translated her remarks.

“Bring in the teapot,” she ordered. “This is a night for stories.” She turned her matriarchal eye on me, and she commanded, “You must tell us a story from your own land.”

“Uh, what kind of story would you like me to tell?” I was nervous. I could not imagine an American saga that would have any relevance to these people.

The Importance of Myth

The elder conferred with her relatives. At that moment the storm got wilder. Battering rain pushed the door open, drenching those sitting near the threshold. The matriarch cackled and said, “Tell us a story about typhoons and doors that open into other worlds.” Or such was the gist of the translation. I cast about in my mental library for storms and doors. With a lifetime of reading and listening to stories and myths, I found there was much from which to choose.

Just then the lightning poured forth a mighty jolt of voltage, turning Grandma into the incarnation of Mama Wizard, Mama Magus, Mama Magician. Lit up, she was the very model of an Asian Hecate, a Wizard of the East. Of course, that was it! “I will tell you the story of The Wizard of Oz,” I announced. “The movie version,” I added, for the benefit of my American companions.

Through the lightning-spattered night, drawn together against the storm, they listened, the Americans reverent before a core story of their culture, interrupting only to sing a song from the movie, the Taiwanese and the aboriginal folks adding commentary throughout. They seemed to find many correspondences between their own ancient tales and the one I was telling. Witches, good and bad, were well-known figures; the Wizard was seen as a Taoist Immortal who flew up to heaven in some magical contrivance. The lion became a dragon, and the scarecrow was assimilated into the favorite folk hero known as Monkey, while little Dorothy carried overtones of Kwan Yin.

When I finally drew to a close, intoning the great words of benediction: “There’s no place like home,”* the old woman bit the thread of her beadwork, thus bringing it to a close also. Outside, Nature was silent. The windowless room was so dark we could not tell whether it was day or night. Like Dorothy, we moved to the door to see where the house had landed. And when we opened the door, we did not see rain. Blazing technicolor greeted our eyes—just like in the movie; a rendezvous of rainbows, dripping palettes of color from every tree, a world made of myth and magic. Next to me, a young member of the community attempted a little English. “There’s no place like home,” she said.

Understanding the Human Condition

 “There’s no place like home.” What a charged and mythic phrase, innocent on the surface, but a continent loaded with possibilities when we dive deeper. “Home” is a return to what we really are—our code, our seeding, our potential destiny. How do we get there? What roads do we follow? Who has the map?

All of these codes and roads and maps are contained in the world’s myths—the great stories of heroic adventures, blessed blunders, and the circle within the circles—that guides us through the maze so that we may find the deeper meaning of our lives. Myths give us the security of place and of our capacity to survive, to surmount evil, to trust in our enormous untapped potentials. They reveal to us the multidimensional universe that lies within each of us.

Let us consider the importance of The Wizard of Oz as a secular risen myth of North American culture and as one that has important things to tell us about our relationship to the world and our place in it. Since most people know the story in its movie form, not in its original form as the book by L. Frank Baum, I will deal largely with the movie.

Many difficulties occurred during the movie’s production, including quarrels and firings and utter chaos. Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch caught fire in the second take of her fiery exit from Munchkinland, and the Munchkins made rude passes at Judy Garland. Even little Terri, the dog who played Toto, caused a complete stoppage of the production when he had a nervous breakdown (and who could blame him? You’ve seen those flying monkeys!) But in spite of all of this, the film emerged as a pure, deep, and glorious evocation of a great story greatly told. It is a true work of art. And just as great myth is authorless, rising out of the collective unconsciousness, so the film version of The Wizard of Oz, with its many attempts at authorship, remains, finally, without a single author.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Wizard of Us: Transformational Lessons from Oz by Jean Houston, published by Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2012.