I read Enchantment on the recommendation of a friend. It is the first Orson Scott Card novel I’ve read that is not part of the Ender series. This novel is about Ivan, a late-Cold-War era Russian boy whose family emigrates to the United States, where he becomes a scholar of Russian folklore and then goes back in time to the ninth century and kisses the real Sleeping Beauty and then trains the local peasant army to make Molotov cocktails and hand grenades and hang gliders, all of which he uses to defeat the witch Baba Yaga in war. And believe it or not, this novel is nowhere near as ridiculous as I’ve just made it sound. Or – more correctly – it is that ridiculous, but it’s also pretty damn good. Well – correction again: it’s pretty damn entertaining. I wouldn’t really say it’s good.
But it’s going to be lots of fun to review.
In the general category of Things That are Fascinating, fantasy novels written by Mormons rank fairly high (to be specific, I would say that they are slightly more fascinating than the fact that almost all traditional cultures play games similar to “Rock, Paper, Scissors” but slightly less fascinating than the fact that malaria cures syphilis). In the Ender books, Card’s Mormon beliefs are apparent in the occasional anti-same-sex-marriage rant in the “Shadow” sequels (Please note that I do not find anti-same-sex-marriage rants especially fascinating. They all tend to sound the same, actually.) and in the general cosmology of the first trilogy of sequels, in which Ender essentially “gets his own planet,” though not in the way that Mormon theology intends. Also, both Enchantment and the Ender series have a distinct, quirky reverence for family (and, specifically, for mothers) that seems a bit theological in nature – although in some ways it took Enchantment, which is nowhere near as subtle and complex as the Ender series, to make me see it.
Ender’s Game drops hints that Ender’s parents are ineffectual and almost stupid. They fail to protect Ender from his brother’s bullying, and when the Battle School authorities intercept their letters, Ender assumes that they have forgotten about him. Later, Ender’s siblings Peter and Valentine assume that their parents are idiotic enough to have failed to notice the fact that Peter and Valentine have adopted the pseudonyms Locke and Demosthenes and are using these pseudonyms to foment worldwide revolution. As things stand at the end of Ender’s Game, the reader has reason to think John Paul and Theresa Wiggin are as vapid as their children believe them to be.
As the “Shadow” sequels progress, both of Ender, Peter, and Valentine’s parents are revealed to be not just intelligent but brilliant. Both of them – but Theresa especially – play dumb for strategic reasons. They are cynical and worldly-wise and prescient, and they watch their children as if they were rats in mazes, standing back to let them explore and make choices. Ender is off stage in the “Shadow” sequels – having obtained his own planet, of course – and in these books John Paul and Theresa focus their energies on Peter, and it is their backstage coaching, encouraging, and counseling of Peter that enables him to shed his earlier cruelty, impatience, and megalomania and use his talents for the good of others.
It wasn’t until I read Enchantment, though, that it occurred to me that Orson Scott Card believes that mothers are magical. I’ll explain. But first I need to provide some plot information.
Ivan is a young boy when his family stays with his uncle Marek and aunt Sophia for a couple of weeks while they finalize their emigration to the U.S., and during that time, Ivan gets lost in the woods and happens upon a weird clearing full of leaves that are blowing around in circles, which contains a deep chasm in which Ivan can just barely make out a human face. Then the family leaves for the U.S., and Ivan grows up and becomes a track star and goes to college and becomes a scholar of Russian folklore. As he is working on his dissertation, the adult Ivan returns to Kiev to do some final research from primary sources that are available now that the Soviet Union has been dissolved. He stops at Marek and Sophia’s house just before his flight home, because the sight of the human profile in the chasm in the woods has haunted his dreams ever since he left Kiev as a child, and he wants to return and see whether it is real.
Well, it has to be real, or else there would be no story. I am going to summarize what happens in the woods very quickly, because in the novel it is neverending and ridiculous. A woman is asleep, and a bear is guarding her. Ivan runs around and around and around in circles, and the bear chases him. Intimations are made that this circular running goes on all day. How convenient that Ivan is a track star. Finally the bear gets tired and slows down and Ivan throws a rock at him and knocks out one of his eyes. Then Ivan jumps over the chasm (again – how convenient he was a track star), finds the sleeping woman, kisses her, and wakes her up. She then commands him to propose marriage to her, and he does. So basically this whole scene is like a cross between “Super Mario Brothers” and Little Black Sambo.
Now it’s time for some TIME TRAVEL, and as you know we like TIME TRAVEL quite a lot around here. The princess was sleeping on a stone slab (as princesses are wont to do) in the middle of the chasm – sort of like an island in a lake or a castle with a moat around it. When he was outside the chasm, Ivan didn’t see any way to get to the princess except to jump, but once he’s with her on the stone slab, he sees a bridge. The princess sees a bridge too, except here’s the thing: they don’t see the same bridge. The bridge Ivan sees leads to 1992, and the bridge the princess sees leads to the year 890. They use her bridge to exit the chasm, and Ivan is no longer in the modern world but in a medieval Russian kingdom called Taina.
Fast forward: There are some wardrobe difficulties, and one might think there would be language difficulties as well, except that Ivan’s research has made him fluent in “Old Church Slavonic,” so he gets along just fine with the lingo (plus, there are never any language issues in TIME TRAVEL stories, silly). Then there are some more wardrobe difficulties and it becomes apparent that the people of Taina are having some spiritual troubles – they are trying to decide whether to follow Father Lucas and become Christian (as the princess and her father already have) or continue to practice their native joo-joo – and these spiritual conflicts have come to a head recently because fabled witch Baba Yaga has conquered any number of local kingdoms using witchcraft and has announced that Taina will be next, and noises are made about Constantine and “By this sign, conquer,” and then there are more wardrobe difficulties. And then Ivan saves a woman from choking but nevertheless doesn’t live up to 9th-century standards of manhood, and cultural relativism hadn’t been invented yet in 890. Then Ivan spends a long time feeling bad because his soon-to-be father-in-law thinks he’s a pansy, and then there are more wardrobe difficulties, and then Ivan and Katerina (the princess) get married and go back to the chasm and climb over Ivan’s bridge and go back to the twentieth century, and now it is Katerina’s turn for wardrobe difficulties, except that there is no time to dwell on clothing now because Baba Yaga the witch has followed them and is spending her time monitoring Ivan and Katerina’s sex life and learning how to hijack planes.
When we return to the twentieth century, it becomes apparent that Ivan’s mother – who was a nonentity in the first part of the novel: just a bumbling immigrant who could never manage to learn English and seemed never to understand the academic topics Ivan liked to discuss with his father – is a witch. She learned ancient secrets of Russian witchcraft from her three creepy aunts, who learned it from their three creepy aunts, and so on and so forth. She knows everything that has been going on, and she and Katerina immediately become good friends because in many ways their roots are in the same places: in ancient folk wisdom and traditions that Ivan and his father – who is also a professor of folklore – only think they understand (some of which involve menstrual blood. I’m just saying).
It’s hard to know exactly where Card is coming from on the gender question. On the one hand, his male characters are clueless about the knowledge and power of their wives and think they themselves are the ones who protect and guide their families. Card presents these women as keepers of secrets, and while my literary-theory days are long behind me, I remember a lot of discussions of women who are kept in the sidelines – largely in 19th century British novels (those sneaky Victorians!), but also in mythology and folklore and the Old Testament and the New Testament and, hey!, even the Clinton White House – who come to have tremendous power that comes simply from stepping out of their hiding places and speaking their minds. The power is in the secrets, but the irony is that the power does not outlive the secrets. When these women come out of hiding, everyone realizes that they have been calling the shots for years (think Bertha Rochester) and that men have been their playthings and puppets – but after the great moment of awareness takes place, they no longer have that power.
I don’t really know where I am going with this. Almost as soon as Ivan’s mother (whose name I can’t remember – just think of the field day the feminist theory-people would have with that) looks into her dark basin that gives her a nonstop webcam-type hookup to Ivan, even when he goes to the ninth century, I said, “Oh! Card thinks mothers are magical.” As the novel progresses, I started to recognize the connections between Ivan’s mother and Theresa Wiggin, whose “magic” takes the form of a preternatural awareness of her children’s gifts, talents, and shortcomings as well as near-infinite patience that allows her to sit back, play dumb, and let her children live their own lives, counseling them only occasionally and only in private and only in infinite wisdom. Theresa Wiggin is a much stronger and more rounded character than Ivan’s mother (not surprising, since her character is given five novels to develop), and I never would have thought of her as “magic” before I read Enchantment. What Theresa Wiggin is, I realize now, is the perfect mother. And, of course, there has to be a little bit of magic in that, doesn’t there?
I find this “magical mother” idea both interesting and problematic. Anything that’s treated as an inborn power or talent can be easy to dismiss. Teachers complain when brilliant students don’t study but get A’s anyway. Moviegoers gripe about bad actors cast on the basis of their looks. Online, bloggers lambast other bloggers for making their lives appear too picturesque, too serene, too perfect – feeling, presumably, that domesticity and organization and an appreciation for beauty are inborn talents that should not be put on parade. In reality, of course, mothers are not magical. They are real people, and while some mothers are highly prescient about the inner lives of their children, many other mothers remain deluded about their children until the day they die. Even intuitive mothers make endless mistakes: guarding and protecting children too closely, failing to nurture self-esteem, failing to prepare children for failure and resilience. If we think of motherhood as a magical power bestowed hormonally sometime in the second trimester, we can be tempted to dismiss the intense emotional and psychological work that goes into developing a near-intuitive understanding of a child (and some children, of course, are nothing like their mothers, making the process so much harder). Attaching intuition and magic to motherhood can also diminish fathers – as Card’s novel demotes Ivan’s father – who seems invincible in the early chapters of the novel – to a nodding, smiling, stammering buffoon once his wife’s magical powers are revealed.
The only thing I know for sure now is that I will definitely be reading more Orson Scott Card. I always intended to sample more of his books (and there are still two in the Ender series that I haven’t read), but I was prepared not to like them much because I’m not usually a fan of fantasy and sci-fi. But now I’m intrigued by this idea of magical mothers. I want to read more and see what I find.
Loved the first paragraph!! Entertaining but not good, yes!! I am afraid I like that type of book, unless it is also BAD.