Dec 30 2010 2:35pm

Self-discovery in Fairyland: Gregory Maguire’s Son of a Witch

Son of a Witch by Gregory MaguireWicked sold well enough that ten years later, following a long standing Oz tradition, Gregory Maguire wrote a sequel, Son of a Witch. Like the first novel, this was a hit (if apparently less popular than the first novel, if online bookstores are anything to go by), and like the first novel, it plunged into the questions of evil and choices. Unlike the first novel, it seemed more inclined to explore the Oz it had created, leaving Baum’s more secure, joyous world behind—even as the book returned to more of what most would probably be called adventure.

Son of a Witch, as the title suggests, is the story of Liir, the probable son of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. It starts on a stark note, as his broken body is found under mysterious circumstances, and it ends on a slim and fragile note of hope and forgiveness.

Injured and broken, Liir is brought back to life by music: the playing of a mysterious Quadling girl called Candle. The music also restores his memories, allowing Maguire to tell Liir’s story in a slow flashback. This is where the adventure comes in: Liir joins Dorothy and her friends on a trip to the Emerald City, where he meets Glinda, explores a prison, joins an army, and eventually heads off to the Quadling Country with the army of the Emerald City.

The invasion into the Quadling Country is meant as a rescue mission: it grows into an occupation, and then things go terribly wrong. It is almost impossible not to draw parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan, although to be fair, Maguire could probably not have foreseen the extent of either when he was writing this book. Or maybe, as a deep set pessimist, he could, and meant the entire Quadling Country sideplot as a warning, as well as an example to what happens to the aimless and neglected when asked to commit evil.

Unlike his putative mother, Liir turns to unquestioned evil, unadulterated by idealism. Not simply through following orders, either: many of his evil actions are taken to protect himself, or to quell an internal discomfort, or for both (as when Liir drives a fellow soldier into suicide.) Eventually, this becomes too much, and Liir flees the army, if not the past he knows, returning us to the beginning of the book, and the next part of the tale, filled with dragons and birds and dying elephants and the Emerald City.

This is a story of how even a seemingly distant war and training for that war can destroy or nearly destroy a person. The war exiles Candle from her home; further drives the lost Liir into acts of evil; and later shatters Trism, not to mention some dragons and those birds. I like to think that it is the very abandonment of the pacifist ideals of Oz that has created this situation; an Oz where everyone is focused on having fun and adventure is, not surprisingly, kinder on the mind and ego than this one, filled with spies, betrayal, torture and severe self-doubt.

In the comments on the last post, one person noted that Wicked seemed to him to be more of an anti-fanfic, not a deliberate response to anything in Baum, but rather an original novel with Oz elements grafted on. I’m not at all certain this is true for Wicked, but I must admit, my mind slipped back more than once to this comment as I read through the first half of the book, where, whatever the presence of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, Oz seems left far behind, a sense that only grows as Liir leaves these familiar figures and Glinda. It is almost as if, having established in the earlier book that this is very much not the original Oz, Maguire felt free to run with his own creations, his own imagination, no longer as concerned about reworking Oz.

But then, Liir runs into an old woman and a boy named Tip, clearly visiting from The Marvelous Land of Oz (and a scene that I’m hoping gets followed up in later books), and later into the Hungry Tiger, jolting me back, just a little, into Oz again. And the appearance of Iskinaary, the Grey Goose, seems meant at the very least as a homage to Magic of Oz, if not an outright appearance of one of Oz’s most frequently appearing villains. (If the second, I can only hope that Maguire does a better job in the next two books with Ruggedo than some of Baum’s successors.)

In many ways, Son of Witch is a better crafted novel than its predecessor, making better use of narrative and literary techniques, taking more confidence in the world it has created, and proceeding at a much more sustained pace. And yet, this craft does not prevent the work from occasional slowness and dreariness, and I must agree with the commentators who warned that this could be a very depressing work. Part of the problem is that a descent into evil is not always that fun to read about, particularly if the person descending isn’t having much fun, either—gleeful villains rubbing their hands in joy may be irritating, but they are at least having fun. One or two of the jokes, particularly the one on page 255 of the hardcover edition, are just a little too clever, a little too self-referential, and some of the minor characters (especially at Saint Glinda’s) are just irritating.

And once again, I find myself troubled by some of Maguire’s implications, particularly the thought that people who do not know where they come from—in particular, not knowing their parentage and history—are more likely to become lost and troubled, and more likely to drift towards evil. I am not entirely sure that my friends who are adopted but never met their birth parents would agree either. And I’m certain that L. Frank Baum, with his self-confident orphans, American hobos, and proudly created creatures with no parentage at all, would not.

The ending will not satisfy those who need things in their novels wrapped up, even if untidily. Questions abound, perhaps because with this novel, Maguire knew he could continue the story. (I have not yet read the next novel, so I’m not sure if Maguire does, but even if the answers don’t appear in the next novel, Maguire reportedly has at least one more novel planned for the series, and with the world he has created, could conceivably write far more.) Perhaps because Maguire wants to remind us that real life is rarely as tidy as the fairy tales of Oz. And perhaps because many of the questions have nothing to do with Liir’s growing self-knowledge and acceptance; the last line of the novel does, after all, say quite a lot.

But I did find myself curious to understand Liir, to find out if he could climb back from the abyss he and Oz had created, to find out if he could ever learn who he was, or would always be wondering, and wondered about this Oz, so different from the joyous land of adventure and acceptance. I liked the casual acceptance of bisexuality, the rich development of Maguire’s Oz, the well depicted political floundering that follows the Wizard’s departure. And I found myself utterly believing in the bleak picture Maguire created, of the effects of bureaucracy and war on the lost, even as I found myself hoping that Ozian life will be a little kinder to the Cowardly Lion in the next book.

Mari Ness found that this book is considerably less depressing when consumed with holiday cookies. She lives in central Florida.

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1. sofrina
i don't think anyone expected you to post this one so soon. i really love "wicked" and i love "son of a witch" even more. maybe because liir comes around in the end. he isn't done down by his poor choices just yet and he joins a just cause. i like books where the protagonist endures an extensive trial and then breaks through.

maguire is an adoptive parent himself. i don't think he argues that orphans are drawn to evil. liir isn't adopted after all. the only person who makes that effort is nanny in "wicked" and that only lasts a few years before the witch dies. liir's problem lies in having no guidance at all. he was lucky to get whatever he could from the edges of elphaba's life. once elphaba and the rest of the family were gone he was sort of on his own.

the one thing that troubles me about this book is that liir doesn't know he's elphaba's son. i don't recall he ever goes back to the mauntery where he was born and simply ask. in "wicked," it is expressly narrated that he is her son: "...and so liir prepared to enter his father's house." (p. 243 of the trade paperback, final page of "In the Vinkus: The Voyage Out"). it bugs me no end that elphaba wouldn't get over herself enough to acknowledge liir. the excerpt at the end put it over the top for me. it's the surprises in this book that make me love it. it might be time to reread it.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
@Sofrina - Heh. I just figured people were busy eating holiday cookies. I can understand that.

The way I read the books was that the narrator knew that Liir was Elphaba's son (and any doubt is removed in the third book) but for some reason, Elphaba could not bring herself to believe/understand this, and had apparently blocked out the entire experience of pregnancy/giving birth.

Now, admittedly, I haven't been pregnant, so my next statement is just based on observations made of my friends, but I did find it difficult to believe that the only thing a woman would forget about her past is a pregnancy/childbirth, however guilty she may have felt about the father of her child. But apparently, she was in such mental shock over the man's horrrific death that she did lose it enough to be completely unaware of her surroundings and even her physical situation. But as you note, it is irritating that she couldn't get past her guilt (and accept that she wasn't the only guilty person in that relationship) to realize that yes, Liir was her child, even if he didn't have green skin.

Anyway. You're right that Liir isn't adopted. But he doesn't know who he is or where he comes from, and that clearly bothers him, and is part of his inner tension and the tension of the entire book, which is partly a quest to find out who he actually is. He might well have had to do this even if he had known that Elphaba was his mother all along, but not knowing is one of his incentives.

And now I need a cookie :)
3. Nancy Reed
All I can say is I am hungry for more the book left lots of questions and I am so hoping a third is in the works. They make for a good movie. Loved oz as a child but this is grown up oz. Great books.

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