Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time
Introduction by Julia Eccleshare
Puffin Modern Classics 2007 (1962)
Authors often say they write the books they would have liked to read, and it’s also often said that authors effectively write about themselves, as if in response to the classic writing dictum Write what you know! This seems to be the case with A Wrinkle in Time.
Meg Murry is the classic outsider at the beginning of this science fantasy; at school she is awkward and friendless, she considers herself a plain Jane, she finds lessons torture. As the author herself stated in an interview, “Who would’ve wanted to be like Meg? I made Meg good at math and bad at English, and I was good at English and bad at math. Otherwise, we were very much alike! Meg couldn’t keep her hair nice and she was not a beauty. She was a difficult child. She is a lot like me!” And what would Madeleine L’Engle have liked to read? It’s clear it’s books about what she came across in her twenties and what excited her as a result: Einstein, particle physics and quantum mechanics. What more natural thing than to combine the two subject areas — herself and science? And then not only dedicate her first children’s book to her father and father-in-law but also honour them by calling another key character Charles Wallace after their forenames?
Meg Murry is further distinguished by being a virtual orphan. Though her mother is very much in evidence her father has mysteriously disappeared, as in so many classic children’s books (The Railway Children, for example). Sandy and Dennys, her ten-year-old twin brothers, seem scarcely affected by his absence, while the youngest sibling, Charles Wallace — regarded as backward at school — is in fact an intellectual prodigy. Meg and Charles Wallace, together with young neighbour Calvin O’Keefe, come into contact with three very odd women named, even more oddly, Mrs Whatsit (don’t we call anything nameless ‘whatsit’?), Mrs Who and Mrs Which, and the adventure proper begins.
This naming of characters is very important for many authors, and frequently significant in understanding their mental processes. Mrs Which’s name echoes its homonym ‘witch’, and this is what the women at first recall. We remember the Three Witches in Macbeth as well the Three Fates in Greek mythology (fata is also Italian for ‘fairy’) and the Three Norns in Scandinavian myth who likewise were prescient. L’Engle would also have known from her wide reading about Egyptologist Margaret Murray, the controversial author of such books as The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Margaret Murray was still alive during the writing and publication of A Wrinkle in Time (she died in 1963 aged 100); though it seems likely that Meg Murry’s own name was suggested — consciously or subconsciously — by the discredited academic, there’s no suggestion that L’Engle, as a committed Episcopalian, espoused her views.
But are the three Mrs W’s really witches? And what is their function? The answer seems to be, from several dropped hints, that they are some kind of guardian angel, their role to precipitate action and advise instead of merely guarding from harm. For it is the task of the young trio of Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin to use their strengths, gifts and talents to search for the missing father. By their own free will they have to learn how to exercise judgement and discrimination and when to act; they have to learn too from their mistakes, which they can’t do if they are completely mollycoddled and protected by the Three Mrs W’s.
For their quest is undoubtedly dangerous. Their hope is to discover the whereabouts of Meg and Charles Wallace’s father, a top scientist involved in highly secret work: this concerns instant travel across distances by means of a ‘tesseract’, a kind of wormhole through space and the fourth dimension. Their journey takes them to several worlds named from beings in Christian and Mayan mythology, two of them in fact circling a sun called Malak (Semitic for ‘angel’ or ‘messenger’). One of the planets, Camazotz, is shrouded by something they instinctively hate, what the children shudderingly call the Black Thing. Camazotz’s population are coerced into conformity, ultimately by a giant brain, and the three children risk being subjected to Its will. In the ensuing conflict can heart win over brain? And how exactly can it?
A Wrinkle in Time is a haunting book. I wasn’t sure if it worked, especially as it seemed at times to be sliding into the kind of allegory or Christian symbolism that for me helped make The Chronicles of Narnia a very flawed fantasy. But its ultimate message — moral, if that’s not too strong a word — is a humanist one, even if one were to give it a religious spin. Above all, the ciphers that are the children of Lewis’ Narniad are here replaced by well-defined individuals: the talented Charles Wallace, the loyal and sociable Calvin and especially the irascible, temperamental and fierce Meg — the “difficult child”, just like Madeleine! And the anger and ferocity she displays are, as we find out, the outward sign of her true and genuine feelings, the key to solving the conflict.
Some of the best aspects come from the analogies given for living one’s life. My favourite is Calvin’s example of the sonnet. Even though it has strict form, with set metre, number of lines and rhyme scheme, one has total freedom to choose subject matter, mood and conclusion to fill that form. Is this is not a good template for each person’s time upon this earth?
Review first published February 11th, 2015, and here reposted as the film of the same name goes on general release