Thursday, January 14, 2010


For a while there, it seemed like every few years someone would come out with a series of books retelling fairy tales. There were politically correct retellings and modern day versions and the genre had become pretty stale by the time Gregory Maguire came out with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. He has retold other stories as well (Cinderella and Snow White, for example), but what made Wicked stand out was that he didn't simply retell L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, he created an entirely new world in which to tell an intersecting story.

Before Elphaba (every witch has a name, after all) is even born, the picture Maguire paints of Munchkinland is stark. The quarter of Oz (the nation's eastern chunk) is undergoing serious religious upheaval, and the witch is born in the middle of it, on the night her unionist minister father must address the growing mob. As if that weren't enough, she is born green, with fierce little teeth and a complete aversion to water. Given the circumstances, it's amazing Elphaba was permitted to grow up at all.

But she does, and as she gets older and experiences more of life and the different ways of life in Oz, Maguire unfolds the world he has created. And Maguire's Oz is not the tra-la-la world of the movie, or even the slightly menacing world of the original story. Rather, Maguire's Oz is a political one, filled with intrigues, poverty, boarding school and creeping Nazi-like public reforms. The Yellow Brick Road, for example, is not a merry trail to skip along through fertile Munchkinland fields, but a road built to colonize Oz and keep the various districts (Munchkinland, Quadling Country, the Vinkus and Gillikin) anchored to the Emerald City, the Wizard's seat and the hub of the country.

Elphaba hate the Wizard and is policies of marginalization and assimilation, so she leaves school before graduating and goes underground as an activist and member of the resistance movement in the Emerald City. There, despite her efforts at anonymity (not so easy when you have green skin), she is discovered by Fiyero, a Vinkus prince and former classmate. They have a love affair, but her resistance work gets him killed and the shock of it drives her to into the cloistered safety of religion, which she had previously eschewed.

After several years later she emerges with the idea to visit Fiyero's homeland in the Vinkus (the wild west of Oz) and explain things to his wife Sarima. But when Elphaba arrives, looking every inch a witch by this point despite not being particularly magical, Sarima doesn't want to hear about Fiyero's death and forbids her to speak of it. And then winter rolls in and Elphaba is stuck in the castle at Kiamo Ko. But she isn't bored. She discovers a magical text and begins working to combine her interest in life sciences with the practical necessity of magic (if she looks like a witch, she may as well be one).

It's along this point that Maguire's story catches up with Baum's. Elphaba makes an enemy of the Wizard with her work at Kiamo Ko (where she stays on for several years) and, when Dorothy visits him asking to return home, he sends her to kill Elphaba, who has become rather notorious. And you know the rest, really.

What really makes Wicked such a memorable read isn't just the politics it's laced with, but the way in which Maguire forces you to consider a story you already know from another angle. And a rather compelling one, at that. Elphaba is not an immediately likeable character. But, as you become drawn into the world of Oz and begin to understand where she's coming from with her "evil" ways, she seems far less wicked. That's not to say that Maguire has stripped Elphaba of all wickedness. Instead, his world is devoid of those black and white categorizations that make up so many fairy tales, which forces you to think about what you're reading and whether the witch really was wicked.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
by Gregory Maguire
First published in 1995 by HarperCollins (cover image shown from 1996 edition)

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