Monday, January 6, 2020

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engel

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the third in L’Engel’s “Time” series, beginning with her best known book, A Wrinkle in Time, then A Wind in the Door. The story takes place a number of years chronologically after the others, with the Murry children all grown up, Meg married to Calvin, and pregnant with their first child.

The story itself is rooted in an old legend of Madoc, a Welsh prince who, in the folklore, sailed to the New World over a thousand years ago. His ostensible father, Owain Gwynned, was a real person, but his story and those of his children are, like King Arthur, papered over with much that is fantastic and imaginary. According to the legend, Madoc, fed up with the sibling squabbles over the throne, set sail across the Atlantic Ocean, eventually settling in...well, there are competing sites from Canada to Argentina, intermarrying with the Native Americans, and playing some role in the various indigenous empires in the Americas. 

This legend was widely believed, apparently, during the 18th and 19th Centuries, and the existence of a race of “Welsh Indians” was taken for granted as true. No surprise that it was the Welsh blood that was credited with establishing the Mayan, Aztec, and Inca empires, or that the tribes with white heritage were believed to be superior. It is this white supremacist assumption that taints the whole book just a bit, despite L’Engel’s efforts to remove it. Her fault lies solely in  the use of the legend, not her handling of it, which is mostly progressive by the standards of 1978, when the book was written. 

L’Engel starts with the legend, but adds layers of symbolism. One might say that it is really about Cain and Abel, with those two standing in for the dual nature of humanity. (It is fair to say that learning to think about Genesis as metaphor rather than literal history opened the book up to me as one of the finest explorations of human violence and hatred ever written.) For L’Engel, the Madoc legend becomes a way of looking at our good and evil natures in various expressions. 

The setup story is kind of meh. The Murrys are already insufferably above average in the other books, but now, Dad gets a call from the President of the United States with a request to somehow fend off nuclear war, started by a crazy dictator in an (imaginary) South American country. So, it ends up being Charles Wallace to the rescue. The more interesting twist is that Calvin’s mother, the bitter and difficult Mrs. O’Keefe, holds the key to success, in the form of an ancient Rune that was passed down to her for generations. This Rune, based on a condensed version of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, ends up as the backbone of the book, and the adventures which follow. 

Charles Wallace goes to the star-watching stone (famous from the other books), and is put into a trance, where he is carried through time by a unicorn. His mission is to enter into the minds of various characters in the past, and, if he can, make a subtle change which leads to a different “might have been.” At the same time, he “kythes” with Meg - a kind of telepathic connection, so she can remain in the present world and yet experience his travels as if she were there. She is also able to assist him, but obtaining other information he needs. 

Charles Wallace starts by witnessing an incident in the original Madoc legend. Madoc turns out to have come to the New World with his brother, Gwydyr, but they become separated. Madoc and his descendents become the Abel figure, the personification of the good in humankind, while Gwydyr represents Cain, and the evil and violence of humankind. The two have a standoff, in which Madoc prevails, and Gwydyr flees, his descendents eventually ending up in Vespugia, the imaginary country near Patagonia. 

Next is a scene in Colonial America. A Welsh settlor has married a Native American woman, a descendent of Madoc. Charles Wallace has to work to prevent her from being hanged as a witch. In this way, L’Engel ties violence to witch hunts as well as genocide of the Native Americans, and suspicion of other cultures. (As I said, L’Engel does her best to defuse the racism in the original - she was pretty universalist in her views, which is why the Fundie culture I grew up in distrusted her.) 

After that, the book gets chronologically kind of weird. There are three connected threads, the first involving Mrs. O’Keefe’s brother Chuck, who had kind of a second sight before he was killed by their violent stepfather (the reason Mrs. O’Keefe is so bitter.) The second is their ancestor, the fictional novelist Matthew Maddox - another descendant of Madoc - who has written the definitive book on Madoc’s story, but doesn’t know the ending. The third involves Maddox’s brother and sister, who travel to Vespugia to find the Welsh colony. There, they encounter Gwydyr’s descendents, and the battle for who gains dominance and produces the ancestor of the dictator will determine the future. 

Throughout, L’Engle uses variants of the same names throughout. Madoc/Maddox, Gwydyr and various attempts to pronounce it, Zill/Zilla/Zillo representing both the feminine and the Native American element, and Bran as the Irish part of the line. (For the Rune, and for another link to Mrs. O’Keefe and her ancestors.) The names are combined and altered and remixed throughout, lending a continuity to the themes. One could view the characters as leitmotifs, perhaps, representing ideas rather than people. In that sense, I might classify Bran as some form of human potential, which is why his name is part of the dictator’s name, and so on. Charles/Chuck/Matthew and the equivalent Native American characters are both the alter egos for Charles Wallace and the prophetic voice. Zilla isn’t just Native American and female, she is also Mrs. O’Keefe and Meg and the other women who advocate for goodness, and yet are vulnerable to being victimized by the Gwydyrs of the world. 

I’ll admit to mixed feelings about this book. In general, I like L’Engel and her unusual perspectives. I thought that her idea of making a story of the dichotomy of human nature, and the way that small things can turn tides. She brought out the “brother versus brother” idea in a way that, unlike our discussion of the Civil War, doesn’t gloss over evil. She is spot on with her analysis that lust for power and privilege (economic and social) is at the root of evil of all kinds. The worlds she builds are fascinating, and are as consistent and well thought out as her plots. And she really worked hard to purge racism and sexism from her stories.

My main quibbles with this book are as follows. First, because of her choice of a framing myth, she cannot entirely escape the impression that this is a White Man’s Story. Both international politics (the threatened nuclear disaster) and Native American history become co-opted by a narrative of white people. It’s all about these two Welsh princes, ultimately, right? So that rubbed me wrong. 

Likewise, I had multiple issues with the idea of good and bad seed as a genetic legacy. Obviously, this is on one level a related issue to that of whiteness. Since both Madoc and Gwydyr intermarried with the Native Americans - as did their descendents - the Welsh blood would have been diluted significantly over the thousand year period. Why does the Welsh blood become the part that matters? Were there no Madocs and Gwydyrs (in the metaphorical sense) in the non-white lineage? 

Then too, there is the issue with the idea of character being passed genetically or culturally. I’m a bit sensitive about this for two reasons. The first is that both the genetic and cultural arguments have been and are still being used to justify white supremacy. The second is that the very premise is undermined by its origin. Madoc and Gwydyr both have the same parents (or at least parent - the book doesn’t mention which of Owain’s many wives and concubines mothered the two brothers, although it seems implied that they were closer than the average brothers.) And goodness knows my siblings and I are very different. 

So yeah, I get the need for that as part of the metaphor that runs through the whole thing, but it seems a bit determinativist. And also morally icky in the idea that whether the dictator is a good or evil man depends on who his [white] ancestor 1000 plus years ago is. 

That’s where my mixed feelings came from. For the first two books, there wasn’t really anything I could point to as problematic. The imprisonment of the father by a conformist cult leader? Hey, I can really relate to that one. The idea of love overcoming evil? The fruit of love being more important than theological differences? There was so much to love in the first book. The second book was very different, of course, but the exploration of molecular and cellular biology was fascinating, as was the damage caused when individual selfishness is allowed to take over. The idea that we are interconnected with our fellow humans - and nature - and that harm to one is harm to all is more timely than ever. That’s why L’Engel’s central point about power and privilege was so good, but the flaws detracted from that. It’s still an interesting book, and has some wonderful moments. 


The audiobook we listened to was read by Jennifer Ehle, best known to me for her turn as Elizabeth Bennet, in the BBC/A&E series, Pride and Prejudice, which is one of the best book adaptations ever. She did a fine job, although it was very different from version of the first book - read by L’Engel herself. 


  1. So glad you brought up the "blood is destiny" stuff from the book. Eww eww eww. I was fond of her books as a child, but every time I revisit any of them I find stuff that with implications that leave a feeling akin to a subtly foul aftertaste. And with a few of her books, not so subtle.

    1. I think the whole idea of writing something epic and metaphorical is fraught with this risk. If someone is to have a "destiny," then why? Perhaps like Frodo Baggins, it is a seemingly random choice by the gods or fates. But throughout so much of mythology, blood destiny matters, which is why even authors who seem aware of the problems fall into them.

      I found L'Engel's book for adults, A Winter's Tale, to be a definite contrast, where blood and history isn't destiny, and people make their choices for good or evil.