A potential product of modern parenting anxieties is that the stories we tell our children are watered down, flattened, or made sickeningly sweet. This goes against the advice of Carl Jung, who wrote about the phenomenology of fairy tales and the psychological importance of archetypes, and Bruno Bettlheim, who explored the role of fairy tales in helping kids grapple with the dark shadows within themselves and others. Bettleheim writes:
[T]he parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most: his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child—that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny (1977, p. 7).
In contrast to the “safe” stories Bettleheim warns against, Oz the Great and Powerful engages the themes of darkness, death, injustice, and human limits. In the film, it’s not always clear who to trust, and whether complete disaster can be averted, even with the best-laid plans.
The vehicle for the story is Oz himself, who’s been criticized by reviewers for being a bad hero. A New York Times reviewer calls him “a two-bit magician and Lothario with female troubles.” And a CNN reviewer, who perceives him to be a “father figure” (!), sees him as a flawed hero, an “unconvincing fraud and a shaky charlatan -- too young, perhaps, to fool anyone except himself.” At their root, the reviews reflect the parental anxiety that children will openly take Oz as a hero, that they’ll be fooled into accepting his version of masculinity (womanizing) and achievement (cheating) in some unblinking manner.
Jung and Bettlheim give our children more credit. The currency of fairy tales, after all, is symbolism. Psychoanalytically, symbolism is believed to offer a structure through which to shape unconscious content into conscious fantasies. While literal mearnings aren’t irrelevant, they don’t have the psychologogical power that symbols possess.
In an archetypal reading, Oz isn’t a hero at all. Instead, he represents the self; he’s whole in a way the other archetypes aren’t, and is our vehicle for individuation. He’s also complicated and contradictory, more like real people in a way that other characters are not. At the same time that he's a trickster who’s unable to commit, he's sensitive to the pain of others and motivated to improve. He possesses a characterological ambivalence of which it’s hard to make sense.
This is not the case with the other archetypes (on whom the self entirely depends). The other characters actually represent aspects of the self externally projected, enabling the child (viewer) to wrestle with internal conflict in a nonthreatening form. The archetypes are drawn as polarities; good is just good, evil is just evil. Evanora represents the shadow, a source of evil that is, at first, powerfully attractive. And Glinda symbolizes Jung’s idea of the spirit (a figure that usually appears as an old man), and is wise, courageous, and impeccably moral. The fragile (in this case, broken and reglued) china doll is the innocent or the child.
The value of polar figures in fairy tales is that they embody the polarization that characterizes a child’s mind. Bettlheim writes:
Ambiguities must wait until a relatively firm personality has been established on the basis of positive identifications. Then the child has a basis for understanding that there are great differences between people, and that therefore one has to make choices about who one wants to be. This basic decision, on which all later personality development will build, is facilitated by the polarizations of the fairy tale (p. 9).
Our parental instincts to spare our young children representations of the darker side of existence, and the conflict that accompanies it, may actually work against the development of a healthy psyche. Worse, the impulse may actually represent a denial of our basic existential predicament. Whether or not we want it to be so, our children will struggle, internally and externally, against severe hardships. Their success will not be measured in their ability to avoid conflicts (dark forests, evil witches), but to courageously and gracefully face them.
Bettlheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf.
Charity, T. (2013). Review: 'Oz the Great and Powerful' is more than good enough. CNN Entertainment. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/08/showbiz/movies/oz-great-powerful-review/index.html
Dargis, M. (2013). That man, before the curtain, and before Dorothy, too. New York Times. http://movies.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/movies/oz-the-great-and-powerful-st...
Jung, C. G. (1958). The phenomenology of the spirit in fairy tales. Psyche & symbol: A selection from the writings of C. G. Jung. New York: Anchor Books.