The novel begins on a wintry March afternoon in the isolated white farmhouse where the Murrys live. The one unusual room of the house is the laboratory where, as established in previous books, the Murry parents, both famous scientists, do research into polymers, virtual particles, and quasars. By messing around with their father's computer, Sandy and Dennys, the Murry twins, are transported to a hot, barren wilderness, where, almost immediately, they are badly burned by the blazing sun.
When the twins are rescued by a tent-dwelling family of small brown people who help them heal, they discover that, in this new world, humans live for hundreds of years and that several of them converse with their god, whom they call "El." It is some time before the twins learn that the "patriarch" of the family that takes them in is Noah and that the world will shortly be destroyed by a flood of "many waters."
The world is also populated by a number of creatures which Sandy and Dennys have always assumed are mythological, such as the unicorns who rescue them on several occasions and eventually take them back home. In addition, the twins encounter the golden seraphim and the beautiful white nephilim, winged, angelic beings who, at times, take on the forms of various animals. During the course of the novel, the twins grow to appreciate the simple lifestyle of Noah and his family and, when they finally return home, honestly miss Noah's family and their world.
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Many Waters, more than any other of L'Engle's fantasies, draws on Biblical and mythological allusions to tell an almost allegorical story. Besides the story of Noah and the flood, the novel uses the tale of Noah's grandfather, Enoch, who was taken into heaven, and references to fallen angels (nephilim) and heavenly messengers (seraphim). Ancient legends of fallen angels mating with humans provide an important subplot. In addition, L'Engle borrows from classical mythology and folk tales to populate her world with unicorns, manticores, griffins, and shape-shifters.
Many of these characters and creatures are used to develop some of the novel's major themes. The unicorns, who can exist only when someone believes in them, are a test of the twins' growing faith. The novel, which examines the deceptive nature of appearances, uses the beautiful but evil nephilim and a gentle, but ferocious-looking griffin, to illustrate this point. At the same time, the twins, who seem to be identical because of their appearance, are revealed as having separate and distinct personalities.
Similarly, Many Waters effectively uses setting to symbolize important concepts. The burning sun and barren landscape parallel the nature of humanity in Noah's world, which, ironically, badly needs the rain which will also destroy it. L'Engle uses pairs of characters, good and evil, to help dramatize Yalith and the twin's struggles. Unlike Tiglah's bestial father and...
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Some reviewers, such as Wayne Hammond, have noted the novel's apparent preoccupation with sexual love. The book does, after all, contain descriptions of bare breasts, interspecies marriage (between humans and nephilim), and attempted seductions. Hammond argues, however, that L'Engle handles these elements with propriety. Certainly, the novel posits a mature, spiritual love (like that of Shem and Elisheba, Japeth and Oholibamah, and the twins' parents) as the ideal. It is at least partly for this reason that the twins realize that Yalith cannot return home with them and that, as is suggested in the title of Chapter 11, "many waters cannot quench love."
Like many of L'Engle's novels, particularly A Swiftly Titling Planet, Many Waters comments on contemporary society, including social and environmental issues. The seraph, Alarid', it turns out, is familiar with the late twentieth century and reminds Dennys that he comes from a time of many wars in which people have soiled their water and air. Later, when it turns out that the Earth will be flooded, the twins reflect that the people of their own time are not that different from those of Noah's.
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Topics for Discussion
1. In Many Waters, L'Engle frequently uses contrasting pairs or groups of characters to develop her ideas. Compare and contrast the following characters: Yalith and Mahlah; Aerial and Eblis; Noah and Tiglah's father; Noah's three sons and his three daughters-in-law.
2. In what ways do Sandy and Dennys differ in their personalities? How have the twins changed by the end of the novel?
3. Why might L'Engle have chosen to take the reader into the minds of a variety of individuals instead of focusing only on the thoughts of a single character?
4. What is the role of the mythical animals and the seraphim and nephilim in the novel? How does L'Engle help to make these strange characters believable?
5. Discuss the thematic importance of the titles of Chapters 11 and 12, "Many waters cannot quench love" and "Neither can floods drown it."
6. What does the book suggest about the need to have faith or hope and to "fear not"?
7. What similarities are there between Noah's world and that of the late twentieth century?
8. Discuss Noah's character. Does L'Engle's interpretation of Noah differ from that of the book of Genesis?
9. Discuss the relationship between the twins and Yalith. Why cannot Yalith return to the twentieth century with Sandy and Dennys?
10. Based on this novel, what does L'Engle seem to feel is the ideal relationship between a man and a woman?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare and contrast the reworking of Biblical sources in one of the following with that of Many Waters: C. S. Lewis's Perelandra or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved.
2. Go to the library and research the nature of the psychological relationships between identical twins. Based on your reading, is the relationship between Sandy and Dennys realistic?
3. Read one of L'Engle's other books about the Murrys and compare and contrast her treatment of one of the following themes with that in Many Waters: the value of individuality, the necessity of having faith or hope, the power of love.
4. Is L'Engle's depiction of the twins in A Wrinkle in Time or A Swiftly Titling Planet consistent with their characterization in Many Waters?
5. Research the story of Noah and the flood and the characteristics of angels as presented in the Bible or scholarly sources, then write a paper in which you examine the degree to which L'Engle has invented the story in Many Waters.
6. Based on your reading of the novel, draw a map of Noah's oasis.
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When first published, Many Waters was marketed as the fourth book in L'Engle's "Time Quartet," which includes A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, books which involve traveling through time and space. The action of Many Waters, however, takes place several years before that of A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Not surprisingly, Many Waters shares a number of thematic concerns with these other books, including the difficulty of distinguishing between good and evil, the deceptive nature of appearances, and the importance of maintaining one's individuality and making one's own choices. Like Meg and her friends in A Wrinkle in Time, Sandy and Dennys are transported across time and space to a new world where evil beings try to seduce them into servitude. As in the earlier books, in which Meg is introduced to the songs of the stars, Dennys Murry now learns their language.
Like Many Waters, a number of books for the young have imaginatively retold stories from the Bible or borrowed the plots from it. Peter Dickinson's City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament (1980) presents biblical tales as if they were part of an oral narrative woven together by songs and chants. C. S. Lewis's adult science fiction novel, Perelandra (1943), retells the temptation of Adam and Eve, setting it on Venus. Lewis's children's book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe...
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For Further Reference
Cooper, Susan. Review. New York Times Book Review, 30 (November 1986): 104. Cooper, herself a Newbery Medal winning novelist, notes analogies between the Flood as described in Many Waters and the possibility of nuclear holocaust. She also argues that the novel is a fitting sequel to A Wrinkle in Time and that L'Engle is a skillful storyteller.
Franklin, Hugh. "Madeleine L'Engle." Horn Book 39 (1963): 356-360. A brief biographical sketch by L'Engle's husband, written when she won the Newbery Medal for A Wrinkle in Time.
Hammond, Wayne G. "In L'Engle Waters." Mythlore 13,3 (1987): 43-44. This review notes that L'Engle handles controversial elements in the novel with...
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