Saturday, November 22, 2008

Toil and trouble

Xtina lent me Wicked. She warned me it was completely different from the play, which I've never seen, and that it was also a very dark tale.

It was actually fairly gripping and well-written; but as predicted, it was also really, really depressing. The nature of good and evil, the role of religion, political dissent (yeeaww), animal rights, and complications inherently wrapped up in sex are all at the heart of the "other side" of the story of Wizard of Oz. Wicked is the biography of the Wicked Witch of the West, and Maguire does a brilliant job of painting a portrait of Oz as a land of magic and mystery and barbarism and political intrigue. The reader sees green-skinned, outcast Elphaba the future Witch, born into a missionary family; raised in near isolation, she sees soldiers from the Emerald City pillage and plunder natural resources; off at university, she becomes a radical animal rights activist. It's a disturbing and violent biography.

I didn't expect religion to be so central to the storyline, but one of the main themes is Elphaba's struggle to fit her atheism into her own life's melding of free will and destiny: her minister father's proselytizing; the spiritual devotion of her deformed sister, the Wicked Witch of the East; the vanity of her college friend Glinda the sorceress; the comforting pagan beliefs of the rural folk; the magic she teaches herself; the struggle of animals to make humans understand their sentience.
"A person who doesn't believe in the Unnamed God, or anything else, can't believe in a soul.

If you could take the skewers of religion, those that riddle your frame, make you aware every time you move -- if you could withdraw the scimitars of religion from your mental and moral systems -- could you even stand? ... The history of peoples who have shucked off religion isn't an especially persuasive argument for living without it. Is religion itself -- that tired and ironic phrase -- the necessary evil?"
There's also a conversation in one scene, a discourse on the nature of evil -- is it the absence of morality, or its (therefore structured and explicable) opposite? Is it an act, or an idea? Or is it, as Elphaba says at one point, defined by the fact that it's secret and unknowable?

Theological implications aside, the story of Elphaba (like life, as Maguire probably intended) seemed incomplete. I was left wondering who murdered a few characters, if the revolution ever comes, if there's an afterlife in the land of Oz and magic, if justice prevails.

There's a sequel, but I'm not sure I have the heart to read it in a gray Seattle winter or a cold New England one.

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