WICKED: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Gregory MaGuire uses the marvelous Land of Oz as the setting for an elaborate social satire. This tale of classist oppression and rebellion, religious fanaticism, mystery cults, and morality plays seems to take its inspiration from diverse sources. The Wicked Witch, or Elphaba as she is called here, could easily be the heroine of an Ayn Rand novel given her consistency, clarity, and sense of purpose. Her self-sacrificing nature resembles that of Charlotte Corday, as she becomes an unlikely but powerful political figure in Oz that MaGuire describes as a decaying police state under the tyrant Wizard of Oz.
Although the Oz books and MGM movie are obvious influences on MaGuire's novel, the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion are only briefly included, and MaGuire offers a creative new explanation for the Witch's obsession with the magic shoes. Wicked is an inventive and original fictional biography that redefines the archetype of the Wicked Witch.
Woven throughout the more personal aspects of Elphaba's story is a philosophical exploration of the nature of good and evil, as defined within society and as exemplified by individuals. MaGuire has invented an alternative history and mythology of Oz based only in part on L. Frank Baum's inventions. As in Baum's Oz, the fairy Lurline is credited with the creation or discovery of Oz. But MaGuire links the story of Lurline to a sort of pagan nature-worship, and offers several versions of the myth. These myths attempt to address the origin of evil, and Elphaba's story addresses the matter of destiny versus personal choice in moral matters.
The history of Elphaba's life is described in detail, from her birth to her tragic death at the hands of the child Dorothy. The Witch is portrayed as a sympathetic character, who gradually is forced to become the archetype of evil. The nature of this archetype is thoroughly explored throughout the book, as MaGuire touches on virtually every aspect of stereotypical feminine evil: Elphaba is called sexless, oversexed, hermaphroditic, male, castrated, castrating, lesbian, bestial, insane. Her closest companions are animals, and also the sentient, talking Animals. Elphaba the child, and later, the woman, is in fact an intelligent, lonely outcast, ostracized by her peers due to her peculiar family, her strange aversion to water, and her distinctly green skin.
Except for a brief period of socialization in which Elphaba attends college, meets Glinda, the future Witch of the North, and introduces her pious sister Nessarose, the future Witch of the East, to academic society, Elphaba goes to great lengths to remain at odds with her oppressive and superstitious society. The Wicked Witch of the West's story is a classic tragedy, as she moves inexorably to her predestined demise, unable to rise above her times or her character. Hers resembles the story of a failed '60s radical, embittered and cynical and beyond salvation. By the time of the fated confrontation with Dorothy, she is no longer a likable character, having rejected every attempt on the part of friends and family to humanize her.
Few Wiccan readers should take offense at MaGuire's version of the Witch. When Elphaba's characterization becomes predictable, it is invariably in the service of irony. However, loyal readers of Baum's books may find this dystopic vision of Oz too disturbing; with an ample dose of violence and deliberately perverse sexuality, this is not a children's story. But if MaGuire's surprising plot twists and clever prose do not offend, then you will enjoy this complex and imaginative book.
Reviewed by S. Miria Jo
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