Interpreting Oz, Narnia, and Hogwarts: Four Historical Notes

Saturday’s discussion touched on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Frank Baum’s sub-creation. Later that day I received a sneak-peek of the first chapter of Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia. Both reminded me of the perils and possibilities implicit to “detective” interpretation of fiction. Let me lay out these four historical events, the insights and failed interpretations, with this question: what are the hazards of looking for the “hidden keys” to Harry Potter? the benefits?

(1) When I was in the 8th grade, the wild and inspiring American History teacher, Ms. Douglass (the first ‘Ms.’ I had ever met), asked us what we thought of the Judy Garland movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Some of us loved it, some of us were too cool to admit, all of us wondered where this Maid Mountain was headed with this. Using the movie we all knew well, she presented late 19th century populism, agrarian unions, gold and silver monetary policy, and the battles between William Jennings Bryant and the gold-bugs. We were steam-rolled and, as usual after one of her talks and assignment of follow-up projects by which we could earn points for grades (no True/False quizzes in her room), excited about History. Who knew Baum had written a brilliant historical allegory of his time inside this fantasy? An American and secular Pilgrim’s Progress.

Not. It turns out another school teacher had created this allegorical interpretation to teach his students about rather dry subject matter. If anything, Frank Baum was a happy bourgeois boob and everything but a populist reformer criticizing the money pretenders in the Emerald City. The teacher admitted this in a letter to a New York newspaper when a Baum reader said the allegorical theory was nonsense.

(2) Michael Ward notes, though, that on occasion, literary detectives find something that serious readers have missed for centuries:

“Occasionally, however, a sober critic, paying close attention to a text, will make an interpretative discovery and produce a bona fide ‘code-breaking’ work. In 1960, for instance, Kent Hieatt revealed in Short Time’s Endless Monument that the stanzas of Spenser’s Epithalamion represent the twenty-four hours of midsummer’s day, a cryptic theme which had remained unnoticed by scholars for nearly four hundred years.”

(3) But for every Hieatt we have a Kathryn Lindskoog. This brilliant woman and reader read C. S. Lewis closely, understood his Narnia works as Christian allegory at a depth well ahead of her time (her Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land is still excellent reading), even traveled to meet the man. Her prose re-tellings of The Divine Comedy in English are accessible and meaningful — and her tracking Dante traces through Botticelli, MacDonald, and Lewis make her something of a Sherlock Holmes among readers.

And then she became fixated on demonstrating that Walter Hooper, an executor of Lewis’ literary estate, was playing fast and loose with texts. She wrote four books on the subject and ran an internet site on the subject before her death in 2003 after a long battle with MS. Most if not all of her “evidence” against Mr. Hooper has been discredited but his reputation will always bear a mark because of Ms. Lindskoog’s interpretation of The Dark Tower and her assertions that Lewis did not write it.

(4) And then again we have Michael Ward, whose Planet Narnia is causing readers of all kinds, those who dismissed the Narnia series as a mish-mash and those who had read it annually for decades (and written guides to the books), to look at the fantasy septology with new eyes and fresh understanding. Ward works from the texts and from Lewis’ lectures, comments to friends, and his worldview to reveal that Lewis crafted a cosmological backdrop to the books which artistry re-inforces and focus the Christological message of the books.

And maybe my own experience here as school teacher and literary private detective are useful here. I thought the literary alchemy of the books was pretty obvious and made a case for it and that Ms. Rowling was writing edifying, even implicitly Christian fiction in 2002. A lot of people bought into this on the strength of my arguments and their own suspicions that my book confirmed. Many more people thought I was writing a man-bites-dog table-turning argument just to embarrass Harry Haters and make some money. Ms. Rowling had never said anything about alchemy or her faith that supported my claims so the arguments had to come “just from the books.” That just wasn’t enough.

Now we do have author confirmation that she studied alchemy and that it set the “magical parameters” and “internal logic” of her novels. Her faith, to, and the part it plays in her writing has become much clearer in the wake of Deathly Hallows‘ publication.

The question is, what standard do we have for literary detective work, agressive interpretation, even “allegorizing”? What value do amateur Sherlocks bring to the table? What harm can they do?

I look forward to reading what you think.


  1. JohnABaptist says


    You say “An American and secular Pilgrim’s Progress. Not.”

    And yet in high school, you saw it there. How can this be?

    Could it be that regardless of his personal preferences, Baum drew upon the symbology of his age to give texture, depth and ambiance to his little tale?

    Baum may, or may not have been a Populist, but he knew of the Populist movement. He would have read the magnificently evocative speeches of William Jenning Bryan–“You shall not crucify my people on a cross of gold!”–and saw how they moved people. He knew of and supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement, so he made his hero a heroine and the witches and fairies of the female gender actually did things instead of just decorating the page. He lived in the tornado belt and knew the fascination that people back east had with this great winds of the plains, so he found a literary use for one. A resident of the Northern Midwest, he made sure to put Dorothy in Kansas, in his day the exact geographic center of the United States, but more importantly, the home of the Emporia Gazette with its powerful “Go West Young Man” message that spoke of yearning, adventure and questing for your dream.

    Even though Baum may not have been actively proselytizing the cause of the Populists, or the cause of the Suffragettes, or the cause of Manifest Destiny, he did know theater, politics and how to sell the goods. I think he built all these symbols and stereotypes into his book. Gold streets and Silver Slippers, the City on a Hill, all of it is there. Because they were the touchstones and power phrases of his day.

    You saw them in Ms. Douglas’ class. How could they disappear just because we find out Baum may have voted Republican more than Democrat?

    The good or the harm that we may do, John, is unlikely to live after us. Nor will we in the end successfully besmirch anything of value in the long run, for as Shakespeare has Launcelot say in the Merchant of Venice:
    “…give me your blessing: truth will come
    to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
    may, but at the length truth will out.”

  2. Those who are accustomed to reason have got the true key of books.
    – Locke.

    Baum’s books can be read as reflections of the age in which he lived, a kind of Rorschach test for Gilded Age historians, but if the allegorical elements don’t line up except as images consequent to a febrile seizure, I don’t think forcing the pieces is an edifying exercise for critic or serious reader of such analysis.

    Lewis and Tolkien both decried allegorical interpretations of their books. That doesn’t mean there aren’t important historical echoes in their works of historical events; it is just that both authors as symbolists were writing about greater reality referents in their stories to which the historical events were also symbols.

    I think my question, too, is about conscious artistry and “design fostering meaning.” Speculation about auctorial intention in how they write requires no little sympathy with what the author is getting at, familiarity with the specific scaffolding structure and metre in which the poet is working, and knowledge of how the two relate. Contrast the Ward and Hieatt “discoveries” with the Lewis and Baum exegeses that failed.

    The skepticism with which my interpretations of Harry Potter has been met was a consequence of almost universal ignorance even among critics of literary alchemy and traditional Christian symbolism and doubt (consequent to misogyny) that Ms. Rowling knew this “stuff” if they didn’t. She was a single mom, after all, on the dole. How many of them are hermetic artists? The safer bet was that I was projecting my beliefs or forcing the pieces.

    Until the alchemy quotation surfaced and the passion narrative of Into the Forest Again.

    You can read Baum as a historical allegory. But it wasn’t Baum’s deliberate artistry, so “so what?” The story is more important as a psychological drama of the soul’s faculties and coming-of-age, an argument that seems undeniable (heart, mind, courage out for a walk?). Why strain for a historical ‘a stands for x’ equation, that, if it were the point or heart of the book, would mean no child today would find it interesting and no producer would re-tell a la Tin Man in the story archetypes of the postmodern era.

    What do y’all think?

  3. JohnABaptist says


    You say: “You can read Baum as a historical allegory.”

    Precisely my point! Yes, you can! And, of course, you can read it as many other things also.

    If your Ms. Douglass was able set fire to a whole era of American History based on one of many possible readings, is that not a mark of the power of the work?

    If she tried to insist that this was the only reading of the story, then she indeed erred. But if all she said is look how this can help you understand the politics of this age, then I would say only good was done. (I was born and raised in a small farming town in Kansas where that particular era of history was centered, and I still hated studying it. Wish I had had Ms. Douglass to spice it up for me.)

    Since no one else seems to be joining our little chit chat here, let me just sign off with my shotgun conclusion. The value of a fictional work depends (in priority order) on:

    1) Story–will anybody bother to read more than a paragraph. Without story, the rest doesn’t matter.

    2) Great themes–Does it deal realistically and accurately with the great issues of life that have not changed from the Garden of Eden forward to the end our current vision.

    3) Current applicability–Does the generation that must either preserve or discard it find it applies to their situation. [Some really great literature almost flunked this test.]

    4) Imagination space–Does it leave room for the readers to fill in certain spaces out of their own common and unique stores of experience.

    If a work does those four things, then you can use it as a tool to teach many, many things, many of which may be ideas that never crossed the author’s mind. They are what You or I added.

    In short, I believe that the greatest books in the world were written by 5,000 years of great authors–and a guy named You and a guy named Me.

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