Witchy Women: Elphaba

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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 competeWitchy 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.

*This post is a part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge.
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31 Comments

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  1. I love Elphaba in the musicals. She is so strong, smart, determined, big-hearted, and brave. I saw the stage show four times, which includes once on Broadway. I read the book and I am going to admit that I didn’t like the book. I prefer the plot in the musical over the plot in the book.

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    1. The musical is good but it is very different from the book. I had a difficult time deciding what I thought about it because Fiyero’s character is *totally* different. When he and Elphaba meet, he’s super-popular and intriguing new student and playboy. I liked his character so much in the books that the change was very jarring.

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  2. I’m a huge fan of the musical. I’m almost embarrassed to admit i’ve seen it over 6 times lives lbvs. I’ve never read the novel though but i’m curious now.

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    1. I’ve been to the theater to see the musical twice, but I’ve only seen the full performance once! The first time I went, there was a fire near the theater and the show lost power at the beginning of the second act…It was a nightmare! The second time, I was finally able to see the ending!

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    1. Yeah, I’ve felt that way about a lot of things myself. I tend to finish books and movies once I’ve started them because I just have to know the ending, but sometimes they don’t catch my interest the way they do others. And the prose in Wicked is pretty dense.

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  3. I really need to pick up the rest of the series. I borrowed Son Of the Witch from the library some time ago and absolutely loved it!
    From your description of book/vs play I’ll most definitely stick with the books!

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    1. I think Son of a Witch is the second in the series. I enjoyed it and Wicked, though the series got a bit too dense for me after that—I was most interested in the parts with Elphaba, and she isn’t in all of the books.

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        1. Yeah, that’s about the time that I stopped enjoying the series, too. I think I read all of them, but Wicked is the one that really stuck with me.

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  4. I read that book so long ago that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Thanks for reminding me. I’ve never seen the play, but maybe someday I’ll get to it. Another item to add to the list.

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  5. Awesome post! I need to reread that book. It’s been awhile and I don’t think I understood all the details the first time. I haven’t seen the musical (I want to!) but am very familiar with the music.

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    1. The novel is pretty dense–I think I’ve read it 3 or 4 times, and I always find something new.

      I quite enjoyed the musical, but it is very, very different from the book version.

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    1. I find re-imaginings from the villains points of view really interesting, too. I think maybe it’s about, at least in part, wanting to psychologize–wanting to know why.

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    1. Thank you!

      Funny story about the musical—the first time I saw it here in New Orleans, the power in the theater went out right at the opening of the second act, when Fiyero and Elphaba meet again. They couldn’t get the power back on before 2 a.m., so the show had to be cancelled. It was months before I could attend another performance and see how the show ended!

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