Madeline L’Engle left us September 6, 2007, but left behind what, in my mind, is the crown jewel of her legacy, her 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time.
I had a friend recently call this book “one of those ‘rite of passage’ books when you’re growing up” — and it probably was one of these for many people — but it is much, much more.
For those who haven’t heard of it, A Wrinkle in Time a is far-reaching story of a dazzling and dangerous journey undertaken by adolescent Margaret (“Meg”) Murray, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their friend Calvin. The young people are befriended by three transcendent entities, who have playfully clothed themselves in a facade of being traditional Halloween witches, and are given by these beings an opportunity to find and help Meg’s missing father, who has been lost in deep space as the result of a secret space-time experiment gone awry.
The book was the winner of the 1963 Newberry Medal for young people’s literature. It was also rejected by 26 publishers. (I suspect those 26 publishers probably felt pretty damned stupid after that. And they just may have — this was back in the early 1960s, when people could still feel regret and shame.)
(Ooh .. I’m sorry. Was that my “out loud” voice”?)
It Was a Dark and … Oh, You Know
The story actually opens with the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” I am reminded of Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy opening countless stories with those words, tapping away at his typewriter atop his doghouse.
I assure you: there are no other clichés here.
Though written for “young people,” there is so much wisdom in this book that it holds up for reading at any age. My third grade teacher, Miss Franklin — who later had the audacity of becoming Mrs. Bricker and shattered the severe crush I had on her — did, however, do me the honor of introducing me and the rest of the class to the book, reading a chapter or two at a time after lunch for a couple of weeks. At the age of 21 I had a glimmering of recognition that there was something quite profound in the book that was of deep importance to me at the time. I read it again, and was not disappointed. I have come back to this book several times since, and continue to find wondrous insight within its covers.
I should note, this is not “Christian fiction,” in the way C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels were, or the marketing category we have seen rise in the last couple of decades. But if you have difficulties with either direct or indirect allusions to Christian symbols and scripture, you may have a problem with this book. That said, I some Christian fundamentalists have been this book’s most ardent opponents.
I’m sure you’ve met people who have books they love so much that they give them away to those in their lives they care about. Well, I’m one of those people, and A Wrinkle in Time is my chosen book.
I have a few reflections I’d like to make about the novel, but first I should note that these are most definitely spoilers, so if you would prefer that I not ruin the experience of the book for you, skip down past the next several paragraphs until you see the words: * End Spoilers. *
• • •
The Misfit, Her Young Man, and the Three Witches
The story opens with Margaret Murray (“Meg”), a socially awkward girl of about 12 or 13, a girl far more intelligent than her peers and ostracized because of both this and the disappearance of her father. The town gossips have perpetuated the rumor that Dr. Murray, a physicist, had left town because of an affair. The reality is actually more difficult — Meg, and worse, her mother, do not know what has happened to Dr. Murray, because his work was secret in nature and could not be discussed with anyone, which would naturally include even his spouse. Eerily, the parapolitics crowd might appreciate that his work, which we later learn has to do with the multidimensional nature of space, was started in New Mexico (Los Alamos, perhaps?), and was transferred later to Cape Canaveral. This tiny piece of “backstory” has a ring of authenticity to it that makes one pause to wonder if L’Engle had heard a rumor or somehow learned something she had no need to know …
We get to know the Murray household quickly, a warm, loved filled place, despite the void left by Dr. Murray. We also meet Meg’s siblings, including the youngest, Charles Wallace, who will be discussed at length below.
Meg’s social clumsiness and her classmates’ hostility toward anyone different is portrayed effectively, and soon enters Calvin O’Keefe, a sympathizing high school junior who, though popular, is so for what he considers the wrong reasons, and the beginnings of a romantic interest develop between them.
A trio of transcendent beings befriend the children, a Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit, who turn out to be much, much more than the stereotypical Halloween witches that (with varying degrees of success) they are trying to emulate. The trio reveal that they are taking the children to find Meg’s father, and they make their first jump into deep space via a tesser, a fold in space-time — a “wrinkle in time” of the title — which they appear to be able to invoke at will.
A Shadowed World
We learn, from a visit to the planet Uriel (a staging point in their journey), that there is a great battle in progress in outer space, against a darkness, a wall of cold, penetrating evil, called simply The Black Thing, that has been been sweeping through interstellar space and has taken countless planets in its wake. Earth, we learn, has not been taken, but is in shadow. It is revealed at this point that there have been great fighters from our little planet who have waged war against this growing darkness, and L’Engle does not flinch from the naming of names — Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Einstein, Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo … all by whatever talents they have to offer have been warriors against the The Black Thing.
On Uriel, Mrs. Whatsit gives us a peak at her and her associates’ true natures and transfigures herself into a form that serves the need of the current environment, a winged centaur to take the children to a high mountain peak so that they might see The Black Thing with their own eyes. Later we learn Mrs. Whatsit had been, in a previous lifetime, a star, a sun in the reaches of space, that set itself into supernova, giving away its lifetime of light in a brief moment of astronomical time to halt the progress of the black thing, by burning as much away of it as the detonation would permit.
The mere idea of a star as a unique, conscious being, once fully comprehended, fills the innocent mind with awe.
As it should.
Toward the end of the novel, her father found, Meg, Calvin, and Dr. Murray manage to escape the world where Dr. Murray was trapped by “tessering” — by folding space, bypassing what would have been the intervening light years — and find themselves on Ixchel, a world where everything is uniformly gray. In the effort to escape, Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace had to be left behind. Further, Dr. Murray’s skill at tessering is primitive, and in making this leap through space-time Meg was nearly lost to The Black Thing, leaving her nearly lifeless, in a state of paralyzing cold. A race of benevolent, sightless beings take them into their care, and during this sequence we learn that these beings, despite being blind, not only are consciously aware of the stars and other planets, but can hear — and to some degree sing — a underlying cosmic structure, a music, called the “Ancient Harmony.”
With the almost psychedelic, mythological imagery L’Engle has captured in the crafting of her story, I wondered if perhaps earlier in her life she had undergone some consciousness changing event, such as a Near Death Experience or some kind of shamanic episode. This biography does not reveal anything quite so dramatic. But interestingly, she, at around the age of 12, and a roommate in a boarding room in Switzerland, had heard that opium had powers to enhance the dream state, and the two actually grew and ingested them for a period of time. This experiment ended, the article reports, when she recognized she did not need opium to dream, but noted it had made her more fully aware of the subconscious mind, which in turn helped her with her creativity.
A Precautionary Tale of a Dehumanized Planet?
The world on which much of the second half of the novel takes place, Camazotz, is a world fallen to The Black Thing, a world where everything is literally synchronized to an unremitting, throbbing beat. Homes are built along uniform grids in identical lots, the dress is the same, each family routine occurs simultaneously for everyone on the planet. The inability to remain uniform is systematically punished until the “deficiency” is corrected. And everything, everywhere, is utterly controlled by a single entity, a disembodied brain resting on a dais in a domelike central building of the central city.
It is called IT.
A few years ago a friend pointed out the curious fact: that IT in capitals — I. T. — is the long accepted acronym for Information Technology, an acronym that surely postdates the book by at least a decade. At that moment, my friend in fact pointed at his laptop and said, “is this not a disembodied brain?”
Not yet, but maybe in a few years …
The name of the planet itself: Camazotz. I do not know L’Engle’s political leanings, but one wonders if this was a bit of word play to fling a Swiftian barb toward the new presidential administration, with its vision of New Frontiers — Camelot.
I can only speculate. Perhaps L’Engle could see the dystopian side of a world of “can do” progress, as captured by a breathless Walt Disney.
Clearly, the narrative spent on Camazotz is a precautionary parable of the loss of individuality, identity, and ultimately Free Will.
(Pretty heavy duty for a “young person’s book,” huh?)
The One Thing IT Does Not Have
And lastly: Charles Wallace.
Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace, is a genius, and beyond this an empathic — or possibly telepathic — intuitive. At their arrival on Camazotz, the children are forced to search for Dr. Murray alone, unaccompanied due to the witches’ inability to remain long due to the dark nature of the world. They are soon taken as the unwilling guests of a servant of IT, the Man with Red Eyes, a being who speaks to the children telepathically, and demands Charles Wallace to open his mind to IT. Foolishly thinking he can keep a portion of his consciousness separate from IT, Charles Wallace opens himself, and he is completely overcome. IT, controlling Charles Wallace, leads the other children to Dr. Murray, and then leads the group to IT. Shortly after reaching the disembodied brain, knowing their consciousnesses would be absorbed the same way Charles Wallace’s had, Dr. Murray “tessers” Meg, Calvin, and himself away, unable to free Charles Wallace from ITs clutches.
After Meg is nursed back to health on Ixchel, the three witches help her to understand that she is the only one who has a chance of reaching Charles Wallace and rescuing him, because she has the closest relationship to him of any of the humans. Meg is tessered to Camazotz by Mrs. Which, and once there she is told that she has a weapon she can use in this fight against IT that she must find herself — that she has one thing that IT does not have. Meg makes her way to the central dome, and finds Charles Wallace sitting near IT, being absorbed more and more deeply into ITs mind. As IT, speaking through Charles Wallace, attempts to absorb Meg’s consciousness, Meg suddenly realizes the one thing she has that IT does not.
She knows that if she could find it in herself to love IT, IT would shrivel up and die, but this is beyond her. But she can and does love Charles Wallace, and in sending all the love she can muster at her possessed little brother, he breaks free, and the two are snatched away by Mrs. Which and are tessered with Dr. Murray and Calvin back to Earth.
Now, think back to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Remember when Indy was forced by the evil Mola Ram to drink the “blood of Kali Ma,” which put him in Kali’s spell? And remember how his child companion, Short Round, rescued him from possession?
That’s right: “Indy! I love you!”
(Gee, I wonder where Mr. Spielberg got that little idea from. Hmmm?)
* End Spoilers. *
• • •
What Shall We Write?
I’d like to share one last treasure you can find in this book.
Toward the end of this story as the narrative action is nearing final resolution, L’Engle stops us for a moment, for what turns out to be good reason, to give us this remarkable explanation of Free Will:
“How can I explain it to you?” [says Mrs. Whatsit.] “Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet. It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?”
“Yes,” [answers Calvin.]
“There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?”
“Yes,” Calvin nodded.
“And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?”
“But within this strict form, the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” Calvin nodded again.
“So,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
“Oh do not be stupid, boy!” Mrs. Whatsit scolded. “You know perfectly well what I am driving at!”
“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.”
In the sonnets of our lives, what we write is completely up to us.
What shall we write?
A Thank You
Before I close, I’d like to say a few parting words of thanks.
• • •
Ms. L’Engle —
May I call you Madeline?
I never had the opportunity of meeting you in this life, though maybe I will have that privilege in the next.
I wanted to thank you for one thing you did, the one thing that many of us would want to thank you for … for this one book.
I thank you — we thank you — for A Wrinkle in Time.
God bless you, always and forever.
Copyright © 2008-2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
This article is revised from a previous version (no longer available) which was published on this site, Jan. 5, 2008.