Monday, September 16, 2013

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

No, I haven't just read this famous Oz-themed piece of literature. I read Wicked at least ten years ago and really didn't care for it. It was an Oz that was pretty blatantly anti-Oz: no joy, little magic, and the beloved Glinda and Wizard are by no means what they seemed. Whereas the Good Witch of the North in Baum's book says that Oz has never been civilized, the Oz by Gregory Maguire has been, complete with colleges, mints, shops, railroads, and corruption.

However, much later, I thought that I should probably re-read the book. I was in my late teens then. Now I'm closer to thirty. Well, not long ago, needing a book to read on the way to work, I spotted my copy (it's a paperback, but I've been trying to find a hardcover with the same cover design to match my copies of the rest of the series) and decided to give it its much needed re-read.

First off, I do not recommend anyone under 18 read Wicked. I've heard of people younger than that reading the book, but the book contains profanity, some nicely written sex scenes, and plenty of suggestive themes. Frankly, kids, there's stuff in here you probably shouldn't know about yet.

The concept of Wicked is not to tell "the real story of The Wizard of Oz" or be a prequel to Baum's book (though Maguire cleverly uses elements from Baum's book not in the famous film version, which there's plenty of references to). The book was released in 1996, when Baum's tale had been in the public consciousness for 96 years and had become firmly part of American folklore. Instead of providing the whimsical adventure fairy tale of Dorothy's quest, it is a reinvention of the original Oz story based around the grim reality of the life of Elphaba Thropp, a girl born with green skin who grows up to become the mysterious Witch of the West.

Elphaba was born in Munchkinland, but after her parents befriend a Quadling (who might be the father of her armless sister Nessarose), the family moves to his home country. The story jumps ahead years later to find Elphaba attending Shiz University in the Gillikin Country where she learns from Doctor Dillamond, a Goat (a capital letter denotes the difference between non-speaking animals and talking Animals), who gets her interested in freedom and equal protection for Animals as Oz citizens. She rooms with Galinda Arduenna Upland, a girl from high society who will one day be known as Glinda the Good. After some terrible events at Shiz, Elphaba and Glinda go to the Emerald City to see the Wizard.

Elphaba decides she has to go rogue and she becomes a mysterious figure, though during her life in the Emerald City, she has a physical relationship with Fiyero Tigelaar, a married man and former classmate. After a failed assassination attempt, Elphaba becomes a nun after a lost year in her memory, where she discovers herself joined by a boy named Liir. Having been in every other part of Oz, Elphaba goes west, where she begins building the image of the Wicked Witch of the West and begins to discover a few secrets of the framework of Oz's current government, magic, and even her own life.

Maguire doesn't call Elphaba a Witch until about two-thirds through the book. It's not until very late in the book that she is finally the Wicked Witch of the West. A big part of the book is the perception of Good and Evil. Elphaba doesn't consider herself good, and it's true: she does some rather awful things in the course of the book. Yet, by getting under her green skin, Maguire lets us see a broken woman who never had the best life and in the end just wanted to be at peace. She isn't good, but is she truly evil? Writing at a slow, leisurely pace, Maguire draws the reader into an odd version of Oz that mashes together Baum's original book with iconic images from the classic film.

I most like Maguire's original characters. When I first read the book, I imagined Liir as one of those creepy wide-eyed kids from a horror movie, but after the sequels, I found myself liking his character much more and he seemed more natural, though there is definitely something not quite right with this kid. Another favorite is Nanny, Elphaba's nursemaid who helped her mother shortly after her birth, then again with Nessarose, even accompanying her to Shiz, serving as her Ama. Nanny is an old woman at the start of Wicked. She's around at the end of Out of Oz. She gets older and older and is simply a hoot to read.

The Oz depicted in Wicked and its sequels is very different from Baum's original. Again, it must be remembered that Maguire (though very aware of the later books: references to the line of Ozmas and "Lurlina" are made) is not playing in Baum's Oz. Again, this is a reinvention of what has become American folklore. This Oz contains religions (one scene finds a young man seemingly sacrificed by being strapped to a Tiger, he is seriously ill after this and dies years later), a hard government with military force, occult magic, and a very different take on some of our beloved characters, particularly the Wizard. (Maguire seems to have no love for Toto, either.)

Wicked is not for everyone. Some outrightly despise it. Some unabashedly love it. Some appreciate it, but prefer other versions of Oz. Others are confused as to the vast differences between the book and its popular musical adaptation. As for me, I'm glad I gave the book another chance. I certainly enjoyed it much more with a more seasoned mind. It will never be my Oz, but I can appreciate it for what it is.


Sam A M said...

I read the book well after I was 18 and certainly disdain it . . . I did find the musical more enjoyable . . .

but I have an absolute hard and difficult time accepting this (*trash*)! I find it hard to believe that Gregory Maguire actually likes Oz and would write something like THIS at the same time! And I hate that it's so obviously more MGM than the Books, despite/even with the Silver Shoes, but even worse is that people keep doing a pretty WWW on DeviantArt or fusing this and Baum together!!

Reading the book as an adult was bad enough and I don't know if I will ever reread it again. Let alone read the remaining "Years" ... !
Even with your second opinion, I don't like this take!

So, in my opinion, either Maguire should have (a) made new names in an entirely new environment (b) done a more RESPECTABLE (re)write of Oz or (c) NOT WRITE IT AT ALL!! One of those would have made me happy, because then he wouldn't have RUINED something so good as Baum's Oz!

James C. Wallace II said...

I'm with Sam on this one. I do not like Wicked or any of the sequels at all. I listened to them as books-on-cd and was not impressed. I've met Maguire and he seems like a nice fellow, but his "Adultification" of Oz offends me. I'll stick with writing stories my grandkids can read.

Jared said...

How does it ruin Baum's Oz if it makes you realize how much you love that one?

rocketdave said...

Gelphie forever! XD

Seriously, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say I love Wicked, but I have to respect it at least. Or maybe I'm just easily impressed by a lot of ten dollar words. It's not just that, however- I do find Maguire's reimagining a fascinating read.

Though there's no question which version of Oz I'd prefer to live in, as I've gotten older and more cynical, my brain rebels the thought of a land as illogical and innocent as the one Baum created. Then again, Maguire's Oz doesn't seem quite solid to me either, and I don't mean because it has magic and dragons, etc. Rather, something about the language he uses keeps the place feeling somewhat aloof and esoteric. I've never been able to adequately articulate my feelings about it, but that's the best way I can think to say it. Maybe this is part of what I'm talking about: when it gets to the chapter where Princess Nastoya reveals herself to be an Elephant, it took me a few paragraphs to realize she was a literal Elephant and that Maguire wasn't just being poetic.

The basic idea behind Wicked reminds me of the book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, but that was a little kid's picture book whereas Wicked is obviously aimed at a way more sophisticated audience. If you told most authors to imagine a story about the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda going to school, I doubt there are many who would treat the subject as Serious Literature the way Maguire did.

Anyway, I'm open minded enough that I can definitely appreciate Wicked and its sequels, in much the same way that I can appreciate other reinterpretations of classic stories, such as the comic book Fables or the TV show Once Upon a Time. Or BBC's Sherlock and CBS's Elementary. Speaking of Sherlock Holmes, I'm also a bit of a Sherlockian, but I didn't get bent out of shape that Michael Caine portrayed the character as a bumbling idiot in Without a Clue; I really like that movie, in fact.

I suppose there are cases in which I have balked at darker and/or twisted versions of beloved properties, but I think Maguire molds Oz to his own devices with enough intelligence that I'm not personally offended by his take on the subject matter.