Monday, March 30, 2009


I've always enjoyed re-imaginings of well-known tales, familiar stories told from an utterly unfamiliar point of view. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon may have been my introduction to the genre, I can't quite remember, but I still recall my astonishment at how a completely original tale could be woven out of those old legends and I could be made to think, yes, this is how it might really have happened.*

So last weekend, when Heather mentioned Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I decided I needed to read it. That was a good move.

In a way, the book was not quite what I expected. I anticipated a more complete reversal, a story where the Witch was really the good person through to the end. Maguire, on the other hand, has said that he intended to write a story where the Witch was really evil throughout. What emerged was something in between, and therefore far more interesting. His Witch, Elphaba (a play off "L. Frank Baum"), is a woman who was early alienated from most of her fellow humans, made it her cause to fight evil (which the Wizard of Oz proves himself to be), but found that evil seemed to be winning every round -- and that all too often it was her own efforts that ended up contributing to tragedy.

Although never really a sweet or generous person, Elphaba is smart, principled, and mostly admirable. By the end of the book (Dorothy and her annoying little dog don't even show up until the last section), as her bitterness has grown and festered, the Witch is not a person who desire to perform evil, but she's even less nice and plays the part of a wicked witch convincingly enough. To the extent that she remains sympathetic, it's as a tragic figure: you've long stopped admiring her behavior, but you never wanted to see her become so unlikable.

If Tolkien thought that the will to dominate was the source of evil, Maguire reminds us that watching evil triumph can be a most embittering experience, leading an otherwise good person to wicked behaviors of their own. A timely lesson, too, in this era of Culture Wars, where both sides see wickedness on the march and are tempted to despair.

* Cynicism helps; from an early age I found it easy to believe that the standard tales might really be self-serving propaganda and that there could be another side to the story.


Cranberry Necklace said...

I share your admiration for retellings of familiar tales from different points of view. I read "Wicked" and "The Mists of Avalon" with my book club. Your analysis of Elphaba is insightful. We agreed she was tragic and a bit sympathetic, but we never got to her embitterment at evil triumphing. I liked the book in that Mcguire said he wanted to write about the most evil "person" in the culture. McGuire shows even this "most evil person in the culture" has good in her if we look beyond the evil. At least, it's true in this convincing retelling.

Heather said...

So glad you read it! I'm especially interested in the complex female personalities in Wicked (male characters aren't generally fleshed out nearly as well, in the book or in the musical) and their relationships with each other. And, of course, the religious nature of Elphaba and Nessarose's background, and how it relates to ideas about the nature of evil -- which was ENTIRELY left out of the musical. (You can imagine how I'd identify with that...)

pfanderson said...

Oh, I've loved this for years. Very cool. I liked both the twists and turns of the plot, but most especially subtlety and rich character development. For myself, I am compulsively moderate, always looking to the other side, thinking, "What if there is a reason why so-&-so did blahblahblah?" I always believe that stories are more complicated than whatever we've heard. Especially news stories and classic tales. I reweave them in my mind sometimes. This is a brilliant example of that flipping twisting of a tale to explore new depths.

At work recently a few of us have been reading stories like these that turn traditional tales on their head. I think my favorite one recently was The Host by Stephanie Meyers, which flips the old story of the alien invaders cockeyed.