With Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle returns even more deeply to the Christian narrative, retelling the story of Noah and the flood through the eyes of Sandy and Dennys, who have inadvertently travelled back in time after fooling around with their father’s computer. I must admit that I had to force myself to finish Many Waters; I have been spoiled lately by the plethora of authors who are extremely careful in their research and create worlds that do not demand too great a suspension of disbelief from their readers (Kristin Cashore, K.V. Johansen, Megan Whalen Turner, Philip Pullman, and Rick Riordan all spring readily to mind).
The idea of revisiting Biblical stories in fictional form is fabulous, but the introduction of unicorns that materialize only when one believes in them, and can be called into being most readily by border-collie sized mammoths, troubles the narrative rather severely. Really? Aren’t mammoths supposed to be, well… mammoth? The griffins and manticores don’t help much, either… When one evokes mythological creatures, one has an obligation, I believe, to remain true to the accepted mythological nature of the beast. The Irish Rovers notwithstanding, no unicorns appear in Genesis 5-7; nor do unicorns have the usual characteristic of being called by believers across time and space, of flickering in and out of existence. In L’Engle’s version, this characteristic is used as a method of travel, and of escape when Sandy is kidnapped by a corrupt family of the tribe; it also enables Sandy and Dennys’s return. While their father’s experiment with the tesseract—the original Wrinkle in Time—is the cause of their initial time travel “mistake,” the return is orchestrated by the Seraphim, who travel to our century and “call” two unicorns with Sandy and Dennys on their backs. It all feels far too authorially manipulated; the Seraphim are almost-omniscient creatures, who repeatedly intervene on behalf of Sandy and Dennys and their new friends, and protecting the young girl Yalith from the lustful Nephilim. Both Sandy and Dennys fall in youthful love with Yalith, who returns their affections equally to both boys. This situation is sufficiently awkward, as Dennys comments: “If we had been older, it would have been very complicated, wouldn’t it?” (296). Another little snag lies in L’Engle’s need to adhere to the Biblical story: remember that only Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and their four wives, were saved; the rest of humanity drowned. These two problems are dealt with by having “El” (God) “take Yalith up” in the same way that Enoch was taken in the Bible: “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him [alive to His abode]” (Gn 5:24); similarly, Yalith “was to be taken up, like her forebear Enoch” (297). Highly convenient.
Overall, while L’Engle’s story-telling abilities are sound, and her characters consistent and engaging, the incongruous combination of narrative elements in Many Waters—as in A Wind in the Door—rendered the story itself less than delightful. I have promised to read two more L’Engle novels—favourites of a friend, Dragons in the Waters (1976) and The Arm of the Starfish (1965)—but after that, I believe I will devote my time to more rewarding stories and worlds.