In his influential text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell proposes the modern mythos of the hero’s journey, an archetypal structure that Campbell finds to be common to many literary narratives, dating back to the classics of western civilization and ancient oral traditions. Essentially, Campbell finds certain defining characteristics of human narrative styles, primarily concerning the protagonist and his or her journey to pass a series of trials, solve a quest, and bring back the boon, i.e., what Campbell would call the “elixir” (210). The hero’s journey can come in many different variations; however, Campbell identifies the prototypical form, consisting of a series of stages the hero encounters in the traditional narrative, i.e., steps such as the “call to adventure,” meeting a mentor, “tests,” “flight,” “threshold struggle,” resurrection, and the “return” bearing the elixir (210). Using Campbell’s outline as an analytical form, it is interesting to compare modern texts in our popular culture to see how they either adhere to or differ from this formula. This paper concerns one such modern text, L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, an iconic work of that is still in the forefront of contemporary culture, even more than a century after its publication. Written in 1899, The Wizard of Oz has spawned dozens of remakes and movie adaptations over the years, most notably Victor Fleming’s 1939 production, starring Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr. When we compare the narrative in Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to the hero’s journey structure identified by Campbell, we see that there is indeed a remarkable correlation, with the protagonist, Dorothy’s main struggle being that of finding her identity.
Campbell’s hero’s journey must begin with a call to adventure, which serves as the inciting incident of the narrative, i.e., the thing that gets the plot moving. The Wizard of Oz certainly makes good use of this dramatic aspect, as Dorothy encounters a terrible tornado in her hometown of Kansas, one that is strong enough to somehow bend the fabric of reality. Dorothy passes out, and when she awakes, she is in the magical land of Oz, an alternate universe with fantastical creatures and supernatural events. As Dorothy leaves the “ordinary world” (class notes) behind, her narrative begins to take shape, one in which the reader recognizes her specific struggle in being transported to another world to discover her true identity. Her immediate conflict, however, is how to get home, and thus begins her quest to find the Wizard of Oz, the only man possibly capable of helping her return to her world.
Along the way, Dorothy encounters “mentors” (class notes), who help her on her way. She meets Scarecrow—“There was a great cornfield beyond the fence, and not far away she saw a Scarecrow, placed high on a pole to keep the birds from the ripe corn” (Baum 31)—Tin Man, and the Lion. These mentors aid Dorothy in her journey to find the magician, but they each have a stake in the journey as well, as each character lacks an integral component of themselves they wish to see fulfilled: Scarecrow seeks a brain, Tin Man, a heart, and Lion, courage. These qualities, along with Dorothy’s quest to return home are the boons, or “elixir’s” that Campbell describes. Dorothy’s mentors help her overcome many obstacles or “tests” (Campbell 210) along the way, many of which are initiated by the novel’s villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, who seeks revenge on Dorothy for inadvertently killing her sister as Dorothy’s house crashed down following the tornado. These trials include fire, attacking trees, sleep-inducing poppy plants, flying monkey creatures, and the Wicked Witch herself, who uses her evil powers to try and stop Dorothy and her friends from completing their task.
When Dorothy and Company reach the Emerald City to find Oz, they must “cross the threshold” (class notes), literally signified by a huge green door, and confront the fearsome wizard. This is no easy task, as the gatekeeper informs the party: “[Oz] is powerful and terrible, and if you come on an idle or foolish errand to bother the wise reflections of the Great Wizard, he might be angry and destroy you all in an instant” (Baum 123). With courage and resolve, the party passes this threshold and encounters the wizard. However, before Oz can grant the party their separate wishes, they must complete a final task: kill the Wicked Witch of the West. As a team, the group completes their task by infiltrating the Wicked Witch’s fortress and dowsing her with water, which melts her into oblivion.
The aforementioned boons in Baum’s novel are various, and correspond to each character, i.e., brains, heart, courage, and a desire to go home. Ironically, the retrieval of these boons from the great wizard are not exactly what the group expects. In a reversal, the Wizard of Oz is revealed to be a sham mirror, a normal man posing as a magician through smoke and mirrors. However, he reveals that the characters already have their separate boons; they displayed them all along in their journey—all except for Dorothy, who, still cannot get home since she misses the opportunity to climb into Oz’s hot air balloon that will take her back home: “She was within a few steps of it, and Oz was holding out his hands to help her into the basket, when, crack! went the ropes, and the balloon rose into the air without her” (Baum 224). This leads to the “resurrection” (Campbell 210), a desperate situation in which all hope seems lost.
Ultimately, Dorothy is able to pass the resurrection and get home to collect her boom with the help of the good witch Glinda. However, Dorothy finds that the boon was not simply to get home after all, but to have found usefulness and a personal identity, both of which she gained in Oz. As we can see, Baum’s The Wizard of Oz does conform to Campbell’s classical hero’s journey. This facet of the narrative, with its archetypal journey, is perhaps one of the reasons that the tale has endured in the forefront of our popular culture for as long as it has.
- Baum, Frank L. The Wizard of Oz. New York: Geo M. Hill Co., 1899.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.