The winter I was ten, my teacher read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to our class, a chapter a day. It was, in my view, the sole reason for getting up and going to school. I loved the novel’s Meg Murry, a girl neither beautiful nor graceful nor socially gifted—yet entrusted with a dangerous and salvific mission. She was an icon of unlikely heroic potential for bespectacled girls everywhere, and I was no exception. I can remember almost panting with impatience for the teacher to take the book out of her desk drawer. I can remember feeling, as she shut the book at the end of another chapter, as if I’d been pushed suddenly and rudely back through a curtain from Meg’s world into my own—which looked rather like Meg’s, minus the interplanetary travel and the extraterrestrials stealing sheets off the clothesline.
The novels of Madeleine L’Engle that I read in those awkward transitional years of late elementary school and junior high—chiefly A Wrinkle in Time, over and over, and its first sequel, A Wind in the Door—answered some deep longing in me for there to be more to the universe than meets the eye. The idea of cherubim and other supernatural “Servants,” the idea that there might really be angels and that they wouldn’t be fat babies with wings, but something as unimaginable and terrifying as they were good, was compelling and new to me. I devoured those novels even as I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, not because they satisfied my inchoate yearning for something beyond the world I knew, but because they stoked it.
Much has been written on the death of Madeleine L’Engle on September 6, 2007 at age eighty-eight, all of it celebrating her contributions to children’s literature. In fact, L’Engle bridled at being labeled a “children’s author” and insisted that she would not “write down” to her audience. It’s true that her fiction was largely marketed for children, whatever her intent, and she was often awarded honors such as the Newbery Medal for children’s books. But she was willing, as most children’s authors are not, to engage ideas both challenging and strange in the world of children’s books.
The tesseract, for instance—the conceit around which A Wrinkle in Time revolves—derives from geometry and describes a four-dimensional construction consisting of three conjoined cubes. Other novels deal with kything, a form of intuitive and extra-verbal communication that can transport the practitioner, in his mind, into other times, places, and bodies. L’Engle’s characters include centaurs, snakes, disembodied brains, and cherubim, as well as relatively ordinary human children and adults whose workaday misadventures, in the hands of another writer, might have been the sum of the story. It’s perhaps not surprising that a daydreamy child would be irresistibly drawn, through a story, to a potent imaginative crossroads.
Not insignificantly, L’Engle also bridled at being labeled a Christian writer, preferring instead to be known as “a writer who is struggling to be a Christian.” Any artist’s resistance to religious pigeonholing is understandable, especially when the pigeonhole is already full of substandard efforts raised to a dubious level of art by virtue of being “religious.” We have all encountered novels, poems, paintings, and music of sincere and unimpeachable sentiment that were nevertheless so bad they made our teeth hurt. What L’Engle intuited about art was a principle that Flannery O’Connor named: “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that, because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality . . . . But the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is.”
The world of L’Engle’s Time trilogy resembles the fictional worlds of C.S. Lewis, one of her acknowledged heroes. Like Lewis, L’Engle posits the presence of other worlds whose fates hinge on the actions and decisions of human children. To penetrate the natural human world, to strip characters down to both their essential flaws—pride, short-sightedness, fear, lack of faith—and their innate but unexplored potential for heroism and sacrifice, L’Engle’s impulse, like Lewis’s, is to remove them from their own world for a time and then to return them from their adventures safe and outwardly unchanged but with new understanding.
Their stories are conversion stories. L’Engle’s protagonists are called from their nets to follow; they do so with fear and grumbling and little vision in the beginning for what is at stake or the grace they will need in the end. In A Wrinkle in Time, the clumsy, myopic, awkward Meg, confronted at every turn with her own incompetence, ultimately saves both her imprisoned father and her beloved little brother Charles Wallace—an awkward and inadvertently unlikable character in himself—by discovering that the one thing she can do, and the one thing that the disembodied totalitarian brain IT cannot do, is love the people she loves.
In A Wind in the Door, Meg is called one step further, to move beyond the easy emotion with which she loves her family and her friend Calvin, to love her human nemesis, the school principal Mr. Jenkins. Likewise, Mr. Jenkins, a pallid, timorous, incompetent sort himself, discovers his own capacity for courage as he is drawn with Meg and Calvin, in company with an alarming “cherubim” named Proginoskes and other supernatural personages, into a battle between good and evil that takes place, simultaneously, everywhere in the universe. In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the now teenage genius Charles Wallace must lay aside his reliance on his own intellect to enter into the minds and lives of other characters in other times to avert a course of events leading to disaster in the present, while Calvin’s angry, inscrutable mother, now Meg’s mother-in-law, reveals herself in her final hours to be a character of depth and dignity on whom, unexpectedly enough, the fate of the known world turns.
Clearly what’s at stake in L’Engle’s fantasy is no mere matter of pushing the witch into the oven; on the other hand, that’s precisely what does happen in these heady fairy tales, with the crucial difference that the witch keeps coming back, in wildly different guises: an alien brain, a troupe of shape-shifting annihilators called Echthroi, and finally a human madman, his finger poised over a fatal button. Each novel in L’Engle’s time trilogy leaves the door ajar.
All is well—for the moment—but there can always be a sequel. Evil is never a single entity on whom the forces of good can concentrate their strength; it is an ever-fluid force like running bamboo, which, after you’ve eradicated it in the back fence corner, sprouts up anew under the swing set. Perhaps this is why thoughtful children who have read the entire Harry Potter series without flinching report feeling “really creeped out” by something in L’Engle’s books that they are unable to put their fingers on.
Though I adored these books as a child, and still find much to admire in them, I think it’s quite possible to find aspects of them creepy, or at least irritating. The happy, loving family at the heart of the Time trilogy, for example, happens to be a family of geniuses: The “ordinary” twins in the middle only go to boring old medical school in the end, instead of reading minds.
A vein of aestheticism, in fact, runs through all of L’Engle’s fiction: Her central characters are almost always artists of one kind or another, or scientists who listen to Bach. Even the lovably awkward Meg does higher math for fun. Meanwhile, workaday nonintellectuals often appear (as in the case of Calvin’s large family and other inhabitants of the Murrys’ New England village) as crude, inarticulate caricatures, seemingly incapable of any real human feeling.
Some readers of L’Engle’s fantasy perceive a more general foundational disorder at work. In A Landscape With Dragons, a discussion of the merits and dangers of contemporary children’s literature, Michael O’Brien categorizes L’Engle’s work as “good on the surface, but fundamentally disordered,” operating from a theological base that is gnostic and neopagan instead of Christian. L’Engle, a lifelong communicant in the Episcopal Church, often made declarations of belief that tend toward a theological fuzziness: “We’ve built up an image of . . . a comfortable God. It must be shattered,” and that sort of thing, of a piece with the arguments with which people justify, for example, the official blessing of nonmarital cohabitation.
But we are talking about children’s literature. And despite her protestations to the contrary, L’Engle will be remembered chiefly as the author of challenging books that—whatever the writer’s intent—are read by children. The question remains, I suppose, of whether the deeper theological problems that are arguably in L’Engle’s work render it dangerous to the spiritual formation of children.
My intuitive answer is no, though I base that intuition on the simple, anecdotal, and utterly unreliable basis of my own reading of them. As a child, raised on a relatively secular diet of mainstream Protestantism and utterly unaware of the existence of any theological problem beyond being mean to somebody on the playground, I was captivated by the notion that there was such a thing as evil and, conversely, that there was such a thing as good. The idea, further, that even the weak and the flawed were called to the battle—that there even was a battle—roused something in my imagination that years of Sunday School had somehow failed to touch.
What these novels provided me with was something I cannot remember having possessed before I encountered them: a religious imagination. Perhaps I should have been reading them through the lens of the Bible; instead, as a teenager, I turned anew to the Bible with these stories alive in my mind.
The novels themselves were not the gospel, and I don’t think I ever mistook them as such. But they awakened my mind to the idea of a universe in which, even in distant galaxies, God is praised in the familiar words of the Psalms, as the creatures on Uriel sing: Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein . . . . Let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee.