Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

I spotted this in a collection of e-books I'd downloaded and decided to indulge in a bit of childhood nostalgia.  A Wrinkle in Time and I both arrived in 1962, so I suppose my re-reading can be in preparation for our mutual 50th birthdays.

This was the cover of the edition I first read, and $1.25 seems about right for those times. Remember Scholastic Book Club? We took the little catalogs home from school. The following month boxes arrived in the classroom containing our orders and -- just as exciting -- the next catalog. That was probably how I came to read A Wrinkle in Time. I remember enjoying it, and I recall the characters and the grossest plot outline, but I'm astonished at what I either forgot or failed to notice the first time through.

I remembered the particle physics, for example, but was utterly oblivious to the Christian message. I remembered very well how gratifying it felt that the 3 child-heroes -- Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace -- were all gifted misfits, but I'd completely forgotten that the planet Camazotz felt so evil because of enforced uniformity. Re-reading this novel on the brink of 50 gives me a glimpse into my 10 year-old mind.

I have a few adult reader's observations: The ending felt too precipitous and tidy. The characters didn't seem to wrestle hard or long enough with the villain to warrant such an abrupt victory. On the other hand, I think it was a remarkably creative story for that time, when the idea of rearranging atoms to allow passage through a solid wall seemed sensational, especially in children's fiction.

There were passages and concepts that appeal to me now and eluded me completely as a kid. Calvin, a bright but eccentric teenager, meets Charles Wallace Murry. He discovers that this child, widely held to be retarded, is actually an eerie genius in a 5 year-old package. It's one of L'Engle's many reminders that judging anyone by his (or its) appearance is unwise.
Charles Wallace nodded. "What kind of family?"  
"They all have runny noses. I'm third from the top of eleven kids. I'm a sport."  
At that Charles Wallace grinned widely, "So'm I."  
"I don't mean like in baseball," Calvin said.  
"Neither do I."  
"I mean like in biology," Calvin said suspiciously.  
"A change in gene," Charles Wallace quoted, "resulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring."  
“What gives around here?" Calvin asked. "I was told you couldn't talk."  
"Thinking I'm a moron gives people something to feel smug about," Charles Wallace said. "Why should I disillusion them? 

In their search for Meg and Charles Wallace's missing father, the three children enlist the help of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, three guide figures who assume different forms on different planets and who are expert (well, most of time) at exploiting time-space distortion to move about the universe. They deposit the children on Camazotz, a planet shrouded in a dark force, where their father is imprisoned. Camazotz is governed by IT, an oversized brain on a dais, and IT subscribes to the theory that total subjection and uniformity are key to happiness.

"You see, what you will soon realize is that there is no need to fight me. Not only is there no need, but you will not have the slightest desire to do so. For why should you wish to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble? For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision."
"We will make our own decisions, thank you," Charles Wallace said.  
"But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Why don't you trust me, Charles? Why don't you trust me enough to come in and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make."

I don't think my young mind fully grasped either the allure or the danger of abdicating all responsibility, relinquishing control over one's own life and mind. As a child, I was always bucking for more autonomy, so Charles' resistance probably seemed only normal to me then. Today I appreciate the temptation and peril that L'Engle illustrates.

After leaving Camazotz, the characters land on another planet, inhabited by large, furry and sightless grey beasts. One especially caring citizen, whom Meg calls Aunt Beast, asks the girl why the humans are always going on about light and darkness, or what things look like. Meg discovers that explaining the visual world to the blind is all but impossible, and moreover, not everyone equates seeing with believing.
We do not understand what this means, to see."  
"Well, it's what things look like," Meg said helplessly.  
"We do not know what things look like, as you say," the beast said. "We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing."

Although Meg and Calvin manage to get her father off Camazotz, IT has Charles Wallace in ITs clutches. Distraught that they've left him behind, Meg erupts with anger toward her father, whom she had trusted to save the day. She has, in other words, a total crisis of faith.
She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn't able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Black Thing pushed her down into hate.

In a few passages, L'Engle is still more specific about her Christian faith; here she just lets us feel the agony of disappointment when one's faith is tested and found lacking, when the Father doesn't make it all right. As I said, all of this sailed blithely over my childish head when I read the book the first time, just as C. S. Lewis' Christian themes eluded me when I first read the Narnia books.  It seems to me now that children read all stories as myth:  the hero battles the villain and, with the help of a guide or a teacher, eventually prevails. Whether the hero is a Christian, a Muslim, a wizard or a rabbit doesn't much matter to the child, who just wants to know that evil can be successfully confronted. I don't think Madeleine L'Engle's books ever made children into better Christians any more than I believe Harry Potter made them into worse ones. The most important thing is that they are reading well-written books.

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