Enchantress from the Stars

While I appreciate some science fiction (like Contact) and some fantasy (like Elantris), I would not say that either of those genres makes up a substantial part of my reading diet. When written elegantly and with complex philosophical themes, I appreciate them in much the same way I appreciate any excellent literature. Just as I truly love Jane Austen novels,  but don’t care much for most “romance” books, I appreciate Enchantress From The Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl without loving the vast majority of science fiction or fantasy. For this reason, I often tell friends that this book is science fiction for Jane Austen lovers.

I didn’t feel Enchantress would ever be publishable—it wasn’t the sort of book that could appear as an adult novel (though I felt some adults would like it) yet it was over the heads of most readers below teenage and seemed far too long and complex to be called a children’s book, at least by the standards of the fifties and sixties. But the story took hold of me and I simply couldn’t leave it alone….the book was accepted, after some revision, and went on to be a Junior Literary Guild selection and a Newbery Honor book. I was fortunate in having written it just at a time when a trend toward issuing more mature fiction as “young adult” was beginning. For of course, Enchantress was never intended for preadolescent children, and its Newbery Honor status was therefore somewhat misleading.

Sylvia Engdahl, essay entitled “Autobiography”  

This complex and fascinating story about human nature, relationships, and man’s desire to live a life worth living is written with beautiful language, powerful character development, and a plot that is truly interesting to explore. This book may have a sci-fi background, but it is really much more like Ivanhoe than it is Star Wars. This story begs to be re-read and rewards the reader each time.

I was born a mere six weeks before the release of Star Wars: A New Hope in American theaters. I grew up in a home that had strong limits on media, but Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi was shown in my grade school at an end-of-the-year party. My early childhood is ripe with memories of playing Star Wars on the playground with my pals. I was captivated by the strength and sass of Princess Leia. I was not interested in the blasters nor the X-wing fighters, but I was profoundly interested in the relationship between Darth Vader and his children. Additionally, I was more intrigued by the Jedi philosophy than by their fighting abilities. And I loved the way Han Solo loved Princess Leia. (Don’t even get me started on the final three movies with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fischer… the child in me died a little…) I grew up being open to science fiction because I loved Star Wars, but I have never been satisfied by much that is fantasy or science fiction literature.

“To me, a story’s plot incidents are not what matter; they were what I always found hardest to think of, and such action scenes as I managed to put in (usually long after the first draft of the rest) were a real struggle to write. The ideas in the story, plus the thoughts and feelings of the characters, were what inspired me, and in most cases these could be absorbed only by introspective older teens.”

Sylvia Engdahl, essay entitled “Autobiography”  

Despite Sylvia Engdahl’s comments that she struggled to write plot incidents and action scenes, Enchantress From The Stars is a well-crafted novel that does move at a good pace and would be interesting to a wide variety of readers. But, it is also clear that she was deeply inspired by the people at the heart of the story. Their thoughts, their philosophies, and their feelings. This is what gives it a Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte feel for me.

Accompanying her father and her fiance on a humanitarian mission to Andrecia, Elana is a first-year Federation Service Academy student who has not yet taken the life-long oath of service to the Federation Anthropological Service. Her father and her fiance Evrek, sworn members of the Service, have been sent to Andrecia to help protect the fairytale-like planet from a more advanced but still youngling race of Imperial colonists. The Imperials consider the people on Andrecia to be so primitive that they must be soulless and irrational creatures just a step above animals. The Federation, of course, is so far advanced and so skilled at watching the development of youngling planets that they know that the Andrecians are just as likely to develop correctly as any youngling planet if left alone to do so. The Federation, however, has a strong vow of non-interference. So, they cannot fight off the Imperials without revealing themselves to that adolescent race, thus corrupting their natural development. Instead, what they must do is convince the Imperials that this planet is not worth colonizing. And, when their plan to do that is disrupted by an unexpected event, it is Elana who must be sworn into the Service so she can pose as an “enchantress” who can inspire the natives to demonstrate to the Imperials that this planet has powers not worth tangling with. Those powers, of course, are not real, but will be provided by Elana’s father and Evrek through the “faith” of a native woodcutter’s son named Georyn. And, to make things interesting and satisfying, Georyn is a man of excellent worth and well worth falling in love with.

What I love about Enchantress From The Stars is that it is not about laser guns, spaceships, or other advanced technology nearly as much as it is about the duty of the oath-bound interstellar Anthropological Service members towards both the invading colonists and the natives on the medieval-like planet of Andrecia. The Anthropological Service is an interstellar organization made up of representatives from member planets and is dedicated to protecting youngling planets that have not yet evolved past the point of destroying themselves or other weaker planets. Membership in this community is reserved only for those planets which have evolved technologically, philosophically, and socially to the highest levels. If you think this sounds like Star Trek’s Federation, you would be right on the money. But, lest you think that Sylvia Louise Engdahl copied the famous franchise which debuted in 1966, this novel was partially written in the 1950s but not published because, according to Engdahl, “At that time such novels would not have been publishable; space was not yet a topic of general interest.”  Finally, in 1970, her novel was accepted and published. It is interesting to me that these two very similar ideas were happening simultaneously. 

As the author says in her autobiographical essay, this book is really best suited for young adults (teens and early twenties) and those adults who like this sort of thing. The story is romantic but quite chaste. It is philosophical but also quite human. It would be wonderful fare for a teen book club or a high school co-op class. Unlike most of the young adult books that our teens are offered today, this one would be good for their minds and their hearts. 

I appreciated this book so much that Diane and I agreed to host a Plumfield Moms book club in late February 2023, and we will link that discussion as soon as it is posted. You can purchase the book from Amazon and Bookshop.org. This book is available in audio and I found that to be very helpful in knowing how to pronounce some of the names. You can learn more about the book about Biblioguides.