Monday, August 31, 2009

L. Frank Baum and H.P.B.

One of the pleasures of literature is the discovery of unexpected sources from which a favourite author may have drawn inspiration. I came across one such connection in a recent book called Finding Oz, by Evan I. Schwartz. In his chapter “Witch-hunting” Schwartz traces the influence of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, head of the British Theosophical Society (fondly known to her associates as H.P.B.) , on L. Frank Baum’s beloved Wizard of Oz series.

Schwartz describes how Baum was drawn into Blavatsky’s teachings by his wife Maud and by his mother-in-law, militant feminist writer and suffragette Matilda Gage. As Schwartz explains, Theosophy includes a belief in the Astral plane, a spiritual dimension close to our own which can be explored by means of an out-of-body experience.

Schwartz writes, “One can find many subtle references to the views of Madame Blavatsky throughout the works of L. Frank Baum and the movie based on his book, yet there’s one grand overriding Theosophical allusion: the Land of Oz itself. To get to the Land of Oz, one projects a phantom of oneself, magically flying to a spectacular place…” In Theosophy, he continues, one’s physical body and one’s Astral body are connected through a silver cord. "In Frank Baum’s own writing, the silver cord of Astral travel would inspire the silver shoes that bestow special powers upon the one who wears them.”

In the film, of course, the slippers that transported Dorothy to Oz were red; but as Schwartz points out, this change from silver to ruby-coloured was simply a decision by the filmmakers, who felt that red slippers would show up better on the yellow brick road.

Footnote: The formidable Madame Blavatsky plays a prominent part in my historical fantasy, Wild Talent. There are also cameo appearances by William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandra David Neel and the poet Paul Verlaine -- but not by L. Frank Baum. Sadly, he and H.P.B. were not destined to meet -- except perhaps in spirit.

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