Monday, January 17, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Enchantment

Orson Scott Card is one of the most recognized writers of science fiction and fantasy today, perhaps best known for writing Ender's Game and its sequels.  A list of his other novels, stories, and series is pretty staggering on its own, spanning the sub-genres of political thriller, time-travel, space travel, magical fantasy, and historical fiction.

One of his lesser-known stand-alone works is the novel "Enchantment," which may be broadly characterized as a modern retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. In fact it is a meta-fictional take on some of the classic Grimm fairy tales, Slavonic folk stories, and Jewish myths, with an ample helping of Cold War politics and time travel to take the edge off. It features Card's characteristic chapter format with rotating multi-persona perspectives, a complex mythology of magic, pagan polytheism, and religious doctrine, and a startlingly effective love story.  There's also a complimentary self-aware reference to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."  All told, this might be my favorite of Card's novels.

Most people know the story of Sleeping Beauty from the Disney version, though the original folktale probably originated in pre-medieval Europe. The story is simple: a newborn princess is cursed by the regional administrator of the International Wicked Witches Association (Cardinal Directions division), to the effect that she will die on her sixteenth birthday. Fortunately, the curse is 'alleviated' by three wise witches, presumably employed as union busters by the local warlords. Instead, the princess would merely fall into a death-like sleep on her sixteenth birthday, until woken up by True Love's Kiss (patent pending). Sure enough, the princess pricks her finger on a spindle, falls fast asleep, wakes up some time later to a random guy performing mouth-to-mouth, and naturally concludes that this is the love of her life. Happily ever after shortly ensues.

Card begins the novel focused around Ivan, a young Ukrainian boy coming to terms with his father's recent revelation that they are Jewish (his father publicly declared this so they could seek religious asylum in America). While visiting their cousin Marek, the young Ivan stumbles across a mysterious grove, with a strange beast trapped in a circular chasm that seems to be guarding a sleeping girl. Frightened of the beast, he runs away, and after his family relocates to America he shrugs off the memory (and recurring dreams) as a childhood fantasy.  He becomes a scholar of languages, specializing in Old Church Slavonic, a distant ancestor of modern Russian. He visits his cousin Marek again as a young man, to conduct research into his subject, and once again encounters the grove.  He somehow outruns the beast, a colossal stone-throwing bear, knocks it unconscious and leapfrogs the chasm.

Thus begins his adventures through time into the pre-medieval kingdom of Taina, located by the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe. The book marshals an impressive array of folktales and cultural anthropological knowledge to convey the distance in culture between Ivan's Ukrainian-American upbringing and the far-removed cultural mores of the land of Princess Katherina.

The chapter-by-chapter rotating viewpoints effectively roots us in the cultural differences and allows us to understand the characters far more intensively than would have otherwise been possible.  We understand and sympathize intuitively with Ivan's predicament, trying desperately to speak and understand the language (and preserve his insights for future generations) while fulfilling the kingdom's expectations of a prince and, of course, impressing the princess.  However, we also can understand the princess' dilemma of finding herself married to a man with hardly any upper-body strength, with no concept of princedom and leadership, and with very strange ideas of what is decent and what is taboo.

One of the delights of the story was when the tables were reversed -- to save Ivan's life, the two must flee ancient Taina and return to modern America.  Thus Ivan is partially vindicated and Katherina is allowed to understand how great a challenge it had been for him.  This sequence, incidentally, is also one of the weaknesses of the story -- Katherina finds it far too easy to adjust to modern life, and there are far too many easy coincidences (Ivan's mother knows magic, and his entire family has some knowledge of Old Church Slovenian, for instance). A fantasy novel may disregard normal conventions of fiction, but must develop and abide by a cogent set of rules for itself to maintain narrative coherence. Having established the 'rule' of cultural encounter from Ivan's adventures among Katherina's people, it seems to partly disregard those rules for convenience when the roles are reversed.

That's not to say the novel doesn't work. It may have simply worked too well and too easily in that particular passage. The love story between Ivan and Katherina, on the other hand, does not skimp on the challenges, and it is probably the best aspect of the story. Due to the cultural difference, misunderstandings abound, but we understand why and sympathize with the difficulty in overcoming them. This is no modern rom-com which forces obstacles in the path of lovers by means of idiocy, inanity, and simple invention.  This is closer to the Austen model of romantic comedy, where human psychology causes those obstacles to arise naturally, and where classical and Christian virtues must combine to remove them.

I have little interest in Eastern European folktales.  Of the ancient mythologies, the Greek and Roman are easily my two favorites, followed by the Norse. Slavonic folktales fail to win, place, or show in the horse-race for my loyalties. Yet I appreciated Card's obvious love for the culture, and his enthusiasm for its native stories is truly contagious. "Enchantment" is an extraordinary novel, and one I would highly recommend.

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