Many Waters is the fourth book in Madeleine L’Engle’s TIME quintet. The previous three books, A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet have all focused on Meg Murray and her strange little brother Charles Wallace as they travel through time and space. Many Waters is completely different. In this story, Meg’s twin brothers Sandy and Dennis mess with a computer in their mother’s lab and get blasted back to the time of Noah before he built the ark. From there the story turns into a strange historical fantasy whose source text is Genesis 6.
In this well-known biblical story, God declares that humans are violent and corrupt and sends a flood to get rid of most of them. He tells Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and the animals. Then he limits their lifespan after the flood. The text also mentions that “the nephilim were on the earth in those days… these are the mighty men of old, the men of renown.” The meaning of the Hebrew word “nephilim” is unclear; it can refer to large men (“giants”) or perhaps even fallen angels. L’Engle combines these ideas and gives us large supernatural men that seduce human girls. She also throws in a few legendary creatures such as griffins, manticores, and unicorns.
Sandy and Dennis arrive quite a while before Noah begins building the ark and they have no idea how to get back to modern day America. They nearly die of heatstroke but are saved and taken in by Noah’s family. It takes them a while to figure out where and when they are. Once they do, of course, they are quite concerned about their future. They don’t remember the details of Noah’s story, but they know that only Noah’s family gets on the ark. Most of the plot of Many Waters involves their struggle to survive in the desert, the daily doings of Noah’s extended family, and the attempts of the nephilim to capture the twins and find out where they came from and what they’re doing there. The nephilim know that one way to do this is to tempt the inexperienced teenage boys with the attentions of beautiful girls. Only toward the end does the ark building begin. Eventually rain begins to fall as Sandy and Dennis try to use what little they know of metaphysics to figure out how they can get home.
One significant way that L’Engle changes Noah’s story is to give names, personalities, and stories to Noah’s son’s wives. The author of this section of Genesis, certainly the product of a patriarchal society, didn’t bother to. Sandy and Dennis spend a little time wondering about, and coming to terms with, God’s methods. They also discuss terrorism and quantum physics.
I didn’t enjoy Many Waters as well as I enjoyed the previous novels in the TIME quintet. It was too much historical fantasy and too little science fiction to please me and, while I often like historical fantasy, the hot and violent desert world of Noah’s time just isn’t much fun. Younger fans of L’Engle may also be put off by the darkness of the nephilim, the focus on lust and seduction, and the unpleasant childbirth scene. However, the story is well told and occasionally thought-provoking, and the audio version read by Ann Marie Lee is nicely done.