Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Source of book: Audiobook from the library, then book from the library

This is a book that my family owned since I was a kid, but for some reason, I never read. That’s peculiar because I read just about everything I could get my hands on, and in retrospect, this seems like the sort of book I should have read. Oh well. I decided the kids and I could discover it together. 

A Wrinkle In Time was published in 1963, during the coldest part of the cold war. In some ways, it was unusual then and remains unusual now: It is a Science Fiction book by a female author featuring a female protagonist - which somehow became popular despite the deeply sexist culture of Science Fiction.

In any event, this is a children’s book, and is intended to be such. Thus, while there are deep themes, they are not dealt with in as much detail or with as much nuance as they would in a book for older readers. The narrative takes precedence, and the length of the book limits how much detail there can be. (One does wonder what the author could have done in a post-Harry Potter world, where 500 page children's books are a normal occurrence.)

The plot of the book centers around astrophysical theory - the idea that space and time are a unity, and that it is (theoretically) possible to travel across spacetime in a way as to avoid the limits of the speed of light. In the book, these are called “tesseracts,” or wrinkles in the fabric of spacetime. We might also refer to them as wormholes, or warp drive, or any of the other terms used for the same basic idea.

Meg is the oldest of four. Her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is precocious, and has the ability to more or less read her mind. Her scientist father disappeared while working on a secret government project over a year ago, leaving behind the children and his wife, also a scientist. A mysterious woman, who calls herself Mrs. Whatsit, comes to town, and makes friends with Charles Wallace. Soon the two of them, and Calvin, a boy from Meg’s school, are whisked away on a planet hopping adventure with Mrs. Whatsit and her compatriots.

The children must visit a dark planet called Camazotz and attempt to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace’s father from a mysterious force called IT, which has taken over the planet and turned it into a dystopia of mind control and sameness.

A Wrinkle In Time has been controversial for two competing reasons. First, it is an explicitly Christian book, so it has been accused of being a bit preachy by secular critics. This criticism is both valid and a bit exaggerated, in my opinion. There is scripture quoted, often in imaginative ways, but it isn’t a book that proselytizes. And then there is the other criticism, given by some Christians, which is that it is far too ecumenical for their tastes. After all, while Christianity is the most prominent, Ghandi and Buddha and secular giants get named as fellow fighters against the darkness. So, I guess enough to offend everyone. Or something like that.

The central idea isn’t new to the world of fiction. It is, perhaps, a timeless myth, related to the monomyth. There is a darkness that threatens to envelop the universe, and humankind (and its equivalents throughout the universe) must fight against it. Unlike in Out of the Silent Planet, Earth isn’t a truly dark planet. Instead, it is a planet that is under assault, with the outcome not yet seen.  

When the children are first shown what the darkness looks like, they ask about those who fight it.

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at the triumphantly.
And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo da Vinci? Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Ghandi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

This is, I suspect, the passage that caused all the pearl clutching. The idea that others who are not of the same faith might be fighting the darkness, or that the fight might not just be to make converts is a bit incomprehensible to those who have been immersed in a tribalist vision of religion.

Even more controversial, though, might be the author’s idea of what the darkness is, at least if one were to think about it. The darkness is evil incarnate, if you will, as the author makes clear, but it is in its manifestation on Camazotz that it’s true nature becomes evident.

The most powerful scene in the book for me was the neighborhood that the children walk through when they arrive. Children are out playing, but everything is done to the same rhythm. It is a mechanistic play, done by cogs in a machine.

Except for one boy.

This boy, for whatever reason, is not bouncing his ball in time with the others. Later, they find he has been discovered, and is being tortured into conforming, as are all those who are unable or unwilling to be assimilated.

As Charles Wallace says after he is captured by the hive mind (thus speaking for IT, not himself):

“On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems.”

The Communist parallel is obvious, of course. The individual doesn’t matter, only the State, and only the collective good. That is both the terror and the selling point of the Communist cult.

But it is also both the attraction and evil of totalitarian systems of all kind. The key feature of totalitarianism is a control of the individual for the good of the group. And not just the prevention or punishment of certain antisocial tendencies (such as murder, theft, etc.), but a complete control of every aspect of life and thought. It is a belief that difference is the source of problems.

I don’t think (and I don’t think L’Engle intends) that totalitarianism is the only kind of evil. But it is a particularly pernicious one. As Solzhenitsyn once said (more or less), murder of a few is commonplace, but to murder millions requires an ideology.

I was struck, however, in this book, by the way that conformity is portrayed as an evil. This very much is a threat to both the Communist ideal (where conformity and sameness is enforced by violence) and to the ideal of cults like the one I was in, where sameness and conformity in things from dress to gender roles to theology to, well, pretty darn near everything was prized. It is the same spirit, and I believe L’Engle is right that both are evil.

I will note with some regret that L’Engle is also right that there are those who fight, not against evil, but on the side of evil.

Whether it is the calls for exclusion, murder, or torture of those of other religions or races - see politics this year for ample examples - or calls for the right to ostracize and punish those among us who cannot or will not conform to sameness in the matter of belief about sexuality and gender, it is the same spirit. Differences create problems, so best to eliminate differences altogether. (The Handmaid’s Tale is prescient in this regard…) 

I think that L’Engle too understood the opposite of evil, which isn’t some form of “good” or “righteousness,” but love. The only way to rescue Charles Wallace is love, because that is the one thing IT doesn’t have.

And that is the one thing totalitarian systems of all sorts do not have. And it is one thing that all calls for conformity cannot bring. Love is too messy, too individual, too empathetic, too flexible for all of these. Love doesn’t build systems and power and hierarchies, but shatters them.

And love cannot be explained or reduced to a definition.

“Who helps you?” Meg asked.
“Oh, dear, it is so difficult to explain things to you, small one. And I know now that it is not just because you are a child. The other two are as hard to reach into as you are. What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars helps us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.”

And that is why there is the whole list of diverse names of those who fight the darkness. Because love isn’t some creed that excludes all else, and it isn’t something that can be reduced to a formula. Those who fight on the side of love just know, and it is something that those who fight on the side of darkness do not know, and indeed cannot know. I could pretty much quote all of I John at this point, but this will do: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” May we always choose to fight on the side of love, rather than evil.

My kids enjoyed this book, and want to read the sequels. One note on how we experienced it: we started off with an audiobook read by the author. This got mixed reviews from the kids. Some thought her voice was good - and she was expressive. Others thought it was a bit grating, and I will concede it was more of gravel than of velvet. I liked it, but your mileage may vary. There are other audiobooks out there with other voices if you prefer. The other issue we had was that the first three disks worked, but the fourth did not. Thus, we returned it and I read the kids the rest of the book myself. No reviews on the narrator in this case, fortunately…


  1. It has been years since I read this book. I enjoyed your summary and analysis of major themes. Now I may have to put it on the summer reading list.

  2. One of my life-long favorites, and my intro to sci-fi at eight years old. I loved the second one even more. The third was impossible, but I picked it up in my early teens and enjoyed it then. A few years ago I read them all again, and the third was my favorite - because by then I'd spent years living in the Prydain Chronicles and recognized all the Welsh names.

    Disney's working on a live action adaptation of Wrinkle, btw. My feelings on that are mixed, but they can hardly do worse than the abominable miniseries put out in '03.

    1. I always have a flinch whenever I hear that a book will be made into a movie. So many have been terrible, nothing like the book, or usually both.

    2. So true, and I've been disappointed so many times - yet I remain stubbornly optimistic, somehow. Once in a blue moon we get a Lord of the Rings or The Princess Bride.

    3. I loved The Prydain Chronicles as a kid, but somehow it seems no one ever mentions them. I just reread all five this past winter. And funny we should be talking about bad book-to-movie remakes, because Disney sure did a number on The Book of Three/The Black Cauldron…

    4. And they are about to do it again. Variety article back in March stated they have re-optioned their film rights to the Prydain series. Given the abortion that was The Black Cauldron, I am extremely nervous.

      But then the Prydain books are a pet obsession of mine. This much of an obsession, actually.

    5. That's several mentions of Prydain recently. I've never read those either. I may have to put them on the list too.

    6. You absolutely need to put them on your list! Your kids are all prime ages for them - not that they should be mistaken for books to be enjoyed by kids alone. Given the general bent of your taste, I'd be surprised if they didn't become family favorites.

  3. The series is really good, for the most part. I didn't love "An Acceptable Time" as much as the earlier books, but that's partly because the protagonist, Meg's daughter, just isn't my favourite of L'Engle's characters. But "A Wind in the Door" always makes me cry, "A Swiftly Tilting Planet" is brilliant, and "Many Waters" is an imaginative retelling of the flood myth (though more for teens and adults than children).

    I like that she allows her characters to grapple with the big questions and realize that there aren't always simple answers or good ways to fix things, and that we don't always get to save everyone. Meg may save Charles Wallace and Mr. Murry, but they don't save the rest of Camazotz. Perhaps Meg managed to damage IT badly enough to start the process of saving the planet, but we don't know.

    1. I too like the nuance. I look forward to reading the others you mention.

  4. I did read this as a kid. I'm pretty sure it's the reason I've never been completely comfortable in the huge tracts of suburbia around big metro areas. (Though conformity in Camazotz goes much deeper than identical housing, obviously. Heck, I used the example of the little boy being shocked for bouncing his ball "wrong" just the other day, in a discussion about patriarchy or evangelicalism or something.)

    I need to reread this whole series as an adult, because unfortunately I don't remember much about the other three books, except that I read Many Waters waaaaay too early and was aware even at the time that stuff was going over my head.

  5. I loved this book as a child; I was fascinated! Recently I read it again, aloud, with my wife in preparation for watching the movie, and I loved it just as much.

    I was very dissatisfied with the movie. However, your review of the book is excellent! Thanks!

  6. I first came upon these books as an adult, and loved them. L'Engle is right up with Lewis and Tolkien as a great modern Christian writer.

  7. Oh, and I love the Prydain books too! I find myself quoting the Weaver's words in Taran Wanderer: "I've heard men complain about doing women's work, and I've heard women complain about doing men's work, but I never heard the work complain, so long as it got done."

  8. My fourth-grade teacher, Dr Foree, read this book to us after lunch period over several weeks. I didn't really get into it then, but I clearly remembered that the only way Charles Wallace could be freed from IT was LOVE. That made an impression on my nine-year-old mind.

    About fifteen years ago, I read it again along with several more L'Engle books which dealt with science fantasy and spiritual themes. I was also aware that some conservative Christians felt that L'Engle's books were 'dangerous' because of their universalist and New Age views. Because of that, I found it sometimes difficult to enjoy the books as I felt I had to be on my guard, as it were. It is tiring to be 'on guard' all the time. Better to just love.

    "The darkness is evil incarnate, if you will, as the author makes clear, but it is in its manifestation on Camazotz that it’s true nature becomes evident."

    Should be "...its true nature..."

  9. As with many others, one of my favorite books, with the third in the trilogy being the best, in my opinion (time travel!). I've read almost everything L'Engle has written, and liked most of it. The series about the Austin family I really liked too, because the protagonist, Vicki, is such a strong, complex, smart female character. I may try reading this to my fourth grade class this year. Thanks for the summary/review.

  10. Speaking of audio books (pun intended), I can't remember if I shared this site with you yet:
    This site has a huge library of audio books in the public domain which are recorded by volunteers and free to download (or listen online). They have a wide variety of books available too: poetry, novels, classics, history, biography, science, and more. Some of the volunteers read better than others, but you can't complain too much about free. :-)