Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns

Photo from publisher's website:

Photo from publisher’s website

Around the same time that I purchased the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (whose influence is described in a previous post), I stumbled upon Madeleine L’Engle‘s The Young Unicorns while browsing the book department of the same store that had furnished my nice edition of Poe. I believe I was thirteen or so, and the title caught my eye at once, as I loved both fantasy and horses. Plus, I was already familiar with L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which had been quite literally a life-changing book. The Young Unicorns was to be life changing as well.

The story is set during the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and the autumnal mood adds to the overtone of suspense that appears at once on the first page, when we see one of the main characters being followed by three youths in black leather jackets in a dreary November rain. The chiaroscuro contrasts between darkness and light, and the autumnal, occasionally Gothic, sensibility doubtless furnished for me part of the book’s charm. As a writer, I now realize that it’s a great example of a novel of suspense. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that those are the kinds of plots I tend to write.

One of the book’s major characters is a girl named Emily, an extraordinary musician of determined spirit who perseveres in her ambitions to become a concert pianist even after she is blinded by an intruder in her father’s apartment. Her best friend, an older boy named Dave, is a brilliant musician as well, who is also trying to overcome the darkness of his past.

young unicornsMuch of the story centers on the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, which is referred to in the book only as “the Cathedral.” Having been raised in a mainstream Protestant denomination, I assumed it was a Roman Catholic church, as those were the only cathedrals I knew of. In actuality, Saint John the Divine is one of the most famous cathedrals of the Episcopal Church, which I joined during college. The works of Madeleine L’Engle, especially The Young Unicorns, were instrumental in leading me to a church where I could feel both spiritually and liturgically at home.

In L’Engle’s book, the Cathedral is a pervasive and numinous presence, at once life-giving, glowing with light, but at other times eerie and unsettling, with rather Gothic overtones. It is the stage upon which both good and evil strut, and is closely entwined with the lives of the main characters. Emily’s friend Dave once sang in the Cathedral choir; her endearingly eccentric teacher, Mr. Theo, is the Cathedral’s retired organist, who still plays for the occasional service. Early in the book, one of the characters describes listening to the Cathedral’s organ with more than one sense by lying down in the choir stalls in order to “feel the music through the wood.” Just as the organ music envelopes such a listener in body as well as mind, so too does the Cathedral completely envelope the plot and characters–and by extension, the reader as well.

Emily and Dave, both lost children, find shelter and stability with the Austin family, who have moved in above Emily’s apartment: parents with two teenage daughters and an small boy who is much like Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time: precocious beyond his years, caring and wise. As the story unfolds, the young people find themselves caught in a web of darkness and evil  woven near the heart of the mighty Cathedral itself.

Throughout the story, spiritual issues are touched upon, briefly and lightly but with subtlety and depth, in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or obtrude on the story. That is the kind of fiction I aspire to write.

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