Quantum Young Earth Virginity Unicorns: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

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.

The Dying Before the Living: The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Yesterday I picked up The Magician’s Nephew for the first time in several years and I learned several quite good things about it. I came from a family that spurned the chronological renumbering Harper has been doing for decades and always came at the Narnia books Wardrobe-first, but as, I suspect, most people, I have read some of the books more than others. The Magician’s Nephew I think I have read the most times out of any of them, and it’s true that this time around there wasn’t a single line in the book that wasn’t dearly familiar.

I did notice some things about how Lewis wrote the books–about what he liked. Yes, there’s all of the theological stuff, which is less of an allegory and more of a self-aware parallel, like in John Scalzi’s Redshirts. What’s odd is his voice, which I’ve heard a lot of people complain is difficult to read aloud. Apparently there is no flow in the text. I heard them aloud, several times, and I never had a problem with it. I’ve never read them aloud myself, though, and this time through I can see how a person might have trouble.

Lewis’s tone towards the reader, regardless of what funny, glum, terrifying, or wonderful thing is happening in the story, is chummy and personal. Settling down to his voice is like settling down with a long letter from someone who doesn’t intend you to share the letter with anyone else. It’s full of asides, bits of omniscience, and awkward parentheticals stuffed into the end of sentences in ways a lot of writing teachers probably would have berated him for. (I side with Lewis here.)

Moreover it’s like getting a letter from a magpie, because Lewis loves delicious, glittering little treats in an absolutely childlike way, and he lures you right into the plot with them. He starts on page one, as he is introducing his story as historical fantasy (the historical part, interestingly enough, I think gets passed over a lot in the reading because now both the era of the story and the era of the first audience are Old). Here, according to the book and to Lewis’s bitter memory, the clothes were uncomfortable and the schools were horrific. And then: “But meals were nicer; and as for sweets, I won’t tell you how cheap and good they were, because it would only make your mouth water in vain.” Boom! The first page, and he’s already dragged you into another world as easily as a magic ring, just by mentioning the tantalizing out-of-reach treasure of sweets.

The next bit of treasure he drops is Polly’s Smuggler’s Cave up in the attic, the kind of secret hideaway that you pursue madly as a child and I think frequently keep yearning for as an adult. Polly stashes all kinds of things up there–furniture bits, candles, her secret story-writing project that Digory is absolutely not allowed to see, and the extremely excellent touch of all her empty ginger-beer bottles, because leaving them makes it feel more authentically like a smuggler’s cave. This is exactly the kind of secret space you want as a kid, and even better if there’s the chance to go beyond that and sneak into a mysteriously empty house two doors down.

That bright temptation of a small imaginative adventure lures us in, and it also lures Polly and Digory right into the plot: instead of an empty house (and we never do find out what is in that house–it remains a whole world to be explored, whether the cause of its emptiness is plumbing or criminal gangs), they land in a warm study full of glittering magical rings. It’s just like a trail of Reese’s Pieces, and it works on me as a reader just like it does on Digory and Polly.

We get a few other treasures in here, by the way, in the form of more things Lewis just drops on us in a casual line never to pick up again. Old Mrs. LeFay was a fairy? Does that mean our world has its own magic? It certainly had ATLANTIS, although the only thing we know about that is that the “stuff” the rings are made from didn’t come from there originally, but from the Wood Between the Worlds. But that means there are magical things about our world after all, things no one in the books ever gets to explore because they’re too busy in Narnia. They’re there, anyway–our world is not barren of magic, in some small, lightly explored way. (Take that, Quentin from The Magicians, you odious, charmless toadstool.)

Anyway–for the title of this post. Our world isn’t a dying world in this book, but the book is frontloaded with death. It starts off with Digory’s mother in the process of dying. That’s what makes him and Polly friends instead of enemies, at first. The first world they go to, when they get out of the wonderful, suffocatingly alive Wood Between the Worlds, is very much dying. Their presence, of course, sends the final towers toppling. But what they step into is already (brilliantly!) ghastly: a landscape of crumbling emptiness, stained to blood by a sun boiling to its death. Waking up Jadis livens things up, but mostly in the form of her relentless story of how she killed everyone else on the planet.

(While we’re on Charn: this time through, the hall full of not-statues reminded me strongly of the gods in the temple in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, where they are doing something similar but distinct. It’s still a strange, stifling hall where figures who are too beautiful to be real straddle the line between alive and un-alive. However, MWT’s goddess isn’t frightening because she’s wildly destructive; she’s frightening because she’s a goddess.)

The Narnian bits are all about waking up, and the waking up is more powerful because we have just been to this oppressive, crumbling place where everything has descended into bloody destruction. The atmosphere on Charn is terrific, and when Digory rings the bell you can feel the sound crushing you down. On Narnia, the darkness wakes, and Aslan’s song makes things creep and burst and beam into life. Half the power of Lewis when he’s joyful is how effectively he sets it up against what is horrifying. And of course because Digory is sorry enough and obedient enough, he gets to save his mother’s life as well.

People talk a lot about Lewis’s overt Christian themes in the Narnia books, but talking to one point on any book really is a disservice to everything else that’s going on. It’s easy to hand over all the war horror to Tolkien and give Lewis the God stuff. But they were of the same era (and Tolkien did God stuff in the personal way long before Lewis). At the end of this whole book about how a world can finish going wrong and how, with the introduction of Jadis to Narnia, it can start to go wrong, there’s a prophecy for our world: that in a few decades’ time, tyrants will rule and people will suffer. If we’re not careful, it will go like Charn.

Of course the books are never interested enough in our world to go back and see it through on our end. It’s just a lesson, one of the more overt ones. By and large, he would rather tell it with Lions, and flying horses, and talking beasts, and other bits of glittering gold.

9.24.13 Witch Week

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones : reread : 211/211

I’ve read Witch Week a few times and I always think DWJ let more than a usual number of her feelings out in it. If you’re going to pull any morals from this book, they’ll probably be that (1) bullying is revolting no matter who is doing it, and (2) when you have a witch hunt, what you’re trying to kill is probably a part of yourself and you should stop it immediately.

(3) is, don’t trust history books, because someone at some point has probably lied their face off.

3/16/13: Talking to Dragons

[reread] TALKING TO DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede

I’m nearly at the end—they’ve got out of the D&D cavern, met some dragons, fought some wizards. Daystar’s about to fulfill his combination destiny and filial duty. Which is…a little weird.

Cimorene’s life work isn’t attending a dragon, or being a queen—for half her life as we see it, her driving purpose is to ensure her son is in the right position to return Mendenbar’s sword to him and restore him to his life and kingship. And it fits in the story, with Mendenbar’s returning the power of the Enchanted Forest to the forest, and Kazul rightly becoming King of the Dragons, while the murderous cheat diminished into toad form. Although the initial conceit of the series is a character who says, to hell with these tropes, I don’t have to live by them—in fact the series overall is very much about the maintenance of order.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a little surprising in what appears initially to be a work of subversion. In the first book, everyone pushes against the grain as they like, especially Kazul and Cimorene. By this book, that stout, sensible attitude has shifted towards something a lot more prescriptive.

Cimorene’s kindred spirit Shiara (who as I recall goes off to be Kazul’s new “princess” at the end of the book, so she’s really quite like her) is the only one who questions the tropes and roles that Cimorene does. But while it works out nicely for Cimorene, Shiara learns that her rebellion actively harms her. For much of the book Shiara struggles with her magic—until Daystar discovers that she can only use it when she’s polite.

Now, not being horrible to people all the time is a pretty good thing. But Shiara is a member of a group of people who get the short end of the stick pretty often in this series, and in this story magic’s application is frequently related to battle. It’s a weapon, offensive and defensive…except that Shiara literally cannot use it offensively. SHE CAN’T GET MAD AT PEOPLE WHO TRY TO HURT HER, OR SHE LOSES THE ABILITY TO PROTECT HERSELF.

It’s not deliberate but it’s a very, very different message than the one that Cimorene sends in the first book. No-nonsense, un-mincing, sturdy, stubborn, smart is okay in the first book, but Shiara can’t get away with it.  She has to be nice.

Which is, I think, something of a betrayal of Dealing With Dragons. Because if a girl wants to be nice, or feels nice, or is nice, that’s nice. But she should never have to be. That’s the whole point.

There’s a bit in Diana Wynne Jones’s Eight Days of Luke where David, the protagonist with a number of terrible, demanding, uncharitable guardians, realizes that gratefulness should never be demanded of anybody, and people who demand it probably don’t deserve it. That’s the sort of situation that Shiara is in, except that Shiara never gets to that point in the book. I hope that if the book kept going, she would get there, but it sure would have been nice for someone to spin around on convention and say, “HEY, THAT’S NOT RIGHT AT ALL!” It’s what worked about the first books and it’s certainly what Shiara deserves.

2/23/13: Dealing With Dragons

[REREAD] DEALING WITH DRAGONS by Patricia C. Wrede: 212/212

I got all of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles for my thirteenth birthday. I was pretty into them then and I am pretty into them now. Basically, Dealing With Dragons is about a Princess Cimorene who (like many fictional princesses of the 80s and 90s) hates following all the princess rules and doing boring needlework. When her parents get her engaged to a completely insipid prince, she runs off and becomes, deliberately, the “kidnapped” princess of a dragon called Kazul (who is excellent). She makes a lot of Cherries Jubilee, makes friends with a hapless princess belonging to a dragon nearby, and other friends with a cat-loving witch named Morwen. Then they defeat some evil wizards and crown the best dragon king ever.

Gender: a good thing in this book. First of all, the five protagonists are: two princesses, a female dragon, a witch, and a prince. All of them are sensible, interesting, intelligent, and they like each other. They pass the book-Bechdel test with flying colors.

Second, a little more tricky, Wrede pushes against stereotype without condemning femininity. Cimorene does want to escape mundane “feminine” restrictions, but she doesn’t do so by becoming a WARRIOR WOMAN, which is frequently what happens. She keeps house for a dragon, cooks, cleans, organizes the treasury and the library. She also receives respect from her employer, displays gumption and wit in completing a tricky fireproofing spell for herself and Alianora, and in uncovering the wizards’ evil plot and saving the dragon throne from a total creep. The balance of enforced femininity bad/chosen femininity okay isn’t perfect—the cooking and the Latin-reading could be read as feminine enough, except that Wrede explicitly categorizes them as men’s learning. The conceit of the book is that Cimorene lives in a stereotypical fairy-tale world, so some of that is warranted by the narrative—also, while most of the princesses who appear are the stereotypical sort, the objection seems to be not that they’re behaving like women, but that they and their culture blindly follow rules about what that is.

Another gender note: dragon kings are of any gender. Dragon queen is a separate role. Also: young dragons are genderless, until they are “old enough to choose” what gender they’d like to be. OPTIONAL DRAGON GENDER, OKAY? AWESOME. I wonder if they can stay neuter? I would fanfiction yes.

RACE: The only issue I take with this book is that it’s extremely white. Like, really really white. Like in order to fill out the stereotypes, all the princesses but Cimorene are pale and blonde, and the only non-white humanoid in the book is a Djinn. Who tries to kill them, before Cimorene’s excellent reasoning tames him. It’s a perfectly clever move in the book but it’s not great representation. And this wouldn’t necessarily bother me to the point of bringing it up, except that it’s not Wrede’s only choice-for-the-narrative, regarding race, that I disagree with. In her wild west AU series, Frontier Magic, Wrede chose to avoid misrepresenting indigenous people by NOT HAVING ANY. There was a major Black character, but that doesn’t quite deal with the fact that a massive fertile landscape was left completely (unrealistically) empty of human existence until mostly white settlers arrived. It’s not hard to understand why she has gotten criticism for erasure in that series, when the books literally erase all indigenous culture buuuuut leave the settlers intact.

Writing non-white characters is frightening for white writers because we are afraid of getting it wrong and being offensive instead of being good allies. But honestly, I think there are two choices when you come up against that concern: you need to abandon your project for something you feel you can tackle without erasing or otherwise harming a minority, or you need to do more research. Probably research is the only right choice, if you’re determined to write books anyone else will see. Will that be hard? Will your book take longer to write? Will you still offend someone? YES to all of the above. Try anyway.

ETA: For some reason my copy has bite marks in it? My bite marks.