Essay / Literature

A Wrinkle in Time Among the Great Books

Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was published in 1962. A few years ago, several Torrey professors had a panel discussion about this strange book that had stayed in print for 50 years, finding new audiences all the time.

Now that the Ava DuVernay-directed Disney movie version of it is out, we thought we’d post a few good paragraphs from that panel discussion.

Melissa Schubert: Madeline L’Engle wrote about 60 books, so she was prolific over the course of her life. And her writing career really was the majority of her actual career, though she had a family, and they had a farmhouse, and at one point she and husband ran general store. Over 10 million copies of A Wrinkle in Time are in print, and it’s distinct among her whole corpus of literature in that this is the only of her books to receive the Newberry Medal. Other books received Newberry honors and nominations,  but the Newberry Medal –for a great piece of American fiction for children– has only been given to this L’Engle book. It was rejected by 26 publishers before Farrer, Strauss & Giroux published it, at a point in time when they did not normally publish children’s literature. But they liked the book, published it, and it received the Newberry Medal the next year.

In her Newberry acceptance speech, L’Engle said something rather lovely about what she hopes books can do, and I think it’s fair to say she hoped that this book of hers did at least reach out towards this accomplishment. She talks about how “there are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe, that we can help our children avoid by providing them with explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.” And this description of books echoes L’Engle’s account of what stars actually are: “a book too can be a star, explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly; a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” So in her praise of good books, she also captures what I think she hopes was the movement of her own book… a force moving into the expanding universe, with the light that renews its energy against the dark forces of standardization, and regimentation, and muffin making.”

Matt Jenson: One of the things I appreciate about the book is the exploration of alternative ways of knowing. There are so many different ways she communicates a knowing that is not the type of knowing we are used to; a knowing that is a personal, intuitive type of knowing, and even a kind of knowing beyond knowing. It happens in lots of ways. There isn’t language for certain realities to be spoken, things have to be known from the inside, and the line “experience is the mother of all learning” is quoted at one point. You have a five-year-old character: Is he a genius? It’s not quite that he’s a genius, but that he has this super-intuitive capacity, by which he’s able to read the thoughts of others. The ways of knowing are unexpected in A Wrinkle in Time again and again. That captures something that’s true: a lot of our knowing occurs in all sorts of quirky ways. And I think it’s also a really inviting feature in the book. I read it as an academic who’s used to knowing, whose job it is “to know,” and to communicate so that students can know, and I find myself invited into a disarming, but also thrilling way of seeing and knowing and experiencing the world and others around me. I find that really compelling.

Melissa Schubert: L’Engle champions these less acceptable ways of knowing through the character of Charles Wallace, who is assumed to be “moronic” (in the book’s language), and also with the character of Meg. One of Meg’s main early discouragements is that she’s basically bad at school. She’s getting in trouble at school because she’s not doing well. These are L’Engle’s heroes.

Paul Spears: I like the fact that throughout the book there’s this notion of trying to have a better perspective about what people are. Especially at the beginning of the book, everybody has already labeled each other. The school has labeled all the kids, everyone’s wondering if they’re normal, everyone’s preconceived notions are already out there, and then L’Engle just take these notions apart one by one. I really enjoyed how the things you thought about someone turned out to be wrong. L’Engle introduces these strange beasts which apparently aren’t anything like us, but they turn out to be anything but dangerous.  She’s always pushing against your first notion, your culturally engrained notion.

Fred Sanders: If you were going to learn one thing from Madeline L’Engle, it would be her hungry imagination. She just wants everything. Whether she’s persuasive in how she gets everything –that’s another story. But she tries to sound like she’s read everything. I suspect she’s read around in a little bit of everything. I just imagine that when she hits a bookshelf, she’s attracted to all possible books, and maybe chews up a few pages from one, and says “That’s all I needed from that! It will now be part of what I’m working on.

Paul Spears: Like string theory!

Fred Sanders: Exactly: “Yeah, string theory, I know a little about that, and it’s awesome, and it’s like what I understand of quantum physics, and it also reminds me of…what’s the word? Tesseracts…yeah,, those are awesome.” And so she just puts it all together in one big soup. I like the way her mind is hungry for all possible truth. And she’s also a good communicator. No doubt you could go through this book and find her making errors in the ways she’s using quotations and scientific explanations; it’s all very loose. But still, she can get hold of a pretty hard idea, and say, “How would you explain that simply?” and then she does it, on subject after subject.

Melissa Schubert: One of the things I think she accomplishes, to a degree, is to suggest the unity of truth. She’s trying to synthesize everything and spit it all back out as the cosmos itself; and mathematics and science and literature and theology have all been getting at the same truth somehow. The hungry imagination seems to be trying to synthesize and display unity.

Matt Jenson: Here at Biola, we do some really hard methodological work about integration of Christian faith and our academic disciplines. But it’s great to see people like L’Engle who are just integrative by nature. They just decided to read some physics because it sounded fun. And so there is something about this voracious appetite for knowledge, for books, and this maybe haphazard path in one’s reading that can involve one in an integrative work when one isn’t thinking about the necessity of integration: it displays a certain type of unity, and takes a certain type of unified mind. No, I don’t think that means a polymathic mind; I think it just means a mind that is open to going out to all sorts of weird places; a mind that doesn’t just fixate on poetry and that’s all it can do.

Fred Sanders: This is the kind of person who just loves reading around in anything and says: “You know, Einstein is like Wordsworth is like Euclid is like birdsong is like Shakespeare!” You want to say to her, “That’s awesome! Keep doing that!” And really, any ordinary scholar in any one of those fields could easily take it apart and say “Einstein is not like Wordsworth in any meaningful way, and certainly not in the way you intend…” Any uninspired scholar can tear some of her intuitive linkages apart. But it’s fairly rare to get the sort of imagination that wants to get at all of the truths at once. And often enough L’Engle gets a lucky hit and you have to admit, “those things do illuminate each other, actually. Thank you for putting those together.”

Matt Jenson: In L’Engle’s work, there is a dire struggle going on in the cosmos, a struggle that we might lose. But it’s a noble struggle and worth losing one’s life for. She paints the influence of “the black thing” as despair, as overwhelming sadness, which I found to be one of the more emotionally persuasive moments in the book. She portrays an overwhelming presence of evil, but there are no fangs on anything, no big beasts, just crushing sadness.

Paul Spears: She also has a lot to say about the dangers of conformity. When you get to the planet Camazotz, there’s a scene where everybody’s bouncing the balls with synchronization except for one boy…but then when he’s caught they’re acting like he never actually even did it. Everyone’s so afraid not to conform on so many levels that everyone is allowing themselves to be sucked into this black hole of despair. No one can even imagine getting themselves out of it. Even the teacher who turns them in says, “Well, I really like children, but I’m really sorry, I’m going to have to do this, because I can’t afford getting in trouble myself.” You can start to see the insidious way in which evil works its way out in the world: it doesn’t look so wicked; it looks dull and sad.

Melissa Schubert: One of the things I like about how L’Engle communicates this vision is that she gives a cosmic picture: these things are  happening at this interplanetary level. There’s this threat of darkness celestially. I think that even though the planet Camazotz is the only planet we zoom in on, there’s a cosmic anxiety about what could go wrong in the world. There’s a desire for freedom against a sterilized and controlled environment. The Camazotz instance might fall a little short of what a planetary wickedness could look like, but I really like that you’ve got cosmic evil shown by this one political instance. It also shows up in one of the scenes where Meg and her father tesser out of Camazotz without Charles Wallace because they’re in so much danger, and she’s radically disappointed, and the narrator says “disappointment was as dark and corrosive in her as the black thing. Ugly words tumbled from her cold lips, even though she herself could not believe it was her father, her beloved, longed-for father that she was talking to this way.” Meg had found her father, but he’d not made everything alright: everything kept getting worse and worse, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties. There was nothing left to hope for, she was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT; and her father was not doing anything. She’d teeter on the seesaw of love and hate, and the black thing pushed her down into hate. It also happens on a personal, individual level. She’s being brought into the darkness. Her darkness doesn’t look like suburban sanguinity, it’s letting the disappointment in her not-perfect father and in the imperfect reunion get the better of her.

Fred Sanders: There’s another major moment that taps into this idea that there’s a great war in the universe between the forces of good and forces of evil. As you start to figure out who are the forces of good and who are the forces of evil, they look up at the dark thing that’s eating up the sky. Here’s the text: “We’re going to fight it,” says Mrs. Which.” And Mrs. Whatsit says

“And we’re not alone, you know children, all through the universe it’s being fought. All through universe it’s being fought. All through the cosmos. And my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, but there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet. And it’s a little planet, dears. Out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them dear.” Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said.

Now, this book won the Newberry award and I read it as a kid in a godforsaken public school in godforsaken Palm Springs, California. So, that’s a big deal, to have Jesus and a Bible quote show up as part of a story that otherwise is not being religious fiction. It goes on from there:

“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said, “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo DaVinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively, “And Michelangelo?”
“And Shakespeare!” Charles Wallace called out, “And Bach! And Pasteur, And Madame Curie, and, Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang out with confidence, “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven, and Rembrandt, and Saint Francis!”

The best thing to say there is say “Hey! She got inside the imagination of young people and put Jesus at the head of the list of fighters for the light.” And the Christian stuff is in a privileged place; it gets to come out at the shining moments and be sort of the key that explains the rest of it. She’s got a Christian imagination in that sense.

Paul Spears: Reading this as an adult, I enjoyed it. That’s one of the criteria Lewis talks about when he talks about children’s literature: he says that when you read it as a child and enjoy it, but then you go back to it as an adult, and you still find it good and thoughtful and refreshing and helpful, that’s when you’ve know you’ve got a good book. That’s what good children’s literature is. It should be good enough for an adult to read it and engage it.

Melissa Schubert: “It was maybe my sophomore of junior year of college that I went on a Madeline L’Engle kick. I had read a good portion of the Time Quintet as a younger person, so I re-engaged those, and that felt like going home, somehow. Once you’re in her imaginative world, it feels comfortable to go to the next book and the next book because she has characters that cross over. I remember really enjoying my first adult re-reading, and it was because of that sense of returning to something that had been good at the time.

The other argument for the greatness of A Wrinkle in Time that is being brought up right now in 2012 is that it inaugurated this serious resurgence of adolescent female heroines. Right now, we’re in the middle of a proliferation of young adult, science fiction and fantasy books, and L’Engle is a front runner for that.


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