As many of you know, Madeleine L’Engle died only two months ago, not long after Lloyd Alexander’s passing; and so, thinking about all the books I had enjoyed as a child, I decided I would read A Wrinkle in Time again — for only the second time since I first read it some twenty-five (or more?) years ago. The fog of those years had left me with only a few very vague memories of the book, and even those dim recollections were superseded in my mind by images from a Wrinkle in Time filmstrip I can remember seeing in elementary or early junior high school. And now that I’ve read it again, it turns out that some of things I’d remembered must have been from A Wind in the Door or A Swiftly Tilting Planet and not from Wrinkle at all.
Also, interestingly, the library copy I picked up was — in addition to suffering from major water damage and a splitting spine — autographed. “For Heather Winslow,” the neatly penned inscription reads, “Tesser well — Madeleine L’Engle.” When I return it to the library, I’ll have to make sure they know it’s a bit more valuable than they may have thought. I could see a book in its condition landing in the landfill, actually.
First, I have to say, at the risk of turning off some readers or offending any big L’Engle fans, that the book is much more obvious and treacly than I remembered. Perhaps this is because it really is genuinely intended for children (as opposed to some books usually classified “for children” but actually suitable for readers of all ages). Its lessons are rather facile and are delivered by a heavy hand wielding a pretty blunt instrument. Not to be insensitive, but it isn’t terribly surprising that the book was rejected by 26 publishers before it finally found a home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. But it went on to win the 1963 Newberry Award — and made its creator a celebrity of children’s literature — so what do I know? ;)
But setting these complaints aside, the book is enjoyable and interesting overall. The settings and situations are pretty creative, and the characters are appealing. Camazotz and IT are suitably unnerving. Aunt Beast is still a remarkable, inscrutable character. And Charles Wallace is still an enigma, even after all these years. The three angels qua witches — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which (> Witch, get it? :) — are intriguing. Think of a reverse image of the three Weird Sisters of Macbeth (in fact, Mrs. Who makes the comparison and contrast an obvious one, quoting those famous lines: “When shall we three meet again, / In thunder, lightning, or in rain.” The novel even opens with those famous, and nowadays all too banal, words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But somehow, here, it works.
There were a couple of things I noticed this time, which I would not have on my first reading. For one, Mrs. Whatsit, some of you may remember, had once been a Star who sacrificed herself in the struggle with the Black Thing. Reading this now, I wonder whether this is a direct borrowing from C.S. Lewis. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the character of Ramandu had likewise once been a Star. Wrinkle was published only a decade after Dawn Treader, and both authors were well known Christian allegorists, so it seems a plausible connection.
Another thing I noticed this time was the sonnet analogy (in my copy, pp.191–2). Mrs. Whatsit tangles with the perennial question of free will versus predestination versus the omniscience of God, much as Lewis did in The Screwtape Letters. Her argument amounts to this: the sonnet form itself is a very strict, very rigid structure, comprising various unforgiving rules of rhyme and rhythm; however, within the constraints of the form, the poet is free to choose whatever words he or she likes. This resonates well with the idea that Lewis (and Tolkien, too) tried to convey of a system where both omniscience and free will are compatible. Put another way, the relationship between providence and free will is perhaps like chess: God makes the rules, but Man is free to choose any moves allowed by the rules. Some choices lead to victory, some to defeat, and some to a draw. Though not a religious person myself, I liked the simplicity of the sonnet analogy very much.