Saturday, January 07, 2006


Gregory Maguire seems to have wanted to explore the nature of wickedness. So he wrote Wicked: the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Contemplating the project I thought Maguire would use his novel to explain how the witch became wicked and, incidentally, explain other things, like why a pail of water melted her.

But it turns out Elphaba (the name Maguire gives "the Wicked Witch of the West", basing it on the initials of the author of the Wizard of Oz) is neither wicked nor a witch nor from the Winkie Country (Oz's western province). She did some things that could be construed as bad -- sicced a swarm of bees on a man, killing him (but the command seems to have been unconscious -- the bees did her will without her realizing it) and she neglected her child (she treats him like a stranger). Though, oddly, she seems to have been born with some evilesque characteristics -- like sharp teeth that make breastfeeding hazardous for Mom. She never studies witchcraft (though her sister, the WWotE, does) but powers seem to manifest nevertheless -- as when she races across a river to rescue a monkey and the river freezes under her feet, saving her from dampness -- but maybe this was coincidence, as even the text suggests, since if a river can freeze instantly why not a pathetic little pail of water? But, and this left me most dissatisfied, what was the basis of Elphaba's allergy to water? No explanation is ever offered -- other than it being inherent, I guess.

At least L. Frank Baum gives us this: "Once the Witch struck Toto a blow with her umbrella and the brave little dog flew at her and bit her leg in return. The Witch did not bleed where she was bitten, for she was so wicked that the blood in her had dried up many years before." One may decide that her dryness had become essential to her in some way. Thus the deadliness of a spot of water.

Though born in the Munchkin Country Elphaba ends up in the Winkie Country because that's where the father of her child lived. Elphaba is seeking forgiveness from her dead lover's widow (forgiveness for having seduced the husband). The widow seems uninclined to give it mainly because it's boring and lonely in Winkieland and if she forgives Elphaba the woman will go away and make Winkieland more boring & lonely than ever.

While Maguire's prose can be well-wrought the text is frequently grim. This is an Oz with a fascist ruler (the Wizard tortures people, has secret police); famine stalks the land; the weather kinda sucks; and amoral capitalists engage Elphaba in tiresome arguments about the nature of evil.


David Lee Ingersoll said...

I wondered where Elphaba's name came from. I think I'd decided that it was the name of the witch in the Russian translation or a name that Thompson had used somewhere.

I'm curious to read Son of a Witch because I did like MacGuire's prose. And any story he tells now seems like it would have to be a story based on his Oz rather than Baum's or the movie's. Not that I'm going to rush out and buy a new copy. I can wait 'til I find it remaindered somewhere.

And his gimick of telling the fairy tale from the bad guy's perspective wasn't successful enough in Wicked for me to be compelled to read any of his other books. I liked Elphaba as a character but she was neither a misunderstood heroine nor truly wicked. She was driven by the story rather than driving it.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

According to this site, the Wicked Witch of the West in the Russian versions of the Oz stories is called Bastinda.

When the library recently received Maguire's Son of a Witch I read the first few lines. Gawd. It starts with murders!

I suppose I'll read it sometime, out of curiosity, if nothing else. It might work better than Wicked in that Maguire should be working wholly in his own creation, not trying to integrate the plot of a story with a different style. I thought Wicked was at its weakest when it tried to incorporate Dorothy's adventures. The storytelling styles of Baum and Maguire just don't mess.

hbjock said...

I'm reading the book now.. I have listened to the musical soundtrack for years already and I'm dying to see the production. The book is a little hard to read at first just because none of it is really mentioned in the stage production so it was a little rough getting through, but I'm up to the part where Elphaba and Glinda go to see the Wizard for the first time... can't wait to get to the ending :) And now Gregory Maguire has written a sequel to Wicked, so I can't wait to get started on that one too!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Hey Jonah, hope you like Wicked all the way through. Me being a big Ozzie the book had high hurdles to best to win my love. I'll probably read Son of a Witch after awhile but I have yet to see the theatrical version of Wicked. I enjoyed the CD of the soundtrack ...