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.
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
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.