Monday, 28 July 2008

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, 1962; A Wind in the Door, 1973; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, 1978); Many Waters, 1986; An Acceptable Time, 1989

I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was very young and it made a huge impression on me. I think it may have been the first book I read which had Science in it and one of its effects was to persuade me – hopeless as I was at science and maths at school – that these were subjects which might be interesting if only someone explained them properly. The book turned me into a lifelong reader of science fiction and a regular reader of New Scientist, although nothing has ever improved my maths. It was a book that made me confident about understanding ideas and, in that sense, I think it is probably one of the most influential I have ever read.

A Wrinkle in Time is the first of l'Engle's Kairos series, where the action is primarily outside the present-day world and time; they run parallel to the Chronos series, where the action is largely within our familiar world. Religion and science are the prominent themes in most of her writing, and some characters appear in both series (notably Canon Tallis, who is rather a favourite of mine). In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry's parents are both scientists; Meg, despite intelligence which is clear to the reader from the outset, feels awkward, clumsy and unintelligent at school, and it is perhaps her unhappiness that at first creates her link to her small brother Charles Wallace, who understands that she feels out of place; the link between them is to prove vital in both this, where she and her friend Calvin O'Keefe must go to rescue Charles Wallace from the planet Camazotz, and two further books in the series, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

In A Wind in the Door, the second of the quintet (which wasn't actually written as such, since there are three other books which focus on the two families, the Murrys and the O'Keefes), Charles Wallace is again in danger and desperately ill, and Meg and Calvin must attempt to save him with the help of the cherubim, Proginoskes, by journeying into a microcosm. A Swiftly Tilting Planet delves into Celtic mythology to link old and new worlds and families across time, with the intertwined stories of Calvin's family and Welsh voyages to North America and Patagonia.*

Many Waters surprised me. It starts much like all the other books in the series, in the Murry family home, when suddenly Meg's brothers, the twins Dennys and Sandy, find themselves transported through time to the land of Noah and the Flood. As well as Biblical characters, monsters inhabit the land, and people are on familiar terms with cherubim and, in some cases, nefilim. Noah and his father, Lamech, are on first name terms with God, and there is an ark to build. The preoccupation with Christian theology is evident throughout all of l'Engle's books, of course, but the setting for this one was nonetheless unexpected.

In An Acceptable Time, published here as the final book in the quintet, the action takes place many years later, and focuses on Calvin and Meg's daughter, Polly, who is staying with Meg's parents in Connecticut while she prepares for university. The resourceful Polly finds herself caught in a tesseract, journeying through time to 3,000 years ago, where she meets two druids of the People of the Wind, the tribe previously encountered by Charles Wallace in the second book. An Acceptable Time completes the cycle of stories about the two families.

Earlier I mentioned the Chronos series, which shares some overlapping characters, most notably Zachary Gray, who appears in A Ring of Endless Light as well as in An Acceptable Time. The Chronos books, about the Austin family, are more firmly fixed within our reality, although The Young Unicorns perhaps stands slightly apart with its background of a cathedral and episcopal hubris, but death is a theme that runs through many of l'Engle's books; Meet the Austins actually opens with a death and particularly focuses on the effect it has on children. Handled with a Christian perspective I think it is always dealt with sympathetically and, not only shouldn't alienate readers from other beliefs, but should succeed in offering a sympathetic account of the ways in which adults and children seek to come to terms with it; in An Acceptable Time the author is resolute in describing both Zachary's fear of death, allowing him to become a relatively unattractive person because of it. Indeed, in a work which addresses a familiar and frequent theme in children's and young adult fiction, that of time travel, Zachary's own fear stands to articulate the peril which faces all time travellers: the doubt about their successful return. In this passage, Polly, trapped in the past watches her family in her mind's eye:

In this manner she moved through three thousand years. In eternity, her own time and this time in which she was now held, waiting, were simultaneous. If she died in this strange time, would she be born in her own time? Did the fact that she had been born mean that she might escape death here? No, that didn't work out. Everybody in this time died sooner or later. But if she was to be born in her own time, wouldn't she have to live long enough to have children, so that she would at least be a descendant of herself?
One of my pleasures of the last few months has been returning for a regular dip into this series and I think the attractively produced boxed set of the Time Quintet would make an excellent gift to young reader and adult alike. Since I have considered quite so many books at once, I thought it might be helpful to list them below. I have bolded those mentioned above.

The Time Quintet:

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

Other books which feature the O'Keefes:

The Arm of the Starfish
Dragons in the Waters
A House Like a Lotus

Chronos series:
Meet the Austins
The Moon by Night
The Young Unicorns
A Ring of Endless Light
Troubling a Star

*Edited later to add that in the book the voyage is to the imaginary S. American country of Vespugia, but l'Engle used real records of Welsh immigration to Patagonia for inspiration.

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