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Oz, Narnia, and the Moral Imagination of Children's Books

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fairy-tale of positive thinking and consumerist desire, the kind of children's story C.S. Lewis would have hated.
The Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz
The Emerald City. Photo by ActionVance / Unsplash

To make studying religion, science, and technology (and magic) more approachable for my students, I orient the challenging ideas around children’s literature. Thinking about the history of science, technology, and magic through Lewis Mumford is difficult, but it helps—especially for beginners, as most of my undergrads are—to root it in something they’re familiar with: Narnia, the Hobbit, or Harry Potter. We look at their depiction of magic and science, at their religious themes, and so on, and it always leads to much deeper conversation.

One amusing side-effect of this, however, has been the discovery of ideology within children’s books. Usually, my students have been unaware of the religious or moral perspectives in these stories. At best, maybe, they’ll be distantly aware that Aslan represents Jesus, though that's usually be something they only learned later, long after they first encountered the book (or, more likely, the 2005 movie). When we revisit it, they are often shocked at how overt it is. That Harry Potter is himself also a Christ figure (dying, going to a place called “King’s Cross,” and then resurrecting) scandalizes them a bit more. Likewise, they are mostly unaware of how much J.R.R. Tolkien (The Catholic That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived) incorporated Christian thinking into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

These revelations elicit not a little frustration. “Pushing your beliefs” on someone else is the cardinal sin for American youth, and doing so in children’s literature seems to be the ultimate form of clandestine evangelizing (if you’re not careful, you might get incepted). At the end of class, one student said that one of her biggest takeaways was that children’s lit is loaded with religious perspectives, but she wished writers would do less of this in the future. “But why shouldn’t authors write about what they believe?” I asked in return. She said that was fine, but there should be a line drawn. “What about the explicitly atheist Golden Compass books?” I asked, “Is that any different than Narnia?” The students all felt that it was not different; however, either book is “too much” and these authors “go too far.”

There is precedent for this congenitally American attitude. Think back to Mark Twain’s notice in Huckleberry Finn: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.” Tongue-in-cheek, certainly, but it still reflects what is a common mindset: that storytelling, especially for children, is primarily about entertainment, not moral formation or imaginative catechism. And no book embodies this attitude more than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—which is part of what makes Oz such a quintessentially American tale.

As its author, L. Frank Baum, wrote in Oz's introduction, “Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” Rather than include blood-curdling monsters or horrific curses (we all know how grim Grimm’s Tales can be), Oz would instead be lighthearted fare. Because fairy-tales are no longer needed for morality—as they were in the Old Country—Oz “was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartache and nightmares are left out.”

One should always be suspicious of those who claim to have no ulterior motives. Oz most certainly does present a moral outlook on life. It teaches a distinctly American way to live and be: one of progress, positive thinking, and consumerism.

A Consumer Revolution

The interior of the Wanamaker's Department Store complete with organ
Wanamaker's Department Store / Image by Carol M Highsmith

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz comes from a particular time and place, and it is almost a time capsule from a period of immense shift and struggle. Arriving right on the fin de siècle dot in 1900, Oz is a watershed in the evolution of the American spirit into the new religion of consumerism.

One of the most striking things I have noticed, in reading some histories of advertising and economics, is how much contest there was over religion. From 1890 to 1929, argues William Leach in Land of Desire, a revolution in American life took place. “American corporate business,” he writes, “in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption.” This new culture was “hostile to the past and to tradition.” It was first an alternative culture, but then became a replacement one—supplanting both republicanism and Christian virtue. It is easy to see how this might be the case—the lifestyle of endless consumption militates against the habitually spartan religious psyche that Americans inherited from their historic traditions: whether Puritan, Baptist, Catholic, or whatever else. Even religious businessmen at the time, like John Wanamaker, were vexed about the relationship of commerce to Christianity. So was D.L. Moody. Nevertheless, commerce won out. What do we then imagine is the good life? One of contentment and simplicity, perhaps the mythical yeoman farmer? Or one of endless, acquisitive grabbing for more and more? Is the point of life, as Leach asks, now to equate being with having?

“American corporate business,” [William Leach] writes, “in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption.”

Advertising played a key role here. By the end of the 19th century overproduction had become a problem—Americans simply weren’t buying enough. Such a fatal woe could only be cured by more consumption. But what if people were content with what they had? There was only one solution: make them discontent. Through the psychological power of advertising, new desires could be fabricated within each individual. Without their knowledge or understanding, they could be made to desire more, want more, need more. Consumption, long the colloquial name of the dreaded disease tuberculosis, become a cure rather than an ailment.

This was, ultimately, a battle for the imagination. As Leach recounts from one advertising expert, “Without imagination, no wants…without wants, no demand to have them supplied.” The moral imaginary had to be reconstituted as one in which luxury—formerly a bad word—had transmogrified into a goal. A far cry from, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Later advertising experts, notably motivation research pioneer Ernest Dichter, were explicit about dissolving Christianity and replacing it with a new, consumer religion in which the hope for afterlife is swapped with a bevy of goods in the present. As Lawrence Samuel writes in Freud on Madison Avenue, Dichter conceived of consumerism as locked in a battle with Christianity—a zero-sum game in which the sanctification of life through goods must triumph. For Dichter, consumerism was about wants, not about economy. And he framed it (in rather Marxist terms) as a struggle against the Christian view of heaven, which militated against living one’s best life now, banking instead on gold and crowns in the afterlife. Each individual was their own god, the only real deity was inside them, and religion hindered happiness and fulfillment.

Both Samuel and Leach argue that, though Christianity obviously continued to exist after this, it was spiritually defeated (and, really, consumed) by a constellation of alternative religious views. We know them as positive thinking, new age, or self-help. Each of these has its roots in the 19th century mind cure movement. Mind cure (or what is more commonly known as New Thought), held that mind really did triumph over matter. William James described mind cure as the only real American “systematic philosophy of life.” Through positive thinking and the power of one’s beliefs, reality could be remade—one could think oneself into health, wealth, and abundance. This congeries of beliefs persists into the present day with enormous strength in both secular and religious forms (the latter most notably in the prosperity gospel, as chronicled by Kate Bowler in her book Blessed).

It is here that Oz enters the picture, for L. Frank Baum was a proponent of mind cure, and was interested in spiritual alternatives to Christianity.

Oz the Great and Terrible

The Wizard of Oz holding the Scarecrow's head after he's discovered to be a fraud
The Wizard of Oz holding the Scarecrow's head / Image from Picryl.

William Leach includes a lengthy section on Baum in Land of Desire. Baum was interested in mind cure and seances (of the kind that were popular in the Spiritualism in the 19th century, which boasted the adherence of Arthur Conan Doyle), and he dabbled in theosophy. Baum was also hostile to Christianity, writing that “the age of faith…is sinking slowly into the past.” He welcomed science both because he thought it proved mind cure true but also because he thought it proved Christianity false. He looked forward to churches declining (indeed, the only time a church appears in Oz is when the Cowardly Lion accidentally smashes one in the Dainty China Country). But beyond science, Baum was interested in consumption, in spending, in indulgence. One should not feel guilty, he wrote, for spending and buying. It is better to live, he argued, than to save. “To gain all the meat from the nut of life is the essence of wisdom” he wrote (as chronicled by Leach), “therefore, ‘eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow you die’.” Life is too short to not consume.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reflects this mindset. It is a thoroughly Americanized fairy-tale (more steampunk than a story set in the land of Faerie), all oil, gears, gas, and mechanical engineering. It is, as Leach argues, a sort of consumerist version of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The ruby slippers made famous in the movie are in fact silver slippers in the book (and, as Leach points out, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that By-Ends, the character in The Pilgrim’s Progress who proclaims that religion and worldly goods can coexist, advocates a religion that “goes in silver slippers”). The Wizard of Oz himself, who we all know is a fraud, is nevertheless not a villain. A circus performer from Omaha who got in over his head, he is one of the most enduring and iconic images from American literature. When the heroes find out he is, in fact, “a humbug,” he nevertheless manages to help them by inspiring each character to reach their potential.

The power of positive thinking is key to the story’s narrative. The Scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin Woodman who wants a heart, the Cowardly Lion who wants courage, and of course Dorothy who just wants to go home—all of them already have what they desire, they just don’t know it. All they are missing, Oz tells them, is confidence. Dorothy is never really in danger due to a blessing given her by the Good Witch of the North. The Wicked Witch of the West is not threat—she is even afraid of the dark. Dorothy is finally able to go home when she realizes she can simply wish her way there. In 21stcentury terms, perhaps she would use a vision board. Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, tells her, “If you had known [the silver shoes’] power you could have gone back [home] the very first day you came to this country.” Or, as Joel Osteen might say, “You’re stronger than you think.” This is the philosophy of enchanted consumerism, of mind power, of our endless avalanche of bestsellers like The Secret—which boast of solving the problem of poverty with the “law of attraction,” the call to send good vibes into The Universe and be granted what you desire. Mind can control reality—just click your heels three times.

The power of positive thinking is key to the story’s narrative. The Scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin Woodman who wants a heart, the Cowardly Lion who wants courage, and of course Dorothy who just wants to go home—all of them already have what they desire, they just don’t know it. 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a charming fairy-tale. The distinctive characters, the memorable setting, and the excellent plot twist of the fraudulent wizard are all integral to American storytelling. The character of Oz himself is an iconic archetype of the buffoonish but aspirational salesman. It is perhaps fitting, then, that its morals—Baum’s protests notwithstanding—are those of an enchanted consumerism, which at the end of the day creates a different moral imagination than traditional fairy-tales.

Narnia and the Moral Imagination

The lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia.
Statue of Aslan in Belfast, Ireland. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge / Unsplash

I’m not aware of C.S. Lewis ever writing anything about Oz, but I could hazard a guess he would have strongly disliked it.

For one thing, Lewis strongly disagreed that children’s stories should have all the “scary” parts removed, as Baum thought they should. True, Lewis agreed, that unnecessarily macabre or frightening things have no place, if their purpose is simply to terrify. One should not intensify a child’s phobias (like, as Lewis related, his own fear of insects). But, as he observed in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” if sanitizing children’s stories means that we “try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil” then he could not agree. The safe, danger-free world of Oz might even give children the wrong impression about the world and engender later cynicism. As Laura Miller wrote in Oz vs. Narnia, “Beyond a bit of healthy rebellion, though, you can't blame children for resenting adults who'd like to keep them in a rosy bubble, far away from reality's shocks.”

“I think it possible,” Lewis wrote, “that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable.” This is not a trade Lewis would have made, even if it meant not being tormented by fears of insects. He concluded, “If I could have escaped all my own night-fears at the price of never having known ‘faerie’, would I now be the gainer by that bargain? I am not speaking carelessly. The fears were very bad. But I think the price would have been too high.”

Beyond Baum and Lewis’s diametric opposition on the role of danger in children’s literature, there is an even deeper disagreement about desire and its effect on the moral imagination.

Lewis described, at one point, receiving a manuscript of a fairy-tale in which a child received a gadget—“not a magic ring or hat or cloak or any such traditional matter. It was a machine, a thing of taps and handles and buttons you could press. You could press one and get an ice cream, another and get a live puppy, and so forth.” Lewis was not impressed, and wrote back that he was not interested in fairy tales with such machinery. Neither, apparently, was the author, who told him that she did not like it either, but that “it is what the modern child wants.” Where Lewis was perturbed, Baum might have applauded.

Lewis was well-aware of the way one’s moral worldview is imported into children’s literature. This was, in fact, the point. As George MacDonald, Lewis’s master and mentor, suggested in “The Fantastic Imagination,” one should approach fairy-tales with an aim to change the physical laws of nature, but keep the moral laws the same:

In the moral world…a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls… In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey—and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

Because one’s moral worldview will then, by necessity, transmute into the fairy-tale, it makes sense that Narnia and Oz would be animated by different moralities. Oz, as we have seen, is shot through with a progressive, mind cure outlook—one in which physical reality can, and will, be remade according to one’s mind and wishes. This is very different from the moral imagination of Narnia, in which one’s desires must be oriented not around earthly things but transcendent things, and the God who is Being itself. These two kinds of desire, Lewis felt, were antithetical.

Where the desire that is stimulated in Oz is the consumerist desire for specific things (whether personality traits or objects), the desire in Narnia is abstract and without an obvious earthly end (the desire that Lewis called “joy,” an insatiable desire for the far off country, and the God who reigns there, that both agonizes and delights Psyche in Till We Have Faces). “The boy reading fairy-tales,” Lewis observed, “desires and is happy in the fact of desiring.” This desire is similar to the one Tolkien described in “On Fairy-Stories”—simply that he “desired dragons with a profound desire.” Not to possess them or “consume” them, and most certainly not to have them in his neighborhood, but rather he desired them because the world in which Fáfnir existed was rich, enchanted, and lovely. It is not a desire for having but for being. And, as Lewis wrote, this kind of desire has a positive reciprocal effect of re-enchanting forests, nature, and beasts in the real world. Rather than a consumptive, product-oriented desire, it’s a desire that enlarges the world, not one that focuses on this season’s hottest new items. “There are two kinds of longing,” Lewis wrote, “The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.”

“There are two kinds of longing,” Lewis wrote, “The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.”

In the end, the struggle is about the ends and proper order of desire. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund’s craving for Turkish Delight (more and more, for, as Lewis wrote, it is bewitched and no amount of it can satisfy him) is the nearly the doom for himself and his family. Endless, acquisitive desire like this is fundamentally devastating for any human being. However, it is, as Leach notes in Land of Desire, a basic component of capitalism and the consumerist landscape of modern America. Where Narnia is a land of desiring joy, Oz a land of desiring things. This antagonism is made even clearer in Lewis’s nonfiction. His desire argument, most prominent in Mere Christianity, is based around the idea that there are wants that cannot be satisfied in life, and so people must find their satisfaction outside the world (much to Ernest Dichter's chagrin). And, I think, if we look out at the landscape around us, we can see whether Oz or Narnia's moral imaginary better reflects the world in which we live.