Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Are You a Good Witch or a Bad Witch?




Wicked Witch of The West:  “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
Dorothy:  “I’m not a witch at all.  I’m from Kansas.”  -- The Wizard of Oz

            Just for the fun of it, let’s look at some of the rhetorical presumptions embedded in these two lines of dialogue from the classic 1939 movie.

1) This memorable scene from the film never happened in the original novel and is actually a major departure from the way Frank L. Baum describes Dorothy’s first few minutes in Oz.  In the original story, Dorothy never met up with the Wicked Witch of the West until late in the story when she finally arrived (via flying monkey) at the evil witch’ s castle.  The screenwriters must have felt that the structure of a movie musical demanded an early confrontation between Dorothy (the protagonist) and The Wicked Witch (the antagonist), and they wanted to establish a clear motive for the animosity the witch has for the little girl. Thus, the movie-version of Dorothy is quickly confronted by the evil, green-skinned witch who wanted to know who killed her sister (The Wicked Witch of the East) and who stole her magical shoes (in the original story, the shoes were silver, not ruby red).  Apparently, just being generally prejudiced against pretty, fair-complected, corn-fed farm girls was not enough of an incentive in the imaginations of the screenwriters for the witch to hate her; Dorothy had taken the magical shoes, and that made it personal. 

Although we are not typically inclined to side with folks who are so upfront about their villainous natures (after all, even the Witch referred to herself as “wicked”), I think the Wicked Witch had a legitimate claim to the shoes.  I think Judge Judy would have come down hard on Dorothy for keeping them, let alone parading around in them in front of the victim’s recently deceased sister. (Judge Judy: “Look at me, young lady, when I’m talking to you.  Do you have any idea how wrong it is to steal from dead people?  Ah, ah, don’t interrupt me; I’m talking now, and I’m the judge.  Verdict for the plaintiff; Give that woman her sister’s shoes and never let me see you back here again.  What you did, little girl, was despicable.  Do you hear me? Despicable.  Now leave my courtroom and go get a job.)

The only legal argument I can devise for Dorothy’s ownership might be if she claimed the shoes were some type of “spoils of war,” but that seems to be a pretty flimsy excuse for not handing over the shoes to their rightful owner when the Wicked Witch asked for them.  According to the Kansas maiden’s own account, she had no control over the house crashing and crunching it’s singular victim.  Thus, if the shoes were some form of bounty for killing the witch, then she would have needed a stronger argument than merely being nearby when an “act of God” (as our insurance companies like to refer to natural disasters) dispatched the shoes pervious owner.  While it may be true, the shoes could be agued as a gift to Dorothy by the Munchkins – who may have had some legitimate expectations for reparations for the years of involuntary servitude they spent servicing the evil witch – she wasn’t justified in keeping them afterwards.  In the book, the Munchkins snag the shoes off the rapidly decomposing corpse of the evil witch, but in the film, the shoes just show up on Dorothy’s feet as the previous owner’s feet curl up and disappear.

The film version of Dorothy might have argued that she needed the magical slippers to protect herself from the Wicked Witch, but had she given over the shoes when she was first asked for them, perhaps she wouldn’t have needed protection.  Maybe, the surviving Wicked Witch would have been so happy to get her rightful property that she may have taken one look at the angry mob of munchkins (not to mention the “good witch” who was standing passively at the scene) and decided to leave with her windfall.  Since Dorothy had no idea how to operate the magic shoes, the argument that she needed them for her own defense seems rather implausible.  In the original Baum version, by the way, Dorothy did not need the magic shoes for protection because the “Good Witch” who arrived on the scene to witness first hand the destruction of her own personal rival had kissed the girl on the forehead as a blessing of protection.  According to Baum’s original story, the “Good Witch” in Munchkinland was not Glinda, but another “good witch”; Glinda did not show up in the original novel until after Dorothy had melted the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water.

2) When, in the film, the Wicked Witch asked Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch, the information she was probably seeking was to whether or not Dorothy affiliated herself with the “side of good” or the “side of evil.”  After all, the custom in Oz seemed to proclaim one’s moral proclivities in a title (“Wicked Witch of the East,” “Glinda the Good,” and  “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”).  However, since the Wicked Witch believed at that point in the movie that Dorothy had just intentionally dropped a house on her sister as a unique, but visually impressive, form of assassination, the question of Dorothy’s cosmic alignment with “good” and “evil” seems gratuitous.  You might expect that willfully dropping a farmhouse on someone for the express purpose of exterminating another person pretty much sets the standard for determining that person’s “goodness” or “badness.”  However, the social norms of Oz seem more reliant upon titles than behavior in reckoning moral allegiances.  Apparently, if you are “good,” you can drop a house on someone who is “bad” (or in this particular case “wicked”) and retain one’s virtue because according to Ozian logic, it’s okay for the good to kill the bad because killing the bad is a good thing.  This form of logic is not exclusive to Oz, by the way.

By posing the question, then, the Wicked Witch, unfamiliar with the moral ambiguity of Kansas farmgirls in referring to themselves, expected to hear that Dorothy considered herself either a “good witch” or a “bad witch.”  Had Dorothy answered that she was a “bad witch” then perhaps the Wicked Witch would have expected some professional courtesy in dealing with the stolen shoes transaction (“Look,” she may have said to Dorothy if she had affirmed that she was indeed a bad witch, “I don’t want to call the union in here on this, but clearly those shoes belong to me according the Evil Witch’s Code of Malignant Noninterference.”)  On the other hand, had the Wicked Witch suspected that Dorothy was a “good witch” and was merely asking as confirmation, then the Wicked Witch would have known that she couldn’t expect to be treated fairly in this transaction. (“I’m telling ya, “ she may have later said drunkenly to a flying monkey, “Those ‘good witches’ think they can do anything they want because of their stinking reputations.  I should have known I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting those shoes back as soon I saw the blue and white gingham she had on.)

3) An alternative explanation for the question, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch,” however, could have been that the Wicked Witch was not asking to confirm her suspicions as to which moral team Dorothy was playing for, but rather instead asking Dorothy if she were will willing to share her own estimation of her abilities as a sorceress. The Wicked Witch may have been wanting to know to what degree Dorothy could control her magic powers.  The question, then, “are you a good witch” could have been asking Dorothy to rank or evaluate her magical abilities.  This information, too, would have been pertinent to the subsequent negotiations for the return of the magic slippers.  “Oh, you say you’re a good witch, do you?  Then what do you need my dead sister’s shoes for?  If you’re as good as you say you are, then you won’t mind giving me back those shoes” or (if the answer had come in the negative) “You don’t need those shoes, kid; if you’re not very good at it yet, you’re only going to end up hurting yourself with enchantments you don’t understand.  How about I trade you for something you could use like a training wand or whoopee cushion? ”

 If the question “Are you a good witch or a bad witch” were a question of Dorothy’s ability, then rhetorically, we might say the Wicked Witch’s question is epistemological because it deals with the degree to which Dorothy is knowledgeable about witchcraft (epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature of knowledge) .  If the question is one of moral allegiance, I would suggest that the question is doxastic since it refers to the common social beliefs in Oz that people are either ontologically “good” or “evil,” a presumption based not on behavior but on their socially-constructed assumptions that witches are either “good-natured” or “predisposed to evil” regardless of how they behave.  Doxa is the rhetorical term for the traditional assumptions that communities accept without questioning their rationale, and ontology is the branch of philosophy that considers the nature of reality beyond human interpretation.

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”  Tell them you are not a witch at all.  Tell them, you are from Kansas.  Wichita, Kansas.   Keep thinking rhetorically, and I’ll be back next week.

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