We call magic “prestidigitation,” or “quick fingers,” because magicians must use skillful sleight of hand to pull off their tricks successfully. A pair of socks shoved into a hat does not really change into a dove, and the magician does not really slice his assistant in half with a sword. Clever instruments, optical illusions, and perfectly timed distractions are the magician’s friend.
Who is the greatest magician, the master of deception? Is it David Copperfield? Penn and Teller? Harry Houdini? No, to all of the above. The greatest magician of all time is Satan. Just think about it for a moment. Magic requires illusion – in other words, a lie. And who is the Father of Lies? Satan is so good at what he does that most people don’t even realize he has duped them until it is too late.
The master magician is at work in modern storytelling. Think of those rewritten fairy tales and myths that surround evil with the illusion of innocence. By encouraging the belief that villains didn’t have an opportunity to be good in the first place, these stories lure us away from holding people responsible for their actions. Retellings like those of Elphaba, a villain adapted from The Wizard of Oz, deceive readers by arguing that circumstances alone make people bad.
The Not-So-Wicked Witch
In the original story, the Wicked Witch is a purely evil character. The novel Wicked, however, presents Elphaba as an intelligent, revolutionary figure. It is the circumstances of her upbringing, as well as the manipulative and corrupt leaders of Oz, that force her into evil. As she tries to fight against the injustices they perpetrate – discrimination against talking animals being chief among them – her actions as an underground revolutionary lead to the apparent murder of the man she loves. When she travels to his wife and children to seek their forgiveness, the Wizard’s police force takes them prisoner, leading Elphaba further into despair and darkness. The re-telling asks us to sympathize with Elphaba’s position as a misunderstood character striving for justice against overwhelming odds, even as she performs multiple misdeeds (trying to assassinate someone, pretending to commit murder, actually committing murder, mutilating monkeys, etc.).
The musical Wicked fashions an even more sympathetic story about Elphaba and her origins. Contrary to the book’s characterization, which casts Elphaba as a cynical person with ambiguous morals who does turn evil in the end, the stage production posits that she is actually a good-hearted and likeable person. She simply suffers from the deep misfortune of looking different and doing the right thing at the wrong time, which leads to disastrous results for her and those around her. Because of her unfortunate circumstances, the corrupt leaders of the nation blame her for various crimes, many of which they themselves have committed, and the citizens of Oz turn against her. The musical reverses the message of both books by exonerating Elphaba of all villainy. The “Wicked Witch” is not wicked: Instead, the crooked Ozian leaders twisted her story to suit their needs.
In the stage musical, the song “No Good Deed” inspires the audience to pity Elphaba as a victim of her own crimes. All she ever meant to do was good, but, when her good intentions backfire, the Ozian people’s prejudice leaves her a criminal and an outcast. As she continues to lament the loss of those she loved, she gives up on goodness. “No good deed goes unpunished,” Elphaba sings. “Since I cannot succeed… I promise no good deed / Will I attempt to do again.” Thus the Wicked Witch of the West is born. Even after Elphaba declares herself “wicked through and through,” the musical makes it clear that her heart is not in it, however. She may act evil, but she wishes she could be good, and so the audience continues cheering for her no matter what she does. If only society will stop working against her, Wicked teaches us, Elphaba would not be a villain.
Pathway to Hell
We should all hope for the redemption of those who have done evil, but this does not mean that we should hold their actions without consequence, no matter their circumstances. A thief whose existence required just scraping by every day is still a thief. A rapist who was sexually abused by a parent is still a rapist. A murderer who was beaten daily as a child is still a murderer. By saying that their actions are not their fault and that they deserve no punishment for the evil things they have done, we open the door to moral relativism and pave the villains’ pathway to Hell.
Excusing the villains of society is exactly what Satan wants us to do. He wants us to believe that society forces people into sin, so that they can continue in their ways because they have no other choice. When the villains are truly redeemed and not just excused, they see that their actions were wrong, resolve to do them no more, accept the appropriate consequences for their past decisions, but also receive mercy and love as they strive for righteousness. Just as Christ forgave even the worst sinners, so also can He redeem the worst villains.
If we instead excuse villains, we deprive them of their opportunity for redemption. They cannot admit their wrongdoing, face the consequences, and move on. They are powerless, depending on society to save them from their circumstances. The victim narrative looks like a “get out of jail free” card, but in fact Satan has beguiled them into throwing away the key.
Many people nowadays laugh at Satan, saying he is just a myth that Jews and Christians created to scare people into being good. Others still believe that he exists but claim that he is either more harmless than made out to be – a sort of imp or prankster that tries to make us do evil – or that God is too merciful to condemn anyone to spend an eternity in Hell with Satan. These are all illusions as well, and Satan wants very much to keep them intact so that he avoids detection in his future tricks. The Prince of Darkness, Evil, Lies, and Hatred is still in business. He is just waiting to fool us with his next great act of prestidigitation.