When I was growing up, my Mother used to read the Oz books to my brother, sister and me over breakfast. Any time we’d come to a challenging word, we’d have a family discussion about what it meant and the context. We followed Tik-Tok, the princess Ozma, the Patchwork Girl, all the various characters through all of L. Frank Baum’s 14 books. We then went through the books by Ruth Plumly Thompson, even some by Jack Snow and John Neill … I think my Mom still has the complete set of what they call the “Canonical Oz” series. Particularly, I remember enjoying the way the world of Oz turned out to be so much richer and more involved than simply a romp along the Yellow Brick Road with the original companions and a curtain disguising a wimp as a Wizard.
After all that history, it was with mixed anticipation and trepidation that I undertook to read Wicked, by Gregory Maguire (a recommendation by Alison, of course). Wicked tells the backstory of the Wicked Witch of the West, and in doing so, it takes the traditional genre of the Oz books and turns it on its ear. Really, it takes the whole paradigm of unidimensional children’s story and eviscerates it – Maguire proposes that there is no such thing as absolute evil. A woman doesn’t just show up in all black, taunting Scarecrow as she hurls fireballs at him. That witch has to come from somewhere; she was a little girl with parents, once. Something has to make her want those ruby slippers so badly.
To accomplish such an adult revision to the concept of the fairy tale, Maguire turns Oz into an adult place. There is a Wizard, but he is a fascist tyrant who arrived from another world decades ago and has methodically consolidated the country under an iron fist. There is a cowardly lion, but he is an Animal, one of the few intelligent beasts who have been methodically persecuted by the Wizard. There are Munchkins, but they aren’t the cute representatives of the Lollipop Gang who greeted Dorothy in the Baum’s story – by the time she shows up in a flying (falling?) house, they’ve risen in secesion against the might of the Emerald City. And there is a Wicked Witch of the West – Elphaba – who accepts and even encourages the moniker because it provides cover for her greater goals; who was born with sharp teeth and bright green skin, to a fanatical minister father and a slutty, bratty mother; who is a thoughtful and principled student at university; who loves and supports and hurts like any other person.
In other words, between the traditional red and green and yellow and blue quadrants of Oz, Maguire finds some gray area. He makes Elphaba alternatively protagonist and antagonist, making her into a character who makes sense against a backdrop of religious schism and political intrigue. Elphaba is constantly asking other people whether Evil actually exists, or whether it is a default state of people and Good is actually something new and special, or whether the entire question should be surrendered to some form of nihilistic relativism. You’ll have to read the book to learn what she decides … although there was that bit about throwing fireballs at Scarecrow.
All in all, a good story that I’m told is even improved on in the theater musical. Maguire falls victim to his own philosophizing at times – the basic question of whether a “bad guy” can be sympathetic is nothing new, and his treatment of the good/evil paradox is a bit didactic and ham-handed in places. I found it particularly frustrating that although Elphaba is consistently putting normative questions to other characters, very few of them bother to or are capable of giving her meaningful answers. The quality of the story doesn’t rely on the outcome of these (fortunately) sporadic philosophical exchanges, though, and it is a rich world that he paints (enhances). AND, he explains where those damned flying monkeys came from, which I appreciated quite a bit.