Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places

Penguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places

by Madeleine L'Engle, Lindsay Lackey

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Despite protests and warnings from friends and family, author Madeleine L’Engle, at the age of seventy-four, embarked on a rafting trip to Antarctica. Her journey through the startling beauty of the continent led her to write Penguins and Golden Calves, a captivating discussion of how opening oneself up to icons, or everyday “windows to God,” leads to the development of a rich and deeply spiritual faith.

Here, L’Engle explains how ordinary things such as family, words, the Bible, heaven, and even penguins can become such windows. She also shows how such a window becomes an idol–a penguin becomes a “golden calf”–when we see it as a reflection of itself instead of God.

With delightful language, insightful metaphor, and personal stories, L’Engle brings readers to a deeper understanding of themselves, their faith, and the presence of God in their daily lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524759155
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 852 KB

About the Author

Madeleine L'Engle was the author of more than forty-five books for all ages, among them the beloved A Wrinkle in Time, awarded the Newbery Medal; A Ring of Endless Light, a Newbery Honor Book; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, winner of the American Book Award; and the Austin family series of which Troubling a Star is the fifth book. L'Engle was named the 1998 recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards award, honoring her lifetime contribution in writing for teens.

Ms. L'Engle was born in 1918 in New York City. She wrote her first book, The Small Rain, while touring with Eva Le Gallienne in Uncle Harry. She met Hugh Franklin, to whom she was married until his death in 1986, while they were rehearsing The Cherry Orchard, and they were married on tour during a run of The Joyous Season, starring Ethel Barrymore.

Ms. L'Engle retired from the stage after her marriage, and the Franklins moved to northwest Connecticut and opened a general store. After a decade in Connecticut, the family returned to New York.

After splitting her time between New York City and Connecticut and acting as the librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Madeleine L’Engle died on September 7, 2007 at the age of 88.

Date of Birth:

January 12, 1918

Date of Death:

September 6, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Litchfield, CT


Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt


A Calf in Horeb

It can’t be done.

It’s impossible.

Words are not adequate to describe the raw and violent beauty of the bottom of the world, the land and frozen waters of the Antarctic continent.

“Where did you say you were going?” I was asked.


“Are you crazy?” The questioner did not say, “At your age,”--seventy-four at the time--but the question was implied.


“But why on earth . . . Antarctica?”

“I thought I’d better go while I’m still able to get in and out of zodiacs.”

The questioner looked even more dubious. Zodiacs are small inflatable rubber boats. “Well,” I explained, “all our shore excursions will be by zodiac.”

“But where do you stay at night? In hotels?”

I smiled. “There are no hotels. We’ll stay on our boat.” Our home away from home on this journey was to be a small ship which would take us from the southernmost parts of Chile to Antarctica.

Maybe I am crazy, I thought. Why am I going so far away? Why would anybody want to go to the frozen wastes of Antarctica? I was going largely because my son and my daughter-in-law and I had been talking about and planning this excursion for two years. Perhaps I was not in the best position to make such a trek at that moment in time, since I was not quite six months away from the automobile accident that nearly took my life. But I knew if I didn’t go then I wouldn’t go at all. The plans couldn’t be postponed.

I had, in fact, canceled my part of the trip.

Then my son said, “It was a lovely dream, Mother, but if you don’t go, we don’t go.”

Emotional blackmail?

I put my name back on the passenger list. Anyhow, was New York that much safer than Antarctica? Was any place? Certainly San Diego was not, where a careless truck driver had run a red light. Is safety what I am looking for? Is God any further away as I’m whizzed through ice floes than when I cross Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street in New York?

In mid-January we started on the long journey, and it was long! That’s one thing that protects Antarctica from too much tourism. First we flew to Miami. Then came a long, overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, where we stayed for two days in sweltering heat, hardly able to believe that we would shortly be seeing icebergs and glaciers.

Two more planes brought us to Punta Arenas, Chile, where we boarded our small ship, known as “the little red boat,” and little was the operative word.

It was several days before the almost balmy weather turned cold, clear, with bitter winds. Katabatic winds, they are called. Then we began to see ice floes. And glaciers, and “mountains of the moon,” making us feel that we were sailing back in time as well as space. This is what the planet looked like during the Ice Age. Clean. Pure. Ruthless.

As much as possible we had read up on the Antarctic continent and its history before leaving, had followed on maps the trails of the early explorers trying to reach the South Pole. We had read about penguins and seals and the great whales, and about the albatross which has the longest wing span of any bird, so that it can sail the winds as the old winged ships sailed the seas.

Even so, I was not prepared for my first encounter with penguins. We set off in our little black zodiacs, zooming towards land, looking across the open water to icebergs, glaciers, stone mountains stark and barren, mountains scoured by the wild wind and waters of the planet as it was being formed. The air is clear and dryer than the Sahara Desert. No snow has fallen on the great Antarctic icecap for billions of years. In the surrounding ocean the majestic icebergs glow with an incredibly intense blue light. My son reminded me that I have now been to all seven continents. This one staggered me with its uniqueness. I felt as though I was on one of the outer planets, far from the parent sun.

Suddenly an unexpected smell assailed our nostrils. We sniffed. Our guide laughed and told us that we were smelling penguin guano. “You smell them before you hear or see them.”

It was not a vile smell, because there was nothing about it of decay or corruption. But we certainly didn’t want to bottle it and take it home! As our little zodiac approached the shore, we smelled, heard, and saw the penguins in that order. They were Rock Hopper penguins, small, about three feet tall, noisy, funny, waddling at an amazing pace, or simply hopping from the beach up onto the rocks.

We had been warned not to interfere in any way with the penguins, not to get closer than fifteen feet to any of these birds, and never to block their route from the land to the sea. But the penguins had not heard that request, and they came rushing towards our group. We may have looked like great red birds to them, all of us in our regulation red parkas which would not only keep us warm, but would also make us visible if we should stray from the group, something we were strenuously warned not to do.

Penguins, one of our lecturers told us, never do anything alone. The penguin is a completely communal creature. There is no equivalent of a solitary blue heron in the penguin world. When one heads for the sea, two or three will follow. The baby penguins huddle together in what are called creches. There is safety in numbers. While they are young and still unable to swim, the little ones are extremely vulnerable to predators, especially a large, brown raptor bird called a skua. When they are older they fall prey to seals: leopard seals, fur seals. They tend to stick together for safety’s sake. But despite their communal nature, they know no intimacy. Intimacy is dangerous. If you open your heart to a mate or a chick and in the next hour that mate or chick gets eaten, you open yourself to loss and grief.

It so happened that shortly before leaving for Antarctica I had read an article about intimacy between parents and children in a so-called primitive tribe: now that modern medicine has ensured that most babies will live, the parents are allowing themselves an intimacy with their offspring that had not been possible when many babies died in infancy or early childhood.

And I remembered going with my mother to a beautiful southern graveyard where many of my forebears, including my father, were buried. What struck deepest at my heart was the repeated sight of four or even five little tombstones in a row, four or five children in one family after another, wiped out in a few days by scarlet fever or diphtheria. Because of antibiotics, we no longer fear scarlet fever or diphtheria. But I remembered one of my southern cousins, my mother’s age, saying that scarlet fever had killed five of her brothers and sisters in a week. And I wondered how the parents and the remaining siblings survived such multiple grief. Did parents hold back from intimacy until the children had survived those early, precarious years? How did a woman feel, knowing that if she had eight or ten or twelve children she’d be lucky if she raised half of them?

Now that the death of a little one is not the norm, it has become unusual and terrible. Is there any way a woman can nurse a baby and not feel intimacy? Was that why wet nurses used to be employed? And, later, why bottles of formula were substituted for the mother’s breast--to prevent an intimacy that could be shattered by illness and death? I nursed my babies; nursing is as intimate an act as making love.

And then I thought: perhaps the very precariousness of human relations made the intimacy all the more poignant and all the more treasured. It’s only been in the past few generations that we have been allowed easy intimacy, assuming that mothers will not die in childbirth, that babies will live to have babies themselves, that we’ll all reach retirement age and enjoy our well-earned leisure. Perhaps that’s why we’ve messed up intimacy; we simply weren’t prepared for a lifetime of intimacy--and still aren’t.

How much are we supposed to protect ourselves by holding back from intimacy? Isn’t the easy, instant, pseudo-intimacy, which is all that many people know, one of the best protections against real intimacy? A TV or radio interviewer jumps immediately into using first names and asks personal questions on the air which would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. But the intimacy is fake; the interviewer and interviewee will probably never see each other again. True intimacy takes time, is built up over days, months, years. Two of my deepest friendships go back to the teens. Over the years I have met people and I have thought, Yes! There is potential for real friendship here, for intimacy. But it has of necessity taken time, a willingness to share, risk, be vulnerable, understand idiosyncrasies, allow for flaws. And suddenly, rejoicing in friendship, I realize that I have known so-and‑so for over ten years. It does take time. It is worth it. More than worth it.

And words cannot describe it. Nor can words describe what the funny little Rock Hoppers were teaching me about vulnerability.

I watched one of them head down a frozen dune to the shore, immediately followed by three other penguins. They have fun. They play. They throw themselves into the water. Suddenly I understood that the penguin flies in the water and waddles on land. The penguin is a bird, but the penguin’s natural element is the sea.

What is the natural element for us mortals? Did we lose it when we left Eden? Are we losing even more of it as we try to protect ourselves from any kind of pain, inner or outer? Perhaps one price we must be willing to pay in order to be what we call “human” is to be vulnerable. To love each other. To be willing, if necessary, to die for each other. To let each other die when the time comes. So the penguin, lacking intimacy by its very nature, became for me an icon, an icon of vulnerability.

What do I mean by icon?

If it’s impossible for me to describe the wild wonderfulness of Antarctica, it is equally impossible for me to describe what I, personally, mean by icon. I am not thinking of the classic definition of the icons so familiar in the orthodox church, icons of Christ, the Theotokos, saints, painted on wood and often partially covered with silver. My personal definition is much wider, and the simplest way I can put it into words is to affirm that an icon, for me, is an open window to God. An icon is something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God and God’s demands on us, el’s mortal children, than I would otherwise. It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable as we open ourselves to intimacy, an intimacy which leads not only to love of creature, but to love of God.

I have some icons that are more traditional. On the night stand in my cabin I placed a small travel copy of the famous icon of Abraham’s three angelic guests, three beautiful, winged angels, who are also, understood iconically, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is what we think of as a classic icon, saying something that cannot be said in words, that cannot even be said in the painting. It transcends our experience and points us to something larger and greater and more wonderful. Yes, it is an open window to God.

But a penguin for an icon?

Why not? When I look around the ancient, ice-bound world of the penguin, I am totally aware of creation, of the majesty and glory of what the Maker has wrought, in a part of the planet still unsullied by us thoughtless, careless mortals. And I am reminded once again that just as words are inadequate to describe the icy beauty around me, so are words inadequate to describe the Maker’s love for me, and I, the made, to describe my love of the Maker. I need icons, and I find them everywhere even if, like the penguin, they are anything but traditional!

Unlike some of the great birds who mate for life, the penguin does not. If, at mating time, last year’s mate appears, well and good. If not, another mate will do. The change does not seem terribly important. What is important is two penguins getting together so that eggs can be laid, chicks be hatched.

It’s not like that for us. At least, not for me. I mated for life and was blessed that my husband did, also. Our love made us both vulnerable. Hugh’s death was a tearing of my life in half. But would I want to be invulnerable? I don’t think so. It may be my very vulnerability that accents my need for icons.

I am a storyteller, and I need icons. But not in the sense that the word icon is now being used in secular terms. On a radio commercial a certain magazine was referred to as being an icon. It was not a theological or religious magazine, but a totally secular one, full of juicy gossip. An icon? If something does not lead us to God it is not and cannot be an icon. In the computer program Windows, the word icon is used again, as a symbol for a graphic element. No, no! If an icon is not a window to God it is not an icon! Let us not be confused!

True icons reveal more of God to me than I have hitherto understood. The classic icon, usually painted on wood, opens a window for me. One of my favourites is of King David sitting on his royal throne. With one arm he is holding his golden harp. With the other he is holding the Christ child, who is sitting on his lap. This is not anachronistic! Chronology explodes! I am thrust into God’s time.

True story is also an icon for me. Storytellers try to say something that is beyond the words of the story, that takes us further than mere facts. Jesus taught by telling stories. Stories are icons for me.

In A Circle of Quiet I wrote, “If an image is not easy to define, an icon is even more difficult. We usually think of icons as corrupt images which ought to be broken. But it is only the icon misused which needs breaking. A true icon is not a reflection; it is a metaphor, a different, unlike look at something, and carries within it something of that at which it looks.”

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