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I've been re-reading Madeleine L'Engle's books recently. It's a risky business, re-reading authors I liked before I was very analytical about my entertainment; sometimes I discover I never loved them as well as they deserved, other times I realize just how much nastiness I overlooked and feel sick at the values I must have absorbed. L'Engle, mercifully, is one of the former type.

Here's L'Engle, the devout Christian whose works were challenged and banned by fundamentalists across the board because her theology is too inclusive, who believed love was the most powerful force in the world and rejected violence and hate. The avid Biblical scholar who described her own holy text as a storybook, impossible to take literally, not factual but true. The lover of science – especially physics – whose stories reflect the delighted curiosity of a small child playing with magnets or making a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, only it's warping space and time she's playing with. I really love L'Engle. She's so – true? Pure? She doesn't compromise or play politics with her values. You look up an interview with her and she's saying she hated the film adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time or spouting theology that would make fundamentalists faint (often including how little she thinks of fundamentalism) and atheists squirm in equal measure, or she's talking about gender roles and war. What she isn't doing is giving a shit what other people think of her.

The first L'Engle I ever read was A Wrinkle In Time, published first in 1962 after years of being rejected by publishers. My copy's the 1973 edition, Mum's when she was a kid. Wrinkle has a number of interesting themes: on the one hand, it's a story about the fight between the forces of good (chiefly represented by love and connection with other beings) and evil (noted most as war, poverty, isolation, and what I can only think to call dehumanizing standardization). On another, it's a story about, as the title suggests, bending space and time. On the most basic level, it's about a family of outsiders, separated by chance, working to get back together.

Meg Murry is probably about fourteen years old and a complete misfit. She sees herself as ugly, with no social graces and with a lack of emotional control that makes her pitiably weak in comparison to more normal or capable people, that is, pretty much everyone else. She's always in trouble at school; she's extremely good at math, but likes to take shortcuts that her teachers don't approve of, and terrible at everything else. Her mother's amazingly beautiful (violet eyes, the whole deal) and a genius biologist/bacteriologist who dabbles in the other sciences and is also a really good mother, which is impressive particularly since she's also a single mother of four. Single? Yeah, Meg's father – a physicist of considerable renown – has disappeared, they don't know where to, on government business related to something called a tesseract. Meg also has three brothers, the "normal" ten-year-old twins, Sandy and Dennys, and five-year-old telepath/empath/supergenius Charles Wallace, who is Meg's best friend and intuitively understands her.

When Charles Wallace becomes acquainted with three very odd women (spoiler: not actually human at all) who know about the tesseract, things start to get weird fast. Meg and Charles Wallace meet and bond with Calvin O'Keefe, a bright and popular boy from an abusive home who almost immediately becomes Meg's best friend/obvious one true love, and then the three of them are whisked off on a journey to several alien planets on their way to the "fallen" world of Camazotz, where a giant disembodied brain is holding Mr. Dr. Murry prisoner. Only when they get there, IT (the giant disembodied brain) turns Charles Wallace into a mindless slave, like the rest of the population of the planet, and drives them away. Meg has to go back alone and rescue her little brother through the sheer force of her love for him.

Key highlights not covered in the above plot summary: the planet full of wonderful, compassionate aliens who have no concept of sight; the very faults Meg hates most about herself becoming her strongest assets; and one exchange that is among my favorite things L'Engle has given me:
IT: "But that's exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike."

Meg: "No! Like and equal are not the same thing at all!"
Poetry. That, and L'Engle's careful avoidance of violence-as-solution-to-violence, is at the heart of my love for Wrinkle.

A Wind In The Door, published in 1973, continues the series' themes when Charles Wallace, now in school and being horribly bullied, becomes sick due to the work of the Echthroi, or forces of evil, which are working within his mitochondria to kill him because they know he is important to the course of history. Science themes: mitochondria, questions of scale (Meg spends quite some time inside one of Charles Wallace's mitochondria, which in turn is inside one of his cells) and the relationship between matter and energy. Starring Meg, Calvin, the unpleasant principal of Charles Wallace's school who used to be quite an enemy of Meg's, a garden snake named Louise the Larger (named after a wonderful doctor), and a cherubim named Proginoskes, who looks like a drove of dragons. Central spiritual themes are around what I suppose could be called telepathy and L'Engle's views on how love works. Key exchange in this one, for me:
Meg: "Progo! Help me! How can I feel love for Mr. Jenkins?"

Proginoskes: "What a strange idea. Love isn't feeling. If it were, I wouldn't be able to love. Cherubim don't have feelings."

Meg: "But–"

Proginoskes: "Idiot. Love isn't how you feel. It's what you do."
I love L'Engle and her books give me happy feelings at the same time!

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) is of the trilogy the one I feel the most conflicted about. Charles Wallace, now fifteen years old, goes off time-traveling with a winged unicorn (coincidentally, time-traveling unicorns hatch from eggs, but other kinds of unicorns don't) to change something somewhere in the past that created a dictator who wants to destroy humanity and has the nukes to do it. Meg, who's quite pregnant, goes along in spirit. You see, looong ago, two brothers from Wales came to America, and one of them joined the Echthroi and tried to kill the other one, but his brother's power came from love and was greater, and so the evil brother went away and their descendants have been in conflict with each other ever since. Charles Wallace has to use his telepathic power to go "Within" various boys and men from various times and help find the "might-have-been" that led to the dictator's being descended from the evil brother rather than the good one.

The problem here is, obviously, a genetics-are-destiny thing: while L'Engle takes pains to show both that members of the "good" bloodline can fall from grace (spoiler: Calvin's abusive mother is one of these, turned to cruelty by a lifetime of abuse coupled with seeing her stepfather inflict brain damage on her beloved little brother and then send him away to a mental institution) and that the "bad" outcome is shaped not just by genetics but also by upbringing (the two babies representing the "good" and "bad" versions of the dictator are shown with their mothers telling them what they should become) the inescapable, ugly implication is that you can be born into the service of evil. I doubt L'Engle meant this, since it seems to contradict everything she consciously believes in; the bloodline is a storytelling tool. Nevertheless, it's there, and it's problematic.

Another sort-of-problematic sort-of-telling aspect of Planet is the portrayal of the People of the Wind, a Native American group built into the history of the "good" bloodline, who are shown as perhaps wiser and nobler than any other group in the story. There's the less-noble People Across the Lake, who are on the bad brother's side, but by and large the portrayal of Native peoples is stereotypically connected to nature and to L'Engle's concept of God. Only one of them is Christian, though, and she's L'Engle's sort, reasoning and seeing no contradiction between it and the belief system she was raised in; she ends up nearly being hanged as a witch, at the behest of the local minister, but is saved by divine intervention called down by her twelve-year-old Welsh brother-in-law/Charles Wallace. L'Engle's theology apparently included the firm belief that faith is very personal and there's no One Right Way, which is something I think she showed quite well with the People of the Wind; that I do like about this part.

I still think Planet is a great book, mind you. It's considerably – darker? – than the others, and it's got more visible Issues. (Wind has a few things that trip my buttons, but for personal reasons.) Nevertheless, I love it. I'm glad it influenced my values and my thinking growing up; I'm glad it still does now. L'Engle's work has been a huge blessing to me throughout my life, and I'm deeply grateful to her.

Date: 2012-08-13 01:20 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] thrush
Thanks for writing this review of the trilogy. I read many (not all) of L'Engle's books years ago, but these three in particular I read numerous times. It’s been a long time for me, but I recall having a decidedly different impression of some of her themes and polotics than those given in your review. But, I'll bow to your judgement here as you seem much better informed on the author than I.

I will say that for whatever reason a Wrinkle in Time has stuck with me the most over the years. There are a lot of great images and set pieces in that tale which are still with me very vividly, and as a youngster I took away several life lessons from the moral outlook of this novel. Also, IT remains one of my all-time favourite science fantasy villains; the encounter with IT was probably the first scene in a book that scared me as a kid. ^_^

May 2013

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