[Editor's note: most people reading this blog have probably read A Wrinkle In Time, but in case you haven't, be aware that this contains spoilers.]
I’m guessing Madeleine L’Engle was a loosey-goosey Episcopalian. This may be to misjudge her. It is a guess which is largely based on the way her novels border on depicting a gnostic cosmos in which goodness and love endlessly battle the near-equal power of Evil and Darkness. C.S. Lewis seems straight-laced alongside L’Engle. She seems more open to sheer invention. All of Lewis’ fiction, I think, takes place in realms that are more or less direct analogues of the actual Christian cosmos. In L’Engle’s stories it's as if the Book of Revelation had got a bit out of hand.
I’m confidently talking about L’Engle’s novels but in fact I have read just two books by her and I keep having to look up the name of the second one to remember its title. One is A Wrinkle in Time and the other, truly unmemorable one is …. The Young Unicorns. I like it that way. In the days before Amazon, whenever I came over from England to North America, I would root about in the Children’s Literature shelves in a bookstore, just to see if Louise Fitzhugh had written any successors to Harriet the Spy. Once on a trip to Toronto in 2000 this ferreting amongst the children’s books led me to the horrified discovery that A Wrinkle in Time had become one of a series. I was dismayed and thoroughly disgruntled. I did not want Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace to go tessering into more and more adventures, visiting planets and talking to angels and bringing light to darkened planets. It spoiled the uniqueness of the book. To me, the penultimate scene of A Wrinkle in Time had to be absolutely climactic. It had to remain unsurpassable, ‘the end,’ a true finale and not the ouverture to a melodramatic series of new transformations. L’Engle must have written the sequels to please the many admirers of the first book. The generations who have grown up on the Star Wars Trilogies will have no idea what I’m talking about! For them, climaxes are made to be repeated.
I very much hope that I was nearer eight than nine when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. That’s because I found the book quite difficult. I remember I struggled with ‘Charles Wallace,’ because he is sometimes given this double-barrelled moniker, but other times he is just called ‘Charles.’ I had to read the novel a second time before I was sure that there is just one character named ‘Charles Wallace’ in this book, not a ‘Charles Wallace’ and a ‘Charles.’ It does not help that ‘Charles Wallace’ is supposed to be a five year old boy but talks like an old man. The words that come out of his mouth are not the language of a small boy. Of course, they are not supposed to be, fully, because Charles Wallace is presented as having ‘telepathic’ powers, and as having the outward look of an idiot but the inner life of a genius. He is precious, and we get to like him not because he is likeable but because he is so precious to his sister Meg. One of the first things we hear about Meg is that she has been in a fist fight when someone at her school snarked her baby brother. Even so, the characters are a little ghostly, maybe, a little more soul than body.
Likewise the method of interplanetary travel the book requires is very vague. When Mrs Whatsit explains to the children, “‘We teser. Or you might say, ‘we wrinkle’”, Calvin reasonably complains, “‘Clear as mud.’” It comes down to travelling in the fifth dimension, we later learn. It comes across a little bit like thinking very hard and wishing one could be on another planet and landing there. I don’t often like books with spaceships so perhaps that was a plus for an eight or nine year old girl. Re-reading the book lately, the way the characters cross the universes by slipping through ‘wrinkles’ in time reminded me of the time travel in the Sci-Fi movie Interstellar. But whereas the message of Interstellar is secularist, that of A Wrinkle is decidedly spiritualist.
I had better get into telling you something good about this book, or else you will be thinking that I chose L’Engle as one of LODW’s 52 authors of the year in order to have a go at the Anglicans, with their angelism, disembodied imaginations, borderline Christian Science dysfunction and broad tendency to melodrama.
The story begins on a dark and stormy night. Meg, heroine, sleepless in her attic, decides to go downstairs and make cocoa: but on arriving in the kitchen she finds that Charles Wallace already has the milk on the stove. Thus we learn that he is a mind reader. I think that as a child I found this as difficult to make sense of as his double-barrelled first name: was he really supposed to read minds? It seems that both of the children’s parents are scientists, and that their father, Dr. Murry, has disappeared on a mysterious mission.
As Charles Wallace, Mrs. Murry and Meg sit drinking their cocoa and eating sandwiches a lady tramp appears in the kitchen: she seems to know about ‘tessering.’ This disturbs Mrs. Murry, and gives the reader a steer as the secret of Dr. Murry’s mission. He seems to have tried it and landed somewhere he cannot so easily leave. The plot moves very fast from here: Meg has just one day at school, in the course of which we realize that she is a misfit, too bright for her school but too impetuous to be a success. The world of school is inhospitable to a Meg who is entirely absorbed in her family drama of the lost father. Meg is a very appealing heroine, because her inability to fit in masks a secret genius for maths. Children from turbulent families can very easily identify with Meg and her bohemian family. Many scenes had stayed with me in the forty years between my readings of the book. One of them was Mrs. Murry making a delicious dinner for her children on a bunsen burner, while she works on some scientific experiment.
Other features of A Wrinkle in Time came as something of a surprise when I re-read it this past month. I had no idea when I read it the first time in 1968 (we hope), that it was full of scripture. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who are three angels disguised as witches, and they quote and sing Scripture. Raised in a non-Christian home, I had no way of recognizing these passages as Scripture and nor would many of today’s young readers – of whom it must have quite a few, since I easily picked it off the shelf in Barnes and Noble. I had entirely forgotten the visit to a ‘beautiful’ planet full of flowers, rainbows, and psalm-singing mythical creatures. Meg, Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin are taken there on their way to the dark planet where Dr. Murry is being held ‘in a cloven pine.’
I had a vivid memory of the scene where the children first land on Camatzotz. Like most writers, L’Engle is much better at Dystopia than Eden. Camatzotz is a planet which has yielded entirely to the dark power. Its citizens march to a single beat. In these post-anti-Communist times, the description of the enforced conformity and uniformity of Camatzotz will seem to many adults like a cliché. But to me as a child of the 1960s, encountering this place was a very intense encounter with a fictional ‘badness’ I could recognize:
As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers. Then the doors of all the houses opened simultaneously and out came women like a row of paper dolls.
The three children observe one little boy who fails to bounce his ball in time. They will later see him being punished for his misdemeanor by IT, the delegate of the Evil One to whose mechanical heart beat every person on Camatzotz is attuned. A Wrinkle in Time is an allegorical novel about the evil of collectivism, and how to fight it.
So a lot of the physical mechanisms of the novel puzzled my literal-minded nine year old self very much. How do the children ‘walk right into’ the glass column in which Dr. Murry is imprisoned? Of course the novelist gives them a means – Mrs Who’s glasses have magical powers. The spectacles are amongst the ‘magical’ gifts which the three ‘angels’ give the children as they embark on their rescue mission to the ‘darkened planet.’ In fact, beneath the Science Fiction, A Wrinkle is a fairy tale, and a well written and compelling one. L’Engle does know how to write a story – perhaps to her cost. Perhaps the talent for story ended up muffling her other gifts. But it helped her make a living writing children’s books.
By the time the children retrieve Dr. Murry from his glass prison Charles has fallen foul of a telepathic battle of wits with IT. Failing to heed the three ladies’ warning not to trust in himself, Charles Wallace tried to ‘go head to head’ in mind reading combat with the Collective Mind who rules the lost planet and was drawn into the demon’s ambit, losing his freedom and ability to think for himself. Calvin, Meg, and Dr. Murry then battle the monster, repulsing IT’s efforts to mechanize, absorb and control their thoughts by doing mathematical equations and reciting poetry, that is, using their own minds. Finally, as IT moves to absorb them, they ‘tesser’ off the planet. Charles is left behind.
Meg is nearly lost too: she has been frozen by the encounter. A ‘furry beast’ (Aunt Beast) warms her. Meg is, however, almost as angry as she had been back on earth. Why hasn’t the retrieval of her father solved everything? How could Charles Wallace have been left behind in their flight? Meg wanted her father to take responsibility, and all that has happened is that her darling younger brother has been lost, left behind in the grip of IT on Camatzotz. And then the three angels return. Meg is told roundly that she must take responsibility herself, and that she alone can rescue Charles Wallace. This time there are no magical ‘gifts’: Mrs. Who tells her she must use her faults, Mrs. Which tells her to find out what it is that IT does not have; Mrs. Which quotes some long Scriptural passage about the wisdom of this world; all Mrs. Whatsit has to give, as Meg embarks on her mission, is her love.
And so Meg returns alone. The story moves here very fast to the climax. Returning to the ‘engine room,’ Meg finds that her brother is now wholly a creature of IT. Reciting the Gettysburg Address or the Declaration of Independence cannot help them now. The drum beat has drawn Charles Wallace in beyond equations and poetry and declarations about liberty and equality. And now it wants to take Meg. At first Meg’s impetuous anger is a weapon and a shield. But not for long. And then Meg realizes that the one thing she can do, which IT cannot replicate, is to love.
‘Mrs Whatsit hates you,’ Charles Wallace said. And this was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, ‘Mrs Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,’ suddenly she knew.
That was what she had that IT did not have. …But she …was incapable of loving IT. But she could love Charles Wallace. She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
This is what Meg does: she stands there and loves Charles. That is how she unties the knots which bind him to the evil force, and that is how they make their way out of the dark planet and home. It is such a triumphant scene that thirty years later I did not want it clouded over by more adventures.
I read all the good children’s literature of the 1960s. I read many better books, including John Tremaine, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. But this book is most certainly the one which lit the flame in my mind which led me to the Trinitarian God of love. I did not recognize the Scripture quotations in the book as Scripture and of course I did not know I was reading an ‘allegory’ (if I was). I recently bought this novel for a god-daughter on her confirmation. I don’t know how much it would move someone who reads it for the first time in adulthood and in any case I have wrecked the story for you by telling the ending. But it’s a very good book to know about, to give to young children. It is a kind of Christian fairy story. It is worth reading, even if you know the story, because everyone needs to remember the power of love.
--Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.