Nearly thirty years ago, Gregory Maguire published his first book for adults. A reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West started a phenomenon. Wicked spawned a multibook series about the citizens of Oz, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, and now a two-part movie series set to come out in 2024 and 2025.
So what is Wicked? It’s the story of Elphaba, the wicked witch of the West, before she was the wicked witch. Was she just born evil, or did circumstance make her evil? Or was she ever even evil at all? Remember, history is written by the winners, and Elphaba wasn’t the winner in Oz. So let’s explore what you can expect in this first Wicked novel!
[Warning: My review of Wicked contains some spoilers!]
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A new perspective on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Ever since The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published over 100 years ago, everyone has just assumed that the Wicked Witch of the West was evil and got what she deserved. Dorothy is a hero! End of story. But what about the beginning of the story? Maguire goes back to the beginning of The Wicked Witch. Before she was wicked, before she was a witch, before she was even born to tell the whole story. And what a story it is.
Spurned from the moment she was born, Elphaba begins life as a neglected and unloved child. When she reaches school age, she goes off to University and realizes that she isn’t the only one to suffer injustice for how they look. Her personal experiences separate her from the other students but draw her to the animal cause. Animals are animals with human consciousness. Once treated as equals, the tyrannical Wizard has stripped them of their rights and has basically turned them into animals that we in our world know.
Elphaba feels the injustice against animals deeply and wants to try to help them. It’s her need to right the wrongs she sees that sets Elphaba on a collision course with the Wizard and eventually Dorothy. She even ends up in the West (and thus earns the moniker “Wicked Witch of the West”) because she’s trying to make up for some harm she thinks she caused. Indeed, the witch that Maguire envisions is far from evil, she just needs a better PR campaign.
The misunderstood villain from Maguire’s novel
Gregory Maguire might not have been the first person to make a villain sympathetic, but he did a great job of it. In fact, he did such a great job of it that I didn’t think Elphaba was even a villain when I was done reading Wicked. I think that Disney drew on the ideas of Wicked a lot for Maleficent. Both stories take a classically evil character and show how the character is not really evil at all, it’s just how the other characters in the story present them.
The nice part about Wicked is that Maguire doesn’t try to completely upend Baum’s premises set forth in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Wizard is a selfish bully. Dorothy does accidentally kill the witch while trying to save her. Glinda is an overstepping busybody. Maguire doesn’t really change anything, he just looks at things from another angle, revealing a deeper and more nuanced story.
A very adult story of Oz in this Wicked novel
The original story of Oz was very much a children’s story. Maguire’s tale is very much not a children’s story. Wicked is intended for adults to enjoy. There are a lot of themes that are too big for children to deal with in the way they’re presented. And sex. There’s lots of sex that’s rather less than vanilla. And the rest is rather raunchy too.
Now, I in no way mean this as a criticism. It’s fun to revisit stories from our childhood. And looking at them in grown-up ways keeps them relevant and enjoyable to a more advanced mind. Seeing good and evil through a more nuanced lens and allowing more gray in our lives is a natural part of growing older. Wicked offers us a great chance to do just that.
Wicked will make you think about good and evil. What makes someone evil? What makes them good? Who decides what’s right or wrong? And that’s just the beginning. But that’s the real point of a book anyway, to make us think about things. Not all books do, but the really good ones ask questions. Sometimes directly, but more often by setting up a scenario and letting you ruminate on it.
The more you think, the more you question. The more you question, the more you grow. And it’s important to note that there aren’t necessarily right answers to the questions. Whether you read Wicked and decide that Elphaba is a monster or a saint, the point is just that you think about what makes her that way. So read Wicked, discuss Wicked, and grow.
My Rating: 9/10
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire is available now! Let us know on social media @mycosmiccirircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you plan to read it before the first film comes out!
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