It’s almost a shame the musical has become the success that it has, because it completely overshadows what is an extraordinary and inspired piece of literature. I am in awe of what Gregory Maguire has done with L. Frank Baum’s world, transforming it into an adult creation all his own while still honoring the classic I grew up on.
In Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, the witch is re-imagined as Elphaba, an idealistic victim. She’s not so much evil as she is the ignored and unloved daughter of a fundamentalist preacher and a depressed, unfaithful mother. She’s less of an affliction of Oz and more a dissident threat to the Wizard, the leader of a totalitarian regime.
In terms of elevator pitches, it sounds more like a joke than a serious piece of fiction. But Maguire is serious. Dead serious. Even while taking liberties with his source, Maguire treats Baum–and Oz–with the utmost respect. And it’s this serious approach to his re-telling that allows people to hold it right next to Baum’s classic as a fable for the ages … albeit one for more adult audiences.
The central conceit of the story is that evil people aren’t all that different from the rest of us. They’re simply misunderstood, or have their victim stories told by the victors. “It’s people who claim that they’re good, or anyway better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of,” he says.
Maguire’s Oz is one mired in race relations, or People-to-Animal relations to be more specific. In Oz, there are animals and then there are Animals; the former are the cows and dogs and cats we all know and love, the latter are like the Cowardly Lion from the film, animals who’ve evolved human-like traits, like speech.
Eventually, Elphaba and the Wizard end up on either side of the debate, with Elphaba leading the charge for Animal rights and the Wizard instituting pogroms against them. It’s an Oz apartheid.
For some, the re-imagining is too much. It’s at times irreverent, violent, and sexual. It takes a story for children and ages it to an uncomfortable degree, allegedly. But all of this depends on what you expect to find. If you want the same story told in a slightly more adult fashion, then Wicked isn’t for you. It isn’t remotely for you. However, if you’re intrigued by the idea of re-examining something you loved as a child through more mature, seasoned, and penetrating eyes, then by all means give this book a read.
For Fans and Non-Fans, Alike
I am, to this day, an unabashed fanboy of The Wizard of Oz. As a child I would wake my entire family every morning by singing along with Dorothy and the Scarecrow at the top of my lungs. I haven’t lost a shred of reverence for the film over the years, and yet I absolutely love Maguire’s version of Oz. Because now I’m 31. And if he re-wrote Baum’s story with bigger words, then I would have been bored to tears. Because what would have been the point?
Instead, Maguire asks questions a curious adult would ask. Why did the Witch have green skin? Where did she come from? Is magic something that’s vilified or is it widespread? How are lions and scarecrows and tin men walking around and talking? What kind of society would this be? What was the Wizard’s story? You know, that opportunistic sociopath who sent a teenage girl presumably to her death so that he wouldn’t have to do any of his dirty work himself?
There are interesting questions to ask about this story, and Maguire simply tried answering them in the most interesting way he could.
Elphaba’s green skin makes her an instant social pariah. Her own mother contemplated drowning her, her father said she was “born to curse my life” and felt that she was punishment for failing in his quest to convert the masses to the Unnamed God. She grows into a sort of Holden Caulfield of Oz: moody, sensitive, and rebellious.
She becomes a fierce idealist, one who fights against a racist dictator who wants to turn Animals into chattel, slaves to be owned and battered and dominated and commercialized. When the Wizard’s campaign turns against Doctor Dillamond, a Goat who also happens to be Elphaba’s favorite professor at Shiz University, the gloves come off and the battle is on.
A Work of Genius
By the end, Maguire’s Oz is densely political and chock-full of an eccentric cast of characters. There’s a heavy dose of morality and philosophizing, while maintaining the whimsy we expect to find in a story about munchkins, talking lions, and the Emerald City. He strikes a wonderful balance.
But make no mistake: this is Literature with a capital L. Maguire’s prose is to be savored. His ethics are to be debated. His allegories are meant to be pondered.
This novel examines good and evil, sorcery and science, superiority and equality, and the value of each and every person. If God exists, and he loves us all, it’s because he knows each step of each of our journeys, and if we were to follow a person–an “evil” person–through every moment of their life we wouldn’t be so quick to judge.
Every action is, in fact, a reaction, and we all don’t have as much choice as we like to think we do, because every action we take was decided by who our parents were, and how we were raised, and where we lived, and who our friends were, and how people treated us, and how much money we didn’t have, and the values that result from all of that.