As I’ve noted, after the death of L. Frank Baum, Oz had no shortage of writers willing to continue the Oz tales or speculate about various matters in Oz, both past and present, to fill in gaps, or simply add more rollicking tales to the Oz canon. But most of these writers had one thing in common: they accepted Oz unquestionably. If they occasionally took a different moral or political stance (notably Ruth Plumly Thompson) they did not argue with most of Baum’s fundamental points. In the mid-1990s, however, a small book came along that, despite displaying a genuine love of and fondness for the original series, fundamentally disagreed with the entire premise of Oz.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, and specifically its cover and annoying Reader’s Guide, is marketed as a response to the 1939 film. Certainly, its initial popularity may well have come (or been helped by) the popularity of the 1939 film, and Gregory Maguire’s physical description of the Wicked Witch of the West owes a considerable amount to Margaret Hamilton’s green-skinned portrayal in that film. But although references to the film appear here and there, Wicked is a response to the entire Baum canon, and to a lesser extent, fairytales in general. At heart, it questions Baum’s statement that most bad people are bad because they do not try to be good.
What happens, asks Maguire, when people trying to be good live in a world that is, fundamentally, not good? In an Oz filled not with abundant food, wealth, and adventure, but teeming with vicious politics, murder, sex and—perhaps most surprisingly—religion?
As befits the title, Wicked is primarily the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. (Her name was coined from L. Frank Baum’s initials; in the original Baum books, the Witch never had a personal name.) It is also, to a lesser extent, the tale of Glinda the Good, and to an even lesser extent the Wizard of Oz, and, to a great extent, the tale of people unfortunate enough to live in a land of magic without complete understanding, control, or belief in magic. As befits a revisionist history, the Elphaba we first meet is an innocent if rather green and biting child with a fondness for the word “horrors.” When we next meet her, she is a somewhat cynical, occasionally sharp tongued teenager with a strong moral core. A series of tragedies, betrayals, conspiracies and a murder transforms her into a still moralistic terrorist.
Wicked was written before 9-11, but terrorism, its moral implications and consequences, and the vicious response of state leaders to it, still permeates the second half of the book, and Maguire does not shy away from focusing on the tragedies terrorism creates—however justified the terrorists may feel. Elphaba is convinced—and the novel agrees with her—that the political structure of the Wizard of Oz she battles is unjust and cruel. The Wizard’s shock troops, called the Gale Force, strongly resemble Hitler’s SS, in an evocation I assume is deliberate. The Wizard is systematically rounding up sentient animals and depriving them of their rights; in a generation, these Animals transform from members of the community, scholars and skilled laborers, to persecuted and often slaughtered animal beings, some retreating to utter silence.
Against this, Elphaba’s decision to fight the Wizard with violence makes moral sense—and even caught in a moral tempest, as she is, she shies away from killing children as byproducts of her mission. But this decision does not save her, and her actions begin begin her slow and steady course into guilt and obsession.
The book asks, often, about choices, suggesting both that Elphaba has no choice, doomed as she was from birth, as a child of two worlds without being part of either, by her rather awful, self-centered parents, models of lousy parenting, and by her green skin, marking her immediately as different and odd. None of this prevents Elphaba from attempting to earn a university education. On the other hand, her choices, and the guilt that weighs her later, are largely guided by things that have happened to her both in her years dragged around the swamps of the Quadling Country and at the university—which she is attending in part because of an accident of birth, which made her a member of one of the noble families of Oz. (Incidentally, the suggested abundance of these makes me think that Maguire also read the Thompson books, although those are not referenced directly in the text.) Elphaba herself questions how much choice she has had; then again, perhaps it is easier for her to think of herself as doomed by destiny.
Intriguingly enough, even as he rejects Baum’s concepts, Maguire does an admirable job of explaining away the multiple inconsistencies in the Baum books—particularly in explaining how people can eat meat in a land where animals talk, teach and attend dinner parties, and in explaining the varied and completely contradictory histories of Oz. (As I’ve noted, these inconsistencies never bothered me much as a kid, and I expect that they can be waved away by “magic,” but they clearly at least nagged at Maguire.) In Maguire’s Oz, some Animals can talk, and some animals cannot, and the conflicting histories of Oz are woven into its religious practices and propaganda. This absolutely works for me.
As do the religious conflicts among unionists and Lurlinists and non-believers, and the religious obsession of many characters. Too often in fantasy religion is either distant, or too close, with gods interacting directly with characters, and characters in turn becoming far too aware of just how this fantasy universe operates, at least divinely. Here, characters cling to faith—in at least two cases, far too fiercely for their own good—without proof, allowing faith or the lack thereof to guide their actions. It allows for both atheism and fanaticism, with convincing depictions of both, odd though this seems for Oz. (Baum’s Oz had one brief reference to a church, and one Thompson book suggests that Ozites may be at least familiar with religious figures, but otherwise, Oz had been entirely secular, if filled with people with supernatural, or faked supernatural, powers and immortality.)
Some suggestions make me uncomfortable, notably the idea that Elphaba is green and Nessarose disabled because of their mother’s infidelity. A common theme in folklore, certainly, and for all I know actually true in fairylands, but I am still uncomfortable with the concept that infidelity would damage children physically, even if perhaps this should or could be read as a physical manifestation of the emotional damage that children can suffer from fractured marriages.
And I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea that children of two worlds, like Elphaba, cannot find happiness in one of these worlds. (She is never given the choice of the other world, and hardly seems to accept her connection to that world, and even its existence.) This, despite the suggestion at the end of the book that Elphaba’s story is not over, and perhaps—perhaps—she has a chance one day.
References to Baum’s other books, both Oz and otherwise, are scattered throughout the text, and in a small inside joke, the missing Ozma is Ozma Tipperarius. I liked the sprinkling of tik-toks throughout, and the playful suggestion on the map that if you travel just far enough you will find a dragon – perhaps the original time dragon, perhaps another dragon. I was also amused that, as befits a revisionist history, the wild Gillikin Country of Baum’s Oz has been turned into the most civilized land of Maguire’s Oz, and the highly settled, peaceful Winkie Country transformed into the wildly dangerous lands of the Vinkus. The book also bristles with references to other myths and fairytales, suggesting that just perhaps Oz is a land where myths have gone terribly, terribly wrong, caught in clockwork and machinery. As one talking Cow notes mournfully, that is enough to cast many things—including the wonder of talking animals—aside.
One word of warning: the book does get a bit bogged down in its third quarter, when Maguire seems to be wondering precisely how to get Elphaba over to the West and transform her into the green rider of broomsticks known from the film. It rouses back sharply in the last quarter, though, and had me looking forward to the two sequels (which I still haven’t read, but will be trying to get to over the holiday season.)
I cannot love this book—it is too emotionally cold, too harsh. But I can admire it, and I can become utterly absorbed by it, and enjoy the many quotable bits. And I can be heartbroken when Oz cannot, in the end, welcome everyone—even those who should, by rights, be part of it.
Before you ask, Mari Ness has not gotten around to seeing the musical, although that will be changing very soon. She lives in central Florida.