Apr 25, 2007

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

When I picked this book up, all I knew about it was that it was a retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" that also used some motifs from Russian folklore. This is what I’d read a long time ago at some place or other, but it’s not actually a very accurate description of the book.

This story picks up where "Sleeping Beauty" left off, and it drew my attention to something I’d noticed before, but hadn’t really reflected on. In Russian folktales, unlike in those of some other traditions, marriage is often not the finalization of the story. On the contrary, it’s often where the problems begin. In tales like “The Footless and Blind Champions”, Ivan Tsaverich manages to marry the princess quite easily, but he still has to go a long way to win her love and trust. This is analogous to what happens in Enchantment. And as I soon realized, this book draws on Russian folklore far more heavily than I had imagined, so it was the perfect follow-up to the Russian Folktales collection I’ve read recently.

Enchantment starts when the hero, Ivan Smetski, is ten years old. While his family is spending some time at a cousin’s farm in the Ukrainian countryside, Ivan takes to walking through the surrounding old forests. And one day, he comes across a sight he can’t get out of his mind: a clearing in the forest, and in it, a chasm, surrounding a pedestal where a Princess sleeps among fallen leaves. Ivan feels something stirring in the chasm and runs away. His family immigrates to America to escape the Soviet Union. Ivan grows up, but what he saw that day in the forest stays at the back of his mind. So when he returns to his native Ukraine, as a Folklore scholar doing research, he cannot help but to go back to the forest and kiss the Princess awake. And that’s when the story begins – he suddenly finds himself transported to her kingdom, a 9th century Slavic kingdom, one of the many whose history is lost in his time.

I have a great fascination for all things Slavic, and so this book delighted me. The languages, the myths, the folktales, the history. I think part of the reason why they draw me so much is the fact that they are involved in the mist of mystery. Unfortunately there isn’t much certainty concerning the early history of these people, and most of their myths have been lost, and, as always, the less you know about something, the more you want to know. This book was deeply satisfying because it gave me a fictional tale that was as pleasing, if not more, as knowing the real story itself might have been. It transported me to a 9th century Slavic Kingdom, where old Pagan rites and gods lived side by side with early Christianity, and it gave me a detailed feel of what it must have been to live there.

Naturally, I liked the parts of the book that took place in the kingdom of Taina better than the ones that took place in our time, but I also really liked how Ivan and Princess Katerina’s relationship began to really develop once they went back to his world.

Along with Russian folklore, Orson Scott Card also used a little bit of Jewish lore, and I found that very interesting. But back to Russian lore, the old Slavic deities in the book were very interesting. I tried to find out more about Mikola Mozhaiski, but all I could find through google were references to this book (and a minor spoiler). I’m not sure if he’s a real Slavic deity or if he was made up. The way Baba Yaga is portrayed is interesting as well, but I find that in Russian folklore she’s more of an ambiguous character – helpful wise woman sometimes, evil crone other times – and I think I prefer her like that. But the way the origin of the tales about her is explained, especially the hut with the chicken legs, is nothing short of brilliant.

And now a little something that isn’t exactly relevant for my review of this book, so feel free to skip it. For a long time, I was hesitant to read Orson Scott Card. For such a long time, in fact, that when I picked up this book I couldn’t quite remember where my initial reluctance came from. But as I was reading, it was there at the back of my mind, and so I finally decided to look it up.

It turns out I was hesitant for ideological reasons. First of all, I think it’s important to say that I would never dismiss an artist just because their religious, political or general ideological views didn’t coincide with mine. When it comes to books, though, more-so than in music or other forms of art, I think that the author’s worldview tends to permeate his work, both intentionally and non-intentionally. And with worldviews come assumptions about life, and if I’m reading a book in which there are assumptions that are difficult for me to understand or relate to, it can get in the way of my enjoyment of it. I love stories for themselves – for me, stories are stories first, and the fact that they might or might not transmit some sort of message comes second. But for the aforementioned reasons, I can’t help but to enjoy the work of authors like Philip Pullman, Ursula K. Le Guin or Terry Pratchett more than the work of, say, Ezra Pound.

Orscon Scott Card himself has explained what I'm trying to say better than I could:
There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.

But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice-- those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.
Now, his political and religious views are very different from my own, but that isn’t, of course, the problem. What I half remembered was something specific, and it didn’t take me long to find out what it was. It’s his views on homosexuality that really bother me, and I was reluctant because I was afraid that this prejudice and intolerance would translate into his work somehow.

However, I’m happy to say that Enchantment doesn’t promote discrimination or intolerance in any way – quite the opposite. There was a passing remark connecting homosexuality with men wearing women clothes, but it’s frankly something I wouldn’t have even noticed if I didn’t have this in mind already, so I'm not going to pick on that. This book was deeply human and even moving at times, and so I don’t think I’ll be afraid to read the rest of his work in the future.

Other Blog Reviews:
A Striped Armchair
Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Dog Ear Diary


  1. Very thoughtful post. Enchantment is one of my favorite books by Card. I really like the quote you shared from him. I've read books where the author is deliberately adding their beliefs and it does put me on the edge. I feel like I'm being preached to and I hate that.

  2. I Love Card. This is one of my favorite books of his. In his books, I've come across 3 or 4 different gay characters, and they are actually all some of his best characters. They are all portrayed very fairly and are among some of his most heroic. He's a great writer!

  3. Wow! Great review! This one's on my shelves, somewhere... and it will actually be my first Card.

  4. It is hard to seperate an artist or author from their work. Perhaps htis is why I try to skim reviews unless I've actually read taht work myself already. I think one usually has a prety good sense fromreading a few pages of any book whether tah author has a moral to preach or not. I'm glad you're going to give Mr. Card a chance. I do wish he'd write another story along the lines of Enchantment though.***CV

  5. Having read other reviews of this one, I think it will have to be my next foray into Card's work - so far I've only read Ender's Game, and I wasn't that keen.

    "I love stories for themselves – for me, stories are stories first, and the fact that they might or might not transmit some sort of message comes second."

    ^^ same here.

    Great post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. :)

  6. booklogged: I hate that as well.

    Chris: That's good to know. I'll definitely be reading more of his work in the future.

    chittavrtti: It can be difficult indeed. I actually hate having preconceptions about a writer before reading his work, but in this case it was hard to avoid, because I came across that essay of his long before I became familiar with him as a writer.

    Quixotic and Marina: thank you!

  7. Interestingly enough, I didn't like this one much at all. I felt -- as you suspected -- that his moralizing and philosophizing got in the way of the story. I remember shouting at the book: "Get back to the story, already!"

    I prefer his earlier works when he wasn't so much into making everything nice and neat an moral. Speaker for the Dead is my favorite book of his.

  8. I will definitely have to read his earlier works.

  9. I really enjoyed this book. You have written a grea review. I think I am going to look into some of his other fantasy work as well.

  10. I just linked you to my review, here


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.