Valerie's Reviews > Many Waters

Many Waters by Madeleine L'Engle
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May 15, 12

I own a copy

If I had to come up with a one word review for this book, I think that word would be 'incoherent'. It reminds me of the Prophet of Confusion from Monty Python's Life of Brian. (You know, the one who says: "...and in that time there shall be rumors of things going astray. And there will be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things with the sort of raffia-work base, that has an attachment...they will not be there".) Nobody in this book seems to have any idea as to what's going on. Even the seraphim and nephilim have no real clue as to how things work (for example, at one point, one of the nephilim, in the form of a mosquito, bites a woman on the ear. But male mosquitoes don't bite: they are entirely nectar eaters. Only gravid females bite. So if the angelic types ARE bound by the capacities of their hosts, those hosts must be pretty confused themselves.)

The basis of this story is the story of Noah. I've always hated that story. I prefer the story of Utnapishtim, in which the gods decide to destroy humanity because there are too many of them, and they're making too much noise, and the gods can't sleep. Mixed in with the story somehow is that whole nonsensical 'war in Heaven' stuff that too few authors seem able to get away from, and some of the 'sons of God and daughters of men' stuff.

To add to the confusion, nobody in the story seems ever to have heard of twins before. How's that? There are plenty of twins in the Bible. Into this mess the very sunburnt Murry twins somehow mingle, adding their own confusion to an already incoherent story. At more than one point, a character who has no real concept of the separate identity of twins seems to be contemplating a polyandraous marriage with both of them. Ok...but they're not to stay, after all. So what happens when they have to leave?

This confusion may clear up further in. But I don't see much progress so far.

Not really. It's clear that L'Engle was uneasy dealing with the concept of a good, well-meaning God (called 'El' in this story), which decides to kill a large number of people for unexplained reasons. At least one child is left to die--a child we've seen born. And we're expected to accept vague reassurances that it'll all come out right in the end.

Most of the inhabitants of the oasis are not really introduced. They're seen at a distance. It's argued that they're evil, but we don't know so much as the curl of their hair, much less any real information. Though we get an idea of what life is like in Noah's tent, we don't really see inside any other family tents, except a few vague references to the sister of one of Noah's daughters-in-law, and some of her family (but no other women).

The fabulous creatures in this story are not limited to animals. The plants in Lamech's garden include members of the nightshade family. I'll buy eggplants...but though it's not very clear where this story is set, tomatoes or any avatar thereof seem unlikely. Tomatoes were domesticated in the New World, and weren't introduced to the Old World until the Columbian Exchange. And why WOULD the produce be so big?

Furthermore, the plants are not desert plants. They wouldn't thrive in the absence of rain even IF they were watered regularly: and in a place where there's not even enough water for DRINKING, it's not likely that they could be watered regularly.

Nor is it likely that the people wouldn't have means of food preservation. No salt? No canning? No smokehouses? I recall learning, for example, how Native Americans opened black walnuts. Black walnuts have such tough shells that the commonest way of opening them now is to drive cars over them. But people who didn't have cars still managed to open them: they would set them on a grating over a fire, and let them be exposed to heat and smoke for 24 hours or more, and they'd pop open.

Noah's kin are represented as pretty clueless: but were there NO ingenious people in the oasis?

As for the supposedly universal stories of floods among humans, there's a point that's not considered in this text. Peoples in most of the world are descended from people in the Mediterranean area. The exception would be sub-Saharan Africa. But anybody who left Africa went via the Sinai, which was the only land route available at the time. There might have been some boaters: but they'd have been from quite a bit later. There's no need to suppose worldwide flooding for the memory to be in most human cultures. Just a flood in the Mediterranean area. And given that there's evidence that both the Mediterranean and the Black Seas have dried up and then filled again rapidly several times, legends of floods in that area are likely...and such floods must have SEEMED universal, to people who hadn't gotten very far afield yet.

One thing: what exact animals are Noah and his family collecting? There aren't many animals in the story, but most of the ones which are included (tiny mammoths, for example. How's that for an oxymoron?) don't seem to make the cut. So what ARE they taking along?


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