The Woman Behind The Witch

Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” is an engrossing fictional biography of the “Wicked Witch of the West” from the L. Frank Baum classic, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” After reading it, you come to see that the fairy tale figure we’ve all grown up knowing to be villainous, isn’t so “wicked” after all.

If anything, you feel warmly towards her, even sympathetic.

Wicked

A grossly misunderstood character, she isn’t the one-dimensional malefic force she’s traditionally been depicted as.

As I raced through the novel, I took a pause every few chapters to wonder if that was the juncture where she turns into an irredeemable evil entity. But I couldn’t find any, save for perhaps toward the very end.

She’s a far cry from our stereotypical image of a witch: of a nameless, hoary and gnarly harridan, sitting in a windowless tower, brewing potions and chanting spells.

Like everyone else, the so-called “Wicked Witch of the West” too, has a name—Elphaba—and her life, like that of any other human, has a continuum.

By embroidering a fabulously elaborate yarn, rich in fantasy and thick in plot, Maguire gives his readers a wonderful 360-degree view of the complex woman that she is—intelligent, articulate, and bold.

Elphaba’s life is all but a string of tragedies, beginning with her emerald complexion, a curse she bore since the day she was born. Derided and ostracized throughout her childhood and beyond—for her greenness—she grew to become a taciturn and aloof adolescent, with a disposition to mostly read.

Losing her only lover, Fiyero, as a young adult was another crushing blow. Her difference of opinion with her priest father and her devout sister over their religious beliefs had splintered their relations such that she often felt alienated amid her own.

Seen through the eyes of Elphaba, the wizard of Oz is an autocratic despot, whose discriminatory policies towards a section of Oz animals that could talk, think, read and write, approximated those of Hitler’s, in Nazi Germany.

Witnessing the death—“murder,” according to her—of Dr. Dillamond, a distinguished goat faculty at Shiz University, convinced her that the wizard was on a mission to systematically exterminate Oz’s non-human population.

Elphaba believed, his accomplice in this task was the institution’s piscine headmistress, Madame Morrible.

This conviction never deserted her and may well have been the wellspring of all her future life choices. Only a few months shy of graduation, she left her studies in quest of an unknown pursuit, a goal she accomplishes roughly twenty years later.

In the intervening years, her mind continued to calcify with the gnawing suspicion that the wizard was an agent of malevolence, and hence, must be toppled by hook or by crook.

Though there’s no crystal-clear moment as to when she emerges as a “witch,” it appears, her years spent in a nunnery were deeply transformative, for her post-monastic avatar was far more fearless, focused, hermetic, and ascetic than her former self.

Always in her trademark long black skirt, black scarf, and black boots to boot, she never gussied up. She didn’t care for creature comforts. She could sleep on naked grass on a cold night, survive on nuts and berries, and be happy in her own company.

In an alternate reality, Elphaba could’ve been a nun.

Not one for verbalizing her deep-seated emotions of love and kindness and compassion, except when it came to animal kind. She saw herself as a failure in just about every department of life though she was seldom bitter about it.

“Am I good for nothing in this life?” she asked herself in frustration.

“I have always felt like a pawn,” said the Witch.

“My skin color’s been a curse, my missionary parents made me sober and intense, my school days brought me up against political crimes against Animals, my love life imploded and my lover died, and if I had any life’s work of my own, I haven’t found it yet, except in animal husbandry, if you could call it that.”

By the time she’d reemerged into the outside world (with a broom by her side), not only had she developed a stoic resignation towards her perceived ill-repute, but she also actively went about giving it a layer of veracity.

“People always did like to talk, didn’t they? That’s why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it. As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it? It liberates you from convention.”

She’d been called a “lunatic” and an “assassin,” among others. Another cruel epithet would hardly have turned her already painful life upside down, she thought, and ensured that it came to her.

“Let him think I killed her,” Elphaba said to herself. She let it be known that she murdered Madame Morrible, when, in fact, the elderly matron was already dead when Elphaba bludgeoned her skull.

We’ve heard time and again that the “witch” was “wicked” because she wanted to wrench the enchanted ruby shoes out of an innocent child’s feet. She chased them around for greed, we’re told.

Well, not quite.

Her desperate pursuit of the shoes, stemmed, in part, from their sentimental value (they belonged to her deceased younger sister) and, in part, from her desire to salvage them from landing on the wizard’s feet.

Were he to acquire ownership of them, Elphaba ascertained, he’d have misused their magical power to consolidate his hold over Oz.

Ergo, her unsavory image, in some part, was of her own making. The same could be said about her longevity.

Had she not chosen to slip into the wizard’s ears that she was Madame Morrible’s killer, one can speculate, he wouldn’t possibly have sent Dorothy her way, with an instruction to take her out.

An angelic little girl, Dorothy didn’t abide by it.

She and her entourage of the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Woodman, and the Scarecrow, had trudged along the Yellow Brick Road from the Emerald City to Elphaba’s adoptive home in the Vinkus, only to beg her forgiveness for the death of her sister, the “Wicked Witch of the East.”

In a final encounter, as Dorothy cowered in fear in a corner, and Elphaba stewed with anger, her broom caught fire and a blazing splinter from it ignited her skirt.

In an attempt to save her life, Dorothy hefted a bucket of water and poured it on her aggressor, not knowing that water was inimical to Elphaba. It proved fatal.

But whatever became of the shoes?

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