Rereading Madeleine L'Engle.

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

Wrinkles in Time

Rereading Madeleine L'Engle.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

It is hard now to recover what was so arresting about A Wrinkle in Time the first time I read it, at age 8 or 9. I remember that it was somehow difficult and that it seemed simultaneously very strange and very familiar. There was the opening ("It was a dark and stormy night"), in which Meg Murry, an awkward, opinionated teenage math whiz, filled with anxiety about her missing scientist father, finds herself unable to sleep in her attic room and goes downstairs to make herself hot cocoa. Her prescient kid brother, Charles Wallace, is waiting; he announces, with peculiar certainty, "I knew you'd be down." In wanders the children's mother, a beautiful scientist who often cooks dinner over Bunsen burners; and then the door blows open to reveal a figure swaddled in rags who calls herself Mrs Whatsit. Cocoa and fraternal telepathy, New England storms and Bunsen burners, a strange old lady paying a midnight call: This was an odd but intriguing world, entirely distinct. And it only got stranger and more distinct as the book went on.

Madeleine L'Engle, its creator, died two weeks ago at the age of 88, and it's safe to say that for her many fans, the universe—about which she wrote so feelingly—seems darker without her. That is not because she was a sentimental bearer of bright news. A Wrinkle in Time was turned down by more than two dozen publishers, but since its publication in 1962 (by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it has become legendary, with some 8 million copies in print and roughly 15,000 sold each year. Return to the Time series today (L'Engle wrote four sequels) and it's not hard to understand why publishers thought the books wouldn't sell, or why, as a young reader, I found them difficult. They are engaging and startling, even to an adult, but they also do not adhere to traditional fantasy setups and resolutions. Instead, they are a truly peculiar blend of Christian theology, modern science, fantastical invention, and portrayals of plain old growing pains. The results are original dramas that unfold mostly in the inner lives of their protagonists rather than on grand battlefields. They are more filled with abstraction than action. And in their search for moral certainty, they leave plenty of room for ambiguity.

L'Engle was fascinated by the way that science helped explain the universe, but not fully, and in that space of uncertainty she made something mystical. Together, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a boy named Calvin O'Keefe set out to rescue Meg's father from the clutches of an evil entity known as IT, which has colonized the planet of Camazotz and turned it into a conformist dystopia, where children bounce balls in unison and all houses look the same—neat and prim. The three are aided by the mysterious figures of Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Which, and Mrs Who, guardian angels who, it turns out, are embodiments of universal forces beyond the ken of humanity and can communicate only approximately with their charges. One is a dead star; another speaks only in quotations from Cervantes and Shakespeare. They take the children to Camazotz by traveling through the fifth dimension, also known as a "tesseract." As Mrs Whatsit explains, this tesseract is like a wrinkle in time, allowing movement between otherwise distant points in the blink of an eye.

While the physics at work here were totally exotic to me as a young reader, the metaphysics somehow weren't: Meg's growing intimations that the world she lives in is full of a global darkness mirrored many fears that kids, myself included, felt. As the children travel across planets via the tesseract on their way to Meg's father, they are made newly aware of an ongoing universewide battle between absolute evil, known as the Dark Thing, and pure good. Yet the children's own struggles, their role in this grand battle between good and evil, are almost entirely internal. The crucial battle scene in A Wrinkle in Time involves Meg's reciting multiplication tables as she struggles against the brain known as IT, which is trying telepathically to colonize her mind. The aid the guardian angels lend her, Charles Wallace, and Calvin has less to do with providing magic swords or talismans than with identifying—and intensifying—the virtues the children already possess. Indeed, the crux of the book rests on Meg's coming to understand that her father cannot save her or Charles Wallace, or make the world a less anxious place; part of the task she faces is, simply, accepting the evil that is in the world while continuing to battle against it.

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.

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.