For weeks I’ve been strolling through Gregory Maguire’s four-volume fantasy about Oz. These are wonderful books — and yet, at the end of the saga, I find myself curiously dissatisfied.

What was wonderful about the first book, Wicked, was that Maguire took the events from Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, while keeping the framework of the story, transformed Oz into a real place and the characters into real people. They’re filled with uncertainty. They sometimes make wrong choices.

In the ensuing three volumes (Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men, and Out of Oz), that sense of aimlessness infects most of the characters. They blunder across the landscape of Oz, hiding from trouble and failing to grapple with their adversaries. It’s no accident that the Cowardly Lion emerges as a central character while the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman slide offstage and are never heard from again. The Lion’s angst, his retreats and self-recriminations, and the ups and downs of his checkered life interest Maguire far more deeply than the Scarecrow’s intellectual prowess or the Woodman’s big-hearted compassion.

As Out of Oz meanders along, we begin to see, dimly, as through a fog, that Maguire really does intend to lead us up to the events at the end of Baum’s original sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, in which Princess Ozma is discovered and restored to the throne. The events of Baum’s story are treated with far greater freedom in Out of Oz than in Wicked, but the essentials are there. The old witch Mombi, whom Maguire has renamed Mombey, has a boy named Tip as a sort of adopted son, or perhaps as a servant. If you’ve read the original, you will of course know that Tip is Ozma. That is, he thinks he’s a boy, and everybody else does too, but in fact he’s a girl.

Tip falls in love with Rain (Maguire’s own invention, and the lead character in Out of Oz). Rain is the granddaughter of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Their love is, apparently, consummated, though the details are left mostly up to the reader’s imagination. (We do get to see Rain taking Tip’s fingers into her mouth, so your imagination won’t need too much of a workout.) And then, mere minutes later, Mombey is tricked into cranking up her magic spell, and Tip turns into Ozma.

A brief digression: Rain’s father, Liir, is bisexual or possibly just gay. Liir has had, in his youth, a love affair with a handsome soldier named Trism. In Son of a Witch Maguire describes this affair discreetly but without leaving anybody in the least doubt about what’s going on. Maguire himself is gay, or so I’ve read. So okay, the Liir/Trism episode doesn’t do anything for me, but I’m quite happy to be broad-minded.

When Tip is transformed into Ozma, the broad-minded among us may perhaps be forgiven for thinking, “Okay, Rain and Ozma are now going to be a lesbian couple.” Since Ozma will be the queen and Rain is the rightful heir of the rulers of Munchkinland, this would make political as well as moral and literary sense. It would balance the scales, as it were.

But no. Maguire just plain couldn’t bring himself to write the story that way. And a little reading between the lines may suggest why.

In Baum’s original, Tip has some anxieties about being turned into a girl. “I don’t want to be a girl!” he cries. But the Tin Woodman replies, “Never mind, old chap. It don’t hurt to be a girl, I’m told; and we will all remain your faithful friends just the same. And, to be honest with you, I’ve always considered girls nicer than boys.”

Tip’s concerns having been soothed somewhat, the transformation takes place. Baum again: “…from the couch arose the form of a young girl, fresh and beautiful as a May morning. Her eyes sparkled as two diamonds, and her lips were tinted like a tourmaline. All down her back floated tresses of ruddy gold, with a slender jeweled circlet confining them at the brow. Her robes of silken gauze floated around her like a cloud, and dainty satin slippers shod her feet.”

Maguire’s version of the transformation scene is much more dramatic and more adult — he is, after all, a far more gifted writer than Frank Baum! But somehow Tip gets the short end of the stick (so to speak): “[Mombey’s] few guards had fallen to the floor, panicked and paralyzed, the way Tip also seemed to be, twisted, tilted onto his side, his hands between his legs.” That’s it for Tip’s transformation.

Ozma (still wearing Tip’s clothing) is whisked offstage in a flashback. When we finally meet her a few pages later, she is given almost no physical description. “Ozma,” Maguire tells us, “had eyes the color of half-frozen water.” That’s it. She and Rain meet briefly, but they don’t even hug.

Undying love between Rain and Ozma as two young women? Not a chance. Rain goes away. They never see one another again.

My reading of this, which I’ll admit is a bit of a stretch, is that Maguire sees Tip’s transformation as castration. Read that phrase again — “his hands between his legs.” Maguire is comfortable with male homosexuality, but he can’t bring himself to imagine how Rain could possibly love someone who doesn’t have a penis.

So Rain flies away on her broom (her grandmother’s broom, in fact) to throw the magic book of spells into the sea. And that’s the end of the saga. Rain abdicates both her political responsibilities as the Eminence of Munchkinland and her moral responsibilities as the keeper of a book that might do great good. The Cowardly Lion is left to act as regent until Ozma comes of age.

And what of Glinda? The Lion throws her in the dungeon, as a matter of political expedience, in spite of all the good she has done. When last we see her, she is in her cell, and someone is coming into the cell. “She knew who was turning the door handle of her cell. She called her name sleepily, and added, ‘You wicked thing. You’ve taken your own sweet time, of course.'” This is enigmatic and unsatisfying on several levels. First, during the course of the book we have been given three or four oblique hints that Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, may not have died after all when Dorothy threw the bucket of water on her. Elphaba and Glinda were college chums, and the deployment of the word “wicked” in that passage could hardly be accidental. So quite possibly Elphaba is alive, and is coming to visit Glinda in prison. But why? And if that’s what’s going on, why doesn’t Maguire tell us? (Because he’s planning another sequel, would be my bet.)

I like my alternative reading better. Glinda is being visited, after all this time, by Death. Of course, Death is a character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, not in the Oz cycle. Maguire indulges in quite a number of oblique references to various things in literary culture, including Judy Garland and the Garden of Eden, but Discworld doesn’t seem to have been among them. All the same, when an author so stubbornly refuses to tell us what’s going on, my vote would be for Death.

Rain flies away, loveless. Glinda is left languishing in prison. The Scarecrow was probably burnt up, though we never find out for sure. The Tin Woodman has vanished without a trace. The Lion has been repeatedly disappointed in his romantic encounters. Mr. Boss lost his reason for living when the Clock of the Time Dragon slid into the lake and was lost forever. Offstage, General Cherrystone killed General Jinjur and then shot himself. Ozma is a tragic figure because she has been castrated. Liir and Candle have split up, and we have no idea what became of Trism.

There’s a lot in these novels that is very good indeed. I’m focusing on the negative here because, damn it, I wanted them all to live happily ever after!

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