YA fiction blog series: narrative, imagination, and Many Waters

Today, I'm starting a new blog series about YA fiction. I am asking my guest bloggers to write about one book that serves as an example of YA literature that they aren’t embarrassed to read. What makes a good YA book more than just “maudlin teen drama.” What draws us to YA as adults and what can the YA genre offer as a narrative structure that other genres cannot? I will kick off the series today with a rumination on narrative, imagination, and Madeleine L'Engle's Many Waters. ManyWaters1

Story is essential to the human experience. We cannot help but write the stories of our lives, and we do this to make sense out of who we are, where we came from, and who we will be.

But story has become less important in our culture. Postmodern art is often about the lack of grand narrative and lack of universal truth. And while this isn’t all bad, sometimes after I read certain types of adult fiction, I am left with a sense of the unending hopelessness of our cultural belief in fractured narratives.

The YA fiction I enjoy reading gives me a different sense: a sense of the redemption, hopefulness, and meaning in the stories our imaginations can create. YA fiction is often the last connection we have to fairy tales. Where some adult fiction can leave fantasy and fairy tale behind in favor of more “serious topics,” YA still allows itself the indulgence. For me, this indulgence in fantasy, imagination, and stories that are akin to fairy tales of old, is actually in line with more "serious topics" than many adult novels.

Though our culture shies away from platitudes and we grow into understandings that bring needed nuance, we still have a deep need for the moral order that existed for us when we were children. Fairy tales and fantasy stories are important for our children and for us, not to give a place to escape, but to give meaning to the reality we are living, to help express the chaos and confusion of life in ordered narrative forms, forms where there is always hope for the good, even when it doesn’t always seem to be the case in real life.

Around the time that C.S. Lewis was becoming more convinced of the truth of God, Lewis and Tolkien were discussing myths. At the time, Lewis believed that myths were beautiful and powerful, but ultimately, “lies and therefore worthless.”[i] Tolkien protested. Far from being lies, myths and fairy tales express truth in ways that would otherwise be extremely difficult to articulate. Because we were all created by God, our myths and fairy tales “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”[ii] Those ancient debunked myths and legends are actually “God expressing Himself through the mind of poets, using the images of their ‘mythopoeia’ to reveal fragments of his His eternal truth.”[iii] This relationship with Tolkien and their conversations about myth and fairy tales led C.S. Lewis to belief not only in God but in Christ Himself.

Madeleine L’Engle, who was deeply influenced by the stories and philosophies of Tolkien, Lewis, and George MacDonald, wrote so many good books. But one of my favorites of L’Engle’s YA fiction is Many Waters.

Although this book is one in the Time Quartet/Quintet that begins with her more popular A Wrinkle in Time, it is also a departure from the other members of the series: it’s a retelling of the Biblical story of the Flood.

I was drawn into Many Waters when I encountered Yalith, the daughter of Noah. Though Yalith is still a child in many ways, she is not naïve. She has clear eyes as she watches her family and friends sinking deeper into the darkness that the sons of God, the Nephilim, have brought into creation. She refuses the advances of that darkness and in return, she’s given a place with the angels.

L’Engle’s retelling of the Biblical story is full of magical creatures and the presence of angels, something that’s heretical to many Christians. As indicated by the reaction of some to the recent movie, Noah, Christians are often afraid and angry when their beloved stories are retold. But I think that’s one beautiful part of Biblical stories. The narratives are so rich that they invite (as with midrash) interpretation and re-imagining.

For me, Many Waters encompasses many of the things I love about YA: it has a strong and imaginative narrative and it adds nuance and magic to a story so it can be approached with new eyes. L'Engle's novel opened up my eyes to the very imaginative possibilities inherent in Biblical stories that I've read so often. In Many Waters, L’Engle was taking on what Tolkien would call the “one true myth:” the stories of God’s work in our world.

Please return next week when another writer will take on YA fiction. 

[i] Joseph Pearce. Tolkien: Man and Myth (p 57) [ii] Pearce, p 58. [iii] Pearce, p 59.