The Secret Alchemy of Dr. Seuss

by Heinz Insu Fenkl

"I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells."
-- Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)

"The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss
"The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1971

1.  Lorax Lore

     One of the qualities that make fairy tales and nursery rhymes so resonant is the fact that we cannot get them out of our minds. Sometimes this is because a story is particularly vivid or poignant, sometimes because a rhyme, over its history, has become progressively better crafted and thus easy to remember. We are especially sensitive (or vulnerable) to the rhetoric of wordplay in our toddler years, and that is why we are full of rhymes that seem to have no particular meaning except that we memorized them at a time when our brains were literally hungry to acquire language and rhythm. When weíre in groups and canít find a song whose lyrics everyone knows -- even as adults -- we sometimes resort to chants like "Row, row, row your boat" (or inane songs weíve acquired through sheer repetition, like the theme from popular TV shows like Gilliganís Island).

     In many cases, the rhetorical value of "childrenís" rhymes is lost to us because their historical context has passed. For example, we generally donít think of the Black Plague when we play "Ring Around the Rosie," and we donít think of the political allegory underlying "Jack and Jill" (even though Jack explicitly breaks his crown). Even things we donít like become part of popular culture and then folklore; think of those silly commercial jingles and the hateful tunes you canít get out of your head (all the more perplexing because your very need to purge them causes you to replay them, and thus commit them even further into memory).

     So when someone like Dr. Seuss comes along, he becomes culturally ubiquitous because his works bring together all the elements that make folklore indelible in our consciousness. I have yet to meet a literate English speaker who doesnít have some clear memory of a Dr. Seuss book. In fact, most of those who recall their initial engagement with Seuss will describe it as an especially memorable or even formative reading experience. In the same way that Charles Dickens has become an integral part of English language culture through our use of the name "Scrooge" from A Christmas Carol, Seuss has entered the cultural dictionary with "Grinch." These days (particularly after the film adaptation), one is actually more likely to be criticized for being a Grinch than for being a Scrooge.

     Among Seussís forty-four books, many of them radical in their time, the one that has received the most attention in recent years is The Lorax, which was the center of some unexpected controversy in the American Northwest.

     The Lorax is one of Dr. Seussí explicitly rhetorical books, one that he himself classified as "propaganda." It is a classic cautionary fable structured around a flashback narrated by the villain, the capitalist Once-ler, to a nameless young boy who has come to the Once-lerís dilapidated Lerkim to hear the tale. The story is set in a dark, murky, post apocalyptic landscape caused by the Once-lerís wholesale exploitation of the ecosystem, which was supported in a former time by Truffula trees. As the faceless Once-ler tells his tale through a "snergelly hose," we flash back to the old days, when the land was a bright paradise of multicolored Truffula trees and happy Swomee Swans, Bar-ba-loots, and Humming-Fish. The Once-ler arrives in a covered wagon reminiscent of those during the American frontier days. Like a pioneer, he is out to better his life, but he is not the homesteading pioneer as we might expect; he is more the 49er, and he strikes it rich when he discovers the profitability of the first Truffula tree, whose tuft he knits into a Thneed. With what might be termed classic Yankee ingenuity, the Once-ler devises ways of processing more and more Truffula trees at a steadily increasing pace, "biggering and biggering" his manufacturing operation until he has turned the formerly Edenic paradise into a landscape of industrial blight with polluted water, polluted air, and a sunless panorama of Truffula stumps.

     All of the Loraxís interventions are for naught, and when the last tree falls, he is mysteriously "lifted away" into a hole in the dark clouds. And as the young boy discovers, it is only after it is too late that the Once-ler learns his lesson. At the end of the tale, the Once-ler drops down a single remaining Truffula seed, the seed of hope at the bottom of the capitalist Pandoraís box.

     The rhetoric of the storyís surface requires no explication -- its moral is explicit and self-contained. So much so, in fact, that some readers respond to the motif of the tree cutting and forget that that particular form of exploitation is part of the underlying theme, which Seuss characterized as "antipollution and antigreed," not merely anti-logging.

     But thereís something special about The Loraxís rhetoric. With the figure of the "smallish" and strangely ineffectual, paternal Lorax, Seuss evokes a powerful sense of pathos, nostalgia, and guilt -- which is probably why proponents of the timber industry have tried to ban the book in at least three states. According to Gary Ball, in an article in the newsletter available on the Mendocino Environmental Center's Web site, some pro-logging and anti-environmental groups like those associated with the deceptively named Wise Use Movement (WUM) "have even gone to the extreme of creating a community uproar in order to ban . . . The Lorax, from elementary schools' reading lists. Led by the owners of Baily's, the logger equipment merchants . . . WUM adherents packed a number of heated school board meetings resulting in The Lorax being removed from the mandatory reading list in public schools."

     In 1991, 20 years after its publication, the hardwood industry responded to The Lorax in kind with a pro-logging book called Truax, in which the hero is a friendly and even-tempered lumber man who explains the virtues of logging to a hysterical figure called the Guardbark. The Guardbark is meant not only to represent the Lorax, but what the timber industry considers the irrational rhetoric of environmentalism in general. He's depicted as a bucktoothed cross between the Green Man and the Jolly Green Giant, and since he is none-too-intelligent, he is easily swayed by the calm Truax's pro-logging lecture. Though it does not qualify as what folklorists term "fakelore," and is clearly a response to what the industry believes a threat, the logic behind Truax is reminiscent of what happened in the mid-1900s when W. B. Laughead appropriated and adapted some logging lore to promote the Red River Lumber Company of Minnesota. We all know the result: those fabricated tall tales about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

      Itís probably clear from what Iíve discussed above why The Lorax would evoke a strong response from the timber industry, but there is far more going on in the book than meets the casually analytic eye. Thereís something weirdly familiar about The Lorax, something especially odd, simultaneously cathartic and irking about the dramatic arc of the story. It sticks with readers at many different levels in the same way that a good parable sticks with us and survives repeated reflection as we become progressively older and (we hope) wiser.
2.  Theodor Seuss Geisel

     Before he was Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel was a failed novelist. He was an English major, and he studied at Oxford (one of his professors was the eminent Emile Logouis, a specialist on the work of Jonathan Swift, author of works like "A Modest Proposal" and Gulliver's Travels). He studied the psychology of advertising, and in his Botany and Zoology classes he amused himself by manipulating the Latin names for plants and animals. Seuss admitted that his study of Latin, particularly the insights it provided into the etymology and construction of words, was a great influence on his writing.

     In the mid-1920s, Seuss lived for a time in Paris, where the likes of Hemingway, Joyce, and Stein -- writers who would forever change the face of literature with their innovations -- were establishing themselves. Seussís later writing uses many of the same literary techniques.

     Before World War II, Seuss had already earned a name for himself with the wildly successful advertising campaign for the insecticide called "Flit," making the phrase "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" part of popular culture. Seuss drew liberal political cartoons during World War II; he also made documentaries and propaganda films under Frank Capra while he served in the Signal Corps.

     In later interviews, Seuss was always quite honest about his rhetorical intentions. He referred directly to the influence of writers like Belloc, Swift, and Voltaire, and did not hesitate to refer to his own radical and revolutionary ideas. "Iím subversive as hell!" he once declared. He said of his Cat in the Hat: "Itís revolutionary in that it goes as far as Kerensky and then stops. It doesnít go quite as far as Lenin." Seuss was a writer fully aware of his political and rhetorical intentions (much like George Orwell, whose Animal Farm is often read in elementary schools), and he crafted his literary tools to most effectively deliver his charged messages.

     The verse style for which Seuss's work is famous is called anapestic tetrameter. Seuss folklore explains his fascination with this meter as the influence of the rhythm of the diesel engine in the ship he took home from Europe, but he also singled out Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a literary influence. Goethe's "The Erl-King" (narrated from the point of view of a child who is being kidnapped by the King of Elves) is written in anapestic tetrameter. There are English writers who also used this meter, one of the most memorable being Lord Byron, who wrote "The Destruction of Sennacherib." The best-known example of anapestic tetrameter in American culture is, of course, "The Night Before Christmas" (which we cannot help but associate with the Grinch these days).

     Goethe is known for saying that there is a genius in every child and a child in every genius. Seuss, as we know, had decided to "be a child" all his life and explained his own creativity by describing it as the "insane logic" of a child. Goethe is an interesting connection for Seuss because of this similar attitude toward childhood consciousness, but this link is especially relevant to my reading because Goethe's most renowned work happens to be Faust, whose protagonist is an Alchemist.
3.  Anagram Alchemy

     Recently, while I was pursuing my own suspicions about the hidden religious meaning of "I AM SAM / SAM I AM" in Green Eggs and Ham, I ran across an essay by Darren McGovern called "Green Eggs and SoíHam: A Qabalistic Interpretation of Dr. Seussí Green Eggs and Ham." McGovernís essay is -- almost by necessity -- rather tongue-in-cheek, especially toward its conclusion where his reading takes on the frenetic quality of a rant. But he begins by introducing a serious consideration, which happens to be an authentic part of some spiritual traditions: "Unlocking the (imaginary?) hidden meanings within nonsense can automatically set one to thinking of the mysteries. This, done with discipline, can lead to deep contemplation of Holy things and God Himself and that is the true path to illumination." Referring to the methodologies of the Qabalah [Kabbalah] and the Hermetic tradition, McGovern goes on to say that "By deciphering the meaning between the lines, the roots of words, the correspondence on the Tree of Life, and connections to myths, we can invoke the truth that lies hidden. . . . Distilling the information to extract the Ďgoldí from the original matter is an alchemical transformation operation."

     McGovern's claim is not as outrageous as it first seems, and his essay just scratches the surface of the analytic potential that a Hermetic/Kabbalistic reading of Dr. Seuss offers. In fact, it is precisely this approach that reveals the true nature of Seuss's genius and explains why works like The Lorax are so profoundly resonant with his readers.

     What Seuss uses is a complex interweaving of symbolism and anagrams, relying both on the appearance of the text and its sound, to carry a range of potential meanings that all serve to amplify the overarching theme of the work. This is generally true of Green Eggs and Ham and many other Seuss works, but applied with true genius in The Lorax.

     Let me begin with a reading that will seem, at first, to be outrageous, and then show how it is a very rational reading in keeping with both the rhetoric of The Lorax as a fable and the underlying alchemical and Kabbalistic techniques used by Dr. Seuss. (If you doubt the degree to which he used anagrams, keep in mind that he also wrote under the identity of "Theo LeSeig," which is a condensation and rearrangement of "Theodor Geisel.")

     Everyone who has read the book recalls the declaration: "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees." Since he is the guardian of the trees and the critic of the Once-ler, whose transgression is to chop them all down, it is not accidental that the Loraxís name sounds vaguely like "lower axe" in English. This is where most scholarly readers stop their analysis because it appears to be a fully adequate explication in keeping with underlying moral of the story. But Dr. Seussís construction of names is highly sophisticated if we bother to look more deeply. The sound value of "Lorax" is a red herring that allows adult readers to resonate with deeper underlying messages within the story once they have uncovered one of its upper layers. To do justice to Dr. Seuss, we must look at the name letter-by-letter.

     L O R A X is an anagram that breaks down into three symbolic clusters: AO, RX, and L. AO represents Alpha and Omega (O -- Omnicron -- here is a substitute for W -- Omega -- in keeping with the transformation of the Greek to Roman alphabets). These two letters, as we know, symbolize Christ, who said, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." RX (as I discuss in my column on the Caduceus), is usually taken to mean "prescription" as in the pharmacistís symbol, but it actually comes from another transformation of Greek to Roman alphabets; the R and X represent Rho and Chi, which in the Greek alphabet are P and X. Chi and Rho are the first two letters in Christos, or Christ. The X written over the P is the typical Chiro recognized as the symbol for Christ.

     A look at Nigel Pennickís Magical Alphabets shows how the L in LORAX is not an extra letter (or an article), but rather another condensation of the Christ symbol in conjunction with the theme of protecting trees. The Roman L is equivalent to the Greek Lambda, which, Pennick notes, "is connected with plant growth and the mathematical progressions associated with the figure in classical geometry, upon whose principles organic growth proceeds. It is linked mystically with the geometric ratio known as the Golden Section. As the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet, Lambda represents the ascent to a higher level." The Lorax, of course, is the protector of the trees, whose growth would be associated with the Golden Section (also known as the Golden Mean); when all the Truffula trees are gone, the Lorax is "lifted away," ascending to some mysterious higher place.

     The Roman L and Greek Lambda are equivalent to the Hebrew Lamed, and Pennick's entry for that letter is also quite interesting: "Lamed is the directed energy that one requires to initiate any action, and the sacrifices that one must inevitably incur in the process. The esoteric significance of Lamed is thus 'sacrifice.'" This is not only in keeping with all of the Christ associations I've pointed out above, since Christ is also the sacrificial Lamb(da) of God -- it also explains the page on which the Lorax first appears, pulling himself out of the first Truffula stump in a burst of multicolored energy as an axe falls away to the ground.

     The word TRUFFULA also breaks down into several phonetic anagrams of which "True Alpha" (TRU ALFFU, the U sound being like the neutral schwa sound like the E in the ER ending) and "fulla fruit" (FULA FRUT, i.e., "full of fruit") are the most relevant. Since it is literally the Tree of Life in the story (Seuss capitalizes the T in Tree), the fact that the Truffula Tree contains seeds of its own destruction, the "fatal fur" (FATUL FUR) of its tufts and the "future fall" (FUTUR FAL) of the Truffula paradise is especially ironic.

     The three kinds of animals who depend on the Truffula Trees seem, at first, to bear cute, nonsensical names, but all of them are laden with meaning both through symbolism and anagramming. Swomee Swan rearranges into the phrase, "As men we sow" (a contrast to the Once-lerís greedy reaping of the trees). It also becomes "Woeís-me Swan," suggesting the lamentation of the swansí departure; this anagram is especially poignant coupled with the symbolic meaning of the swan, whose dying lament (the source of the term "swan song") was associated with Christís dying breath on the cross.

     The Humming-Fish are somewhat easier to figure out because one need only condense the "Humming" into "huminí" ("human") to see that they are also a Christ symbol. Christ was a man associated with the symbol of the fish, thus a "human fish."

     Finally, the Brown Bar-ba-loots are also linked both to the anti-logging rhetoric, by anagramming into the phrase, "Ban blows to arbor," and to the crucifixion narrative: "Barabís loot." Barabas the thief was let go by popular vote when Christ was condemned to the cross. The prefix "barba" also means "bearded," linking the Lorax and Christ through their appearance, not only their ascension, and "barb" suggests the crown of thorns.

      The Once-lerís name, the weird "Snuvv," the "Lerkim," and the "snergelly hose" all resonate with the same Alchemical and Kabbalistic logic. A full explication of The Lorax would take its own book, so let it suffice for this essay to point out that the "Thneed," which is what the Once-ler makes out of the Truffula Trees, is "The End."

     So "What was the Lorax? And why was it there?" The answer is that despite his disavowal of interest in any particular organized religion, Dr. Seuss drew on the deep structures of esoteric Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to present us with a parable about The Fall and the potential of redemption. We need only perceive more carefully with the "insane logic" of children and mystics. The last Truffula seed is the Philosopherís Stone, which has the potential to transform the crass gold of greed into the true gold of enlightenment. From the Good Dr. Seuss, it is not an especially expensive prescription, or, for that matter, a hard pill to swallow.

*       *       *

Further Reading:

The full text of Ball's article can be found here.
     Darren McGovernís essay, "Green Eggs and SoíHam: A Qabalistic Interpretation of Dr. Seussí Green Eggs and Ham," is reprinted in Wake Up Down There!, The EXCLUDED MIDDLE Collection, edited by Gregory Bishop.
     Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons & the Meanings Behind Them, by Hans Biedermann (English translation by James Hulbert) is a handy reference work; keep in mind that its worldview is somewhat limited to traditional European antiquities.
     Another convenient reference work is Nigel Pennickís Magical Alphabets, which covers Greek, Hebrew, and Runic alphabets.
     An excellent introduction to Alchemy is Dennis William Hauckís The Emerald Tablet: Alchemy for Personal Transformation.
     The online version of Truax made available by the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association, if you'd like to assess it for yourself.
     Random House also maintains a commercially compromised Lorax site where you can check out the link that declares, "Celebrate Earth Day with The Lorax."
     Of course, thereís no substitute for going to the source and reading The Lorax for yourself.
     If you want to dabble in your own Hermetic deconstructions of Dr. Seuss, I recommend the Six by Seuss collection, which surveys Seuss from 1937 to 1971 and also includes And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton Hatches the Egg, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.
     The best biography of Dr. Seuss, though it is decidedly on the sunny side, is Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel by Judith and Neil Morgan.
     For some analysis of his work, see Thomas Fenschís Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr. Seuss, and for some true insight, I most highly recommend The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss, which I hope will prove both shocking and delightful, as the best of Seuss should be.

About the Author:

Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other works. For more information, please visit his Endicott bio page

Copyright © 2001 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.


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