The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

Biblical Fantasy: Many Waters

After years of relegating them to mere supporting characters, L’Engle finally gave Sandy and Dennys, the Murry twins their own adventure in Many Waters. The book turned out, however, to be quite different than any of the other works in the Murry/O’Keefe books. If L’Engle pushed the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy before, here she tried something else entirely: Biblical fantasy, if you like, complete with unicorns. Drawing from her own earlier work with time travel and a few verses from Genesis, it tries to retell the story of Noah and the flood. I say tries, because to be honest, I really don’t think it works at all.

The odd thing is that I think it might work just fine if Sandy and Dennys weren’t in it.

Unlike their siblings, or, later, their niece, the twins are not called upon to save a person or planet from destruction. Rather, they end up travelling in time by complete accident, after doing the one thing kids never should do but always end up doing: playing on their father’s computer. Since their father has been conducting research on time and space travel, the computer program sends them to almost exactly what they requested: a place with lots of sun and no humidity. They get terribly sunburned. And they run into small humans and mammoths. And they realize that they just happen to have run into Noah and his family and some random angels and sort of angels. Also: unicorns.

The pre-flood society, as envisioned by L’Engle, consists primarily of seraphim (good angels), nephilim (former but still very good looking angels), unicorns, mammoths, and small humans (about four feet tall, or a little over a meter). The small statured humans may be a reference to Homo habilis, who are generally thought to have been about three and a half to four and a half feet tall, or may have just been something L’Engle decided to make up on the spot, to keep Sandy and Dennys taller than the humans they meet. (The book was written and published well before the discovery of Homo floresiensisand that just about exhausts my knowledge of paleoanthropology.) The seraphim are more or less inspired by Christian and Jewish theology. The nephilim are inspired by a single short reference from Genesis, sometimes translated as “the sons of God” or “giants.”

As in Genesis, the nephilim are very interested in mating with human women. As not in Genesis, this desire, along with other matters, is slowly tainting this pre-flood world, bringing, as some of Noah’s family realizes, unwanted changes. As in Genesis, Noah talks with God—here called El. (I am mildly puzzled why, with all of these angels walking around and regular conversations with God, the hunter Shem then thanks an animal spirit instead of El after a successful hunt, something I don’t necessarily associate with Old Testament hunting practices.) The human society is relatively primitive; the nephilim are attempting to add some industry to the area; and the seraphim, who can shift in and out of time, are confusing pretty much everybody with chatter about atomic bombs, Alexander the Great, and so on, when not healing and hugging people or warning the twins not to disrupt the time stream. (The twins, of course, do.)

L’Engle uses poetic, often powerful language to describe the interactions of seraphim, nephilim, mortals, mammoths and unicorns. But somehow, perhaps because of the language, or because this culture does not fit in with either the Bible or archaeological evidence of any early society (and not just because of the unicorns), it never manages to feel quite real. This is not necessarily a defect: the most powerful scenes of the novel are those with a decidedly unreal feeling. But it does serve to reduce any suspense the novel might have had. It’s not just that I know the flood is coming anyway, but that I can’t bring myself to care about the complete destruction of a place that never feels quite real.

The book also demonstrates the problem with writing a series out of order. We know precisely what Sandy and Dennys will be in the next book: graduate students focused on law and medicine, respectively, supportive and concerned about their siblings, and, critically, skeptical of unordinary things. And unfortunately, this is very close to what they were in the earlier books, meaning that L’Engle has little room for character growth of any sort. Heading back to the time just before the flood should change Sandy and Dennys, but it can’t, and that’s a problem. And, of course, we never have any real fears for their safety: we know they’ll survive the Flood, since they show up in the next two books.

Watching them adjust to this different culture might have been interesting, but the truth is, neither one really adjusts: they just accept not taking showers and drinking fruit juice instead of water, and then, pretty much go straight back to what they were doing in their ordinary lives: taking care of a garden.

Even beyond this, Sandy and Dennys are, alas, rather dull characters. As Meg noted in their first appearance, they are, above all else, ordinary. In one potentially intriguing moment, one of the seraphim suggests that the twins are only ordinary because they choose to be ordinary. But this is never really followed up on. They lack Meg’s temper and Charles Wallace’s arrogance, or any other flaw that might make them interesting. Both are so blah that it’s sometimes difficult for readers to remember who is who, and the book often slows to a near crawl when they are on the page. I get that they are identical twins, but identical twins don’t have to have identical personalities, especially on the printed page.

Admittedly, both do fall in love with the same woman: the lovely and short Yalith. But even here, L’Engle downplays the tension. The twins know that they are both attracted to her, and just choose not to discuss it, and in any case, before this can become a serious problem, Yalith and the twins realize that she’s about to drown in the flood in any case, so, er, no worries. (Especially since we already know the twins will be heading back and marrying other women.) Which is as well since, as noted, the twins are so similar in this book that Yalith could hardly be blamed for being unable to choose.

The end result, something unusual in a L’Engle book: boredom.

I do have to give L’Engle credit for this: she creates a highly patriarchal world, drawn from the Old Testament, and doesn’t flinch at the implications: the problems of pregnancy, and the reality that in this world, Noah’s daughters, but not his sons, would be left behind. (In the New International Version of the Bible, daughters aren’t mentioned, although the daughter-in-laws board the ark; my Sunday School teacher told us that Noah only had sons.) And where before L’Engle featured women characters doing the rescuing, here, Yalith has to be saved by a man (and not even one of the protagonists, at that.)

But if the patriarchy feels real enough, one thing does not: at no point does the society feel evil enough to deserve the flood. Genesis is quite clear on the subject: God sends the flood because humans are wicked, evil, violent and corrupt. Some of the mortals in Many Waters are decidedly grey, and sliding towards evil, but apart from kidnapping Sandy (another non-suspenseful plot point), and even then, none of the humans seem to reach the levels described in Genesis, and this is fairly troubling. And while I’m carping, I have no problems depicting cockroaches as evil, because, well, yes, but bats actually aren’t evil creatures.

Still, despite my carping, I think the setting could work—if not, as I noted, for Sandy and Dennys. Without them, this could be a lovely, delicate book of a vanished antediluvian race, and the dealings of mortals and angels. It also might have featured protagonists with uncertain futures, or with the ability to change. With them—well, it’s a lovely, delicate book, interrupted by twins thinking about environmental law and atomic weapons. I’m left thinking about just how wonderful this book could have been, which is a terrible distraction from the wonderful bits.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, sadly without a single unicorn.


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