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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

by Gregory Maguire

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (Harper Collins, 1995), is a fairytale spun from a fairytale. As the title suggests, this book is derived from the well-known and loved fable, The Wizard of Oz, but Maguire has selected a new heroine, or perhaps it is better to say anti-heroine, for his story. How very clever Maguire is to give us the back story of the figure in the fairytale whom we all feared, and who was the epitome of evil – the Wicked Witch of the West. It never occurred to me to question how this malevolent personality became a witch at all, much less one who is so crabby, so intense and so — green. Maguire has brilliantly made the most of these questions, and many others. 

At its core, Wicked  is a discussion of the nature of good and evil; that the discussion takes place in the alternate and outlandish universe of Oz allows for some emotional distance from the action and characters, giving the reader freedom to withhold judgment about the shenanigans that occur there, and to laugh out loud at a number of them. But the story could serve as a catalyst for serious philosophical inquiry of good and evil, as well. 

Maguire opens his tale with a familiar scene from the Wizard  of Oz —  the journey that Dorothy, Toto, the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow take to the witch’s castle via the Yellow Brick Road in order to “bring back the Witch’s broom.” In Maguire’s account we are privy to Witch Elphaba’s snide thoughts about the travelers as she spies on them from her hiding place. This introduction to the story not only sets the stage for Wicked but serves to foreshadow the development of Elphaba’s character. Maguire’s account of The Wizard of Oz may be an effort to soften our opinion about Elphaba and her role in the story, but he cannot change her spots — or should that be green complexion? — completely. 

We meet Elphaba at her birth. Elphaba’s mother is Melena, the daughter of the Eminent Throp of Munchkinland; her father, Frexspar the Godly, is a devout Unionist priest. We then observe her life all the way to her accidental death at the hands of Dorothy. Elphaba’s most formative years take place at the University of Shiz where she is a student at Crage Hall, the women’s college. At Shiz she ends up as a roommate with Galinda, who will be Elphaba’s opposite number in the world of witches several years hence. She also comes under the direction of the manipulative Headmistress, Madame Morrible, whom Elphaba calls “Horrible Morrible”:

“The Headmistress of Crage Hall, a fish-faced upper-class Gillikinese woman wearing lots of cloisonné bangles, was greeting new arrivals in the atrium. The Head eschewed the drabness of professional women’s dress… Instead the imposing woman was bedecked in a currant-colored gown with patterns of black jet swirling over the bodice. ‘I am Madame Morrible,’ she said… Her voice was basso profundo, her grip crippling, her posture military, her earrings like holiday tree ornaments.”

At Shiz, despite Madame Morrible, Elphaba finds her calling, and drops out of school to devote all of her time to this vocation until life puts forth newer and greater demands, and a different sort of mission.

The plot of Wicked is complex, many-layered, colorful and very funny. Maguire’s masterly writing reveals the value and the absurdity of families, communities, religion and politics, but the story returns repeatedly to the subject of good and evil. Here is a portion of the conversation about evil that takes place toward the end of the book. It occurs at a well attended banquet table in Elphaba’s alma mater:

“I think it is improper to talk about evil all during a meal. It spoils the digestion”

“Oh, but come,” the Witch said, “is it only in youth that we can have the nerve to ask ourselves such serious questions?”

“Well, I stick with my suggestion,” said Avaric. “Evil isn’t doing bad things, it feeling bad about them afterward. There’s no absolute value to behavior. First of all–…”

“That’s why I say it’s merely an affliction of the psyche, like vanity or greed,” said the copper magnate…”

“Pigspittle,” said Avaric. “Evil is an early or primitive stage of moral development. All children are fiends by nature. The criminals among us are only those who didn’t progress…”

“Evil isn’t a thing, it’s not a person, it’s an attribute like beauty..”

“It’s a power, like wind…”

“It’s an infection…”

“It’s metaphysical, essentially: the corruptibility of creation –“

Maguire extends this discussion about evil for quite a while; it is fascinating, amusing, challenging — and would be an excellent topic for a book group.

The writing is superb throughout Wicked. No one can touch Gregory Maguire’s style for wit, creativity, originality, and charm. I hope to read Wicked many times just for the delight of coming upon an exhortation like this one from Elphaba to Galinda: “Whether I’d wear them [the ruby slippers] or not is none of your concern. You can’t go handing out a person’s effects like that, what right had you?… You’ve stuck your fancy wand in where it wasn’t wanted!”

Shamefully, I am very late in reading Wicked, the Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. It is an irresistible and rare book – one that is as fun to read as it is thought-provoking. I hope you will find time to treat yourself to this book soon.