"What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?"
That's Shakespeare, the intelligent homosexual's most beloved Maybe Brother.
By dint of natural shyness I have managed, I think, to avoid bringing much attention to the coy reality that as a gay man I'm best known for rewriting fairy tales. I am old enough -- which is to say I was a child long enough ago -- to remember that the word "fairy" was the first sobriquet lobbed in my direction, and not by admirers. Nonetheless, I also was an early and chronic devotee of fairy tales. My interest in that realm of literary enchantment, therefore, seemed a curse long before I knew enough of gender or sex or myself to identify as gay, except in the sense of being insanely and clandestinely happy at the charmed world implied by fairy tales.
And what was that world, to an embryonically gay citizen of the famous land somewhere over that rainbow? What was it about children's fantasy lands and the dimly medieval land of fairy tales that drew my attention so keenly?
The fairy tale, said Erik Christian Haugaard -- the Danish novelist and translator into English of Hans Christian Andersen's oeuvre -- belongs to the poor. I know of no fairy tale that takes the side of the mighty against the weak.... A fascist fairy tale is an absurdity, he concluded.
Haugaard's credo has become an item of faith for me. The fairy tales are about the dispossessed, the much aggrieved, the unlucky in love, the challenged, the marginalized. Therefore have I spent the past several decades writing novels for adults and children that are set in the land of Faerie. Most famously, I have a second home in Oz. Not the Australian island continent, but the land of singing Munchkins.
As a gay man, I am gaily pressed by the gay press to assess the degrees to which my four Oz novels -- called The Wicked Years -- measure up as gay novels. Gay novels? Really? My early resistance to that claim was born of sheer ignorance. I came of gay age in such a straight ghetto that I didn't know that "friends of Dorothy" referred to Dorothy Gale's charmingly eunuched male companions. (I imagined some campy, vampy D.C. or N.Y. or S.F. society hostess, in a slim-line, jet-beaded dress the color of cigarette smoke, presiding drolly over an eternal salon of scantily clad, boisterous boysters.) I didn't know of the connection between the Stonewall riots and the death, earlier that week, I think, of Judy Garland. I was the original innocent abroad in Oz.
That said, in Wicked I knew that I wanted to make gay affection and even sex a legitimate, if minority, reality in Oz. This impulse was borne less out of a political agenda and more from a literary one: should the magic in my books have any chance of seeming truly, well, fabulous, I thought it would need to be set off against a background of gritty ambiguity in the depiction of human affairs. I was, after all, writing a fantasy for adults. It's one thing for magic to happen to the grubby princess-in-tatters. It's quite another for it to happen to us, who, no matter how many vintage clothing shops we may visit privately, will never be princesses. Or princes.
So, at the most basic level of plot, I included at Shiz University a couple of gay students, Crope and Tibbett. (They were inspired by cheerily fey and affected undergraduates in one of the Barbara Pym novels.) Even as minor characters, though, their lives insisted on being more than comic relief. In a sex club, under the influence of a magic potion, Tibbett is publicly raped by a Tiger, and a hundred pages later he dies of an unnamed wasting disease, ministered at his last by Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.
Now, Elphaba and Glinda. What gives? Well, I do subscribe to E. M. Forster's dictum, "Only connect," but I also live by a lesser known suggestion of Virginia Woolf's: "Only suggest." So I know what I believe, but in prose I only suggested a little bit about the tendresse -- even once when they shared a bed in an inn -- that might have grown up between them. The musical based on Wicked, called (perhaps you've heard of it) Wicked, stepped even more steeply back from the hint of romantic attraction between the leads... with the effect, some feel, of heightening the possibility of what remains unsaid.
The sequel, Son of a Witch, gave me a new boldness and new characters. Fatherless, motherless Liir falls for a young woman who has nursed him back to life, and who carries his child, but he falls just as hard for a strapping bucko from the Home Guard. They make love; as far as I know this brief but intense passage is the first description of gay sex in mainstream fantasy literature, if that literary classification isn't an oxymoron. I wrote this scene not out of prurience, mind (or not much), but to heighten the distance Liir, Elphaba's boy, perches from the hectoring dictates of social convention and political power.
Space limits require me to pass by A Lion Among Men, the life of that dandy Lion, the Cowardly king of beasts. Suffice it to say that the Lion pays keen attention to his wardrobe, which one day may just include a crown. Or a tiara...
Now, with Out of Oz, the fourth and final installment in The Wicked Years, the story lines converge. Old lovers pine for one another, and hope for long-delayed reunions burns bright in several pairs of eyes, including, I know from my mail pile and email inbox, the eyes of many readers. Why? "The consolation of the imaginary," says British moral philosopher Roger Scruton, "is not imaginary consolation." I'm told by those who read him that he and I would agree on precious little. He seems to position himself as a starchy anti-gay traditionalist.
Yet he has said something important, I think, so I don't care in what ways his own imagination might console him. The fairy tales continue to exert a magnetic lure to us because their very raison d'être is to console. Leave waspish satire and lacerating black irony for the grownups with their scotches and their loud, rasping, cocktail laughter. Here on the back steps, by the flickering light of the kitchen fire, we find ourselves real, and whole, and ready, immersed in the pages of books of the fantastic, because in our hearts, while we may never be lions, or princes, or powerful witches on broomsticks, we know ourselves for who we truly are. Fantastic.
We do. Me, and the kid sitting next to me on the step, looking over my shoulder at the same book. The charm of faerie strikes once more. I couldn't live were it not true. Magic is a metaphor for sexual eagerness, served up to the young who have not yet learned the language but recognize, embryonically, the emotions -- all that power and attraction, the shape-shifting, the dropping of disguises, the lusty fighting, slaying, dying, being reborn.
Childhood is often called a time of enchantment, the magic years. Remember that show The Wonder Years? But maybe childhood is also the Wicked Years. "The consolation of the imaginary is not imaginary consolation." Have you a story for me? Does it begin "once upon a time"? May I sit closer and listen to it, listen to you, and perhaps, if I am under enough of your spell, begin to listen to myself, and learn what sort of creature I really am?
Let Shakespeare have the last word.
"Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place."
Maguire's latest book, Out of Oz, is in stores and available on Amazon.com Nov. 1.