Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

Posted May 30, 2014 by Lory in reviews / 4 Comments

Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Enchantress from the Stars (1970).  

Today’s Armchair BEA theme is middle-grade/YA fiction, so I’m taking a second look at a YA science fiction classic. This was the recipient of the 1990 Phoenix Award and has been praised by the likes of Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois Lowry, so it quickly rose to the top of my list.

Enchantress from the Stars is a space-age fable that takes on some knotty questions of truth, belief, freedom and sacrifice. It posits the existence of human-like beings at three stages of evolution: members of the Federation, who have advanced beyond war and exploitation and have developed psychic powers such as telepathy and telekinesis; citizens of the Empire, who have advanced technology that they are using to take over other planets; and the medieval-stage people of Andrecia, a planet in the process of being colonized.

The Federation’s goal is to preserve the freedom of less-evolved civilizations, to allow them to continue to progress on their individual paths without annihilating each other (on the planetary level…it seems they are free to have wars and commit injustices with other people and civilizations on the same planet). To do this, specially trained agents interfere selectively in situations like the one on Andrecia, appearing within the native belief system as beings from a world of mystery and enchantment. To give the account of one such mission, Engdahl uses the device of narrating it from three alternating points of view. The primary voice is that of young Elana, who tells her own story of stowing away on a Federation mission to save the endangered inhabitants of Andrecia, with life-changing consequences for all concerned. A third-person narrative thread follows Jarel, a doctor whose view of the Empire is being soured by the treatment of the “natives” who have the misfortune to be in the way on their new planetary colony. The final part is narrated in classic folktale style, telling of Georyn, a woodcutter’s youngest son who sets out to slay the dragon that is menacing the land.

It’s an ingenious notion, and Engdahl plays it out well, with all the shifts in perspective smoothly and convincingly done. (Ostensibly the entire book is actually being written by Elana as her report to the Federation following the mission, which would seem to qualify her for a career as a novelist if space exploration doesn’t work out.) Each incident that seems magical to the Andrecians has a logical explanation from another point of view. The rock-chewing “dragon” is actually an Imperial machine that’s working to clear the land for the colonists, for example, and the magical trials that Georyn goes through are engineered by the Enchantress (Elana) and her colleagues to strengthen him for his task of frightening away the invaders. Things get complicated as Elana becomes more involved, and more emotionally invested, in the mission than she had ever expected to be. She wonders about the ethics of manipulating Georyn in this way, while the necessity to conceal the very existence of the Federation from the Imperial colonists (to avoid their gaining access to ideas and technology they are not yet ready for) becomes increasingly fraught.

I don’t have a strong memory of this book from reading it as a child or young teen. I think I liked it, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — unlike A Wrinkle in Time, which is somewhat similar in using space travel as a vehicle for philosophical exploration, and is engraved on my heart. Reading Enchantress again today, I was distracted by questions about the plausibility of the whole idea, which of course is fatal to a fable, as well as bothered by the oversimplified opposition between science and magic, which implies that all numinous or magical experiences can be made mundane by a shift in perspective. I was also uncomfortable with Georyn and Elana’s relationship — to him, she’s something like a goddess, while to her he’s like a highly intelligent pet; yet they are supposed to fall in love. Perhaps this is meant to be a comment on how love can reach across boundaries, or obviate the need to actually know a person, but I found it hard to swallow.

Quibbles aside, I do not want to discourage anyone from reading this book, which is well-written and thoughtful, even if I don’t agree with all the thoughts in it. It might strike just the right chord with you, as it has done with many readers through the years, and could spark discussion and contemplation of many interesting questions. Although I didn’t whole-heartedly enjoy it, I had to think hard about why — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

1990 Phoenix Award winner

Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day FiveEnchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
Published by Firebirds in 2003 (originally published 1970)
Format: Paperback from Library

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4 responses to “Enchantress from the Stars: Armchair BEA Day Five

    • I was somewhat disappointed considering the rave reviews. Definitely worth reading, but I don't think you need to make it a priority.

  1. I haven't heard of this book, but I am interested since it seems to be so highly regarded by so many writers! I hope I will enjoy it, though it will help to keep your review in mind so I won't have high hopes.

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