[There are significant spoilers for the entire novel in this review.]
Title: A Wrinkle In Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publication Date: 1962
Producer: Crosswicks Limited
Narrated by: Madeleine L’Engle
Recording Time: 5 hours, 54 minutes
A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry, a high-school-aged, misfit girl, who travels with her five year old genius brother, Charles Wallace and her friend Calvin O’Keefe, to rescue her father who is trapped on another planet. They are aided in their travel by three supernatural beings: Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.
At the beginning of the story, Meg is socially awkward, high-tempered, but ultimately a loving girl who is plagued by worry for her father, a government scientist, who her family has not heard from in over a year. Her father was working on a top secret project concerning something called a tesseract when he goes missing.
One night during a storm, a stranger figure, already known to her little brother Charles Wallace, Mrs. Whatsit, shows up at their family home. Mrs. Whatsit looks like a strangely dressed tramp, but in actuality, she is a celestial being able to read thoughts – something she demonstrates on Meg while in their family kitchen. Mrs. Whatsit also startles Meg’s mother by mentioning the tesseract as she leaves their home.
The next day, Meg and her small brother Charles Wallace walk to Mrs. Whatsit’s thought-to-be-abandoned cabin. As they go, they meet Calvin O’Keefe. a popular boy from Meg’s school. Charles thinks of someone as like himself – which is an important fact considering that Charles is a genius who is able to read minds. The three of them meet Mrs. Whatsit and her companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. They are transported by the three Mrs. W’s off of earth to another planet. The children sees the three women in another form – something they have difficulty describing because it is other-wordly. While away from earth, the children learn that the universe is threatened by a great evil, which the three beings call the Dark Thing. They learn that several places have successfully defeated the Dark Thing. Mrs. Whatsit, in fact, who is considered young by the other two Mrs. Ws, was once a star and defeated “it” by sacrificing herself to it. The Dark Thing takes the form of a giant cloud and encircles the stars around it. The children learn that several planets are already under the control of the Dark Thing, including Camazotz, the planet on which Mr. Murry, Meg’s father, is imprisoned.
The three Mrs. W’s transport the children to Camazotz, the dark planet where Mr. Murray is held prisoner, and warn them to not become separated under any circumstances. On Camazotz, everything is exactly alike, and robotic, because all living things are forced to conform to the will of IT, a giant disembodied brain, or else be punished cruelly. When the three children finally confront IT, Charles Wallace tries to use his powerful intelligence and psychic powers against IT, but he is instead hypnotized and overcome by IT. After, the little boy becomes possessed by the Dark Thing, and IT uses the boy’s body and speaks through him. Under IT’s control, Charles leads Meg and Calvin to Mr. Murry. Mr. Murray has been able to resist IT, but once found, he has no answers for Meg and Calvin as to how they can help Charles. Meg is profoundly disappointed in that as she had fully expected her father to know what to do. IT begins then to attempt to control Mr. Murray, Meg, and Calvin. Just as the three of them are about to give in, and become controlled by IT as well, Mr. Murry grabs Meg and Calvin and uses his tesseract to escape. They leave Charles Wallace behind and arrive on a gray planet called Ixchel. Meg is frozen, having nearly been taken by IT before they left. The inhabitants of this planet are tall, furry beasts, who though they do not have eyes, are able to care for the travelers. They help Meg to recover physically though they worry about the spiritual damage which may have been done to her.
As the three humans, and a group of the beasts, debate on how best to rescue Charles Wallace, the three Mrs. W’s appear once again. Meg realizes that she must travel alone back to Camazotz to rescue her brother. The three celestial beings convince everyone to let her make the attempt. After dropping her off on the planet, Mrs. Which tells Meg that she has one thing IT does not have, and that this will be her weapon IT. She also tells Meg that she must find this weapon for herself. Meg returns to where IT resides on the planet and finds that Charles Wallace is still there. As IT begins to attempt taking her again, Meg realizes that her ability to love is her weapon. She focuses on her love for Charles Wallace and she is able to break the hold IT has on him. Once he is free, Meg tessers with him through time and space, landing in their family’s vegetable garden on Earth. Her father and Calvin are already there waiting on their arrival. Moments later, Meg’s mother realizes that Mr. Murray is home and their family celebrates tearfully and with hugs. The Mrs. W’s appear at the happy scene before leaving abruptly.
This was my first ever read of A Wrinkle in Time and I found it surprisingly enjoyable. I did not expect a sixty year old children’s book to resonate as much with me as this one did. I should amend that previous statement. While I called it a children’s book, I am not exactly sure how to define this book’s genre. It is a bit for children and a bit YA, it’s a bit science fiction, a bit fantasy, a bit morality tale, and a bit Christian fiction (though I suspect that last part was met with relatively harsh criticisms from the Church upon its release.) It’s oddness, and its resistance to being defined, is what I enjoyed about it.
I listened to an audio recording of this book as performed by the author. I occasionally listen to non-fiction read by the author, but seldom do I see fiction presented this way. Madeleine L’Engle’s performance is unique, I suspect, in that her acting background gives her sufficient talent to provide a truly enjoyable experience for the listener.
While the genre is difficult to define, the themes are more discernable and most of them are presented to the reader as lessons learned by the relatable protagonist, Meg.
- Be comfortable with, and appreciative of, your own uniqueness. Don’t be so eager to conform.
This is a good message to present in a book that is largely directed at children. Meg is surrounded by extra-ordinary people. She has always wanted to fit in. She is neither extra-ordinary, nor does she “fit in.” She is frizzy-haired, she has braces, she is unpopular, she lacks special intellectual or psychic powers, and despite what she is not, she is exactly who she should be. Her experience on the dark planet really helps her to appreciate the value of individuality. She expresses this in a really profound way during her confrontation with IT, and her possessed brother, shouting at Charles that “like and equal are not the same thing at all.”
In addition to the individual message about embracing uniqueness, the story also appears to be a rebuke of totalitarianism. The dark planet presents its evil as virtue, defending itself to Meg when confronted, by pointing out that all of its residents are equal in outcome, that disease is eradicated, and that wars are no longer fought. Freedom has been traded to IT for completely equal security. Meg – and the reader – see that this perfection is only at a surface level. All of the planet’s residents are terrified of stepping out of line. People are innately different from each other. When free to do so, they think and behave differently from each other. The only way to achieve uniform conformity is through cruel application of force. We see this play out tragically with the small boy who plays with his ball incorrectly when the group first arrives to the Dark Planet. Later, he is punished so severely that IT brags he will never fail to conform again.
It becomes clear that equality of outcomes can only be achieved with the price tag of universal misery.
- We cannot know everything… and that’s okay.
Meg wants everything explained to her. When this does not happen, she gets angry and impatient. However, in her travels, she sees things that she knows to be true despite failing to understand them, whether they be good things (the musical creatures she encounters on Uriel) or bad things (the Dark Thing – which she knows to be evil though she cannot understand it.) It becomes clear that understanding is not always necessary.
In this same vein, Meg frequently encounters, on her journey, the inability to explain with words. This becomes a particular problem after the first escape from Camazotz. Their group tries to explain what they are, and concepts like “light” to the eyeless tentacled beasts, and find themselves unable. Meg learns to communicate through feeling. There is not understanding, through the human sense of reason, but that lack is eventually fine. In the end, Meg is able to defeat IT and free her brother with her feelings. Love exists beyond words and it lies outside the scope of what IT can understand.
The story presents a confrontation between good and evil, throughout the universe. We learn near the end of the story, explicitly, that love is the weapon of the good guys. The lens through which L’Engle tells the story of love is a Christian one, mentioning Jesus by name as a person who first fought the darkness, and then quoting from the Bible throughout as well.
The inclusion of Christianity is done in an interesting (and probably controversial) way. None of the characters are said, explicitly, to be Christian – though the implication remains present. We do not see them engaged in any corporate Christian worship. The tale itself is not theologically sound by Christian scholarly standards. The use of Christian verses is also intertwined with references to secular writers and philosophers. The three Mrs. W’s are named by Calvin as angels, near the end of the novels, however the text does not describe them in a traditionally angelic way. L’Engle links their individual histories with literal stars. Angels in the Bible are also linked with stars, though in the religious text, the connection appears to be more motif than literal. L’Engle uses Christianity as a jumping-off point for broader themes, such as love, sacrifice, and the value of individuality, though these themes are not themselves separate from Christianity, per se.
L’Engle was met with the same type of hostility from some circles that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was met with (i.e. accusations of normalizing witchcraft and misleading Christian children about theology.) However, I find this to be unfair. If your young religious children are influenced into the occult by either A Wrinkle in Time, or Harry Potter, my suspicion is that you should not have been relying on those books to teach your children the finer points of spiritual life. Fantasy fiction which extols the virtues of love and self-sacrifice is good, actually, and is more than capable of adding to a religious education without causing confusion. These types of stories are able to transmit difficult concepts in digestible formats, to young readers. In that sense, a story like A Wrinkle in Time is not a wide step from being a parable.
[By the way, as the Harry Potter backlash is more contemporaneous to my life, I have always viewed that tale as a metaphor for spiritual warfare with a very strong undercurrent of Christian themes throughout. It features (SPOILERS) as the deep background, “God”ric Gryffindor, who values what is in your heart, versus the puffed up Snake guy, Slytherin, who values power and ambition. All of the wizards celebrate Christmas and Easter (and unlike some real-world schools, their wizard school even goes on holiday for Easter), they have churches in their wizard villages, the Bible is quoted on Kendra and Ariana Dumbledore’s headstone (Matt. 6:21), Harry goes to “King’s Cross” after he dies, sacrificial love overcomes death, etc., etc. I could write an entire essay on this.]
The protagonist of this novel is a female. She is passionate, she is not outwardly beautiful, she sometimes fights with her fists, she is bright (though not extra-ordinarily so), and ultimately she is the hero who faces the bad guy, alone, and rescues her male brother. There were certainly female protagonists before Meg Murry, but in 1962 when this book was published, she was quite a trailblazer – especially as to her style.
I enjoyed this book and I recommend it. It’s an easy read. L’Engle’s prose, the unique and descriptive imagery, the way that she mixes science fiction with religious fantasy, the protagonist’s character arc, and the timeless underlying themes are well constructed. Despite being sixty years old, A Wrinkle in Time does not feel dated in any way… you might even say it’s timeless.