It’s Not Easy Being Green

July 29, 2010 at 4:01 pm 1 comment

I just finished reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire. They made a musical out of this source material. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It made stars out of both Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.

Maguire borrowed his source material, too. Having just finished The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum this year, I was shocked at how much the movie (which I have virtually memorized backwards and forwards) differs from the book. Maguire seems to make a nod to both when he calls the infamous ruby red slippers sparkly shoes and calls them silver (as in the book) but goes on to describe how they can reflect colors and be brilliantly red or green as well.

In Wicked, we have the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. It turns out that she has a name, and it’s Elphaba. She and Glinda are made out to be old school chums. Elphaba is born a strange child with green skin and a full set of sharp canine teeth. Her mother cannot nurse her for the very real fear of losing her breasts. Further, she is allergic to water and cannot drink it or even bathe in it. She uses oil instead.

Elphaba’s mother is a woman virtually abandoned by her zealot minister husband, Frex. He’s a fundamentalist, itinerant preacher of sorts. He travels from village to village to condemn the pagan religions of Oz and promote the cause of The Unnamed God. When she gets older, Elphaba goes with him and sings for the people as proof of the love of The Unnamed God. For surely if The Unnamed God can love even the ugly green child, He can love you, too.

Not surprisingly, by the time we enter the second act of the book, Elphaba is a self-possessed, critical and intelligent woman whose reaction to her Preacher’s Kid [’s_kid] upbringing is to turn staunchly atheist. Elphaba is not without virtue. She becomes an Animal rights activist. Animals (always capitalized) are the talking animals of Oz. They are capable of higher learning and reasoning as well as conversation. However, The Wizard of Oz himself has set forth policies that no longer allow them to make a decent living and relegate them to the lives led by mere animals. In Maguire’s book, The Wizard of Oz comes across as Hitler in a hot air balloon.

When the headmistress of their school, Madame Morrible, proposes that Elphaba, her sister Nessarose, and Glinda all become sorceresses and political rulers of their respective home states, Elphaba senses the manipulative strings of The Wizard at work. Following the murder of an Animal professor at their school, she talks the girls into accompanying her to the Emerald City. What she sees there convinces her to drop out of school and become a political dissident and a would be terrorist.

As part of a terrorist cell, she later runs into an old schoolmate and conducts a clandestine affair with this married man. He’s a Vinkus Prince, the leader of the blue sparkly soldiers in the movie; they are called Winkies. The man’s name is Fiyero and when he follows her in a fit of love as she botches a murder attempt on Madame Morrible, he is subsequently murdered himself. Presumably, he is killed by the members of Elphaba’s terrorist cell.

Elphaba then runs to the Oz equivalent of a Buddhist nunnery and gives birth to a baby boy for whom she has less maternal affection than she did for her younger siblings or the Animals. When she has sufficiently healed, the Mother Superior of the convent kicks her out into the world with her child, by then a five-year-old named Liir. Even he is seemingly unaware that Elphaba is his mother, and he seems convinced, instead, that he is a kind of servant to Elphaba.

Elphaba and Liir travel to Fiyero’s kingdom, which isn’t much of a castle. They seem plagued with poverty. She arrives to tell her story to Sarima, Fiyero’s widow, and to seek forgiveness for his death. Sarima, however, denies her this opportunity but does offer her shelter. Elphaba and Liir come to live permanently with Sarima, her three children with Fiyero, and her six sisters. Sarima suspects her husband of having cheated on her with Glinda and having been murdered by Glinda’s jealous husband. When Elphaba presses her for permission to tell her story and seek forgiveness, Sarima asks her why she needs forgiveness when she does not believe she has a soul. Later, when Elphaba leaves on a trip to see family, Sarima, her two remaining children, and all six sisters are kidnapped by the Wizard’s army.

When, near the end of the book, Elphaba seeks audience with the Wizard and offers to give him a powerful book of sorcery he wants in exchange for freeing Fiyero’s daughter Nor, we see the depths of her need for forgiveness. She cannot save any of the rest of Sarima’s family for they are all gone. It strikes me as sad that she doesn’t seem to place the same value on her own son with Fiyero.

After Nessarose’s death, Elphaba becomes obsessed with obtaining her sister’s sparkly shoes. Her obsession seems to come more from the fact they were a gift from her father than from any enchantment cast upon them by Glinda. Elphaba is green alright, with sibling rivalry. Maguire’s book implies that the Wicked Witch of the West is actually the daughter of The Wizard of Oz rather than the distant preacher father whose love she seeks. There’s a scene involving a reveal in the “crystal ball” that is eerily reminiscent of a scene between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.

This book ends much as the movie does, with the death of the Wicked Witch of the West having been unintentionally accomplished by the innocent Dorothy. The book seems to want to make a social, political, and religious commentary. Baum’s original book was accused of being a thinly disguised political allegory on the American politics of his time.

With the Nazism portrayed in the book and Gregory Maguire’s own homosexuality, the obvious parallels do suggest themselves. However, his book raises more questions than just questions of human rights. Significant themes include the need for redemption and the nature of evil as well. I don’t think that Wicked means to provide us with answers but rather to provoke important questions.


Entry filed under: Books, Faith, Gay Rights, Politics.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. thoughtsappear  |  July 29, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    I really enjoyed this book. And I loved the musical so much that I saw it 3 times on Broadway.


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