Gregory Maguire, Wicked:
The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
(Regan/HarperCollins, 1995)

As the title suggests, Wicked is a work of fantasy whose antecedents lie in Frank Baum's Land of Oz. This, however, is the fantasy tale all grown up. It still possesses the anarchic, fragmented, half-random dream quality of its youth but now with an added adult edge. We learn, for instance, that it was Queen Ozma the Scarcely Beloved who overtaxed the farmers in order to pay for building the yellow brick road.

Into this world is born Elphaba, the eponymous witch, whose life we follow. Elphaba is born different (she alone is green skinned), but she's not yet a witch -- that comes later. Despite being surrounded by disputatious religions -- in fact being the daughter of a minister of one of them -- she is almost alone in discerning that it may be possible to scientifically objectify those fractures or inconsistencies of her world that so incite religious debate, and that indeed other worlds may exist with other alternative inconsistencies.

This insight does not cause Elphaba to coolly, detachedly examine her world for evidence to support this hypothesis, which only ever half forms in her mind anyway, but instead spurs her to a passionate engagement with it. Even at the age of seventeen she tackles her Headmistress (the formidable Madame Morrible whose stance is described as being that of a big game hunter), in public debate. This independence of thought puts her on a collision course with the authoritarian mysterious Wizard, and ultimately results in her joining a secret rebel society and participating in acts of terrorism. But she also falls in love along the way and this, combined with her need to always think deeply, forces her (and us) to become acutely aware of the moral ambiguities inherent in the Land of Oz.

And what a land it is that Gregory Maguire's prose paints for us: talking animals, secret police, ticktoc automata (and their philosophical consequence "ticktocism"), the possibility of congress between worlds, and (without by any means exhausting the list), Dorothy. Dorothy arrives right at the end by which time our sympathies lie completely with the (by now) witch Elphaba.

This novel is rich, almost indescribably so, in the magic, drama, humor and mysticism of the Land of Oz. This heady mix contains many parallels, both obvious and obscure, with the real world, and in this way forms a closed system with its own broad, if inconsistent, rules and absence of needs for justification -- like a game. This game yields many insights to those who look for them, but either way it is a game well worth the participation.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]

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