After finally seeing the Broadway musical I felt it was well past time to track down Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked (the inspiration for the musical, which by this stage has probably eclipsed the book in popularity) and read for myself the origin story of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Anyone who comes to the book out of a love for the musical is probably in for a nasty shock. Though the musical had its share of darkness and a bittersweet ending, it was generally a very light and comedic production that focused on the friendship between Elphaba and Glinda. Maguire’s novel on the other hand is filled with violence, sex, murder and grotesquery, delving into the question of what makes a human being evil and whether or not they can escape their preordained fate.
Elphaba is born to missionary parents in lower-east Munchkinland, with unexplained green skin and pointy incisors. With little idea of what to do with such a creature, Elphaba grows up in isolation until she’s ready to attend Shiz University. There she becomes roommates with the beautiful and frivolous Galinda, and soon becomes embroiled in the social unrest that’s spreading under the government regime of the Wizard of Oz. Knowing that their headmistress Madame Morrible is in cahoots with the tyrannical wizard and plans for Elphaba, Galinda and Elphaba’s little sister Nessarose to become pawns in his administration, Elphaba strikes out on her own in the Emerald City.
This is only a summary of only the first-half of the book, for in truth it’s an expansive story that covers many years and takes Elphaba to all the corners of the Oz map. It’s packed full of allegory and symbolism, as well as social, political, religious and ethical commentary on the nature of good and evil. There are several creepy hints that some ambiguous force is manipulating all the main characters behind-the-scenes — though to what end, we’re never quite sure. And finally, elements of Frank L. Baum‘s original story start to bleed into the narrative as Dorothy arrives in Oz and begins her fateful journey toward the Wicked Witch’s castle.
There are some books that I can’t fathom anyone giving a negative review to. There are others which leave me baffled that anyone liked them at all. But I can fully understand why Wicked is such a divisive novel. It’s a dense and complex book that bears little resemblance to any other Oz-related paraphernalia on the market, which poses difficult questions to its audience and isn’t that interested in providing any answers.
The centrepiece of the story is Elphaba (it’s difficult to imagine the witch with any other name now) and Maguire brings her to life in all her anger, passion, resentment, confusion, and tragedy. It’s difficult not to get invested in her struggle for relevance and understanding, especially since we’re fully aware of how she’s going to meet her demise. In a way she almost reminds me of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life in the sense that she always seems on the brink of success and fulfilment, only to have it snatched away from her at the last second. But whereas George Bailey eventually finds meaning in his string of failures by committing to the greater good, Elphaba has no guardian angel to guide her towards enlightenment. In fact, what passes for a “guardian angel” in her life is a disturbing shadowy figure that seems determined to put her on a destructive path.
What’s really fascinating (and rather dizzying) about the novel is trying to keep track of what version of The Wizard of Oz Maguire is adhering to. The popularity of the 1939 film is so widespread that it can be difficult to recall that it’s quite different from Frank L. Baum‘s original book, in which the Wicked Witch of the West barely features, and is perfunctorily killed off by Dorothy half-way through the story. Famous sequences from the film, such as the Wicked Witch appearing in Munchkinland to threaten Dorothy, or in deliberating poisoning the poppy fields to put the girl into an enchanted sleep, were unique to the film. As Maguire sticks to Baum’s book as his template, such events are entirely absent from Wicked.
Yet to muddy the waters a little, Maguire follows the film’s precedence in making the skin of the Wicked Witch a bright green (her skin tone was unmentioned in Baum’s story) and in combining the characters of the Witch of the North and South into the single entity of Glinda. Maguire’s cherry-picking as to the aspects of Oz he wants to explore, and the bits of the film he wants to capitalize on, are perhaps evidence of the story’s capacity for adaptation and expansion — like other bodies of legends and famous stories, everyone adds a bit of their own vision.
As with all prequels, Wicked aims to answer a few questions about the world introduced in The Wizard of Oz (book and film). Like, why is the witch’s skin green? Where did she get the bees, wolves and ravens that attacked Dorothy? Where did the silver (not ruby) slippers come from? How did the flying monkeys get their wings? (It’s here that Maguire strays from Baum, who actually provided a detailed backstory for the flying monkeys which has been entirely reworked here). He also explores the real difficulties an individual would have in growing up with an allergy to water; something that’s nothing more than a convenient weakness in Baum’s book — a way to allow Dorothy to “accidentally” kill the witch without murderous intent.
There were bits that frustrated me: that several plot-threads are abruptly dropped, and that many potent questions involving the forces at work behind Elphaba’s life are never really answered. But it’s given me a new perspective on the musical as well as the original book on which it’s based. I enjoyed Maguire’s take on Oz, with all its customs, belief-systems and governmental structures, and Elphaba makes for a compelling protagonist (even though I’m being to feel a little overdosed on sympathetic backstories for literary villains).
Wicked is a challenging book, and an exasperating one for a lot of readers. But I enjoyed what it offered: a flipped perspective on an infamous villain, beautiful prose that captured the strange atmosphere of Oz, and plenty of thought-provoking material to chew on.
The Wicked Years — (1995-2011) Young adult. Publisher: When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil? Gregory Maguire creates a fantasy world so rich and vivid that we will never look at Oz the same way again. Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability and the Tin Man becomes a victim of domestic violence. And then there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to be the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.
Neither my wife nor I could finish the book. And I like the retelling of classics and fairy tales but just didn’t like this at all.
Maguire is a bit of an odd writer, though it’s somewhat hard to pin down why. I think it’s because he doesn’t use some of the cultural shorthand and foreshadowing techniques that are ubiquitous in most literature written in English. His stuff almost reads like a translation from Russian or Japanese as a result, and his storytelling style can be a bit offputting. I’ve read several of his books and always find them interesting (Wicked is among his best), but strange. Great review!
I have read two of him. The other one used Dickens’s Christmas Carol as a starting point (kind of). Matt I love your description of his work feeling like a work in translation! He doesn’t follow our conventions.
I loved Wicked, though.
Huh. Maybe I’ll take another look at it. I really disliked it the first time through.