All you need is love

brain, old print
A disembodied brain (‘IT’) rules over Camazotz (the name is taken from the Mayan bat god)

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?

Madeleine L'Engle credit: http://www.madeleinelengle.com/madeleine-lengle/
Madeleine L’Engle (credit: http://www.madeleinelengle.com/madeleine-lengle/)

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

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25 thoughts on “All you need is love

  1. Annabel (gaskella)

    Never read this book – but did acquire a copy not so long ago so I could see for myself as I was always hearing it mentioned. I shall look forward to giving it a go, esp now you’ve helped with some of the symbolism therein.

    1. Though it won the Newbery prize when it was published it’s less well known in the UK than N America, probably not surprising given that two classic British children’s books — Alison Uttley’s ‘A Traveller in Time’ and Penelope Lively’s ‘A Stitch in Time’ — also include the same word ‘time’ in their titles.

  2. I read it as a child, so of course, all of this went over my head. It was a childhood favorite. I loved the concept of warping through time. You’ve pointed things only adults would catch, which makes me want to read it again.

    1. And of course I’ve read this as an adult and can only catch a faint echo of any Big Bang effect this would have on a child’s mentality. A child might wish they too could ‘magically’ tesser across time’s wrinkles, I’m pondering cause and effect, how and why whilst also temporarily suspending disbelief.

  3. Such a ready-witted overview!~ I much enjoyed the post and particulalry liked the excerpt in which you state that Mrs Which’s name echoes its homonym ‘witch’… and when you relate that to the Three Witches in Macbeth as well the Three Fates in Greek mythology… by the way, I have once written about the Moirae… I will add the link for you to check it out, if you are interested: http://wp.me/p60vo-3W7 . All my best witches.. .Oh I meant to say wishes!… Aquileana 😀

    1. Thanks for the link to a great summative post on the Moirae, enjoyed reading this! One thought leads to another — I could have referenced fairy godmothers in fairytales, especially in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ when the princess has it predicted — by a sinister fairy — that she will die appropriately enough as a result of a spindle…

  4. I started to read it aloud to my family, and half way there they weren’t interested. I read it all and told them in the end, “oh, well, it’s all about love, love triumphs”. We are christians, we love the Narnia books because the symbolism is not flaunted nor contrived, but it’s intrinsic, and whether you see it or not, the adventures in Narnia are fabulous, narrated with talent, while this book was a strange hybrid, or a book that did not excite our imagination. (And it may be our imaginations are at fault, I don’t say otherwise, -since this seems to be a favorite of many, and I totally respect that and I’m glad to hear it inspired and it still does inspire many.)

    1. Thanks for commenting on this, Silvia, really interesting to read your take on this. Yes, I agree to some extent that this doesn’t excite in the same way that other fantasies do — in fact, there are sections where the narrative struggled to keep me interested — but I actually found the message about love triumphing in the end uplifting, indeed central to the story. I’m not a Christian, but the Pauline rumination about love that is read at so many marriage ceremonies (Corinthians 13: 4-13, but I’m sure you know that) could, from what I remember of it, almost be the epigraph to this book.

      But your sense of it being a kind of hybrid, yes, I think that’s a valid insight. L’Engle was Episcopalian but, from memory, I believe she wrote that she didn’t want to come over preachy in this series — yes, it is part of a series, like the Chronicles of Narnia — though there were some religious elements included; that she in fact was more excited about the scientific themes she put into her fantasy because science and maths were what she loved reading about as a child and as an adult.

      As for the Narnia books, I’ve discussed these elsewhere so I won’t reiterate my feelings about them again here; but I don’t think it quite works to compare them with L’Engle’s book, despite both being children’s fantasies. Lewis’ Narniad was primarily allegorical (an excellent study, Planet Narnia, convincingly relates the books to medieval Christian planetary symbolism) while this novel contains no allegory at all.

      But this is all just my opinion, and clearly our reactions to Wrinkle have not quite aligned! Perhaps we can agree to differ? 🙂

      1. Oh, I regreted comparing them right after hitting publish. I think I agree with you, it was my inability to express properly what came up short. I have read LEngle’s Circle of Time, and I loved it. I appreciate her much. I’m much more deficient reader than you, and I do appreciate your close read of this title. Yes, the math and science must be the greatest thing of this book. Being honest, I’m not great at either, and the story didn’t capture me or my girls. However, I am no detractor at all, I think the book is such an important title. I am glad it’s well loved (by people inside and outside christianity).

        As for Narnia, yes, you say it well, it’s Lewis narration of the Christian theme, or maybe his recreation of it in the world of Narnia.

        I agree about the epigraph and Cor. 13.

        1. I mean, of course, we can to disagree, it’s an honor to have you extend me that invitation — for I still think it’s my deficiency that stopped me from enjoying it more. (And it’s not that the humanism or hybrid bothered me at all, for I don’t think her goal was the same as C.S. Lewis’s, and unlike some who are bothered by her not going all the way with her christian elements, or who don’t like the strange mix, I, having read her Circle of Quiet, find Wrinkle very congruent with her beliefs, and a great book to have finally been published. (Btw, I have enjoyed for years the pictures in her title The Glorious Impossible — paintings by Giotto — but never read her text, and I plan to do so soon.

        2. Oh, please don’t do yourself down, I was probably expressing myself a little too baldly, and rather badly too, I suspect. I’ve only read this one L’Engle and not even contemplated the two Circle books of hers you mentioned, so you’re better placed than I am in that respect.

          Now, you’ve intrigued me with your references to ‘The Glorious Impossible’ — Giotto! What’s not to like! Especially having admired his frescoes on a couple of visits to Florence — so I imagine this may be my next L’Engle read! 🙂

          1. Lol!, I won’t do myself down, but only if you don’t either, -grin.
            Jealous of you having met Giotto frescoes in person.
            I will let you know how the writing is, but just for the coffee size book with the art, it’s worth it.

            1. It’s a deal! 😊 And the Giotto frescoes, they’re marvellous to see — I believe those in Santa Croce depicting the life of St Francis were not long restored when we saw them, and the Madonna in the Uffizi Gallery is just exquisite.

  5. Hello, I am new here, found a like on one my comments, and landed by way of literary tesseract on this amazing blog planet. As a Christian and as a teacher of the intermediate grades I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. Love overcoming evil is the dominant Christian underpinning across the broad spectrum of denominational diversity. I am so glad having found your blog and look forward to being an active reader of your posts.

    1. Thanks for finding your way here, Peter, and now I’m wondering which comment like I made, and on which blog!

      I have to reiterate — I’m not a Christian, in fact I’ll be clear on this, I’m an atheist — but I have a strong sense of compassion over dogma, charity over doctrine and rational thinking over theology. I say this so you mightn’t possibly be misled by my positive comments on this novel. Paul said the truest and most humane thing when he wrote that without caritas “I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”

      Notwithstanding my rather forceful remarks I do hope you find much to enjoy on my posts, in which I look at many novels that as it happens seem to involve love overcoming evil, though not necessarily with religious overtones! 🙂

      1. You liked my comment on Sue’s post ‘Which is my best side’.

        In quoting Paul you showed your open-mindedness towards the spiritual aspects apart from dogma as can be found in innumerable passages in the Bible. For the record I have always made a distinction between the message of love and those people throughout history who corrupted and distorted the message for own gain and had given Christianity a bad name.

  6. Thank you for re-posting this, Chris, since it’s very timely and I missed it the first time round. I look forward to re-reading the book as an adult, and to watching the film as well, although I am always wary of Disney productions, to say the least. I hadn’t remembered the sonnet analogy. The only scene I remember from the novel is when — Meg, is it? — was trying to resist the force of evil, which presented itself as a steady rhythmic ticking. It would have been the path of least resistance to fall in with that insistent drumbeat, but the character manages to hold on to her own internal moral compass. That affected me deeply as a teenager.

    As always, your wide and prolific reading and reviews amaze me.

    Happy Spring!
    Josna

    1. P.S. When our son was the right age, I read him another Madeleine L’Engle novel, The Wind in the Door, the second novel in the Time quintet. I hadn’t read it before, neither had I realized that Wrinkle was part of a series, and we both absolutely loved it. I think we tried to move on to Book Three, but if I recall we didn’t like it as much, and didn’t read any more of the series after that.

      1. I’ll take your words on board when I come to consider reading the sequels, though that won’t be any time yet, so much else to distract me already!

    2. Happy spring to you too, Josna! Spring flowers are definitely bursting through here, lambs gamboling and mercury creeping up, though here in the UK we’ve been promised a snowy Easter!

      It’s been three years and more since I read ‘Wrinkle’ and so most of it is fading from memory, though the sonnet reference clearly mattered to me at the time! Anyway, I’m glad you found this interesting; though I have anxieties about how many liberties the film may be taking …

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