Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Princess Academy (review from the archives)

The sweet girl and I finished Princess Academy this evening...her first time to hear the book, and my fourth or fifth time reading it. I found myself wanting to talk about it a bit, but then it dawned on me I did that already, quite some time ago! I went back to revisit the review and found myself nodding in agreement over it all, so here's an oldie from 2009 that I hope you'll enjoy, a reflection I wrote called "Quarry Speech and Kything." Happy Thanksgiving!

Fun note: the sweet girl has been very into Madeleine L'Engle lately, and our reading of this book overlapped our reading of A Wind in the Door. Not planned. Just lovely serendipity.

*******From 2009*******

In the past couple of years, Shannon Hale has become one of my favorite fantasy authors for young adults. I first really fell for her work a couple of years ago when I read Princess Academy. Recently I re-read it again twice: to myself, and out-loud to my husband (who really liked it, and who was pleasantly surprised by the un-Disney nature of the story, given its title!).

I liked it even better the second and third times around, partly because I was fully prepared to enter into the world of Mt. Eskel. Since I knew the characters and the contour of the plot already, I was able to pay more attention to Hale's world-building. I'm impressed by the details she provides about life for the villagers on Mt. Eskel and how that builds a credible, substantial world for the story.

Hale tells us about the strength of the mountain itself, the beauty of the mountain views, the smell of the goats they herd, the beautifully streaked linder stone, the wild miri flowers that grow in cracks of stone, the chips and shards of rock that cut into thinning boot soles, the essential poverty of the people who must work hard to cut enough stone to trade for goods each season. She helps us understand that, while they're illiterate, they have an amazing communal memory which is showcased in festival time through the creativity of their "story-shouts." She describes their folk dances, their physical strength, their skill in mining linder, their lack of political status as members of a non-provincial territory of the kingdom of Danland, the way they care for one another. She hints at the lacks some of them feel by not having time or space in their lives for gardens or art (and their yearning to see the far-off ocean). And of course, she describes the way they communicate with one another in the quarry, using a language without words, often communicated through the sounds and rhythms of the work, tools and stone.

A huge part of Miri's coming of age, and her growing understanding of herself as a true daughter of the mountain, is her newfound ability to sing the mountain's songs even when she is cut off from many of the places and people she once thought were needed to make such speech possible. Before she left for the academy, she had never used quarry speech because she'd never been allowed inside the quarry (her father has his reasons, but he doesn't explain them to her, hence her feeling of uselessness). Her sojourn at the princess academy, along with eleven other girls from their territory, is not precisely an exile, but it functions as one, or at least a time away in a very different place where new thoughts and ideas and dreams arise (which strikes me as a notion one might come across in a Shakespearean comedy). While Miri is there, out of necessity she learns the music of the quarry, and unexpectedly discovers that she can speak/sing it outside of the quarry itself, as long as she is physically touching any stone that can be traced to a vein of linder. That unseen network of linder veins becomes a beautiful, unconscious scaffolding as Miri learns the secret of the speech is built on shared memories/community.

I guess the first time I read the book, I was so involved in the excitement of a first read-through that parallels didn't come to me, but this time through I found myself reading the descriptions of quarry speech and thinking about kything.

Kything is the form of unspoken communication that Madeleine L'Engle developed in her fantasy novels for young adults many years ago, particularly in A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin O'Keefe learn to communicate with one another and with other people/creatures across vast distances and without words. The concept is developed throughout the books -- it's not actually named as kything until Wind, when Meg is tutored in the practice by Proginoskes, the singular cheribum who partners with her against the evil, unnaming Echthroi. What intrigues me is that, in that first instance where it's named, Progo works with Meg to help her remember a memory that she didn't realize she had stored in her brain. She heard a conversation (not realizing its full import) and thought she'd forgotten it, but Progo, in communicating/communing with her, is able to pull the memory forth so that she can see it and hear it clearly again. Meg becomes a particularly adept kyther, especially with Charles Wallace in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. While he's off riding a unicorn on the wind to save the planet from nuclear peril, she's in her attic bedroom, keeping her hand on a dog (whom we're led to believe just might be part guardian angel) since the act of touching the warm fur of the living creature seems to connect her more closely to her little brother's mind and heart. Shades of linder lines.

Meg also kythes deeply with Calvin, the young man who will grow up to be her husband. Their intimacy of communication is similar to what she shares with others, but also different, tinged with eros as well as philos, I guess you might say (and all of it bathed somehow in agape). The nuances are hard to describe, but definitely there, reminding me of Miri's ability to quarry-speak most clearly, especially when in peril, with the young man closest to her own heart, Peder. Although their feelings for one another have not been fully acknowledged or recognized even by themselves, the feelings are there (which Hale makes beautifully clear from their awkwardness around one another).

More than Meg and Calvin, however, Peder and Miri's ability to communicate reminded me forcefully of Vicky Austin and Adam Eddington in A Ring of Endless Light. If absolutely forced to choose a favorite L'Engle novel, I would probably choose Ring, which I read over and over again between the ages of 15-25. I don't know why it never dawned on me with any forcefulness (until now!) that the unspoken communication developed in Ring looks an awful lot like kything. Vicky experiences an ability to communicate without words (and to receive communications, often in the form of wordless images) first with dolphins (animals are always very important in Madeleine's work) and then with Adam, the young man who introduces her to the dolphins.

Maybe one reason I never made an explicit connection is because distinctions used to be often made between Madeleine's "chronos" books and her "kairos" books. In her so-called kairos books, characters were not bound by the normal nature of time, while characters in the chronos books never time-traveled. That's a useful enough distinction in some regards, but it's not so easy to break her books down into categories of "fantasy" and "realism" with the kairos books neatly falling into one and the chronos books into the other. Even in her more realistic books, where the characters don't fly with unicorns, there are mystical elements. Vicky, after all, flies with dolphins.

I've wandered far afield. My main observation is that Miri's unspoken message to Peder felt familiar, not in a derivative way, but in a lovely, shared tradition way. Peder's response in her time of peril mirrors Adam's. Vicky and Adam's wondering exchange (once the peril is past) is so sweet and simple: "I called you --" "And I came," he said. Words that could have been quarry-sung in another book, time and place.

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