Summer rereads, book two: I haven’t read Many Waters in years and years, I mean probably about fifteen or eighteen years. In it, Murphy twins Sandy and Dennis get to hop off the back burner of their siblings’ famous adventures and into the Biblical Noah story. The only things I remembered about it were the tiny woolly mammoths and the impression that it was WEIRD WEIRD WEIRD. It is weird! The mammoths are very much the least of it. A lot of the same weirdness is already there in A Wrinkle in Time, where L’Engle is already writing spiritually driven science-fantasy. It definitely gets weirder when you put the broader history of Earth in this perspective, and age up the characters so puberty comes into play.
When I say “puberty comes into play,” what I actually mean is, ninety percent of this book is about, not tiny mammoths (alas), but about awkward sexy tinglings and bodily morality for fifteen-year-olds (and hundred-year-old Bible characters). There’s a lot of repeated talk of how the twins Are Not Children Anymore, and the same goes for Yalith, the No Longer Child daughter of Noah who isn’t in the flood story and must therefore die, but does have a great nurturing personality and well-described breasts. She is into them, they are into her, and there is a lot of If Only We Were Older, which turns out to be more confusing if you, the reader, don’t share L’Engle’s (and by extension, her fictional teens’) apparent assumption that teenagers would never consider having sex before marriage.
It’s all much, much stranger because of the Good Pure Angels, the Bad Sexy Angels, and the Unicorns. None of these groups seem to be good for much except as plot devices to serve or push around the human characters. The Seraphim (good angels) heal some wounds and brood a lot while listening to the stars. The Nephalim (sexy angels), who feel mad about not being able to listen to the stars due to FALLING FROM HEAVEN, catcall girls and get them pregnant with horribly gigantic babies and try to badger the less pleasant relatives into not quite murder. All the angels have pretty wings in many colors, unnaturally beautiful eyes, and spend a lot of time in the forms of animals, which are their Earth forms but somehow don’t mind being stretched into angel shape. They come in two personalities: mopey bird good angel and viril snake bad angel.
The unicorns flicker in and out of existence like fairies in Peter Pan, e.g. they exist when someone believes in them, and how they move reminds the twins of science. They’re an extremely useful form of transit, and solve pretty much the entire plot by existing at the right moments. L’Engle also decided the unicorns should hang onto their worst mythological trait: VIRGINITY DETECTOR. Yes. Every time unicorns show up, we get to be reminded of everyone’s sexual status. We get to reminded a lot that Sandy and Dennis are pure virginal youths from the future, whose first trembling sexy feelings keep showing up but haven’t threatened their lovely innocence. (Guess what? I do not love this.)
The other side to this coin is the Nephalim, who sleaze around making some of the neighborhood ladies more Bad Sexy and are always trying to seduce more. On of the ladies, Mahlah, marries a Nephalim (sort of) and has his giant baby. Another, Tiglah, is trying to snag a Nephalim for herself. They have this exchange at one point:
Nephalim: I LIKE MY WOMEN TO BE EXPERIENCED IN THE WAYS OF LUST.
Tiglah: WILL I MAKE A BABY FOR YOU?
This is about the level of sexiness that the sexy parts of this book achieve throughout. Women married to human men are generally awesome (and make normal-sized babies by the end of the book). All of the Nephalim-sexy characters are used to highlight how pure Sandy, Dennis and Yalith are. One of the Nephalim keeps feeling up Yalith, which is mostly titillating because of how tiny and virginal and proto-saintlike she is.
Tiglah, who has gone to the sexy side, tries to seduce the twins. She gets nowhere, but the twins’ disgust reminds us of how nasty she is! Also how pure the twins are. In fact, she and Mahlah are both scorned by the story, the narrator, and the other characters. The language everyone uses for them is unpleasant, and their characters are disloyal, sex-driven, and dishonest. That doesn’t mean other characters have let go of love for them entirely, but there’s a bad attitude taken towards them both, and Tiglah unremittingly. I was very startled when one of the twins outright refers to Tiglah as a slut.
Well, okay, tall white unicorn boy that everyone mysteriously loves so much.
It’s funny (not very) because at the end L’Engle tries to round it all up by saying that the Nephalim took advantage of people and warped them, and by having one of the twins rail against the chauvinism of the Bible story that doesn’t even mention the women by name. At that point it is far, far too late to be arguing about ancient sexism. Most of it comes straight from 1986.
The other weird as heck thing about this book is that its relationship with science and religion is a lot more muddled than before, and that makes the world smaller rather than bigger. For example: there is no natural explanation for the flood (although their could have been, without diluting the divinity of it). Both twins know as soon as they hear the name Noah that it’s THAT NOAH. It’s acknowledged that the Bible is written over time by numerous people, but the crux of the plot is that they know from the Bible exactly who does and doesn’t survive the flood by going on the Ark. Weirdest of all, this has to take place a few thousand years ago, and L’Engle over and over mentions the constant tremors and the volcanic murmurings of an Earth that is still being born. She’s literally writing a Young Earth novel! That is, I’m sorry to stay, just straight up non-science. Or nonsense.
Everyone is worried because the Bible doesn’t mention Yalith and neither has god, whom Noah talks to a lot. Yalith is apparently the literal only good woman on Earth not married to one of Noah’s sons, so everyone is very disturbed by this. NO WORRIES, THOUGH: Yalith is so pure that she gets OT raptured like Enoch! This is apparently not the same as dying. Therefore everyone in the Noah family is joyful and satisfied with the loophole, and can go back to being not concerned about the destruction of every other human and animal on the planet.
Not wanting to drown, the purity twins ride a couple of unicorns through time and space. The good boring angels come along and take away their sunburn so no one will know about them going to Young Earth Noah World, and they can suffer the loss of a second family and a year of their lives in complete isolation. Then the rest of the Murphys get home and the twins make cocoa. Well, golly, I guess that’s that!
In accidental good timing, there are a number of parallels between Many Waters and The Magician’s Nephew: early world, a present god, visitors from our own world, a blend of fantasy and theology. But Lewis had a better handle on his, especially comparing these two books. When Lewis does deal with puberty, he just kicks people out of Narnia, and although he treats Susan a lot like Tiglah (sexy lipstick, doesn’t get on the Ark), he doesn’t drag her into Narnia and call her a slut first. I suddenly appreciate that.
Many Waters Verdict: still weird. Wish it had more mammoths.