January 28, 2004

Some Wrinkles in A Wrinkle in Time

Category: Literature :: Permalink

A couple of entries ago, I mentioned that I was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Sarah asked what I thought about it.

On the whole, it’s a fun book, written, of course, for younger readers but readable for grown-ups too. (Wasn’t it C. S. Lewis who said that was the mark of a good children’s story: You can read it with pleasure when you’re older.)

Looking back, though, I enjoyed the beginning of the story more than the middle and end. The enjoyment had to do with atmosphere as well as with characterization: I liked the sense of mysteries deepening and the characters — Meg, in particular — interested me. But some of the adventures in the middle of the book seemed to be padding; they didn’t deepen the characters or advance the story. The end was predictable and, well, a bit flat.

In my earlier entry, I mentioned that L’Engle’s theology in this book is hardly orthodox. Before I comment on that, let me say that I did appreciate the scene where the children encounter the sorta-angelic beings who are singing a song which, when translated, is a psalm of praise to God. The other times Scripture appeared felt a bit forced, though not inappropriate.

I wasn’t pleased, however, with the scene where the children realize that the great fighters against evil have included Jesus, of course, but also Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, and Copernicus.

That scene is at the heart of what I perceive as one of the biggest weaknesses of the book. The children are shown that their planet is in danger from the (rather unimaginatively named) Black Thing, which appears to be Evil. But … what is evil? In particular, what is this evil which has been fought, not only by Jesus, but also by Einstein, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Pasteur, and others? I grant that science and art are gifts from God and that, through them, He has relieved some of the effects of the fall (e.g., sickness). Perhaps that’s what L’Engle has in mind. But that isn’t particularly clear. The other possible implication — that advances in science are themselves conquests of evil — doesn’t reflect the true nature of evil.

So, too, with the encounter with evil on the planet Camazotz (is that name related to the word “comatose,” I wonder?). Evil there seems to be embodied in IT (again, by the way, an unimaginative name; I refer the reader to Lin Carter’s helpful discussion of the naming of things in Imaginary Worlds). But what exactly is ITs evil?

Well, it seems to be the imposition of uniformity and the eradication of diversity. Fine. I grant that that’s evil. But IT wasn’t completely satisfying as a foe, perhaps (I’m groping to understand my own reactions here) because evil was simply a character-less impersonal external force and those aren’t much fun to defeat (nor is IT actually defeated in the book).

Only when Meg herself responds to someone she loves with bitterness because he has disappointed her do we get a real human being acting evilly — and only then do we really have a truly human complexity and depth. Only then do we have the kind of thing we all struggle with. Otherwise, evil is an impersonal and therefore rather superficial and uninteresting force.

This is the first of L’Engle’s books that I’ve read and I’ll likely go on to read more. Again, I did enjoy the beginning of the book, with its mysteries deepening and its likable characters. Perhaps in subsequent books, L’Engle’s plotting and characterization — and treatment of evil — deepens. And hey, I think I’m a bit of a sucker for this sort of thing. Though I haven’t read Nesbit (surprisingly enough), I did read Edward Eager’s somewhat humorous Nesbit pastiches and I grew up on C. S. Lewis.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:39 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “Some Wrinkles in A Wrinkle in Time

  1. Elliot Says:

    Good points. It’s been a while since I read it, but what you say strikes me as accurate. Judging from reviews of her later books, she did improve.

    I don’t think there’s any doubt about L’Engle’s Christian commitment (even if she does tend to a liberal approach) – nevertheless, conservative Christians have tried to get ‘Wrinkle’ banned from schools and libraries because it mentioned Jesus in a list with other good people, as though he were nothing but.

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