Sentient Animals in Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years

Image of the Cowardly Lion from http://www.imdb.com/media/rm897221632/tt0032138?ref_=ttmi_mi_all_sf_30
Image of the Cowardly Lion from http://www.imdb.com/media/rm897221632/tt0032138?ref_=ttmi_mi_all_sf_30

For those of you who have yet to discover Gregory Maguire’s adaptation of and expansion upon L. Frank Baum’s classic world of Oz,  I invite you to explore The Wicked Years  series.

In today’s post I’d like to explore the use of sentient creatures (called Animals in this series) and the possible connotations associated with this character set. I find it interesting that the differentiation between sentient and non-sentient beings in Maguire’s world begins with the simple addition of a capital letter (animals vs. Animals), but expands farther than that.

In The Wicked Years novels, sentient Animals have the same basic capabilities as humans, meaning they have the capacity for speech and coherent thought, they have the ability to walk upright, and they also possess the moral obligation to clothe themselves. However intelligent these Animals are, they are still hindered by the handicaps of their physicality. Brrr, the Lion from A Lion Among Men, for instance, is described as having difficulty with handwriting due to his paws. Yet, not only can he write, but he is employed (using this word loosely) as a court reporter/investigator. Despite his intellect and the fact that he overcomes his physical “handicaps,” Brrr, like other sentient Animals, is still treated as a lesser species. In fact, one of the main social tensions plowing through The Wicked Years novels is the battle for equality: people and beings viewed as less than equal against those in power who attempt to impose their ideas on the whole of Oz.

Cover image from http://www.amanforallseasons.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/a-lion-among-men-gregory-maguire-book-cover-art.jpg
Cover image from http://www.amanforallseasons.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/a-lion-among-men-gregory-maguire-book-cover-art.jpg

Sound familiar? It should, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few hundred years. In an ever-evolving world, the only constant thread binding generation to generation is the battle for equality— that Us vs. Them mentality.

Not only are the Animals treated as less than human, they are too human for the animal world. Maguire’s series hosts Animals who have retreated into the wilderness to live among animals that look like them, but have nowhere near the capacities they have. A creature who is too intelligent for one group, yet dismissed as unworthy by another group? Well, that should sound familiar, too. I expect that each of us has experienced some feeling similar to this in our lives, some more harshly than others, I’m sure.

Now, I don’t ascribe to overt political notions, but I can safely opine that of all the canonical, classic literature I’ve ever dealt with, most harbor a thematic notion (however vague it may be) of equality or social justice. This construct is the common denominator in the hopelessly obtuse equation of our past, present, and future. Regardless of the “side” you would choose or have chosen in your own battles for equality, a hint of understanding and empathy can be lent to the characters in Maguire’s series.

Whether you are a fantasy junkie or not, check out The Wicked Years series. And if you aren’t sure about it, I know of a certain green-faced character who may be able to change your mind.

Let’s deepen the discussion. Tell me your thoughts on the parallels between Maguire’s Oz and what we know as reality. For instance, what other parallels can be drawn between Animals and their struggles and our reality? Also, how do you feel about the theme of social justice in literature? Do you think that it anchors a novel (or series of novels) in the reader’s mind?  If so, how?

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3 thoughts on “Sentient Animals in Gregory Maguire’s The Wicked Years

  1. I would like to preface my comments by stating that I have not read any of these books, but am now inclined to do so. Based on what I’m reading here, I can see how a parallel might be drawn to animal rights groups and their fight in modern society. While I do not agree with all, or even most, of PETA’s stances on animal rights, I can understand their goals. Animal testing, for example, seems to be a bit harsh nowadays with computer simulations and the ability to test tissue samples, I feel it has almost become obsolete.

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    1. Candice Mizell

      I’m glad to have introduced the series to you. Honestly, the animal rights avenue is one I didn’t even think of. That’s the fabulous thing about literature, right? To find an interesting angle and draw conclusions and parallels from it, often filtered through our individual experiences.

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  2. Pingback: What If Wednesday #1 | Carving Out A Space

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