I had read A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle years ago as a child, but the only thing I could remember about it was one scene where boys in driveways all down a street were bouncing balls in perfect rhythm with each other. It was one of those titles I had always wanted to revisit, and I just did so over the last several days via audiobook.
In the time between that first reading and now, I had also heard L’Engle described by some as a Christian fantasy writer in the tradition of C. S. Lewis and by others as a dangerous New Ager. That was another reason I wanted to revisit the book, to see what angle she was coming from. I can definitely see why there is confusion.
The story itself begins with teenager Meg Murry. Meg is finding it hard to fit in at school. Her teachers feel she does not do nearly as well as someone with two brilliant parents should. She doesn’t fit in socially and gets into a fight when someone calls her little brother dumb. She doesn’t like her appearance. And her father has been away for over a year, but no one knows where he is, and some of the townspeople are beginning to gossip about his disappearance.
Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace, is about five years old and is thought dumb because he does not speak to outsiders, but he is quite articulate with his family, and even seems to go belong the spoken word to know what his family is thinking and what they need, at least his sister and mother. Meg has twin brothers as well, but they seem to be in the background most of the time: by contrast to Meg and Charles Wallace, they are not bad at anything but not exceptionally good at anything either and have no problem “fitting in.”
Meg and Charles Wallace meet a teen-age neighbor, Calvin, and a Mrs. Whatsit, who, along with Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, tell the children they are needed not only to save their father but to save their planet from the Black Thing. The three Mrs W’s take the children through time and space via a tesseract (which “wrinkles” time, in a way), to the planet where Meg’s father is being held captive by IT, a being that takes captive the thoughts of the people on the planet and makes everyone act in perfect conformity. A man with red eyes, controlled by IT, tells the children that this is the best way because there is no crime, hate, or sorrow. But the children know better and continue to resist the pull of IT and to to look for Mr. Murry.
I’ll leave the plot there for you to discover. There are recurring themes through the book: good vs. evil, creativity vs. conformity, vigilance vs. passivity, and love vs. hate. Meg continually is reminded that things aren’t always what they appear and she needs patience, and these admonitions are repeated in various ways through the book.
Just as a fantasy or science fiction, the story is quite interesting and well put-together. The differing opinions come in when trying to discern where L’Engle is coming from. It’s interesting that secular sources cite her the book as reflecting her Christian faith, but some Christians have trouble with a few elements. There are definitely Christian elements: Scripture is quoted directly, the whole good vs. evil and love vs. hate themes reflect a Christian base. But Christianity is spoken of more as a philosophy: there is nothing in the actions of the characters that suggest what we’d consider normal Christian life (praying, for instance, even in times of extreme duress). Some of the troubling elements include a “Happy Medium” and Mrs. Which, though not called a witch, described with the typical garb of fairy-tale witches. And when the children are asked who are lights in the world they know of that fight against darkness, they mention Jesus as seemingly just another light beside Shakespeare, Einstein, Bach, Gandhi, and others (I think Buddha may have even been mentioned, but one problem with an audiobook is that I can’t go back and find that exact reference).
I mentioned in a post about magic in Narnia that I had wrestled through the whole issue of magic in books, and came to realize that fairy tale or fictional magic is often not the same thing as the magic the Bible warns against. Real life witches don’t wear pointy hats, ride brooms, or turn people into frogs. I think the magic in this book is more along the lines of fairy tale and not promoting such things in real life. Still, there are serious warnings in the Bible against witches, wizards, and the like, so I don’t know why a Christian writer would use elements known to trouble Christian readers and then scoff at them for being troubled (which L’Engle did in some of the articles I read about her, calling such people “narrow.”) The “Happy Medium,” for instance, uses her crystal ball to show the children the “dark thing” hovering over earth and to show them their families (and the Mrs W’s want her then to look at something pleasant so she’ll stay a happy medium). Since this is science fiction, she could have easily been a scientist with something other that a crystal ball to observe the planets. She is kind of a play on words, though, from earlier in the book when Meg’s mother tells her she needs to find the happy medium (between mindless conformity to fit in with the crowd vs. being so individualistic that she’s peculiar).
In looking through some articles and interviews with L’Engle, I’d say she’s Christianish, but I’d definitely disagree with her on several key points, like universal salvation or viewing the Bible as just stories rather than literal truth. A couple of the interviews I read about her were here and here and here, and of course the Wikpedia entry is here if you’d like to read more about her. I think some of you have read other books by her, and I’d love to hear your insights from her own words.
I didn’t know, when I chose to read this book at this time, that this is the 50th anniversary of its publication, and a new graphic novel of it will be released October 2:
I also didn’t know there was a film made of it, but what little I read and saw of it (clips on YouTube), I don’t think I’d like it. They changed too much of it (as usual). In one of the interviews I read, L’Engle was asked if the film met expectations, and she said, “Yes. I expected it to be bad, and it was.”
I also gained a lot by skimming through SparkNotes. They pointed out connections and other things I hadn’t caught, like the many references to seeing clearly and people’s glasses, and the fact that Meg’s disappointment that her father couldn’t fix everything when they found him was necessary to her own maturity..
Have you read A Wrinkle In Time or anything else of L’Engle? What do you think?
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)