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R-rated spin to the spirit of Oz

Son of a Witch A Novel Gregory Maguire ReganBooks: 338 pp., $26.95

October 02, 2005|Maria Tatar | Maria Tatar is John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University and the editor of several books, including "The Annotated Brothers Grimm" and "The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales."

EVEN before its copyright expired, L. Frank Baum's "Wizard of Oz" (1900) was quickly appropriated for what John Updike described as vigorous commercial activity. Inventive developers had no trouble recognizing the book's multiuse possibilities, and today we have "The Wiz" (a musical with an African American cast), "Was" by Geoff Ryman (an elegiac literary sequel about homes sought and lost by Dorothy and others), "The Annotated Wizard of Oz" (a complete guidebook to Oz) and numerous other prequels, sequels and adaptations.

Baum's classic tale has, for the most part, miraculously escaped becoming a victim of ruthless exploitation and more often acts like a cultural agent that migrates with ease into new technologies and media, at home wherever it goes. Unlike many classics that end up succumbing to cultural entropy as they are recycled, Baum's tale seems enlivened and reinvigorated by the efforts of new hands. Salman Rushdie, in a book-length appreciation of MGM's 1939 "Wizard of Oz," reports that the film made him want to be a writer. The cinematic Oz has been seen by many as an improvement on the novel, turning Baum's American literary tale into the stuff of folklore -- a global cultural story about leaving home and finding a way back.

And then there is Gregory Maguire's novel "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," which constructed a prequel charting the fortunes of Elphaba (a name created from L. Frank Baum's initials) before she died at Dorothy's hands -- perhaps just by accident -- and became forever associated with evil incarnate. It was a smash bestseller in 1995 and led to a 2003 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. That astounding success may have inspired Maguire to consider taking the storytelling possibilities of his characters even further.

In "Son of a Witch," Maguire follows the fortunes of Liir, a boy who, at the end of "Wicked," disappeared into the Emerald City in search of his half-sister Nor. The shift in focus from Dorothy and her antagonist to an adolescent boy rumored to be the dead witch's son may produce a sense of mild disorientation, but it arouses all those feelings associated with what J.R.R. Tolkien referred to as the "arresting strangeness" evoked by fantasy's brave new worlds.

"Son of a Witch," like "Wicked," has a powerful cast of characters -- some whimsical, others repellent, many cruel and all eccentric -- who tumble forth at a pace so dizzying that even Frodo's head would spin. The tale begins with an act of "random brutality," the strangling and face-skinning of three young women who turn out to be novice maunts (holy women of sorts). When a badly beaten young man is found and brought back to life with ethereal music, the adventures begin in earnest, and the young man, Liir, armed with little more than his mother's magic broom and black cloak, sets out to turn "trouble, sorrow, danger, peril" into something resembling restitution and redemption.

Lacking an "instinct for magic," Liir aspires to mastering Elphaba's spells: He develops a command of language that has the power to produce change. Once he begins the process of "rounding syllables like stones in his mouth, silently," he is en route to an epic fantasy with many more twists and turns than the Yellow Brick Road.

Fantasy depends on the yoking of terror and beauty, the creation of effects that produce shudders of fear and pleasure, and Baum knew exactly how to stage those effects. In his preface to "The Wizard of Oz," he claims to have written a "modernized fairy tale" in which all the "horrible" and "blood-curdling" incidents of old-time European fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were happily eliminated.

"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," as its title first read, sought to preserve the wonder and joy of the old-style fairy tale, leaving out its heartaches and nightmares. And yet this is the book that famously gave not only a name but also life to the "lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!" that haunt every child's imagination. The tale derives its emotional intensity from a Manichean universe in which a small and meek Dorothy Gale defeats the forces of evil -- without the distractions of weighty moral considerations -- and secures the power to return home.

To get back to Kansas, Dorothy does more than just click her heels. In the chapter titled "The Magic Art of the Great Humbug," the girl from the Great Plains becomes aware that the real power of the wizard resides in his ability to do things with words, to endow the Scarecrow with "bran" new brains, to fill the Lion with courage and to make a heart for the Tin Woodman. Even as Baum used a fairy tale to debunk magical practices and reveal that they are a hoax, he also affirmed the magic of language. In the end, Dorothy puts on silver shoes (not the ruby slippers made famous by the film) and utters the words: "Take me home to Aunt Em!"

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