Given the vast number of dangling plot threads left at the end of the second book in the Wicked Series, Son of a Witch, it is not surprising that Gregory Maguire bowed to the wishes of public and publishers to follow the Oz tradition of multiple sequels by penning a third. What is surprising is just how many of those plot threads are left untouched in this book, even as others are picked up and illuminated.
As can probably be guessed from the title, A Lion Among Men is mostly the tale of the Cowardly Lion, in this series first introduced as a tiny cub in Wicked. But this is also the tale of Yackle, the elderly crone who has hovered on the edge of the series, and it takes a few chapters for the Cowardly Lion to appear, accompanied by a glass cat called Shadowpuppet.
Maguire is working against a distinct problem here. His first novel in this series, Wicked, centered on a character of whom little was known, however memorable Margaret Hamilton’s brilliant performance, and the second, Son of a Witch, focused on one of Maguire’s own characters. This allowed Maguire considerable freedom.
But in A Lion Among Men, Maguire takes up the tale of one of Oz’s most popular characters, featured in multiple books by multiple writers, not to mention a singing solo in a movie or two: the lion who quakes with fear and yet acts bravely when needed. It’s a problem, one that might be solved by truly taking a revisionist take—showing that the cowardliness was all an act to gain popularity, for instance, or merely a misunderstood view of his actions, or that the cowardliness was forced upon him, much the way Elphaba slowly fell into wickedness. Or some other deconstruction.
But Maguire doesn’t quite do any of this. Instead, he creates a Cowardly Lion who really is, well, a coward: his few acts of “bravery” are merely misunderstood gestures of cowardice. And yet—I realize I’m contradicting myself here—he’s just not cowardly enough. He doesn’t shake in his paws. He doesn’t tell people how terrified he is or warn them about approaching doom or explain just how much certain things (most things in Oz) terrify him. Rather, he more drifts from here to there, representing, if anything, apathy. He more drifts from here to there, following the convictions and opinions of others. And in some cases, he’s not cowardly at all, as he becomes one of the few talking animals still willing to dare interaction with an increasingly hostile human population. But this decision seems to be made from either ennui or a slight—but not overwhelming—greed. And unfortunately, as it turns out, apathy is not always the best way to get a reader emotionally involved with your character.
The odd thing is that the Lion’s upbringing, or more strictly speaking, lack thereof, might well have turned him into a coward. And perhaps this creature that spends time trying to please others, instead of choosing to stand for something—anything—does fit Maguire’s idea of cowardice, even if it tends to read more as a distinct lack of insight and intelligence, or, even a lack of a plan. Any plan.
That’s not inherently bad—I can think of several people in real life who have no real life plan, and are just fine with going where life takes them. And in fantasy, a genre typically filled with people either planning or destined to do something, it’s rather refreshing to find a character who is just going where he goes, occasionally with the push of a little blackmail. But doing this with the Cowardly Lion feels somehow…off. I can’t describe it better than that, except that more than once I thought to myself that, with the exception of concerns about talking animals, this was the wrong Oz character to put into this particular plotline: this seems to be more the story of the Scarecrow. And it lacks the sense of “oh, well, this explains it,” that the first novel had.
Maguire uses Brrr in part to show us the inner and outer effects of what being othered might have on a person. The Lion never has the opportunity to hang out and live with lions; rather, he spends his time with bears, humans, smaller cats, and other animals, always knowing he is not fully one of this group, even as he tries to fit in. Intriguingly enough, sometimes he is aware that he is judged by his fur; sometimes he is not, or not aware for some time. It is meant in part, I think, to once again study the effects of conscious or unconscious racism on behavior.
Whether it is successful or not is another question. Brrr is accused of being a collaborator, but this description presents immediate difficulties: he was not, after all, raised among his own kind. A perhaps better question is the old nature versus nurture argument: is Brrr more of a Lion, or a human, whatever the title of his book might be? Brrr wears human clothing, interacts with humans, allows humans to guide him. He also interacts with talking and non talking animals, allowing them to guide him (the theme here, if you haven’t guessed, is that Brrr is not really the self-reliant sort.) It’s not entirely clear which world he is more part of. And unfortunately, Brrr is not a deep thinker. After two protagonists who constantly examined their own actions and motivations—perhaps too much—this is problematic.
More successful are the chapters telling the tale of the old crone Yackle and the continuing tale of the Time Dragon (although my love for puppets may be blinding me here.) Maguire still shines at showing characters through dialogue, and at worldbuilding. And if readers paying any attention whatsoever will probably not be too surprised by any of the “reveals” at the end, Maguire once again rouses himself to provide a gripping ending.
The last thirty or so pages are hands down the best of the book, making me wonder if perhaps he does this deliberately, to get me enthusiastic about the next book. Which I am. I appreciate Maguire’s ability to provide nicely untidy endings, but at the same time, I do actually want to know what happened to a couple of characters.
At the same time, I am slightly worried about what will happen should Maguire tackle the Scarecrow next, which seems likely; like other Oz writers, Maguire seems unsure what to do with the Tin Woodman, but he seemed to find the Scarecrow more intriguing. This is all well and good, but seeing my beloved Cowardly Lion turned into an apathetic and saddened government agent is not necessarily encouraging.
Warning: this is definitely not a book to start reading without either some knowledge of the Oz series or (better) reading the first two books in the series. Maguire does take the time to stop and explain some of the past events in flashbacks, but unless you’ve read the past two books, it probably won’t be clear why you should care. But if you’ve read the other two books, by the end you will probably be caring quite a bit.
Mari Ness has just been reading up on the tales of another rather well known fantasy lion. She lives in central Florida.