How does a work of fiction become beloved by generations of readers? Not merely admired but positively embraced like an intimate relative or friend?
Plainly, mere perfection of composition, while hardly a detriment, is not sufficient: many flawlessly written books do not excite this bond. A work that triggers primal emotions, is suspenseful and surprising, and juggles meaningful archetypes in an eternal pattern will stand a better chance at becoming cherished than one that only stimulates the intellect — though, paradoxically, it’s intellectual heft that gives a great story longevity in the imagination. The tale’s characters, of whatever morality, must resonate in a lifelike manner and appeal to our sympathies. And of course, if a particular story vibrates with the zeitgeist, it gets taken up more instinctively, however much it risks falling out of favor when times change.
But above all, to become loved a book has to first offer love: Openeness, affection for the reader, a sense that its universe exists on a substrate of agape. Ray Bradbury — perhaps the paradigmatic writer of this school — identified the phenomenon in his essay “Zen & the Art of Writing,” where he urges an outpouring of the heart upon the page to win over readers. The romance between book and person is no different than that between two people. “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make,” to quote a bunch of lads just starting out fifty years ago, when Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time first appeared. And if ever a book offered love and received love in return, Wrinkle qualifies.
Appearing in 1962 after a host of rejections nearly scuttled its publication, this Young Adult science fiction novel immediately began to captivate readers of all ages and critics as well, picking up a Newbery Award the very next year. Its popularity has never since waned, and the handsome new hardcover edition from its original publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux, celebrates the occasion with class and verve, offering plenty of ancillary material. But that’s only the wrapping around the original gift from author to readers, one whose sturdy and inspired and affectionate lineaments still shine forth.
For the few who don’t know its story well — or for those whose memory of it has dimmed — A Wrinke in Time follows the otherworldly exploits of the tightly knit and quirky Murry family. Kate and Alex Murry, a pair of married scientists, are parents to a pair of well-adjusted twins and two quite different children: five-year-old prodigy Charles Wallace and Margaret, or Meg, a drama-derailed brainy adolescent whose slow-blooming talents will eventually manifest themselves when most in need. At book’s outset, Mr. Murry has been absent from home for a full year, whereabouts unknown, putting the family dynamics under dark strain.
Quickly and almost simultaneously, some outsiders enter the picture: a likable neighbor boy named Calvin O’Keefe and three aliens dubbed Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. The Murry kids and Calvin quickly find themselves swept up in a galactic-scale battle against an evil force known as IT, an entity who has already ensnared Mr. Murry and soon entrains Charles Wallace as well. Ultimately, IT is conquered by nothing more nor less than the sheer force of Meg’s pure love, and once again baby-boomer readers — the cohort that first clutched Wrinkle to its bosom — might hear strains of the Beatles, this time harmonizing on “All You Need Is Love.”
Its virtues, of course, far exceed the sketch of its main action. Perhaps most appealing to young readers is the tender and clear-eyed depiction of a real family dynamic, an ensemble of varying personalities who all love each other intensely but whose strong, genius egos sometimes raise conflicts. As the focal character, imperfect Meg is inhabited with great intimacy by the author, and her emotional roller coaster is both exciting and deeply familiar. But the love between the adult Murrys emerges fully as well, as does the touching nascent romance between Meg and Calvin, and the social isolation of Charles Wallace. By allowing us into the normally hidden labyrinths of any family’s mutual existence, L’Engle ensures readerly solidarity.
In the line of archetypical storytelling, L’Engle is no slouch either. Her fairy-tale tropes — abducted parent; arrival of the Gandalfian stranger(s) initiating a quest; far-voyaging; realms under a spell; well-met comrades; exotic vistas — are superbly arrayed yet never programmatic. Everything feels organic. One underplayed aspect of the telling is L’Engle’s real sense of humor: the meeting between Meg and Calvin owes more than a little to Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. Satirical touches abound as well, and a line such as “IT sometimes calls ITself the Happiest Sadist” comes across as pure Lenny Bruce. But none of this undercuts the high stakes and suspense.
That L’Engle casts her tale as hard-edged science fiction rather than fantasy is another plus. SF has always been the underdog in YA novels of fantastika, appearing less often and selling in smaller numbers — at least till the triumph of The Hunger Games. And yet there’s a power to well-done SF that fantasy just can’t match. Narnia is captivating but arbitrary and unlikely of attainment. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit — Will Travel is a map of a youngster’s reachable or aspirational future.
I bring up Heinlein deliberately at this juncture to examine an issue that intrigues me: Madeleine L’Engle’s possible familiarity with genre SF. I postulate that she was well acquainted with the major works in the field prior to her book. Her fluid use of genre tropes and conventions is just too powerful and assured. Had she not read anything prior, Wrinkle would have been the most miraculous ex nihilo reinvention of the wheel in literature. The Heinlein book had to be on her mind. In that 1958 novel, a young lad named Kip (with quirky Dad) is swept up in outer-space intrigue, adopted by a benevolent alien named the “Mother Thing” to fight an evil being dubbed “Wormface.” The Heinlein model is too precisely followed — with unique changes, true — to be the product of chance.
Of course, one of L’Engle’s key innovations lacking in Heinlein was the metaphysical angle, not precisely doctrinal Christianity but a kind of ecstatic theology of cosmic consciousness fully in tune with and foreshadowing the era of the High Sixties. In this mash-up of science and religion I see a deliberate echo of C. S. Lewis’s great Ransom Trilogy, in which similar spiritual dimensions overlay conventional space travel.
Two other outstanding motifs recall another pair of genre writers. The whole Homo superior riff involving the Murry kids (L’Engle actually used the word mutant in the text before excising it) recalls Wilmar Shiras’s Children of the Atom and a host of allied titles. And the monolithic establishment of “CENTRAL Central Intelligence” on Camazotz could be straight out of half a dozen A. E. van Vogt novels. Finally, L’Engle’s allegorical layerings — is the totalitarian IT regime an analogue of communism or even of suburban USA ticky-tacky conformity? — are pure Galaxy magazine stylings.
But in any case, L’Engle marvelously altered and adapted a host of precedents and her own inventions and emotions to create a novel that tugged at the heartstrings, intrigued the imagination, and rode the wave of a generational sea change to a permanent place on the shelf. When at her moment of testing Meg is told “We want nothing from you that you do without grace…or that you do without understanding,” the young reader is given the honor of being treated as an adult with free agency and the capacity to plummet or soar.
Proud and self-sufficient, Wrinkle stood alone for eleven years before a direct sequel arrived. But L’Engle did make a lateral, second-generation excursion almost immediately. In 1965 came The Arm of the Starfish. Meg and Calvin were married, and parents to a new heroine, twelve-year-old Polly O’Keefe, one of seven siblings. (Polly would subsequently star in Dragons in the Waters from 1976 and A House like a Lotus from 1984.)
But it probably would have been impossible for any writer to resist creating further adventures for Charles Wallace and Meg. Eventually, by 1989, discounting the three Polly O’Keefe books, A Wrinkle in Time emerged as the foundation of a quintet. And while the four follow-ups are eminently readable, they lack the majesty and integral essentialness and lovability of the first. They’re simply well done and fun and even illuminating, without being endearing.
Wrinkle ends with the line “[T]here was a gust of wind, and they were gone.” So it’s fitting that another wind brings adventure back into the life of Meg Murry and her posse. When A Wind in the Door opens, a year or so has passed for the characters. It’s autumn again — L’Engle’s avowed favorite season — and indeed all the volumes of the quintet take place either in that season or in winter. Charles Wallace has started school and is being bullied. Mr. Murry is gone on assignment (the missing-father motif without quite the same urgency), Meg and Calvin are trying to define their relationship, and suddenly a “dragon” manifests. The dragon turns out to be an alien (or an angel — a distinction always carefully elided in L’Engle’s books) called “a cherubim” and named Proginoskes, accompanied by a Teacher alien named Blajeny. They bring news of another quest for Meg, against the evil Echthroi — and to save the life of a sickened Charles Wallace.
While the story is enthralling, it’s a bit more diffuse, slow-paced, and nebulous than Wrinkle’s interstellar rescue mission. Having much of the action occur within a metaphysical structure known as “the postulatom Metron Ariston” is akin to staging a tale in virtual reality: one loses tangibility and physicality, and anything seems possible, perceptually anyhow. Moreover, with Charles Wallace out of commission, dying in bed, we lose his active presence. Likewise, Calvin seems underutilized to me. Lastly, a curious instance of retconning: Wrinkle firmly inhabited the New Frontier, Cold War reality of 1962, but all of a sudden in Wind, just “one year later,” we’re living in post–Richard Nixon Eco-doom 1973. It’s a tad jarring, as when current Batman comics have him growing up in the 1980s rather than the 1930s of his first origins.
A cousin wind flows through A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but it’s the wind of time. Some ten years have gone by for Meg. She’s married to Calvin (lamentably offstage for the whole book) and pregnant with unborn Polly. Thanksgiving finds the whole clan reunited, along with Calvin’s irascible mother. A geopolitical crisis is brewing (courtesy of the distantly plotting Echthroi), and Charles Wallace is tasked with solving it. His voyage of comprehending involves astral time travel via corporeal possession of past residents of their New England village, courtesy of a unicorn guide named Gaudior. Meg stays mentally bonded to her brother during the whole chrono-odyssey, thanks to the skill of “kything” she learned in the prior book. Charles Wallace’s tinkering with the continuum resets the timeline, and all is well. L’Engle achieves a nice frisson by equating years of subjective time-travel with a single night in Meg’s perceptions, but Meg’s role as passive observer and support are disappointing, and Charles Wallace’s adventures in historical time hardly rival the trip to Camazotz.
The fourth volume, Many Waters, is surely the most anomalous and least satisfying. First, it’s an interstitial adventure, set at the period when Meg was still a college student. And it stars the twin brothers of the Murry family, Sandy and Dennys, figures I’ve failed to mention before due to their utter normality and prior employment as spear carriers. Not precisely banal, they now carry the entire weight of the novel, as we are bereft of Meg, Charles Wallace, and all the others. Tampering with Mr. Murry’s equipment, the boys end up back in the biblical Middle East and discover a supernatural domain true to Scripture. Seraphim and nephilim exist, as do a host of other mystical creatures, and humans live for centuries like Methuselah. As physical castaways in time, the boys do not have Charles Wallace’s astral protection, and they face rigors and challenges that do contribute to a new maturity on their part. As well, parallels are drawn between biblical legends and quantum physics. But the James Michener ambiance of this outing — I’m thinking of The Source — is not in the same league with the cosmic adventures of the previous books.
The quintet concludes with An Acceptable Time, an installment that also brings Polly’s spinoff solo adventures to a close. Polly, now seventeen, is visiting her grandparents at the ancestral New England home. She discovers a time gate she is able to use by her inherent ability to “tesser,” the same skill her grandfather developed in the first book. She and a family friend, Bishop Colubra, as well as a boy her own age, Zach, journey back 3,000 years to an era when the People of the Wind inhabited the land. A Goddess-worshipping society, hybridized with Druid visitors from across the Atlantic, they welcome Polly as a celestial being of power. But she almost ends up as a human sacrifice before all is resolved.
This final volume features a passage that addresses Meg Murry’s offstage domesticity and apparent lack of a more glorious destiny, with Mrs. Murry and Polly having a talk about Meg. Mrs. Murry blames Meg’s lack of self-confidence and lowered career expectations on herself, to some degree, but she ultimately affirms Meg’s lot as a satisfying and worthy one. This alibi is not a patch on having Meg present as her feisty teenage self, but it’s something. L’Engle reaffirms her vision of love as central (Dr. Louise Colubra: “Whatever we give, we have to give out of love. That, I believe, is the nature of God.”) and the only real bad guy in the book, Zach, exhibits the fatal flaw of being unable to love anyone but himself.
Ultimately, A Wind in the Door comes closest to replicating the joys and vistas of Wrinkle: the subsequent three books in the series seem constricted and limited by comparison, taking place in smaller, Earthbound arenas and bereft of the same compelling family dynamics. Moreover, despite some scientific rationalizations, none achieve the amalgam of space opera and theurgy that saturates the chapters of Wrinkle.
Madeleine L’Engle channeled a burst of agape-rich storytelling when she wrote Wrinkle, a work that has gloriously endured. Her follow-up tales are a saint’s attempts to recapture and recount the epiphany that is no longer immanent.
How does a work of fiction become beloved by generations of readers? Not merely admired but positively embraced like an intimate relative or friend?