It’s so funny because the green-faced witch from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz is so freaking scary.
Forget Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and Lord Voldemort. When it comes to frightening the bejesus out of little kids, no one can approach Margaret Hamilton’s turn as the Wicked Witch.
So, in 1995, when Gregory Maguire published Wicked, he was confronting a cultural touchstone deeply embedded in the psyches (and nightmares) of generations of moviegoers. And not just confronting it, but turning it on its head.
Not the epitome of evil
For him, the Wicked Witch, whom he named Elphaba, isn’t an old hag and the epitome of evil. Rather, she’s a sensitive person who, except for her odd coloration, is like any one of us, struggling along her road through life, misunderstood and misunderstanding herself in many ways, prone to failure (or, at least, only partial success), often unsure and unhappy, exquisitely vulnerable and prickly at the same time.
She’s not a stand-in for Satan. She’s an Everyman and Everywoman. She is you and I.
I didn’t know much of this when I picked up the novel at a Christmas white elephant sale in early December. Given that it was a re-imagining of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I figured it would be playful and puckish, along the lines of The Princess Bride.
Also, I’d seen the Stephen Schwartz musical Wicked which premiered in 2003 and was based on Maguire’s book. And that’s pretty much a feel-good story.
Elphaba, even though treated as a freak, stands up for what she sees as right during magic and romantic battles with Glinda, another witch and an erstwhile friend. She loses those battles, but also wins. The audience leaves the theater happy.
As I realized very soon after starting the novel, Schwartz’s Wicked is a highly sanitized version of Maguire’s Wicked.
Schwartz fits the story into the conventions of musical theater. Maguire, by contrast, has produced a literary work that grapples with such existential issues as religious faith, the corruption of power, the clashes between the liberty of the individual and the needs of the community, family dysfunction, and fear of the Other.
One element of the plot has to do with the subjugation of Animals, sentient non-human creatures, as opposed to their non-sentient cousins, animals. But, as much as the Animals are the Other, Elphaba is even more so.
“A half-breed…a new breed”
She is a one of a kind. A mysterious but clearly important dwarf tells her:
For you…are neither this nor that — or shall I say both this and that? Both of Oz and of the other world [where the Wizard and Dorothy have come from]. Your old [father] Frex always was wrong; you were never a punishment for his crimes. You are a half-breed, you are a new breed, you are a grafted limb, you are a dangerous anomaly. Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are.
It’s not just that Elphaba is green, or that hers is a restless, spikey personality. Or that she straddles Oz and the other world. It is also, as Maguire hints strongly on the first page of the novel and reiterates at other places in the story, that she was born a hermaphrodite.
Yet, these things do not make her a freak. That’s not the story Maguire tells.
Without question, she is unlike anyone else. But the reader responds to her and identifies with her because the reader, too, is unlike anyone else.
We are, each of us, half-breeds and new breeds and grafted limbs and dangerous anomalies. We search for meaning, just as Elphaba does. We confront and live with the tension of faith and doubt, love and loneliness, emptiness and oppression.
Elphaba tells Glinda:
I have always felt like a pawn…My skin color’s been a curse, my missionary parents made me sober and intense, my school days brought me up against political crimes against Animals, my love life imploded and my lover died, and if I had any life’s work of my own, I haven’t found it yet….
To this, Glinda responds:
I’m no pawn….I take all the credit in the world for my own foolishness. Good gracious, dear, all of life is a spell. You know that. But you do have some choice.
Who is right, Elphaba or Glinda?
Maguire doesn’t make that clear. Neither does life.
Patrick T. Reardon