Elphaba is maybe the most famous of American fictional witches, and she has been for some time. Gregory Maguire published
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West in 1995, and we were introduced to Elphaba. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a Broadway play, though the plot significantly diverged from its source material.
In these works, The Wicked Witch of the West got a back story and a name for the first time. Because in her initial incarnations–as the villainess in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz–she had no name and little story. It speaks volumes of Margaret Hamilton’s acting abilities that her character became such an iconic figure. Hamilton’s on-screen and dialogue time in the classic film are actually quite small, but her performance as the black-clad, green-skinned, broom-riding Wicked Witch of the West became an enduring part of pop culture.
And all of that led, perhaps inevitably, to such a curiosity about the witch that someone decided to write her story, the story of Elphaba, who maybe wasn’t quite wicked but who was certainly a witch.
Maguire’s book and the musical version of the story introduce readers to Elphaba when she is born; in fact, they begin a bit before Elphaba’s conception, where we learn that her mother had an affair with a visiting snakeoil salesman….The Wizard. It isn’t until much later that she learns it, of course, but Elphaba is his daughter, and she is green because of some elixirs the Wizard and her mother drank while she was pregnant.
Elphaba’s mother is a bit like royalty in Oz–she is the Eminent Thropp, the highest title in Munchkinland. Her father Frexspar favors his younger daughter, Nessarose, who is quite beautiful (ahem, not green), and very pious. Nessarose was also born without arms, and so she needs the assistance of her family quite a bit until her father makes her a pair of shoes….A special pair of glittery, beautiful shoes that one of their friends enchants to keep Nessarose balanced perfectly. These shoes become a symbol, for Elphaba, of the favoritism that her father always showed her sister and of the lack of beauty she always felt.
At college, Elphaba meets Galinda (who will later change her name to Glinda, and who enchanted Nessarose’s shoes). While initially the personalities of the two girls chafes against one another, they become close during their college years. In the musical version of the story, the relationship between the two reaches its breaking point, though, over the Wizard, who has been enacting stricter and more dangerous policies since his arrival. In the novel version, it is the infamous shoes, which Glinda has given to Dorothy, that mark their real departure of ways.
In the novel, Elphaba leaves school and moves to the Emerald City, where she becomes a kind of resistance fighter against the Wizard, tracking the movements of high-ranking officials in the capitol, sometimes killing them and sometimes passing information along to others in the resistance. She falls in love with Fiyero, a former college classmate who is married with children. After his death, she spends some years in a nunnery before going to find Fiyero’s widow to share his fate. She is welcomed into the castle of Kiamo Ko, the place that becomes her citadel and the center of her sorcery work—including making the flying monkeys. The Wizard’s forces eventually track Elphaba, and Dorothy is sent after her, unknowingly entering a vast world of political intrigue.
In the musical, much of this is excised, the plot simplified with a shorter span of time and geography. Glinda and Elphaba compete over Fiyero, and Elphaba’s main contention with the gentry and university staff is focused only on the Wizard. Elphaba’s ultimate fate is also different—she escapes through a trapdoor when Dorothy believes she has killed her, and goes to live with Fiyero and her friends, who have also escaped their fates.
In both versions of the story, details from the film and the Baum book are interwoven with new material, giving us a different perspective on events we hold familiar. For my part, that difference informs the ways I watch and read the originals now. It’s almost as though Oz has been repopulated.
And maybe that’s the most witchy of all witchcraft.