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A Wrinkle in Time

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Positive → Edifying

In Brief: Intriguing if slightly dated sci-fi morality tale. Strong bonds of family and friendship. A warning about creating a perfect state if the cost is the loss of individuality and love.

Cover of A Wrinkle in Time

Author: Madeleine L'Engle

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1962

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: Mid 20th C

Setting: America, Other planets

Genres:  AdventureFantasyFriendshipGrowing-UpRomanticThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Meg Murry is a 12-year-old, bright at Maths, poor elsewhere, who feels outshone by her mother's beauty and brains, her twin brothers' popularity, and her younger brother's precociousness.
  • Charles Wallace is Meg's 6-year-old brother, precocious but distant, the unconcerned object of ridicule and speculation.
  • Calvin O'Keefe is 14, athletic but also bright enough that he has to hide it to stay afloat at school. He sees past Meg's moody exterior and shows her that she can be loved.
  • Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who & Mrs Which are mysterious and angel-like beings who choose the appearance of three slightly batty old ladies. They are able to cross the dimensional gap which separates Meg from her father.

Synopsis:

Meg crosses dimensions to where The Dark Thing is holding her father captive, taking Charles Wallace and Calvin to help her free him. Unfortunately, Charles Wallace is not as strong as he believed himself and falls under the influence of IT — the artificial being which controls the whole of that world. While Meg does succeed in freeing her father, they have to escape leaving Charles Wallace behind until they can call on Mrs Which to transport her back.

Notes:

This, the most famous and enduring of the late Madeleine L'Engle's prolific output, is considered a modern youth classic, a tag which generally indicates that a book can outlive the period in which it was written. Enough has been written about it over the 40 years since its first publication that I don't feel I can add much of value. For the benefit of those wholly unfamiliar with it I'll outline the main points of interest from the perspective of virtue and highlight a few parallels with other books for youngsters.

Madeleine L'Engle loves families, the bigger the better, and this book is no exception to that rule. (She also enjoys having the characters from one book appear fleetingly or substantially in another. Meg & Calvin, for example, are Poly's parents in The Arm of the Starfish). Meg, a sensitive adolescent rebels against the common wisdom about her father's desertion and jumps at the chance to find him. Her mother is kind, beautiful and smart, every bit her scientist husband's equal in the lab and in the home. Her brothers — the precocious Charles and the insouciant twins — are very fond of her as a sister. Meanwhile, Meg experiences her first real love outside her family in the person of Calvin, himself one of eleven brothers and sisters but who envies Meg her mother's obvious affection.

The story itself rings obvious warning bells. The fearful uniformity imposed by IT on the dark planet of Camatotz, enforced by physical negative reinforcement. The enslavement of even the most independent human mind by an uncaring controller of a supposedly beneficent society which pretends altruism at the cost of the individuality of its citizens. The absorption of humans in what they can see and feel, missing out on a deeper awareness. The need for human love to overcome the beguiling effect of an efficient but ultimately uncaring embrace.

There are, too, interesting parallels with other books. C.S.Lewis had already published his Ransome Trilogy when this book was published, and they share the idea of a shadow enveloping entire worlds and threatening others. They share, also, some idea of angelic beings able to cross the void and penetrate the dark cloud between the worlds. Their treatment of the similar subjects is different, not least because Lewis, in contrast with his better-known Narnia series, was writing for an adult audience and wanted to dwell on the possibilities of intelligent life-forms elsewhere and the idea of a human race before Original Sin. L'Engle does provide an interesting take on the intelligent alien with the friendly “Aunt Beast” who cares for Meg and the others, stranded after Mr Murry's haphazard tesseract. In particular, this entirely non-humanoid alien is friendly but doesn't see things as we do, not even understanding Meg's explanation of the light which lets us see. Camatotz and its citizens, however, cowed and left almost inhuman by the domination of IT, are nonetheless a recognisable copy of our own world. Lewis gets another nod later when it is revealed that Mrs Which, that powerful and angelic being, is in fact a fallen star. The Narnia story explored this idea in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when two powerful enchanters are revealed as stars taking their rest. Humans have always seen stars as essentially eternal and representing some kind of celestial dance. Both stories personify their stars as powerful and dignified creatures.

A more modern echo of one of L'Engle's fundamental ideas occurs in the Harry Potter series where it is emphasised several times that it is Harry's parents' love for him and his love for others which sets him apart from the Dark Lord with whom he shares so many other characteristics. Neither story makes it terribly clear just what form this love takes and exactly what help it brings, but both authors want to identify that it is something transcendental and not the earlier book's scientific discoveries nor the later's magical prowess which will carry the day.

Themes:

  • Uniformity as a benefit?
  • Intelligent life on other planets

Tuesday 16th October 2007