The third book in Gregory Maguire's "Wicked Years", A Lion Among Men is yet another fresh, daring and ambitious perspective on the reality in the ever familiar world of Oz. Oz is indeed a world which most of us (at some point in time) wish we could visit, and why shouldn't we? Oz is beautiful and colorful and filled with many fascinating creatures, all of whom have their own conquests. Some of its inhabitants wish to go home, some of them want a brain, some of them long for a heart, and then some of them just need a little courage.
Courage is indeed a theme surrounding the protagonist, the enigmatic Brr (yes, Brr . . . the CowardlyLion of Oz); but in what ways is this theme of courage satisfied? Though, more importantly, how exactly is the theme of courage re-enlightened? Most remember the Cowardly Lion as the bushy, lovable beast in the dark forest that feared everything and everyone and picked on poor unsuspecting dogs from Kansas. He was a wannabe bully who feared even himself, yet with just a little courage his life could be vastly different. And that quest for courage was ultimately put to the test during the Lion's assistance in the eradication of the Wicked Witch of the West . . . all in all to help Dorothy go back to the boring, black-and-white land of Kansas. In the end, the Lion is awarded a medal. But that's just the movie . . .
L. Frank Baum's classic story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a completely different series, albeit similar, sub-plots for the characters of Oz. In fact, the Wicked Witch herself barely makes an appearance. The Wizard still commands her removal from Oz, which Dorothy and her companions set out to do, but in the original story the conquest only lasts a coupls of chapters. The rest of the book consists of nothing more than exploring Oz, including stumbling upon a small civilization of porcelain dolls and funny slug creatures with spring-style heads which shoot out several feet and butt things out of the way. As for the Lion, his tale is still the same in both versions of the Oz story: he's a big, scared cat. All he needs is a little bit of courage. Which he ultimately does discover, for which he is awarded a medal for his show of bravery in killing the giant, evil spider lurking in the forest, for which he is thus anointed king . . . at least, that's how L. Frank Baum's story goes. So how does Maguire's version of the Lion's tale hang in the balance?
Well, like the other two volumes in the Wicked Years, the focus (and indeed the plot) attempt to pull you away from the familiarity behind all of our lives (if indeed the Wizard of Oz has had such a lasting affect on society) and show you a new world which both dismisses and reflects the lives we're all accustomed to. The Wicked Witch isn't that wicked (despite the murders) and her son (who appears in volume two, Son of a Witch) is an honorable (yet wickedly-militant) character, as for the Lion, he's a different beast all together. Or rather, he's not a beast at all. He's just a Lion. He's just a character in Oz. He does very little, save wonder to and fro, and along the way reaping the rewards of heroism and suffering the anguish of biases. Why? Well, because he just happened to be at the right place at the right time; or at the wrong place at the worse time.
Indeed, Brr's character in A Lion Among Men doesn't have any real obstacle to triumph over. He just wonders about Oz, going from town to city to forest, meeting both man and Animal alike, and at times is befriended and at times out-casted. But why? There's definitely a psychological theme in Maguire's latest volume as he contemplates the affects of isolation and abandonment, but there's a deeper existential crisis apparent in Brr's character. Yes, he is a lonely Lion, but it's not courage he seeks, nor is it a sense of family; what he seeks, in earnest, is nothing at all. Maguire leads you from idea to idea, planting suspicions behind Brr's motives, but all seem to arrive to no end and without any apparent conclusion. It would seem that Brr's obstacle is some sort of existential realization: as if understanding that he's the son of a king would fulfill his life, or learning that he's the lost orphan of a great pride would spark an emotional conquest . . . but no. No such dilemma exists. Sure, there's the ever apparent mystery of Brr's youth, but even when said mystery is answered it's nothing more than a brief emotional investment if that.
So how interesting is a character who just lingers about, doing little to nothing and earning a reputation all the same? Pretty interesting (at least in my eyes). This novel received quite a few bad reviews (from my research [one of which the very critic surmised Maguire forgot how to write and killed Oz forever]); my own judgement of the novel agrees that this latest installment of the Wicked Years is lacking, but my feelings on the novel are quite different. I personally loved Brr, finding his rather bleak observations on life refreshing and charming. All the mayhem and achievements which have accompanied Brr are reflected upon with such innocence, as if Brr's completely oblivious . . . but no, not oblivious, just simply nihilistic to the whole ordeal. Brr wonders through Oz, and indeed through life, because it's what he does. He has no real connection to anyone or any place and he's fine with that. Sure, he likes some of the individuals he meets, but once he's had enough, or if they've had enough, he moves on. But why? Is it because his expectations on family and friends are too high, or is it simply because he's a coward to the commitment of a place and its people, or is he still searching for something (and if so, then what)? The answer is . . . there is no answer.
Unlike it's predecessors, which were concluded in glorious detail, A Lion Among Men has no real conclusion. The plot and sub-plots lead you all around, exploring the various parts of Oz and allocating a variety of themes ranging from death to ignorance to destiny . . . all of which have no real lasting impression. So what is the real message behind Maguire's Oz? What is this new take on courage? Well, I for one would conclude (in philosophical elitism) that it takes more courage to live the life of isolation and abandonment than it does to overcome one, but only if you're a Lion.