A Wrinkle in Time at Fifty Years

Madeline L’Engle was a little-known novelist and mother of three when she and her actor husband, Hugh Franklin, decided to move from rural Connecticut back to New York City so he could re-start his acting career.  Before the move, in the spring of 1959, the family took a ten-week, cross-country camping trip, during which she received the germ of an idea for a novel: “suddenly into my mind came the names, Mrs Whatsitt.  Mrs Who.  Mrs Which.”  Completed in 1960, the novel was rejected by at least 26 publishers because it was too different—and because, as Ms. L’Engle reflected later, “it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was too difficult for children . . .”  Finally, a guest at a tea party happened to know one of the founding partners of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and arranged a meeting.  John Farrar liked the manuscript, which was published in January 1962 as A Wrinkle In Time.

The novel made Madeline L’Engle’s reputation, has over 10 million copies in print in the USA alone, has won dozens of prestigious awards including the Newbery Medal, and has inspired to at least two generations of children’s writers to create their own mind-bending, mold-breaking novels.  It blends science fiction and fantasy, religion and philosophy, and doesn’t talk down to readers.  Whether it could get published today is doubtful, but that isn’t stopping publishers, bloggers, and libraries from making a big deal of the 50th anniversary.  A new author website is continually updated with event news; Tor Press (known for science fiction) has begun a “Madeline L’Engle re-read” of the author’s most significant works, a Facebook page is collecting fans and wall posts; hardcover, paperback, and e-version anniversary editions are rolling off the presses, plus a graphic novel due in April.  The signature event, on February 11 at Symphony Space in NYC, will feature publishers and well-known children’s authors and will be live-streamed to booksellers and available for download in March.

In a way it’s easy to see what the fuss is about.  A Wrinkle in Time is a one-of-a-kind publishing phenomenon that’s hard to classify.   To deal briefly with the plot: Meg Murry is the oldest child of two brilliant physicists who were working on some of the implications of quantum physics when Mr. Murry disappeared.  When Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace befriends two mysterious old women, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who, the children quickly learn that the ladies are more than they seem.  A third presence, Mrs Which, confirms the impression.  In fact, the three are angelic beings who use “the tesseract,” a  manipulation of time and space, to transport Meg, Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin O’Keefe to other worlds outside our solar system.  On the planet of Camazotz, a rigid uniform society ruled by a single brain called IT, they find Mr. Murry and rescue him, but at the loss of Charles Wallace, who succumbs to IT’s powers of mind control.  Meg must return and pry her brother free, using a weapon whose power she did not suspect.

The shape of the story is classic good vs. evil, repeated many times before and since (Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Dark is Rising, etc.).  The first third is brilliant, setting up character, tension and situation almost simultaneously, with great economy and movement.  I like the way goodness is rooted in the commonplace: “The furnace purred like a great, sleepy animal; the lights glowed with steady radiance; outside, in the dark, the wind still battered against the house, but the angry power that had frightened Meg while she was alone in the attic was subdued by the familiar comfort in the kitchen.”

The middle third takes us to other worlds and reveals what the central conflict will be, and that’s where the narrative starts to go off the rails.  Story-wise, there’s a bit too much exposition.  Since so much has to be explained, I’m not sure how the problem could have been solved, but it weighs on the plot.  The last third is far less successful than the first, I think.  The children’s confrontation with the Prime Coordinator of Camazotz, and Meg’s later struggle with IT, ITself, have a sketchy feel, as if drawn on a storyboard and never fleshed out.  Fleshing out would have made a much longer book, but the themes of A Wrinkle in Time seem too big for 250 pages to cover.  They may be addressed in the four sequels (it was too long ago that I read those, so I don’t remember) but most readers won’t go on to the sequels.

As for theme, I think the story works better philosophically than theologically.  It’s not a Christian novel, even though it employs some Christian qualities and characters, and famously includes passages straight out of the Bible: Romans 8:28, II Cor. 4:18, I Cor. 1:25, and John 1:5, among others.   The ongoing struggle between good and evil is presented as though it were dualistic, with the two sides more or less evenly matched: evil makes inroads, good pushes back; light shines in the darkness, but will the darkness ever be finally overcome?  Mrs Whatsit was once a star who self-destructed in order to beat back The Dark Thing in another part of the universe.  Now she must settle for life as an angel—which she accepts with good grace, even though “I did so love being a star!”  Jesus, in a well-known passage, is mentioned as one of many “fighters” against evil, a cohort that includes Leonardo, Buddha, Beethoven, and Einstein.  The author herself believed that Jesus was much more than that, but in an interview with Mars Hill Forum, she said, “I don’t write for a Christian audience.  My understanding of the good news is that you’re supposed to spread it, not keep it for those who already have it.”

But readers of A Wrinkle in Time will receive news which is not the Gospel—and which, in the long run, isn’t all that good.  If they identify with the main characters, they may be tempted to place themselves among the ranks of fighters-against-evil (or at least their wannabes) who can rise above the coercive banalities of their age, unlike those conformist dupes of Camazotz.  A strain of spiritual elitism winds through stories of this type, a strain that’s not only ugly but dangerous.  Because, in ourselves, we are not up to this fight.  Our Lord won the victory for us.  We rise from His grave and fight by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Meg, by contrast, finds the weapon to battle IT within herself: the power of love.  Love is powerful, but human love is sadly compromised, and can harm as much as it helps.

None of this is to say that A Wrinkle in Time is not worth reading—it is.  It’s also worth talking about, especially in regard to where the story succeeds and fails, and what sort of impression it leaves.  Fiction is not intended to provide answers, but to raise questions and paint pictures of reality, so far as we can understand it.  And, as Mrs. Murry says, “I don’t understand it any more than you do but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.”

Agree? Disagree?  115,000 Facebook fans obviously disagree with my overall critique—what do you think?

COMMENTS

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10 Responses to A Wrinkle in Time at Fifty Years

  1. Janie April 29, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Rod:
    I wouldn’t rewrite it. The book is as it stands, and it’s for us to say whether it speaks to us or not. The value of art is not only in the central idea nor the execution, but also the response of the audience. A Wrinkle in Time has obviously spoken to many, many readers. I detect a certain hollowness in it, and I’ve tried to explain why. One thing I didn’t mention: these days we see a lot of good vs. evil scenarios, and some of them are intellectually lazy–they make an obvious play for the reader to feel that she is on the “good” side, when all she’s doing is sympathizing with the main characters while reading a book. Fighting evil is not that simple, and evil isn’t always obvious. (The Dark can disguise itself as an angel of light.) I think Madeline L’Engle had the right idea, but the last third of Wrinkle feels rushed and even a bit simplistic. It would have had more resonance (for me, anyway) if she had spent more time delineating the struggle.

  2. Rod April 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    1. Janie, are we not supposed to place ourselves “among the ranks of fighters-against-evil wannabes”? Are we not supposed to “rise above the coercive banalities of our age”? What would you have us do?

    2. Was Meg not supposed to find the weapon to battle IT within herself? What would you have her do? Fail, and then pray, and then succeed? How, specifically, would you rewrite this?

    3. The Dark Thing is the type of evil that resembles an invading marauder who wants to hurt us. There’s no moral struggle in being against that type of evil. Where’s the temptation? The moral struggle comes in resisting the urge to help oneself by hurting someone else.

    4. Meg loves her relatives. “Even the tax collector does this.” She thinks about loving her enemy, IT, but she is not up to the job–and besides, nobody has asked her to. L’Engle does have her love an enemy in one of the sequels, though.

  3. Danielle July 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    I didn’t read Wrinkle until I was a junior in college, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy it much.

    The first third is good, if not brilliant: The characters are intriguging but not immediately engaging. Charles Wallace didn’t strike me as a precocious wunderkind, but asbody a 30 something man in a child’s body. If it weren’t for the relatable characterization of Meg, I would have stopped reading there, my willing suspension of disbelief too bruised to continue. But this portion of the book did a good job of creating a gentle sort of suspense, the kind that makes you keep reading to see what other wonderful surprises the author has in store.

    The second third is where things fall apart. The first planet they visit is a stereotypical utopian planet, where they glimpse the darkness which is….not that scary. Big black things are only frightening in the dark, and L’Engle has too much sweetness and light for the threat to be truly threatening.

    Camasotz made me stop reading. Now, I can see where conformity can be a trap. I can see ow it can even be evil, but to make it the example of a planet that’s given up is shortsighted and naive. I think a far more dangerous trap is that of indivduality: Satan convinces you to become too much like yourself, and before long you are embracing sin as part of your identity. Claiming conformity as the ultimate representation of sin only encourages that mindset. On top of that, the extreme ease with which Charles Wallace surrenders made me decide I had better things to read.

    Overall, the final third read as a rough draft. A little more fleshing out–and extensive revisons–would have made a world of difference.

  4. Hayley February 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    To chip in, I remember reading this when I was about 10 or so. I enjoyed it and read the sequels, but I remember coming away and being disturbed by the evil; it just wasn’t defined enough for me, and I didn’t like that one of the good guys was a medium.

  5. Hayley February 2, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    To chip in, I remember reading this when I was about 10 or so. I enjoyed it and read the sequels, but I remember coming away and being disturbed by the evil; it just wasn’t defined enough for me, and I didn’t like that one of the good guys was a medium.

  6. Renee Mathis February 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Why I love teaching this book:
    - Great example of how an author’s historical circumstances affect a work. The 60′s with its Cold War fear, Camelot (Camazotz?), and space race all make an appearance.
    - How important is conformity? I despise books where the main conflict is a teen girl with zits, but Meg’s insecurities seem touching and real within this story. Girls can relate.
    - Allusions abound! It’s fun to spot them and explain them. I want my students to see beyond their current story to the bigger story and L’Engle reminds them that there is more to enjoy.
    Thanks for the thoughtful review and comments. This is one of my favorite spots for excellent conversation!

  7. Renee Mathis February 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Why I love teaching this book:
    - Great example of how an author’s historical circumstances affect a work. The 60′s with its Cold War fear, Camelot (Camazotz?), and space race all make an appearance.
    - How important is conformity? I despise books where the main conflict is a teen girl with zits, but Meg’s insecurities seem touching and real within this story. Girls can relate.
    - Allusions abound! It’s fun to spot them and explain them. I want my students to see beyond their current story to the bigger story and L’Engle reminds them that there is more to enjoy.
    Thanks for the thoughtful review and comments. This is one of my favorite spots for excellent conversation!

  8. Janie February 1, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Thanks for the comments! I certainly don’t consider myself an authority, and wish I had time to reread the sequels, but right now it’s impossible. One originally negative impression I received this time around with Wrinkle, which I later had second thoughts about, is the way evil is addressed. It’s not really defined, except as the Dark Thing that threatens various parts of the universe. It seemed too vague and UNthreatening. But then I realized that on Camazotz, evil looks the way Augustine defined it–as negation. Evil is everybody surrendering their individuality, or having said individuality taken from them, to become less and less. That’s one reason why I think Wrinkle works better philosophically than theologically. And much better than The Dark is Rising, which I didn’t like much at all.

  9. Betsy February 1, 2012 at 7:46 am #

    I’m going to have agree with Sherry on this one, but it’s been about 10 years since I last read the Time books. As much as I love Susan Cooper’s work, I have definitely found her a bit more dualistic than L’Engle. One of the things I love about L’Engle’s science fiction is that there IS good/love and evil and that the good/love side WIN. It’s hard, and the ordinary characters called in to fight the battle don’t know that they will triumph…but they do because the good side is inherently better than the evil side–an important point. We Christians believe that our God WILL ultimately triumph (and has, over sin, already) because of his very nature. It will be hard and ordinary people are called in to fight against evil; but in the end, the good will triumph.

    My all-time favorite novel of L’Engle’s is A Wind in the Door–the representation of Creation having a specific created order and the implication that all parts, no matter how small, are important; that all parts, no matter how small, must be working accorded to that created order in order for the whole to “work” is profound. In addition, the idea of creation “singing” is beautiful.

    I think far more readers have progressed past that first novel, too, than you imply, but perhaps it’s the age at which we first “discover” these books. I’m one of the generation who grew up reading L’Engle amidst parents who questioned whether it was “New Age” and with teachers who were avidly teaching it in the classroom. In some ways I agree with the recent Times article that Meg’s character is part of the allure of this book: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/books/review/a-wrinkle-in-time-and-its-sci-fi-heroine.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&ref=books.

  10. Sherry January 31, 2012 at 11:02 am #

    Perhaps Wrinkle in Time is dualistic, but I didn’t see that when I first read it as a young teen, and I was pretty good at picking out that kind of stuff even then. I read Susan Cooper’s Newbery award winning Dark Is Rising series when I was about 13, and I found it very dualistic, with the forces of Light and Darkness evenly matched and Light only winning by “chance” and temporarily. I didn’t like the aftertaste, even though the stories are quite well-written. In contrast, I thought Wrinkle in Time implied that Love always wins (to quote another more recent controversial author), and I liked it for that reason. I haven’t re-read the book recently, though, so I have to defer to your more recent analysis.

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