Gregory Maguire: Tales Told in Oz (Madras Press, 2012)

"Small House, Colares" by Andy Newman

"Small House, Colares" by Andy Newman

For students of the native märchen, we present a compendium of traditional tales of Oz. They are selected to represent diverse regions of the nation. Originating from different periods of our profound past, each story illustrates a narrative tradition: a hierophantic biography, a trickster tale, a children’s fable, a pour quoi story. As an amuse bouche we append a suite of apothegms.

I haven’t read the original Gregory Maguire book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, though I’ve been idly wanting to for some time. In fact, this teeny-tiny book finally inspired me to actually get my hands on a copy (the library copy has been missing forever).

What’s great about this little book is, as in the introduction quoted above, the presentation of the individual stories as a scholarly survey of the folk literature of various regions and historical periods of the fictional Oz. I’m looking forward to reading Wicked, and possibly additional Maguire works, to get a better sense of how these tales fit in.

Make no mistake: Maguire is no fanfic writer – he’s got a PhD in English and American Literature from Tufts – and while he is a childlit specialist, Wicked is not aimed at children:

I knew from the start that the book would have to include two of the things that prepubescent children have no interest in: sex and politics. Since the idea of the book (a fictional exploration of the nature of evil) came before the subject (The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz: A life story), I knew that the book would engage in philosophical enquiry.

Who can resist that?

The Legend of Saint Aelphaba and the Waterfall” is exactly that: how Aelphaba went from lowly beginnings to sainthood on the power of her compassion, and how she hid from a group of hunters in a waterfall that froze on her pursuers:

In the decades afterward, it became known that the saint was waiting to emerge from her cave when she was needed most, to restore to the land the purity that had been bled from it through the abuse of ecclesiastical license committed by her grandfather, the Bishop.

From what I understand, in Wicked the character Elphaba is named after Saint Aelphaba, but she turns to evil and becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. The waterfall and the water that kills the witch are a further connection. I’m really eager to read more.

Four Improbably Handshakes: a Munchkinlander pumpkinhead tale” is explained thusly:

Stories from rural Munchkinland are known for featuring simpletons of every stripe and certification. Scarecrows remain the most popular buffoons….In the story to follow, we behold a Jack Pumpkinhead, a folk figure of endless variation.

I really enjoy how these legends are presented as folk tales of a fictional place; it’s double-layered fiction. It’s the story of a Jack Pumpkinhead (which is, as you might guess, a sort of scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head) created by a blundering amateur magician, and a magical lemon that is really not the magic; it’s the handshake that’s the spell. There’s a wonderful cascade of events in this story, culminating in a clever and amusing ending; direct reader address is key.

The Witch and the Fox Babies” was of less interest to me, though I suspect it’s very important in conjunction with the other works about Oz, since the Wicked Witch ends up in a cave:

And did she ever come out?
Not yet.

I may revisit this later when I’ve read more of the works.

Skellybones Fir-cloak” is a creation myth about Lurline, about whom it seems many tales are eventually told. It’s a story of opposites: male and female, sun and moon, life and death, and how they oppose and cooperate.

Quadling Quacklings” is “a handful of folk sayings collected by anthropologists who managed to wade back from Muck Country.” Including the slightly bawdy:

Q: What are the virtues of the virtuous wife?
A: Clean from the neck up and dirty down below.

If you’re not interested in fairy tales, or in The Wizard of Oz, or either the book or the musical Wicked (which as I understand it has been simplified considerably to fit into a two-hour stage work, but still has some cool music), or the creative process of taking an established work and fashioning an entire universe, complete with a mythological and cultural anthropology to support it (think Tolkien rather than Harry Potter), these particular tales might not interest you at all. Me, I’m fascinated.

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