Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Green Witch of Oz

Entry for 22 February 2009:

Why are witches so often portrayed has having green skin? Last Thursday, we saw the musical Wicked in London at the Victoria Apollo Theatre. The production was amazing: giant clock, animated dragon, smoke and mist, etc., as were the fanciful costumes. The performances were also very good, and many of the songs as well. But it’s the story that I’m still thinking about, Stephen Schwartz’ adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s revisionist version of L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz:

I read the first two Oz books when I was a kid, and of course the movie version is an American classic, which used to be shown during my childhood at Thanksgiving or Christmas as a kind of popular ritual. Later, I read the original and its 13 sequels to my kids, plus a series of graphic novels by Eric Shanower (now available in an omnibus edition). For my money, the latter are the best of the various attempts to continue the Oz Mythos in the spirit of the originals. I’m also very fond of the 1985 movie, Return to Oz, which I think is better than the original movie.

I loved the gender bending story of the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which the main character, the boy Tip, turns out to really be the Ozma, the rightful girl ruler of Oz, whose family had been usurped by the wizard in Baum’s (as opposed to Maguire’s) backstory. Even as a kid I realized how subversive this was, and now of course I see it as representing the situation of many transgendering individuals and even the Jungian view that all of us contain both male and female aspects, regardless of which of those is designated as our “true” self. Not bad for a children's book written in 1904!

For some reason, I’ve never gotten around to reading Maguire’s version or its sequels, but have always been curious about his take. So I was fascinated by Schwartz/Maguire's inspection of the duality of good and evil and its reversals and social/psychological construction. In the end, many of musical’s characters are slightly more nuanced and complex than Baum’s originals, although not by much.

But why, I found myself asking afterwards, is the main character, Elphaba (whose transformation into the Wicked Witch of the West the play portrays) …. green?

This turns out to be a complex question. She’s not green in Baum’s original, which would have messed up his elaborate colour scheme for Oz, where green was assigned to the area around the Emerald City. (Actually, the Wicked Witch of the West should have been yellow, the colour of Winkie country.) Instead, the Wicked Witch of the West (WWW) was greenified for the movie version, colourized along with the original silver slippers. (Note: The silver slippers were converted to ruby to show off the new colour film technology, introduced by the 1939 movie, because they would show up better against the famed yellow brick road. Presumably the green skin was a similar issue.)

Really, there must be better reasons for making the poor, misunderstood witch green! This question is not fully addressed in the Schwarz/Maguire version either, although several explanations are apparent: (1) Green is traditionally the colour of envy, and Elphaba is jealous of her favoured younger sister. (2) Elphaba’s mother is seduced by her lover’s promise of a drink of his mysterious and apparently addictive green liqueur (perhaps a reference to absinthe, a toxic alcoholic beverage used by trendy artiste types in the late 19th century), with possible teratogenic effects. (3) There is also an element of political allegory to the Schwartz/Maguire version, suggesting the possibility of indirect reference to American ethnic/racial issues, where green = black. In any case, Elphaba’s experience of colour-based prejudice sensitizes her to the plight of Oz’s sentient, talking animals, leading her to make common cause with them against the Wizard's fascist persecution.

However over-determined the choice of green skin is here, there must surely be deeper reasons for the WWW’s green skin, because she is not the first witch to be portrayed in this way. A quick google image search for "green witch" turned up 12,000 pages, way more than "yellow witch" but not as many as "black witch" or "white witch". The colour green, at least in our culture, seems to carry with it associations to disease (e.g., gangrene), jealousy (as already noted), and evil. But why should this be?

I’m going to speculate that this is yet another example of symbolic inversion, in which something seen as holy in an earlier, suppressed religion is transformed into a sign of evil by a newer, dominant religion. Thus, angelic beings known as devis in the ancient Middle East became devils; while snakes (and dragons), sacred to the mother goddess, because symbols of duplicitousness and evil.

In this case, I'm going to hypothesize that green, the colour of life, growth, and the vegetation deities both male and female, had its original positive meaning inverted into something evil. The Green Man (a mythic, recurrent figure in British folklore), the Green Witch (the subject of a young adult fantasy novel by Susan Cooper), and green magic (as opposed to black or white magic) are all part of this earlier Green Mythos, which was suppressed by Christianity (a sky god rather than a nature goddess religion).

Elphaba’s skin would be green because of chlorophyll, giving her the power of photosynthesis, the original “green technology”, the ability to turn sunlight into energy. Rather than being evil, this deep connection to the life of plants and growing things gives her a fuller appreciation for the web of life. Rather than Wicked, what she actually is, is Wiccan! And this is where the word “wicked” came from in the first place….


Montyhaul said...

A very interesting read, thank you for writing about it!

lynne locker said...

So how do we explain The Mekon?

Robert Elliott said...

Well, a bit of research reveals that The Mekon, described as a super-intelligent being from Venus, is just one of a long succession of green space aliens (often from Mars), sometimes referred to as "little green men." These in turn appear to have descended from deeper cultural roots going back centuries to some of the same sources that I referred to in my original posting. In short, "green" seems to be a widely-distributed means for depicting the Other, originally the Other as found in the natural world of vegetation, but then extended to extraterrestial Others in the 20th century.