Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Wizard of Oz as Modern Mythology

I really liked the play Wicked when I saw it last Christmas*, so I was excited to read the original book. I did think it was interesting, but it was very different from the play—so much so that it seems arguable whether they're telling the same story.

I think this is another instance of a phenomenon I've been interested in lately, especially after the third Star Wars movie came out. In the ancient (Greek and Roman) world, virtually all fiction was retelling of the same old stories. The measure of an artist's craft was his ability to take the essential kernel of an old story or myth and rework it into something beautiful. Originality wasn't really prized.

The same held true, though perhaps to a lesser degree, for much of the Middle Ages. Artists were largely expected to improvise on old themes and stories, not create new ones. One effect of this setup was that many old stories have several versions. If you do any study of Greek mythology (or fairy tales), especially, you learn that there was no "accepted" version of most myths; each author reworked the details to suit his purposes and make the point he wanted to make.

But our society has done an almost complete 180. The traits we value most in artists are originality and authenticity—I know several people who like the music in The Phantom of the Opera, but object to the musical because Webber borrowed a lot from Puccini—and therefore, wasn't original; so the fact that the music is good, in some sense, "doesn't count."

But back to Wicked. The Wizard of Oz was originally written as an American fairy tale; Wicked plays off of this, and acts as a loose reworking of the same source material. In the tradition of cultural mythology, it appropriates cool ideas and uses them for its own purposes. Of course, Wicked isn't the first time that's been done; I haven't even seen the movie (shameful, I know), and I know that it changed some arguably important details*. But Wicked involves much more drastic alterations to the basic structure of the story.

The tension and meaning of Wicked rides largely on its derivation from a cultural force. The whole point of the work is to take the fourth-greatest movie villain of all time and make the reader sympathize with her: sympathizing with someone seen as so profoundly evil is meant to make the reader reexamine his conception of good and evil. For similar reasons, no character really comes out of the book looking wholly good or wholly evil (though Fiyero and the Wizard come close): the book is really about the thinness and blurriness of the line between good and evil. Casting a notorious villain as the protagonist forces the reader to confront his preconceptions head-on.

But Wicked the musical performs the same trick again, adopting the framework and basic characters of the book to tell its own story with its own themes and meanings. Some of the themes are closely shared between the musical and the book: in neither work is the line between right and wrong clearly drawn, and both engage in extensive political commentary. But the book focuses almost exclusively on the ethical issues; politics is mostly used as a tool to explore characters' views on good and evil. The Wizard's character is revealed by his oppression and tyranny; Nessa's by her fundamentalism; Glinda's and Fiyero's by their disengagement. In the play politics takes a much more central role.

The play also seems to have a much clearer opinion on what courses of action are right. The theme of "Defying Gravity" is determination: Elphaba knows that the Wizard is wrong, and she'll resist him despite the personal cost. The book presents a much more nuanced view of her resistance, and focuses much more on collateral damage. Elphaba's intial determination to take down the Wizard hurts lots of people, but doesn't seem to accomplish anything; and while the Wizard is obviously wrong, Elphaba probably is as well. Even though the book's end is reasonably right and happy, you can't blame it on any of the characters, because very few of them ever seem to act at all sensibly or nobly.

In the end, I think I prefer the musical. Both works are tragic, but the tragedy of the play has much more nobility to it, and Elphaba in "Defying Gravity" is one of the best depictions of the highest and best in man—his nobility and conviction, his dedication to justice—that I've ever seen. The book really doesn't have any characters or moments that could be called "noble." The book is the story of a confused woman stumbling through a world, trying to figure out what to do and how to relate to others. The play is the story of a noble woman who resists tyranny and injustice, even though she hasn't the power to stand up to it herself. And at the end, she's successful: the Wizard is dethroned, and Oz is returned to peace.

And perhaps this is the real benefit of being able to retell stories. Every reader can recast the details of the story to mean what he needs it to mean, and to let it reflect his own desires and values. Any story that can reflect the disparate desires of very different people is a powerful cultural force. And it allows all of us to get what we want, and need, from our literature.

*Incidentally, I was listening to the soundtrack earlier today, and I swear that it gets better every time I listen to it. Even more randomly, I think this is really, majorly, supremely cool. I want it!

* In the book, Dorothy's shoes were silver. This seems totally irrelevant, unless you know that several people have argued, somewhat convincingly, that the original Wizard was a Populist allegory, with the Yellow Brick Road representing gold currency and the silver shoes representing a shift to the silver standard that the Populists were pushing for. If they're right, changing the color of the shoes actually gutted the entire work.


Blogger tsg281 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

June 25, 2005 9:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this old fishtale drives me crazy!!!! and after following your blog for a while i am disappointed by you jay- you seemed so much smarter than to follow the old Baum/populist/silver standard line-the fact that the web is littered with noted article outlining the fable of oz and byran populist party and baum (and from legitimate sources) -only hightens your original theory about seeing what you want in a story and bending it to what you want it to be or rather need it to be - point in order, litterfield started the official baum/populist theory in 1964 - even after two biographys of baum (one by his son) noted is his remarkable ability bend politcally depending on his mood of the moment. followed has been generations of theorist adding nothing new to littlefields original essay and following his lead -even after a fairly current article in the NYT by the noted baum historian MP Hearn writing about baums voting record and especially a poem buam wrote for a chicago paper outwarding blasting bryant and warning of the outcome of the silver standard and populist in general! followed up by litterfield reponding in the NYT that Hearn was right and that there was no tangible evidence of oz ever being a populist allegory and the shoes had no symolism of the silver standard - but that his article in 1964 reflected the mood economically- the baum family concurred that silver was not a important symbolic point in making the momumental film when mgm approached them with ruby as the shoes-
my point, and i do have one, it that after such a strong article on myth and storytelling- you add a flippant comment at the end on a movie you have never seen and have not well reseached completely that reflects your youthfulness and arrogance . causing readers to be distracted from what you say by how you say it. you have so much wonderful insight -it is frustrating how often you waste it in self-absorption.

December 28, 2005 4:18 PM  
Blogger Jadagul said...

Well, thank you for the kind words, Mr Anonymous. I did say "arguably important"; I've always been a bit skeptical of the claim, but it didn't seem obviously and definitively false. If you have a link (or cite) to a good, authoritative debunking I'd appreciate it; among other things, I have an old high school teacher who should get to see it.

January 04, 2006 8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, sorry for being heavy handed- admitted annoying day at the office-also, talking to an economist friend of mine,she said that even if baum didn't intend to make it so, it is very popular to study the book as a fun way to teach econ to highschool and college econ students- so proving "what the hell do i know"
but here are some good references:
two books by micheal patrick hearn (1978, 1982), (ref: baum) (ref: dighe-econ)

on another note, i have not seen WICKED, but since you have- what are your thouhts on it being made into a movie- is it do-able, and if so how do you think it would be done ?

January 12, 2006 9:47 AM  

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