Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Virtual Unicorns: Religion & Science in Many Waters

Posted by • Apr 1st, 2009

The first three books of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Time” series — A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) — focus on the adventures of Meg Murry and her little brother, Charles Wallace. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace travel to a distant planet to rescue their father from “IT,” an evil force which stifles all individuality. In A Wind in the Door, Meg makes a microcosmic journey, traveling into the mitochondria of Charles Wallace’s cells to rescue him from a deadly disease. Then, in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace must change the past, using the power of a Celtic rune to prevent nuclear war in the present. Yet Meg and Charles Wallace are not the only children in the Murry family; they have two brothers, twins named Sandy and Dennys, who are the “normal” ones in the family. The twins do not join Meg and Charles Wallace as they journey through space and time, but in 1986, L’Engle added a fourth book to the series, Many Waters. In this book, Sandy and Dennys take a journey of their own, traveling accidentally back in time to a Biblical Earth, during the days of Noah, just before the great flood. As in all of the novels in the “Time” series, L’Engle works with richly suggestive materials, using both science and religion to tell moving stories of love, devotion and sacrifice, this time with the least famous figures of the Murry clan.

The strangeness of this adventure is something the Murry twins are not prepared for at all. They are self-described skeptics, “not believing in anything that can’t be seen and touched and proved one hundred percent” (105). Unlike Meg and Charles Wallace, the twins are very down-to-earth, practical problem-solvers, without an interest in theoretical physics or mystical runes. Yet, somehow, quite by accident, it happens: one moment they are standing in their father’s laboratory, and the next moment they find themselves in a burning desert, being rescued by someone named Japheth, a name they do not recognize at first as belonging to one of the sons of Noah. Later, when Sandy and Dennys finally hear the name “Noah,” they remember the basic outlines of the story from Sunday School. “I wish I had a Bible” (105) one of boys remarks — but a Bible would just be the beginning of what they need to understand the world that L’Engle has created, which draws on a wide range of extra-Biblical sources, including the Jewish and Christian apocrypha, the Kabbalah, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, to name just a few.

Most notably, this Biblical world is populated not just by humans and animals, but also by celestial beings, the seraphim and the nephilim. The seraphim are those celestial beings who are still in touch with the god El, and who are living on Earth by choice. They have the ability to transform from the state of matter into energy, and they are also able to travel through time. The nephilim, on the other hand, have turned away from El, and are condemned to remain on the Earth, having lost many powers which the seraphim still possess. The nephilim are led by Eblis, and unlike the seraphim, they consort with mortal women, who bear their children, a strange intermingling which is mentioned in the Book of Genesis (6:1-4). For the conflation of the nephilim and the fallen angels, however, L’Engle has drawn upon the Book of Enoch and other apocryphal texts.

In addition to going beyond the bounds of the Bible, L’Engle has also probed the gaps in the Biblical text itself. For example, one of the most important questions she asks is about the daughters of Noah. We know that the sons of Noah and their wives were saved in the Ark with Noah and his wife, but does that mean that the daughters of Noah — for surely, he must have had daughters — were drowned in the flood? Both Sandy and Dennys fall in love with Yalith, one of the daughters of Noah, and her fate provides one of the most important dramatic subplots of the novel. Noah has been told by God that he cannot take Yalith or any of his other daughters on the Ark, nor can he take Sandy and Dennys, who have become like members of the family. So, not only do the boys need to find a way to return home, they must do so before the floods begin.

To devise a way to return home, the boys rack their brains to understand something of their parents’ experiments in theoretical physics, a topic that had not been of any special interest to them before. From sharing their memories of those experiments and from talking with the seraphim (who have some knowledge of theoretical physics themselves), the boys realize they need to make a quantum leap, crossing from existence into non-existence and back into existence again by means of virtual particles. In Noah’s world, these virtual particles exist in the shape of unicorns, mythological creatures inspired by quantum theory, beasts which “have to be believed to be seen” (290). Thus building on the notion of the implied observer in quantum physics, L’Engle turns the twins not just into observers but into believers, which allows them to harness the paradox of the virtual particles in order to return at last to their own world.

By using theoretical physics to provide access to this Biblical world, L’Engle manages to reinvigorate the Noah story, which had meant little to the boys previously. Hearing the story in Sunday School had left them only with “vague memories,” something about “God being angry at the wickedness of the world, and sending a flood, but telling Noah to build an ark and bring the animals on. And then there were terrible rains, and finally a dove brought Noah a sprig of green, and the ark landed on Mount Ararat. Not much of a story unless you were part of it” (161). By stumbling into their father’s experiment in particle physics, the boys do get a chance to become part of that story, and to meet Yalith, one of the daughters of Noah. You will not find this remarkable virtual woman in the pages of Genesis, unless — like L’Engle — you have the wherewithal to read between the verses. As for the fate of Yalith when the flood waters came, I’m not going to give that away: you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Work Cited

  • L’Engle, Madeleine. Many Waters. 1986. New York: Square Fish, 2007.

4 Responses »

  1. Thanks for this review; I read this as a teenager and loved it. I haven’t thought of it in a long time but I sort of want to re-read it now! I can’t remember – did the title come from that verse in Song of Solomon “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can floods drown it.” ?

  2. Yes, Leanne, that’s exactly right! The last two chapters of the book are entitled: 11. Many waters cannot quench love 12. Neither can the floods drown it.

    I really like the way L’Engle works with Biblical allusions in this book – you never feel lost if you don’t get the allusions because they fit so nicely into the world of the book itself, but it is also a lot of fun trying to imagine the little details that prompted some of the things she does here. For example, one of the seraphim takes for its animal form the shape of a pelican, which is surely an allusion to the pelican of Psalm 102: “I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.” Biblical scholars to this day wonder if that is a really accurate understanding of the verse, since it does not make sense exactly (pelicans don’t live in the wilderness…) – but L’Engle makes good use of that pelican and it plays a wonderful little part in the book!

    That even applies to the unicorns in Many Waters: the King James Bible used “unicorn” to translate a Hebrew word, rêym, that probably refers to some kind of wild bull – the New International Version, for example, says “wild ox” instead of “unicorn.” For someone like L’Engle, however, who appreciates the poetry and tradition of the King James version, the unicorns are part of the Bible, which I suspect is part of how they made their way into Many Waters, too!


  3. I am fifteen years old, I go to a christian school and I just read this book and am now doing a project on it. I thought that this book had some interesting elements, but for the most part I did not like it. I have also read “A Wrinkle in Time” but I did not like that book at all either. My suggestion for a great series of books is the C.S. Lewis books “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandra”, and “That Hideous Strength”. Those are all amazing books that everyone should read.

  4. Hi Jacob, I like those books by C.S. Lewis also – I guess I would say I like Lewis better for the plot, but I think I like L’Engle better for the characters! :-)