Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tesser well, good readers!

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fog of those years had left me with only a few very vague memories of the book, and even those dim recollections were superseded in my mind by images from a Wrinkle in Time filmstrip I can remember seeing in elementary or early junior high school.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.

So. Impressions.

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.


  1. Thanks for that retrospective, Jase. I've often thought of going back and reading some of the favorite books from our childhood -- or at least cherrypicking books from the master list of prize winners. The last Newberry winner I've read is Lois Lowry's The Giver (1994), and that only because so many of my '90s-vintage students recommended it for my Utopias class. Before that, it was Bridge to Terabithia (1978), which I loved, and which I don't want to adulterate by watching the movie version.

    Judging by your review, I probably won't go back to read L'Engle, but then maybe A Wind in the Door or A Swiftly Tilting Planet would be more satisfying to geezers like us. :)

  2. Glad to be of service. But don’t judge Wrinkle too harshly. It may not be a perfect book, but what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in obviousness, hahae. Just kidding, really. It’s certainly not a bad book, not at all. And it’ll take you all of, what, two days to read.

    Looking over the master list (as you called it) of Newberries, I was surprised at just how few I’ve read. Only one winner and four losers (hahae, that is, so-called “Honor Books”). The winner is The High King by Lloyd Alexander (1969); and the runners-up are: Abel’s Island by William Steig (1977), The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972), The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander (1966), and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (1960).

    Allowing for some “drift” — that is, the time it takes an award-winning book to fully suffuse the children’s literary canon (a literal wrinkle in time, eh?) — I guess this short list bookends my childhood pretty well.

  3. I taught Wrinkle last year in a seminar on children's lit & religion and was disappointed to find it hadn't aged well for me at all. Though I love the Mrs Ws, I didn't find the evil appealing at all (and doesn't it have to be, to be truly tempting?), and it all wrapped up too quickly. That said, there's a lot of good stuff in it as well, and I think L'Engle's books got better with time.

    I just found your blog from a link over at Fuse 8--I'll be back for more...

  4. Welcome, Libby! Yes, the way you’ve described it accords very well with my own experience. I kept thinking, Mr. Murry has been gone for a couple of years, but if it was all going to be this “easy”, why didn’t they do all this long before?! And Mr. Murry was supposedly fighting the Black Thing, so how was he so easily captured and what use has he been in the struggle? And if he could be so easily overcome, then why weren’t Meg and Calvin? Perhaps because Mr. Murry was alone, I suppose. But still, the story begins to unravel a bit when you start to pull on one of the threads.

    Myself, I would have liked to see more of the “beasts” of the planet Ixchel (which is also the name of a Mayan goddess of medicine and midwifery, an intriguing reference for a Christian novel). And more with the Happy Medium — what a clever name! Well ahead of its time. And the final couple of chapters could have been much more developed than they were.

  5. I'm in my late thirties and still think of Aunt Beast when in need of comfort.

    I may try rereading A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I remember there was a poem in it I loved so much I copied onto notebook paper, folded it up and punched a hole in it and wore it on a chain around my neck. (awwww. Weird kid.)

    And I'm glad someone else remembers the filmstrip! Talk about a lost art form.... :)

  6. Hi, grrlpup. I’m in my late (well, middle-late) thirties, too — 37 next month, to be exact. So I can relate.

    I may try rereading A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I remember there was a poem in it I loved so much I copied onto notebook paper, folded it up and punched a hole in it and wore it on a chain around my neck. (awwww. Weird kid.)

    That’s a great anecdote. I used to do “weird” things, too. Not the same sort of things, but weird nonetheless. My friend Gary and I, for example, used to pass notes written in runes. Our eighth-grade Earth Science teacher had no end of trouble with us, but couldn’t read our notes, and so had to let it go. We must have been really frustrating for her! ;)

    And I’m glad someone else remembers the filmstrip! Talk about a lost art form.... :)

    And how! I loved filmstrips — especially when I got picked to be the one to advance the strip at the sound of the tone. If they survive, I’m sure that one day archaeologists of the future will be puzzling over just what the heck those little strips of film were for!

  7. I think A Wrinkle in Time has suffered a bit because it opened the door to more sophisticated science fiction/fantasy for children. Reading it against the backdrop of what else was published for young people in 1963 shows how ground-breaking it was. Reading it with the knowledge of the last forty years shows how many authors have gone over the same ground and further.

  8. Good observation, J.L. I think you’re absolutely right. Interestingly, 1963 was the year C.S. Lewis died, and also the year Dr. Who debuted on the BBC. Maybe a watershed year?

  9. I, too, read this book last weekend for the first time in years (before seeing this blog entry) and I agree with your observations. It's not quite as good as I remember but I did enjoy it.

    Soon I'll re-read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Wind in the Door, and Many Waters (which is new to me). I hardly remember anything about books 2 & 3, so I'm sure it will be interesting.


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