Josh’s Review: “Enchantress from the Stars” by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

Sylvia Engdahl’s 1970 novel follows three distinct but intersecting narratives:

1. Elana is a young adept from a highly advanced civilization who have made it their job to protect what they call Youngling civilizations as they progress through societal, cultural, and technological developments.  Elana isn’t supposed to be along on the Federation mission to Andrecia where Enchantress from the Stars takes place, but she manages to stow away on the ship.  Along with her father and her soon-to-be husband, Elana attempts to save the natives of Andrecia from their impending enslavement from another technologically advanced (though not nearly as advanced as the Federation) civilization–the Empire.

2. Jarel is a young medical officer from the Empire who is along on the mission to colonize Andrecia.  Although raised with Imperial ideology beaten into him, Jarel has a problem with the classification of the people of Andrecia as below-human and, therefore, not worthy of their own freedom.

3. Georyn is a native of Andrecia and meets Elana early on while on his quest to discover and defeat the dragon in the Enchanted Forest, which is, in fact, one of the machines the Imperials brought with them to level the forest in order to gain resources.  Georyn still believes in magic (and dragons, obviously) and Elana uses this to her advantage, characterizing herself as an enchantress (…from the stars).

Maybe the best thing about Enchantress from the Stars is that it lends itself so well to becoming something more than it is.  It would be really easy to read this book as a fantasy or sci fi text, but, in some sense, you end up really only grasping a third or two of the entire novel when you do that.  Georyn’s storyline is obviously the fantasy narrative, wherein all of the characters understand everything through this mythos of magic and dragons.  Jarel’s perspective is that of the sci-fi text; the Imperial’s dress like space invaders (now complete with ray guns and space suits!) and are infatuated with everything technological.  Elana’s civilization, the Federation, seems to understand both of these things (magic and technology) as they truly are: ideologies.  Weirdly, despite the presentation of the Federation as the transcendent civilization which has outgrown these constructed ideologies, they still manage to follow a set of beliefs and ideas that are so creepily reminiscent of both the in-book colonialists (the Empire) and the out-of-book colonialists of our history (British colonialism, American slavery).  And this is what I mean when I say that Engdahl’s book seems to become something more than it is: even as Enchantress from the Stars presents itself as a weird hybrid book about these genre-confined civilizations, the underlying movement is to establish a sense of relation to the Other that is always already tainted.  Even as Elana’s father is explaining the value of the Federation’s peace-oriented goals, there are parallels drawn between the Federation’s characterization of the Andrecian’s as “Younglings” and the Empire’s characterization of those same people s less-then-human.  Engdhal’s genius comes not in her stated narrative but in what that narrative evokes.  One cannot help but read the seemingly benevolent Federation agents as simply a more advanced but no less oppressive version of the Imperialists, because ultimately both civilizations are positing an ownership over another group of people’s agency and narrative.  However you slice it, that’s still a colonizing of another people.  For me, this is the best part of Engdahl’s novel; it draws so heavily on our own historical assumptions (and how could this book, a novel so concerned with the history, present, and future of civilizations, not ask its readers to remember their own history?) in order to completely recreate itself as an even more complex, nuanced, powerful text.

Yes, absolutely Engdahl’s book could be read by a young audience and just enjoyed because it’s an impressive bit of fun storytelling.  But it also functions so nicely as a moving, convoluted piece of historic and academic thought that anyone interested or invested in postcolonial studies/theory, philosophy, or historical thought will be just as into what’s going on in this novel.

Enchantress from the Stars gets five out of five slices of lasagna from me.  This is one I’ll reread for sure.

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2 thoughts on “Josh’s Review: “Enchantress from the Stars” by Sylvia Louise Engdahl

  1. When I first read this book at twelve or so, I fell in love with the idea that magic and science are both incomplete ideologies, or immature worldviews. Your point about the limitations/problems with the Federation is nicely made, and it articulates something I wasn’t ever sure how to say about the book as a whole.

    On a side note, it’s interesting how closely the Federation idea, and what it stands for, parallels Star Trek–I think Engdahl first drafted this a year or so before Trek aired, but ultimately it beat her to the punch. I’ve always suspected that might be part of why Enchantress never got much attention (aside from the awful title).

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked it! I hadn’t read it in about five years, so I wasn’t certain about the recommendation, but I do think it’s less read than it deserves.

    • I think I read something similar re: Engdahl’s drafting dates vs. Star Trek dates. And yeah, I suspect it’s probably read less than it deserves, which is really too bad. It’s such a smart, cool book; I wish I’d read it when I was younger, because, as you say, the idea that magic and science are both incomplete ideologies would’ve been even cooler to a younger me.

      Thanks for loaning it to me! I’ll mail it to you soon!

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