Rereading Madeleine L'Engle.

Examining culture and the arts.
Sept. 20 2007 7:27 AM

Wrinkles in Time

Rereading Madeleine L'Engle.

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Unlike its fantasy peers, the Time series is very much tethered to the "real world": Global events, sometimes drawn from the reader's world, impinge on, and even shape, the fantastical elements. The series is rife with Cold War anxiety—it is easy to read the authoritarian IT as a kind of Big Brother. Indeed, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third in the Time series, deals with a nuclear standoff that brings to mind the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles Wallace must go back in time to prevent the annihilation of Earth by going "Within" the minds of a number of people involved in what his unicorn guide calls "Might-Have-Beens."

The Time series also refuses to segregate children from the world of adults, as so many children's fantasy books do. In the place of adult authority figures, children heroes rely instead on an otherworldly guide for direction. Although the Time series has its share of such guides—including Whatsit, Who, and Which, a bossy cherubim, and a recalcitrant unicorn—they are also full of nuanced conversations between the young protagonists and their parents. And the parents are in on the magic, in a way that they never are in Narnia or many other fantasies; their own work—on tesseracts, on regeneration of limbs, on mitochondria and farandolae—is essential to the children's extraordinary encounters with beings from other parts of the universe. L'Engle wrote against conformity in all its guises—including the growing power of cultural "trendiness," a word she used with distaste. Apparently, one form of conformity she evidently despised was the popular notion (in the 1960s and '70s) of a young generation's utter alienation from its parents.

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L'Engle had a way of not talking down to her readers and of prompting them to think for themselves. She is at her best writing about teenage girls trying to find their way into adulthood; much of A Wrinkle in Time is about Meg Murry's struggles to be good. Her more realistic (and also excellent) series about the Austin family (starting with Meet the Austins) deals primarily with Vicky Austin's struggles to be an upright citizen and individual in a world full of local horrors and cruelty. But she offers them no prescriptions and formulas. Though she was Christian, and the books reflect her belief in God, they are hardly proselytizing in a traditional sense. (In fact, the books were banned by many Christian leaders for not promoting a Christian point of view.) Rather, L'Engle's books share a preoccupation—you might call it an obsession—with what it means to have consciousness, to be alive. One question in particular recurs: Is death the annihilation of an individual consciousness, or does it lead to something else? And, in a universe that is incalculably large, what does the death of one mere person—a single human—signify? How could it not mean something? No wonder characters from one series often cross into another: It enacts her sense that interconnection must exist, even after death.

For whatever reason, children's fantasy doesn't always deal so explicitly with these questions, sublimating them in battles against a dark lord or an evil ape. The fact that L'Engle was trying to answer those questions herself made you feel less alone. As she herself so frequently reminded her readers, in A Swiftly Tilting Planet and A Ring of Endless Light, even a small loss can have a large effect. In the case of her death, that's proven to be so.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.