Madeleine L’Engle’s nutty politico-religious parable for children still has its admirers
by Gordon Campbell
When it was first published, Madeleine L’Engle’s children’s fantasy novel won praise for being a book ahead of its time, yet today… the political and religious underpinnings of the story seem like a fascinating time capsule of the Cold War mindset. In places, it makes the Christian allegory in the Narnia series look subtle by comparison. And yet…perhaps because it is such an emotional book of Big Ideas, anyone who encounters A Wrinkle in Time in childhood will never easily forget it.
The book came very close to never seeing daylight at all. After a series of rejections from publishers, L’Engle had recalled the manuscript in despair from her agent by the time that her mother threw a cheer-up party for her just after Christmas 1961. A family friend attending the party eventually got L’Engle in touch with a publisher who decided to put the thing out – mainly because he’d liked an earlier book by L’Engle, and partly because he hoped this might give him first crack at her next, hopefully better book. In order to get a second opinion, the publisher had forwarded A Wrinkle in Time to a schoolteacher friend. Her verdict? “I think this is the worst book I have ever read. It reminds me of The Wizard of Oz.”
Readers felt otherwise. An immediate hit, the book went on to win the Newbery Medal and spawned four sequels and four other related novels. The story follows a fairly standard quest outline. Meg Murry, the 12 year old heroine is the plain Jane daughter of two very dashing and successful scientists – although Meg regards her mother and her “flaming red hair, creamy skin and violet eyes with long dark lashes” with a mixture of loving admiration and sullen resentment. As well she might feel overawed. Homemaker and science boffin, the virtual sole parent of four children and stunningly beautiful to boot, Mrs Murry even manages at one point to cook the family stew (p.38) over a Bunsen burner.
Meg’s father, it transpires, had mysteriously vanished a year before the story begins. Much of the novel involves Meg’s search and rescue mission for her father across the entire universe, in the company of her genius five year brother Charles Wallace, a school friend cum boyfriend called Calvin, and three angel messengers called Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. The entourage travels from Earth to the stars and back again by means of something called a “tesseract” – a fold or wrinkle in the space/time continuum that enables them to travel vast distances with no loss of time back on Earth.
A Wrinkle in Time is a morality tale, and L’Engle has some very big fish to fry. Good is represented by the Murry family, who are on the side of the angels in more ways than one. In the sequel A Wind in the Door, Mrs Murry makes this plain : “ Here we are, at the height of civilization in a well-run state in a great democracy…” although America’s virtue is also blighted, she concedes, by drug taking and bullying at school. In A Wrinkle in Time, Mr Murry does Top Secret work for the government first in New Mexico (Los Alamos?) and then at Cape Canaveral, presumably for the US space programme.
Enter the villains, stage left. Mr Murry – and later, Charles Wallace –get trapped on the planet Camazotz by an entity called IT, whose evil socialist ways are all too recognizable. IT and its puppet master The Man With the Red Eyes are out to destroy individualism, and they depict their drab society of factory production lines, secret police and enforced ‘decency donations’ as a utopia – and IT is hellbent on wooing the Murry children with this vision of collective bliss :
“Why should you want to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble? For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”
On this evil planet, the enemy is the dissenting individual, and communalism is the ideal state. “On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike,” a blissed out Charles Wallace tries to tell Meg, “ Differences create problems. You know that, don’t you, dear sister? “ Luckily for all that’s good, the three angel helpers offer Meg a few competing visions of their own. One includes a vision of dear old planet Earth being afflicted with a dark haze of Camazotz-style communalism. On the upside, the angel-beings explain, little Earth has produced more than its share of the best fighters against the Powers of Darkness.
”Who have our fighters been?‘ Calvin asked.
‘Oh you most know them dear,’ Mrs Whatsit said.
Mrs Who’s spectacles glinted out at them triumphantly. ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
‘Jesus!’ Charles Wallace said. ‘It must be Jesus!’
‘Of course!’ Mrs Whatsit 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!”
Bach, Pasteur and Einstein may be on Team Murry but there’s no question that God is the real Team Leader, and evidently has His interstellar missionaries. Because on page 187, a helpful Beast on the planet Ixchel quotes 2 Corinthians 4:18 almost verbatim to Meg, and the three Mrs W – helpfully identified by Calvin at one point as being “Guardian Angels ! Messengers ! Messengers of God! “ – quote an entire half page from the Bible (this time, I Corinthians 1. 25-31) to Meg on page 203, to buck her up as she begins her final conflict with the Powers of Darkness.
In the end, Meg finds that her only useful weapon against Evil is the thing that it lacks : a capacity for love. Her ability to love her brother saves the day. Interestingly, given that A Wrinkle in Time has won a lot of praise for its strong feminine hero, this very traditionally gendered resolution has been a matter of concern to some critics. In a 1990 essay, Katherine Schneebaum made this point tellingly:
Meg’s deed is highly praised by all, and it is truly a noble one. However, after two hundred pages in which she was criticized much of the time for her lack of femininity, this praise smacks disturbingly of a vindication. Meg is portrayed as in her element, her “happiest medium” as it were, when she is operating in the traditionally feminine sphere of maternal love as redeeming force. The final message is that a girl becomes a woman only when she voluntarily takes on the role of moral leader and keeper of love, subordinating her other interests and capabilities to this one. The seeming inevitability of Meg’s transformation and its quality of revelation imply a lack of freedom for a young woman like Meg to chose her own path; it is simply woman’s destiny and duty to care for the moral health of others.
Plainly, it is pretty easy to tear this book to shreds. There is, so help me, even an episode – not played for laughs – where plain, mousy Meg takes off her glasses and Calvin tells her she’s gorgeous, that she’s got gorgeous, “dreamboat” eyes no less. If this was all there was to A Wrinkle in Time, one would hope it would never have achieved the wide and passionate readership it has enjoyed down the years.
How, then, to account for the book’s popularity? It is not even that A Wrinkle in Time succeeds despite its faults, because they’re so much a part of its essence. Speaking personally, while this is a book I don’t much like, the narrative pulls you along – and I think that’s mainly because L’Engle poured so much autobiographical energy into Meg that we care what happens to her, no matter how dottily evangelical the story becomes. L’Engle herself was the child of two successful artist parents in Manhattan – and at high school, a chronic limp made her bad at sports. She has written feelingly about her sense of being picked on – just as Meg is in the book – by teachers who thought she was stupid. That is, until one particular teacher recognized her artistic bent, and encouraged her to pursue it. In that respect, Meg functions as a perfect printout of L’Engle’s own childhood anxieties and resentments.
Meg is in fact, the only remotely believable character, and she (just) manages to humanize a story that becomes less about characters and more about clanging abstractions – Good, Evil, Individualism, Collectivism, the Power of Love – as it goes on. Much the same criticism of course, is often levelled at science fiction as a genre. Namely, that it is more about the Big Ideas than about credible characters and/or satisfying resolutions. Ideas do matter. Yet the best criticism of a literature based only or primarily on ideas was made decades ago by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories.”
However ingenious the idea may be, Tolkien argued, it alone was insufficient. Writers, in their role as the sub-creators of a world within the one that we inhabit, still need to bring depth and inner consistency to the ideas they conjure up :
Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve….Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say ‘the green sun.’ Many can then imagine it or picture it. Bu that is not enough…To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks.
Well, L’Engle did make the attempt, and plenty of readers have welcomed the results. Yet to my mind, John Rowe Townshend captured this peculiar book and its author’s awkward fervour as well as anybody has, in his 1971 essay on contemporary writing for children. Townshend may have wanted to write L’Engle off entirely, but he couldn’t in all honesty do so :
Madeleine L’Engle is a curiously-gifted, curiously-learned, curiously-imperfect writer. Her novels for young people seem to me to be full of contradictions. They are so often exciting and stylishly written, yet so often complicated beyond endurance, or unintentionally comic or embarrassing. And yet I find her an extraordinarily interesting writer. She aims high…and she is not afraid of strong feeling…. [Her books are] faulty but intriguing, irritating but likeable, unsatisfactory in many ways but stimulating to the mind and the emotions. They belong, I believe, in the small, frustrating but fascinating category of good bad books.
Footnote : For this article, Gordon Campbell drew on essays and reviews in volumes 1, 14 and 57 of the Children’s Literature Review.