It all began, to some degree, with Tom Stoppard.
In 1966, when Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered, the type of radical literary revisionism that play embodied was just a nascent twinkle in the average postmodernist’s eye. But Stoppard’s recasting of two bit players from Hamlet as the leads in a new “adventure” burst the dam holding back a flood of reimagined biographies of characters from canonical literature. (Curiously enough, 1966 also begat Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a spin-off of Jane Eyre. There was certainly something in the air!)
Any such attempt to meddle in the imaginary universe of a classic work has to contend with twinned yet antithetical urges and imperatives. The author, if respectful, wants to honor the canonicity and continuity and tone of the original, while still offering his own unique spin and inventions, hopefully in the true spirit of the template.
Gregory Maguire achieved this masterfully in his justly celebrated novel Wicked (1995). He took a relatively undeveloped character, L. Frank Baum's Wicked Witch of the West from the Oz books, and built a Bildungsroman around her. Given a name, Elphaba Thropp, our Witch became a tragic character of almost Shakespearian dimensions, while the land and society of Baum's imagination was fleshed out with deep sophistication.
Maguire offered an Oz that was both a stage for political allegory and a weird landscape of spiritual questing. He returned to its terrain ten years later with Son of a Witch and now continues his exploration with A Lion Among Men, the third in the newly christened Wicked Years series.
Our focus this go-round is Brrr, the one and only Cowardly Lion. We’ve seen him glancingly in the prior installments, but now we get to plumb his depths. The real-time frame of the story is a mere 24 hours (a day some nine years onward from the close of Son) spent at the “mauntery of Saint Glinda.” Brrr, a reluctant secret agent for the Emerald City under Emperor Shell (Elphaba’s brother), has arrived to interview a mysterious “maunt,” or nun, named Yackle, who might possess information as to the whereabouts of Elphaba's son Liir and his daughter, potential rivals to Shell. Yackle’s price for cooperating is for Brrr to recount his life story, in flashback form.
It’s a tale of high naive ambitions and glorious dreams betrayed by innate vices like sloth and indecision, and a fair amount of sheer bad luck and human malice. (Talking animals are second-class citizens in Oz.) As he did with Wicked's Elphaba, Maguire builds appealingly and daringly on Baum's original conception: Brrr emerges from the novel as a figure whose self-knowledge has only achingly accentuated his status as failure and misfit.
The impulse to continue or revise the literary creations of others had been around, of course, for a long time before Stoppard. No sooner was Dickens cooling in his grave than folks were trying to complete The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And the realm of folktales has always lent itself to anonymous extensions and elaborations by many disparate minds.
Genre fiction in particular seems to encourage, by some element of its very nature, a writer’s desire to create (and an audience’s desire to read) alternate or extended scenarios for beloved fictional personages, adventures that elaborate or revise deep continuity. The Sherlockians led the way early on, by treating Doyle’s stories about Holmes as pieces of a biography, new bits of which could be uncovered by “scholarship.” Ludic masters like Philip Jose Farmer were soon constructing enormous edifices like the Wold Newton Family Tree, which omnivorously amalgamated such diverse heroes as Tarzan, Solomon Kane, Lew Archer, and Philip Marlowe. And what are superhero comics and franchise fiction like the hundreds of Star Trek books if not the ultimate many-handed literary beast?
Of course, somewhere along the line comes fan fiction, that much-derided wart on the body of “real literature.” Yet internet expert Bill Tancer recently estimated that fan fiction constitutes a full third of all fiction-related material available on the Web, testifying to its allure and power.
So what distinguishes a book such as A Lion Among Men from any teen’s Buffy-meets-Naruto maunderings? The same things that distinguish any good book of any stripe from its amateurish counterparts: depth and clarity of vision, excellence of prose, richness of theme, intricacy of characterization, shapeliness of plot. And while A Lion Among Men boasts all these virtues in greater-than-average abundance, I have to opine that it (and its immediate predecessor, Son of a Witch) don’t pack quite the punch of Wicked and indeed offer some frustrations typical of less-creative fantasy series.
While many of the events of Brrr’s past will be new and intriguing to the reader, his backstory acquires an overall Rashomon aura: it’s just another angle on the events of the first two volumes. True, by novel’s end, we’ve discovered the secret identity of Liir’s long-missing half sister Nor, Yackle’s own secrets, and more of the motivations of the mysterious prophecy engine known as The Clock of the Time Dragon. But the book seems stuck in a holding pattern, so far as the whole series’ progress is concerned.
Moreover, when characters are calling dessert “afters” or swanning about in Oscar Wilde fashion, an Anglophile element creeps into Maguire’s Oz. Now, Baum’s Oz was famously an all-American fairy tale, the first real one of its kind, full of demotic vigor and frontier zest. Losing that aspect is Maguire’s sole betrayal of the original books.
Happily, his prose remains an elegant delight, full of striking aphorisms and aperçus and philosophical insights into life. The dialogue is always crisp and pointed and droll. Maguire's depiction of Oz approaches at times the bizarre dimensions and heft of China Miéville’s New Crobuzon, especially in such elements as the prison of Southstairs. And he obviously knows the vast Oz mythos and alludes to many pieces of the14-book original -- watch for old favorite the Glass Cat in Lion -- as well as to the film, although he revises events and characters to his taste. The overall effect of his storytelling is a blend of the best of William Kotzwinkle, Walter Moers, Ray Bradbury, and Christopher Moore.
Maguire’s achievement in the Wicked Years books ranks high, right up there with the similarly inspired milestones by Geoff Ryman in Was (1992) and Alan Moore in Lost Girls (2006). The new superstructure each man has erected on Baum’s foundation shines like the Emerald City seen from the Yellow Brick Road. --Paul DiFilippo
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul DiFilippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.