There are two sides to every story.

There are two sides to every story.

“A mile above Oz, the Witch balanced on the wind’s forward edge, as if she were a green fleck of the land itself, flung up and sent wheeling away by the turbulent air.”

If I’m not reading, I do enjoy the theatre, particularly a good musical. One I’ve always been particularly fond of is Wicked, which I last saw in March earlier this year. It feeds into my minor obsession with the fact that there are two sides to every story, and often we only hear one of them. Gregory Maguire, however, has a habit of producing novels that show us another version of events. In Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, he shows us another version of Cinderella’s tale. In Mirror, Mirror, he reveals the motivations of Snow White’s stepmother. And in last year’s After Alice, he explores the effects Alice had on Wonderland once she’d gone. But in Wicked, we get to see the events of The Wizard of Oz from a completely new angle.

Starting years before Dorothy blows into Oz and meets her rag-tag bunch of friends, a baby girl is born in Munchkinland with bright green skin, something never seen before. Her parents, the devoutly religious Frex and the flighty, flirty Melena are suspicious and find it very difficult to love the child, whom they name Elphaba. Born with razor-sharp teeth and a pathological fear of water, as well as her verdant skin, Elphaba is an anomaly too far, and the family move out to Quadling country where she can be raised without drawing too much attention.

Soon enough though, Elphaba is old enough to attend Shiz, a hugely prestigious university in Gillikin country. There she meets Galinda, the snooty social-climbing wannabe-sorceress; Doctor Dillamond, one of their teachers who happens to be a Goat; and Fiyero, a prince from another land who is handsome but nervous about being in a new environment. Elphaba gets involved with Doctor Dillamond’s research into the differences between animals and Animals, the latter being those that possess sapience and can take jobs among humans. The Wizard seems to want to restrict the rights of the Animals, and Dillamond and Elphaba become determined to stop it.

After travelling to the famous, fabled Emerald City, Elphaba and Galinda meet with the Wizard, and Elphaba decides that she has to stay in the city to help against the plight of the Animals, as fewer and fewer of them are given respect or allowed into the human realms. What she does there sets her on a path that will one day lead to her being dubbed the Wicked Witch of the West.

If you’ve ever seen the musical version of this story, be prepared that this novel is incredibly different to that. While some of the characters are still here, they often have very different backstories and futures. Nessarose, who later becomes the Wicked Witch of the East, for example, is in a wheelchair in the musical, but in the novel her disability is that she lacks arms. But I’m not going to go into all the differences here, because they simply are too numerous. Let’s look at the book on it’s own merits.

Above all, it’s an exploration of good and evil, and how they can appear different to different people. It also looks at rumour and folklore, and how stories spring up, as well as prejudice, against the Animals mostly, but also against the smart and spiky Elphaba who is judged continually by Munchkins because of her skin colour. Elphaba is called evil and wicked by those that don’t know her, but there’s an argument to be made for it. Her work in the Emerald City can divide even the readers, as we wonder whether she’s a terrorist or a freedom fighter, a distinction that seems to occasionally rise in our world, too. She is not placid, though, and she’s definitely working at something and her intentions are good, even if the execution is less so. Galinda (who later changes her name to the more familiar Glinda) is considered good, but it is suggested simply because of her position in status and good looks. She seems content to stand by and let evil happen, perhaps making her more evil than those performing the evil itself.

I’m not very knowledgeable on the world of Oz, but it feels like Maguire has dug deep into the many original novels set there to build up a world that feels very real, despite its strangeness. He manages to imbue the fantasy world we know from the film with a sense of reality, not letting things just “be”. This is a world where there is sex, education, politics, war, terrorism, racism and murder, despite to some people seeming to be just a funny world of brightly coloured cities and roads, and friendly scarecrows and cowardly lions. We find out how the Lion came to be cowardly, where the winged monkeys come from, and why exactly Elphaba is so obsessed with getting those shoes.

While it’s a really interesting book and a great conceit because I love the idea of seeing stories from another angle, it’s quite dense still and not especially easy going. I wonder, perhaps, if I prefer the musical, and think that I do, as the story is far simplified (and actually on almost an entirely different trajectory) and places an emphasis on the relationship between Elphaba and Galinda. Plus the songs are really good. The book is for completists, and it’s the first of a series which, I presume, will go on to show what happened in Oz once Dorothy and the Wizard had left, but if you really want the story of the witches of Oz, I’d go see the musical.