Wicked – Gregory Maguire
Final Thoughts: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Wicked Witch of the West has a long and storied history of how she came to be wicked, and Gregory Maguire has captured the hearts of millions by writing her story. Elphaba was born with her iconic green skin, and from the outset of her birth, she was plagued by what I’m going to call “outsiderness”. She was tempered and strange, and even her own pious family couldn’t understand their little Fabala’s isolation.
Maguire’s story takes our Wicked Witch and throws her into a vast, convoluted context of Oz’s inner social workings and politicized atmosphere. As Elphaba grows up, distanced and resentful of her cheery peers, she becomes an Animals’ right activist, a defiant student, a passionate atheist, a troublesome lover, a silent nun, and even a reluctant mother. The world is cruel to Elphaba, and wickedness is built slowly into her character, like bitter bricks paved with injustice and apathy.
I’ve mentioned in my review of Maguire’s newest book, Hiddensee, that the writing style of a Maguire retelling is polarizing as hell. He uses extravagant words and extraneous descriptions, and his stylistic choices will either seem witty or wearing. I personally think that Maguire’s humor is found in the ridiculous extra effort in his stylistic choices; his language is decadent and indulgent, and there is no better example of what I mean when I say literary kitsch.
The plot that surrounds our Elphaba is rich and substantial. The revolving door of political allegory and social tension is a passionate trigger for Elphaba’s temper, isolation, and contrast to her peers. Much of her attention is directed to the rights of Animals, which are animals with a conscious spirit, and the Wizard’s treatment of those who are different. The Wizard, in this retelling, is an evil man, with his own visions of supremacy, privilege, and power. Upon my reread, I felt more personally connected to the social injustices portrayed in this book than ever (thanks, Trump).
It is so easy to see Elphaba’s descent into wickedness. She is not inherently good or bad, though she believes that she doesn’t have an eternal soul, but the world throws so much hardship her way that her empathy and kindness withers away. Tragedy and loneliness consume her, and though she rejects any conformity or adaptation, she longs for a permanent sense of happiness, forgiveness, and peace to fill her bruised heart. Maguire has instilled his readers with a far-reaching sense of sympathy for the Witch, whose dreams and friends were slowly destroyed and alienated, and who was left with nothing but a young, lost girl in sparkly shoes commissioned for her assassination.
I first encountered this book when I was a young high-schooler, or possibly even junior high, and though I loved it, many scenes went far over my head. Wicked is a SOPHISTICATED book. Fantasy retellings aren’t often pitted in such realistic, serious, and dark content, but Maguire ventures this childhood tale into adult territory. The smart discussion of good versus evil is full of nuance, complexities, and perspectives, and at the heart of this large, unexpected landscape is a band of characters that we have always known and loved, but who we might view through a different lens nowadays. It can be incredibly difficult to view wickedness and goodness in shifting lights, but Wicked teaches us that morality is never face-value, and that the inherent value of life is more than skin-deep.