Maguire returns to Oz again, this time re-imagining the Cowardly Lion
"A Lion Among Men," By Gregory Maguire, with illustrations by Douglas Smith. William Morrow, (October 2008), 342 pp., $26.95.
When Gregory Maguire wrote his 1995 revisionist Oz novel "Wicked," he couldn’t have imagined that his interpretation of the Wicked Witch of the West as a political dissident named Elphaba would spawn a Broadway musical. Because he figured it would be a one-off book, he deliberately left certain plot strands dangling, just like what happens in real life when someone unexpectedly dies with unfinished business.
But much like one of his characters, "Wicked" refused to die. A sequel, "Son of a Witch," emerged in 2005 and chronicled the life of Liir, the probable son of Elphaba.
And now comes "A Lion Among Men," volume three in what’s now called "The Wicked Years." As the title suggests, it’s now the Cowardly Lion’s turn in the spotlight.
Rescued by Elphaba as a cub from a laboratory experiment, the Lion named Brrr grows up alone in the Gillikin Forest, bereft of kinfolk or companionship. A chance encounter with a dying soldier caught in a footlock trap, leads to an unfortunate chain of events.
While most of Brrr’s back-story is told in a series of flashbacks, the older and more pragmatic present-day Lion acts as a court reporter for a clandestine branch of the Emerald City’s government. If he can find solid evidence of the whereabouts of Liir and the Grimmerie (Elphaba’s spellbook), then all his "crimes" will be expunged.
He manages to track down Yackle — Elphaba’s last known surviving associate — to the convent just outside Emerald City where she’s been secreting herself for years. The Lion wants answers. Yackle does too, so a battle of wills ensues.
Unfortunately for both of them, a much larger battle â€“ between the Emperor of Oz’s army and the troops of secessionist Munchkinland — will be erupting around them any moment now, so time is of the essence.
Once again, Gregory Maguire excels at taking the familiar Land of Oz and making it a mirror to our dark, troubled times. The man ruling the country has the flimsiest of qualifications to do so, and to distract the populace from this fact, he steps up the ongoing conflict with a country rich with natural resources vital to the Emerald City. In this case, it’s fresh water, not oil.
Longtime readers of these acerbic Oz books will undoubtedly relish the revelations that Maguire has scattered within "A Lion Among Men." Long a sidelined observer to events, Yackle finally comes into her own here, and an obscure character created by L. Frank Baum plays a deceptively important role in the events chronicled herein.
Although it takes a while for the plot to creak into motion once the characters’ back-stories have been established, events take on a life of their own, allowing the reader to get swept up in the characters’ desperate attempts to escape becoming collateral damage in a war not of their making.
In many ways, all this feels like a grand set-up for the fourth (and possibly final) novel in "The Wicked Years," which Maguire plans to start writing once he’s finished with the cross-country book tour for "A Lion Among Men." Occasionally it veers into "Waiting for Godot" territory, with characters talking and talking about Elphaba, who’ll likely remain dead and melted, but the diffident Brrr makes a striking contrast to the first two books’ protagonists. Whereas Elphaba and Liir are iconoclastic outsiders intent on treading their own paths, the Cowardly Lion just wants to fit in — anywhere — and goes to great lengths to curry favor and approval, with little to show for his collaborative efforts. Only by embracing his inner self will he find his place in the world of Oz. That is, if he only has the nerve…
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 28, 2008.