Witch-ay Woman

While the Wicked Witch of the West is a somewhat significant character in the Oz books, it’s really the MGM movie that thrust her into super-stardom. It’s Margaret Hamilton in green makeup and black clothes who makes lists of the best villains, and whose story Gregory Maguire told in Wicked.

While the Wicked Witch in the book played basically the same role, she was a quite different character. While MGM’s Witch pursued Dorothy from the very beginning and showed up from time to time just to mess with her, L. Frank Baum’s original Witch took no notice of Dorothy until the girl and her friends entered the Winkie Country.

Once there, rather than screwing around with hourglasses and such, she immediately sends a pack of wolves to kill and/or destroy Dorothy’s entire party. She’s less active than in the movie, but she doesn’t muck about. On the other hand, she’s also a coward in some ways. In addition to her fear of water, she’s also afraid of the dark, and the Cowardly Lion can scare her away just by roaring. Doesn’t she have any spells to shut him up? Quite possibly not, as she uses up pretty much all of her remaining power trying to destroy the invaders. While MGM’s Witch appears to still be at the height of her power, Baum’s is essentially hanging on by a thread, but is scary enough that no one realizes this. Even though she does know real magic, her position isn’t a whole lot different than the humbug Wizard’s.

Also, while Hamilton can apparently call on the Winged Monkeys whenever she wants and has what appears to be a well-trained fighting force (even if they’re pretty bad at spotting strangers who simply put on uniforms), Baum’s character begins the story with only one more wish on the Golden Cap and a bunch of craven Winkies as soldiers. While Baum hadn’t worked out much about Oz at this point, it fits the later established tradition that Ozian soldiers are typically chosen based more on appearance than fighting skill. The movie’s Witch also lacks one of the most interesting physical features of the original character, specifically her single telescopic eye. In terms of the Witch’s significance in the books, don’t forget that she dies in the very first one, and hence can’t stick around to cause any more harm. The Nome King was really Baum’s only recurring villain, although Ruth Plumly Thompson and John R. Neill also brought back Mombi. And while Mombi never seems to have had the power that her western compatriot did (she’s identified in Dorothy and the Wizard as a former ruler of the Gillikin Country, but other sources suggest she never had the same kind of stranglehold that the Witch of the West had over the Winkies), she appears to have perpetrated a lot more random acts of badness in her time.

We really don’t know a whole lot about the Wicked Witch of the East, but she was said to have held the Munchkins in bondage for many years (not literally, I assume).

When we finally see the Wicked Witch of the South in Rachel Cosgrove Payes’s Wicked Witch, she has some impressive powers, but bungles pretty often in carrying out her plans. Apparently the wicked witches in the east and west were able to gain more authority in their respective territories than their northern and southern counterparts, but we don’t really know how. Okay, we know in the case of the Wicked Witch of the West that the Winged Monkeys were involved, but they presumably weren’t for her associate in the Munchkin Country.

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6 Responses to Witch-ay Woman

  1. vilajunkie says:

    In my own version of the Oz canon, and this is something I haven’t read anywhere else, so if it’s written about in another book I haven’t seen it yet, I imagine that there was a prophecy of some kind that stated the Wicked Witch of the West would be defeated by a little girl. Obviously, WWW found out the prophecy, but it didn’t state who the girl was, what she would look or act like, and maybe not even that it would be a girl from the Outside World. So, like Herod in the Bible and rulers in other stories, the WWW used her soldiers to find every girl born in the Winkie Country during her rule and kill them. She probably attempted to murder every other girl-child born in the rest of Oz, but the Wizard, Glinda, and the Good Witch of the North had enough power to stop her. I don’t know what happened in Munchkinland; maybe the Wicked Witch of the East was feeling devious and wanted to see another witch defeated so she could take over the Winkies herself. So…the WWW didn’t do much to threaten the rest of Oz once she was sure no Winkie girl could rise against her, and the Wizard knew about the prophecy, too, so that’s why he felt compelled to send Dorothy and her friends after the Witch because he knew she’d be able to defeat the WWW while his army couldn’t. Maybe the Wizard and even Glinda and the Good Witch of the North had sent girls against the Wicked Witch before, but these other girls didn’t have Dorothy’s friends or personality traits.

    Of course, that theory adds a whole new layer of drama and darkness to the series that doesn’t really exist in the canon, so it’s probably not accurate in any way.

    • Nathan says:

      I guess that does help to get the Wizard off the hook for sending a little girl to almost certain death. Regardless of how dark the prospect is, though, I’m not so sure about the Winkie Country not having any little girls at the time. But who knows?

      • vilajunkie says:

        Well, Oz at the time apparently didn’t have any chickens, dogs, or horses either (despite all of that being untrue in later books–at least for the Emerald City), so it’s possible.

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