L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time

May 23, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeleine L’Engle
(Square Fish, 2007) [1962]
256 p.

I have several friends for whom A Wrinkle in Time was a childhood favourite, one of those books that made a big impression at an impressionable age and lingered long in the memory. Somehow I missed reading it myself until now, when, partly because my memory was jogged by the release of the recent film version, and partly because I’ve been wondering whether our eldest might enjoy it, it burbled to the top of the pot.

The story is about Meg, a girl whose scientist father went on a mysterious work-related journey several years before and never returned. She lives at home with her mother and three brothers, including young Charles Wallace, an articulate four-year old who clearly has unusual intellectual gifts — and maybe other gifts too. We are not surprised to learn, as the story unfolds, that the adventure on which Meg and young Charles Wallace embark, together with a neighbour boy Calvin, is a quest to rescue their father and bring him home.

The nature of this quest takes the story into the realms of science fiction and even fantasy, involving, as it does, visits to alien worlds, all under the chaperonage of a trio of mysterious beings capable of making spacetime “wrinkle up” in such a way as to make intergalactic time travel as easy as kiss my hand.

There is a good deal to like about the book. It has, mostly, I found, through the character of Charles Wallace, a sense of mysterious possibility floating above or behind the specifics of the story. There are some intriguing ideas in L’Engle’s portrayal of other worlds and their inhabitants, if you like that sort of thing (and, in full disclosure, I must admit that I don’t really). There is one particularly arresting visual image of social conformity on an alien world. The concluding chapter of the story, in which it reaches its crisis and resolution, was for me quite moving and effective.

On the other hand, I don’t quite understand why the book has such a strong reputation. The story is slight, and felt to me almost perfunctory. (In fairness, I should note that the book is but the opening gambit of a tetralogy.) Charles Wallace notwithstanding, my overall sense of the prose was that it was thin and lacking personality. The three “Mrs” characters, who are supposed to be the principal bearers of mystery and the otherworldly, just didn’t work for me. Galadriel they are not.

The book has been praised as a superior example of “Christian fiction”, especially, I think, in evangelical circles, where categories like “Christian fiction” are fashionable. It’s not a wholly unwarranted designation. Jesus is mentioned (alongside a catalogue of other great figures, like Michelangelo and Gandhi — a sufficiently ambiguous context that the book has actually been banned in some jurisdictions for syncretic tendencies). Scripture is quoted a few times, by one of the “Mrs” characters who is forever quoting this or that famous saying. At a deeper level, the book’s climactic sequence is at least arguably rooted in the Gospel, and Meg’s main character arc is one in which the virtue she stands most in need of is not courage or justice, but love. It is far from feeling like a self-consciously Christian work of fiction, but more like a work of fiction that exists within and draws upon a living Christian inheritance. That inheritance is less sumptuous now than it was when L’Engle wrote the book, and it’s little surprise that the makers of the recent film version (reportedly) excised all of the Christian references. They may be mild, but evidently not mild enough for some tastes.

7 Responses to “L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time”

  1. Janet Says:

    Like you, I have friends for whom this book was very important, and like you, I kind of thought it was okay. I read them all, but they always seemed a bit off to me.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I can’t say that I am eager to read the others in the series. “A bit off” is not a bad way of putting it.

  3. My reaction as well. I never read any of her others.

  4. dksgf Says:

    Spacetime, schmacetime. You don’t strike me as one given to buzzwords.

  5. found your blog via Janet’s blog. Intriguing to read your experience of L’Engle. No, she is not Tolkien and does not weave in a million different worlds like he does. I heard her speak in 1996, I was in the first half of my 19th year of life then and the love that radiated from her, as she talked at Calvin, on stage with her good friend Luci Shaw, made me dive into her books again (I read many of them in grade 7). I love her books but am not bothered that you are, perhaps one would say, more lukewarm about them. To me she speaks of home, of place in a world where there are fewer places to actually rest. Wrinkle is the famous one and I think one of the things that speaks to so many is her description of home; of Calvin’s joy at finding a home, a place where he was understood and truly ‘seen’ for himself, of the confusion of growing up and of the struggles. I remember reading L’Engle for much of my 20s and I felt very mothered by her; in learning to accept others as imperfect, in forgiving others, in choosing to love even when one is surrounded by hate or awful situations and dealing with relational complexities or hurts. Of course this goes way beyond her book Wrinkle in Time that focuses on what love can do and what a home that has love can do for a person. I’ve read most of her fiction (if not all) and while I agree that she is theologically ‘off’ on various points/moments, she has a lot to offer in terms of thought and life-lessons. I would recommend _A Severed Wasp_ for her examination of the this past century…

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