Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire

July 2, 2008
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A high-pitched, maniacal laugh, robes as dark and billowy as black smoke from a fire, a pointed witch's hat, and a wicked, wicked green face: the portrait of one of the most memorable villains of all time. This famous portrayal of the Wicked Witch of the West in the movie made out of L. Frank Baum's quixotic Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz has terrified and fascinated viewers ever since she flew onto their television screens a few decades ago. Today, the green witch is nearly a cultural icon. She has wholly mastered all other portrayals of her character, which is now famous for her greenness.
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is a story of intrigue and plot, corruption and sordidness, but most of all, it is the true story of that green girl who was not evil, but only misunderstood, and driven to wickedness by the injustices of the strange land of Oz.

Maguire paints a fascinating picture of that mysterious land of unearthly creatures and quaint landmarks. Everything is twisted in the Oz of Wicked. The Yellow Brick Road is an instrument of commerce and political control. The Wizard of Oz is a corrupt, secluded figure who rules over Oz from the shadows. Talking Animals such as the Cowardly Lion are treated as second-class citizens. Certain races are deliberately extinguished for the gain of a sovereign race of bureaucrats—in a manner eerily suggestive of real-world genocide. L. Frank Baum left his little universe enigmatic, so Maguire has much material to work with here. Wicked is free to concoct the stuff of which Oz is truly made of, and that stuff is not the cinematic and moralistic material of early Hollywood. Rather, there are some elements of impurity and mediocrity mixed into it. Thus, Dorothy is a foolishly simple, sanctimonious pink-faced thing, her three companions are pathetic, the little dog Toto is annoying, and Oz is a microcosm of bleak landscapes, corrupted bureaucracy, and racial repression.

Against such a background, the Wicked Witch of the West is nurtured and raised, struggles and survives, decays and dies. She is called Elphaba in this novel, which is clever of Maguire (L. Frank Baum's initials are L.F.B.). Wicked's focal point is the Wicked Witch herself, but the story is told from a few different perspectives. Of these several viewpoints is that of Glinda, the also iconic Good Witch of the North, whom we are introduced to early on in the story.

One fault of Wicked is the absence of Glinda in the greater portion of it. Glinda, the Good Witch, is another realistic, human character who is not what she at first seems, but even more. At first, Glinda is presented as a socially upward-climbing and daintily arrogant young girl of little talent, but her character deepens as her storyline progresses. This early, underdeveloped model is molded into a kind and compassionate student of magic who even possesses an innate skill for it.
In the first part of Wicked, the people and the experiences that will eventually shape Glinda up into the Good Witch of the North are recounted, as how the entire novel is an account of the Wicked Witch of the West's upbringing. The Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West are antipodal, but for two objects, ideas, or people to be opposites, there must be some connection between them—something common on the grounds of which that polar relation can exist. Glinda and Elphaba are parallel lines, but they are parallel lines that once met. The very beginning of this novel centers on that intersection: Glinda and Elphaba slowly, and at first reluctantly, develop a steadfast friendship. The two were reverse reflections of each other from the beginning: totally converse in appearance, behavior, and character. The comparison is fascinating in the original tale and underscored even further in this alternate version. Yet before the novel is even halfway over, Glinda drops out of it, and until the end the story remains with Elphaba and her winding and comparatively boring travails. The novel would probably have been better for it if Glinda had remained in the picture and Maguire had also recounted their rivalry and increasingly disparate ways. Sadly, in the end Glinda is dismissed without a second thought, leaving behind a far from angelic last impression.

But then after all, the story is supposed to be the Wicked Witch of the West's tale. Maguire's Witch seems to have been broken in several places: her heart one of them. Her story is one of her own incompletion and failure: Elphaba fails to receive the love of either of her parents, fails to complete her clandestine mission against the Wizard of Oz, fails to kill Madame Morrible, and fails to plead for the forgiveness of her lover's wife. Fairy tale villains are often simply people who failed to complete the tasks that were of utmost importance to them. Elphaba's story is a tragic one, and heartrending at its climax, the scene of her death. It is the culmination of everything: all of the people who had passed in and out of Elphaba's life, all of the occurrences and experiences which stayed with her until the end, and her final, most tortuous failure: her failure to beg Fiyero's wife for forgiveness for something that she could not possibly be forgiven for. But seconds before the Witch is killed, Dorothy, the Witch's enemy who had killed her sister and taken her shoes, cringes before the Witch and begs to be forgiven for the unforgivable crime of murder she had committed. The pathetic girl whom the Witch had sworn vengeance against thus succeeds in completing the very task that the Witch had set out to finish.

Thus concludes the true story of the Wicked Witch of the West. What we appreciate here is that she dies still a Wicked Witch; these kinds of new versions of old stories are written out of fascination for the villains, and they are no longer fascinating when the villains are no longer villains. Truly, by the end, Elphaba is too twisted to be a truly good character anymore. While The Wizard of Oz shows us how wicked the Wicked Witch of the West was, this innovative novel shows us how she came to be wicked.





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