Reread: Madelein L’Engle – Many Waters


What do you do when you are an author, and you find the biblical story of Noah rather uncomfortable? In the case of Madeleine L’Engle the answer seems to be to write a strange children’s book (but not really) about it that doesn’t solve any problem with the story but makes it even weirder and more questionable! At least, that was the idea I got when re-reading ‘Many Waters'(1986), the fourth book in the ‘time quintet’, written years after the first book, the fascinating and unparalleled ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, which is part Narnia, part a sci-fi thriller for kids, culminating in a grim dystopian climax. This combination of fantasy, highly complicated science and religious themes comes back in different ways in the later books too, which are all among some the weirdest books I know at points in several different way. They are also some of the philosophically and theologically most mind-stretching and challenging books. And I love them for it. It’s a pity that I couldn’t read them as a kid (only A Wrinkle in Time has been translated anyway, and I couldn’t read English at that age) but for an adult who loves fantasy, sci-fi and out-of-the-box stuff they are also both entertaining and very deep in unexpected ways. Even though there are a few things that make me go ‘what on Earth is going on here’ too in some of the books.

Warning: This probably has a lot of spoilers!!!

‘Many waters’ might in a way be the weirdest of the quintet, in a completely different way than the others. The atmosphere is completely different from the other books, and the usual main characters like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry are mostly absent. Instead the story centres around the twins Sandy and Denys, usually the more normal members of the family of Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, and the most down-to-Earth ones. In the other books they don’t believe in magical and mystical stuff, but by an experiment that goes wrong they end up in a biblical and deeply mythological time at the oasis where the family of Noah lives just before the flood, which they don’t seem to realise for most of the first half of the book. They don’t just meet characters from the book of genesis -Noah and his family, as well as grandfather Lamech- but also shapeshifting nephilim and seraphim, tiny pet mammoths, a rather stupid manticore and (what they call) virtual quantum unicorns that need to be believed in to be seen and touched. Like in some mythologies these unicorns only be touched by virgins -like the 2 twin boys, it’s clear boys can be virgins too- and have some weird teleportation skills. And oh, all people were smaller in those days, so the twins are called ‘the good giants’ by most characters.

Yes, this is certainly the weirdest bible fanfic I’ve ever read! The worldbuilding is intriguing, with a mix with strange magical mythological elements and a extreme literal reading of genesis that has some strange consequences (the long ages mean that a woman with the age of around 100 years old is still almost a teenager and considered too young too marry for example!) and some added elements from other mythologies like the book of Enoch. which is a bit puzzling sometimes. On the one hand it seems that she plays with the idea of older times being more magical and mythological than ours, but on the other hand some things more look like ‘taking this part of genesis literally as history can only lead to very far out weirdness’.

While the worldbuilding is weird, the plot is rather simple. There’s not much to the bible story used, and the added story element are rather mundane: twins that have lost each other, a coming of age story, a father-son conflict between Lamech and Noah and some kidnapping and attempts at seduction. Well, that and hungry manticores that try to eat mammoths the size of dogs and Nephilim that can change into animals who marry human women and other slice of life elements that seem very normal in the late antediluvian world. More weirdness and some heaviness enters with the dialogues and philosophical ponderings of the twins, and their theological consequences. They know what’s going to happen, and can’t tell anyone except for one of the angelic beings. The idea that, except for the family of Noah, all people in the oasis are going to drown soon is also rather disturbing, and while the seraphim seem rather apathetic to that, Sandy and Denys certainly don’t. (There seems to be a bit of a cold war feeling of ‘we can get nuked any minute to it’ in the background somewhere) Oh wait, not all. There’s one Enoch-style ‘go directly to heaven’ escape from the flood too.
On top of that there is a kind of sexual coming of age theme too, although not in a way that the boys end up ‘unable to touch a unicorn’ though. They will need those unicorns to get home anyway. The weird love triangle between the two twins and Noahs youngest daughter Yalith, who doesn’t seem to see them as separate beings and falls in love with both is something that makes me wonder… And then there’s Tiglah, wife (or girlfriend?) of one of the Nephilim and send to seduce them and find out what they are doing there. Not that they would be able to answer that question even if they wanted, and whether their arrival was planned by El or an accident remains a big enigma throughout the book.

Yes, there is mention of several daughters of Noah in the book, and one of them is even married to a shapeshifting fallen angel and births a giant baby from him. And if you’re wondering now whether there is no mention of the names of the wives of Noah and his sons in the bible, the twins ask the same question, and note some concerning aspects of the patriarchal nature of both the culture of the antediluvian patriarchs and the way the old scriptures were written. It’s interesting that the writer uses boys to voice a mild feminist critique of early genesis stories, among other things that make them say ‘I don’t like this story at all’. And to be honest, I can’t blame them. There are some disturbing parts in the story. And some unneeded things, like the way the temptress Tiglah is treated sometimes.

What makes this even weirder is that this is supposed to be a children’s book. Not that (if it were available in Dutch, which wasn’t the case) I couldn’t have enjoyed it at the age of 12, some things are probably not that appropriate for children. But I would have read over them without any problem. I’ve read so many things far beyond my age and just wasn’t interested in things I wasn’t ready for. That was never a problem, at least not for me.

All in all an interesting re-read, and for those who like to read ‘something else’, and who are not afraid from bible stories nor from some hard questions about them, and who can stand tiny pet mammoths and virtual quantum unicorns this is probably a recommended reading…

what do you think?

Peace

Bram

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