It’s back to Oz with a dark edge for Gregory Maguire in A Lion Among Men, his third and latest installment of “The Wicked Years.”
Eight years have passed and though the influence of both Dorothy and Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) remains palpable, these two characters appear only in flashbacks.
And with these powerful women out of the picture, Oz is at odds: Elphaba’s brother has claimed a divine right to the throne, imposing punitive laws and an expansionist mind-set. Indeed, his regime has ushered in an unkind era for many in the kingdom, where war between Emerald City forces and secessionist Munchkinlanders is imminent, close enough to “smell it in the air like laundry soap.”
Time hasn’t been kind to Dorothy’s familiar trio from the Yellow Brick Road either.
The scarecrow is literally a “straw man” in his government position. Tin Man Nick Chopper is engaging in shady deals while organizing “tiktock workers.” And Brrrr, the cowardly lion, has been released from jail on one condition: that he locate an ancient oracle who knows the whereabouts of the Grimmerie, a book of spells that power-hungry leaders must find in order to gain complete control of the territory.
It’s an ambitious project for Brrrr and Maguire alike.
To Maguire’s credit, “A Lion Among Men” maintains the swashbuckling pace of the previous volumes. Dialogue and plot move with such speed that there is little time to ponder Maguire’s crass but clever adults-only allusions.
Yet the story is far more than a bawdy romp.
Brrrr’s hunt for the Grimmerie takes him across Oz, but it’s his existential search for self that forces him to take much bigger steps. The subplot is so well-crafted that readers of all ages could enjoy witnessing Brrrr’s transformation from an insecure kitten in the woods to a compassionate, engaged “manimal.”
But the book’s suggestive language and tactless portrayals of religion make it inappropriate for children.
For adults, however, Maguire’s language is delightful enough to read aloud.
“Would someone here know if Yackle is an oracle?” Brrrr asks, upon arriving at the oracle’s earthly home, an oddball nunnery of sorts. There he meets Yackle – both his nemesis and savior – a gruesome creature who “when she went to scratch a place on her scalp ... misjudged the angle of the approach and nearly punctured her own eardrum.”
Maguire’s technique of reintroducing characters like Yackle, an aging oracle who demonstrated an unusual interest in Elphaba in previous books, is particularly well executed. Maguire manages to leave the story line seamless while still providing readers – whether or not they are familiar with his other books – with nuggets of information to help them understand the character’s personality.
Maguire’s pointed critique of how power can corrupt and oppress those who are different is another thread connecting this book to others in the trilogy.
What humans hold dearest in their hearts, Maguire writes, “the last thing they relinquish when all else is fading, is the consoling belief in the inferiority of others.” It’s a statement Brrrr both witnesses – his cowardice leads to the massacre of some trolls – and is victimized by.
Oz’s Animal Adverse Laws, it seems, don’t welcome a talking lion into high society, and Brrrr learns he’ll never penetrate the inner sanctum of the “haute monde.”
It’s a good thing, in the end, a needed pit stop on his path to enlightenment. Brrrr’s transformation is a subtle one, and artfully portrayed.
He begins his journey entirely lacking in tact, empathy, or knowledge of how to be a friend: In one cringe-worthy scene, Brrrr happens upon a lost soldier whose leg is caught in a hunter’s trap.
Rather than leap to pry open the trap’s jaws, Brrrr asks: “So this is a hunter’s trap and you are a hunter.... Aren’t you a little bit very ashamed of yourself?” Cowed by his own fear of traps, Brrrr stays with the soldier until he dies – clinging to a man who cannot reject him – in a complete misunderstanding of friendship.
A chance interaction with a wandering bear helps explain Brrrr’s quirky behavior. “Are you lost and alone and very abandoned by your clan?” he asks the cub, imposing his own narrative on the (temporarily) solitary creature. His inability to see beyond his own circumstances drives many of Brrrr’s mishaps.
It’s a flaw that’s redeemed by the story’s end, however, when Brrrr again sits with someone in need, but this time out of compassion.
He curled “up on the floor at the feet of the trembling old harridan,” Maguire writes. “She was weeping into the edge of her shroud. He was purring, and rubbing his head against [Yackle’s] ankles.” Looking more like a cat in that scene than in any other in the book, Brrrr is also at his most human.
But the kingdom is still in chaos, and Brrrr must make a choice – satisfy the crown and live an unencumbered life, or act for the well-being of Oz. Perhaps in an expanded definition of solidarity, Brrrr – who once looked for any way to fit in – chooses to become “a free agent, a rogue lion ... a rogue lion with the beginning of an education.”
Sarah More McCann is a Monitor intern.