" In this universe the night was falling; the shadows were lengthening towards an east that would not know another dawn. But elsewhere the stars were still young and the light of morning lingered; and along the path he once had followed, Man would one day go again"

Arthur C. Clarke Against the Fall of Night

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

I live my life surrounded by books. Books I have read, books I mean to read, books I bought largely for the covers, or illustrations, books I bought because I remember them from other people’s libraries. Like the hard cover book club edition of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, with it’s brightly coloured covers, which my brother owned and which I got as my free gift when I joined the book club. I suspect I thought owning them meant you were quite smart, it doesn't, I suspect most copies go unread. I occasionally dip into them but really, they exist somewhere in the intersection of nostalgia, my search for “lost time” and what I think constitutes a library. And yes, for me books have to be physical books.

A Wrinkle in Time, Scholastic Book Services 1962, cover by Ellen Raskin

So when I packed up books for my woefully neglected deep dive back into the genre I love, I brought A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I am not 100 percent sure how old I was when I read it, I was probably a bit older than the target audience but still a teenager. What is more important to me is that the book conjures up memories that are intrinsically bound up with the subject matter of the book itself. At the point I read the book I still had some interest in, if no aptitude for mathematics,  (it faded, I simply did not study hard enough) but the interest was there then and stories like “And He Built A Crooked House” by Robert Heinlein or “A Subway Called Moebius” by A.J. Deutsch and A Wrinkle in Time fuelled it, ( Flatland remains sitting in my TBR pile) . I have to say I remembered little about the novel, mainly bits from the planet Camazotz, the newspaper boy, the child with the ball and the brain, but the description of the highly regimented town has remained with me through the years.

A Wrinkle in Time is very much a young adult novel, but as a retiree with an Andre Norton blog, who feels Robert Heinlein's best novels were his young adult works that does not dissuade me. 

The novel focuses on 13 year old Margaret Murray (Meg) and her family. As the novel opens Meg is upset about school, a pretty typical scenario for a YA novel. Meg is, in her words unattractive, a poor student and a disruption in class. Her only interest is in mathematics but while she can solve the problems, she does it through the use of intuitive leaps (something she learned from her scientist father), instead of the correct classroom procedure. Her latest misdeed was beating up an older boy who called her younger brother Charles Wallace a name. Charle Wallace is a five year old, who did not start to talk until four but immediately began to talk at an adult level. He also has a  strong empathic sense that allows him to monitor the moods of Meg and their scientist mother. Meg also has annoyingly well adjusted twin brothers but they do not play a significant role in this novel. The family is struggling at present, Mr Murray a physicist at the Institute for Higher Learning in Princeton University has gone missing while engaged on a secret government project. The family can get no information on the project or his whereabouts due to national security. The community is convinced he has run off with another woman and the family is subjected to snide remarks and unwanted advice. It is on a dark and stormy night that Meg, who cannot sleep, joins Charles Wallace and her mother in the kitchen. Charles Wallace has just admitted he recently made the acquaintance of a Mrs Whatsit and her two friends, who are living in a nearby abandoned, i.e. haunted house. At this point Mrs. Whatsit appears out of the storm, a rather strange and comedic character, who Meg does not trust. As she is leaving she tells Mrs Murray that there is such a thing as a tesseract, a revelation that distresses Mrs Murray. The next day Charles Wallace convinces Meg to pay a visit to Mrs Whatsit and her friends, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who. On the way they encounter Calvin O’Keefe, a boy who attends the same school as Meg, Calvin is a bit older and Meg does not really know him. Calvin is a gifted athlete and student but considers himself a biological sport, he has come to the woods due to a compulsion, a feeling he has learned not to disregard. After a quick trip home for supper and a vetting by Mrs Murray the three are off to visit Mrs Whatsit and her friends, who are obviously powerful beings masquerading as witches. The six of them then start off on a trip to rescue Mr Murray, whose disappearance is related to a universe wide conflict between good and evil. They travel by tessering, using folds or winkles in space and time to cover immense distances. Wikipedia has a lengthly summary of the novel, as well as it’s publishing history, information on the novel's reception, it won several awards etc. so I will not go into a great deal of detail here. 

Several things struck me upon rereading A Wrinkle in Time, the strongest was the use of Christian symbols and thought. I had a tendency as a youth, not entirely lost now, to disregard or skip an author’s philosophical or moral digressions or bias to get to the resumption of action. I am trying to do a better job of close reading but it is a struggle. So a lot for things I would notice now, tended to go over my head then. On page 108 a list of fighters for good starts with Jesus Christ and then includes a fairly obviously western based list of artists and scientists although it is nice to see Madame Curie, Buddha and Gandhi are included. The Christian religious focus, similar to that in the SF and Fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis I was reading at the same time, was of course everywhere then, at least, in my life, my public school and the church (United) that I attended. It was also fairly common in the Western media of the day. On rereading as an adult, the scene that takes place on the planet Uriel, where winged centaur-like beings, it turns out that Mrs Whatsit is once of these beings, stars who lost their lives in the struggle against the evil darkeness, sing the praises of God 

“Sing unto the Lord a new song,
and his praises from the end of the earth, 
ye that go down to the sea,
and all that is therein:


This scene really reminded me of the scene in Dante’s Purgatory where Dante and Virgil visit the Valley of Rulers, where the rulers sing hymns to God.

Dante, Purgatory Canto 8.13-19, Cover artist?

"Creator of all things, before the end of light, we beg you to guard and protect us with your usual compassion. Let the dreams and fantasies of night retreat; " etc.


Given this quote " She said "I cannot believe that God wants punishment to go on interminably any more than does a loving parent. The entire purpose of loving punishment is to teach, and it lasts only as long as is needed for the lesson. And the lesson is always love."[I suspect that  L'Engle was not a fan of Dante, maybe she just skipped the Inferno.

Reading the wikipedia article on her life it was interesting to note that some secular readers found her books too religious and some Christian readers found her version of Christianity too inclusive. Sometimes you cannot win.

Even before rereading A Wrinkle in Time the religious focus of the series was underscored when I picked up a sequel in the Value Village in PA. Entitled Many Waters it narrates the adventure of the twin Murray brothers Sandy and Dennys who go back in time and meet Noah. I know I read at least two other sequels years ago but I don’t think they ever made the same impression on me as the first book. The wikipedia entry also notes that 

Dell Laurel-Leaf 1987 edition, cover by Rowena Morrill.

“Nearly every novel by Madeleine L'Engle connects to the Murry-O'Keefe series either directly or indirectly with appearances by recurring characters" 

I enjoyed rereading the novel for many of the reasons I enjoyed it the first time, the nod to mathematics, the idea of jaunting around the universe meeting aliens, and the horrific regimentation of the planet Camazotz. In my mind I have always envisioned Camazotz as a beautifully laid out suburb of the model communities that appeared in the 1950’s and 1960’s media when I was  a child. The novel brought back memories of my life and feelings at the time I read it and the people and places that were part of this period. I still take the religious focus with a grain of salt and skip onto the adventure, as I did at the time, but it did not impact my enjoyment of the novel then or now.

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