”It was a dark and stormy night…
I don’t know how many times I read those opening words before I realized they were an allusion—the first of many--in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This classic Newbery Award winning children’s book was written in 1962 and originally rejected as too complex by publishers. Although it is written on a 5th grade reading level, the science, fantasy and theology- related concepts it contains—travel through time and space, the dangers of unthinking conformity and scientific irresponsibility, and the saving power of love1 --make it a much more sophisticated read.
Meg Murry, the book’s central character, is a bright, awkward, volatile 6th grader, daughter to a pair of brilliant scientists (Father is a physicist; Mother has doctorates in biology and bacteriology, and is stunningly beautiful, to boot). Meg has twin 10-year-old brothers, “nice, regular children,” and a 5-year-old “genius baby brother,” Charles Wallace, who hasn’t started school yet, doesn’t speak much in public, and who everyone in town thinks is retarded, or at least slow. Sandy and Dennys, the twins, have the emotional intelligence to know how to blend in at school, a skill that Meg lacks. Meg’s awkwardness, her longing for her missing father, her anger at teachers and neighbors (all hypocritical adults), her despair at having mousy brown hair and never being a beauty like her mom—in short, her general teenaged angst--make her a sympathetic heroine.
At the beginning of the book, Meg’s father has been missing for more than a year and is presumed by the mean-spirited, gossipy townsfolk to have run out on the family. As it turns out, Mr. Murry has been working on a secret government project, experimenting with the 5th dimension. He has learned, however imperfectly, to tesser—to move through space instantaneously by wrinkling time—and has become trapped on a Dark planet. Meg, Charles Wallace, and a new friend Calvin O’Keefe embark on a quest to find and rescue him.
Calvin’s a neighbor, a few years ahead of Meg at school, a smart kid and an athlete. He’s redheaded and lanky, easygoing and friendly, and not put off by Meg’s prickliness. He and Charles Wallace hit it off right away when they meet in the woods between their houses. As he explains to Charles, he’s a sport—but in the biological sense of not fitting in his family, not the athletic sense. Charles Wallace, of course, had not needed the clarification.
Charles Wallace has always been especially attuned to Meg’s needs and emotions, and also to those of their mother. (Not because he can’t discern the twin’s thoughts equally well, but because they don’t seem to need him, so he concentrates on the others.) He talks like a reasoned adult rather than a child, listens to arcane mythology and scientific tracts as bedtime stories, and always seems to know more than he should—or possibly could—about what’s going on. He has an extraordinary mind, and his character’s story contains one of the earliest examples of hubris I can remember reading.
Guiding the children on their mission are three mysterious beings, crusaders for the light, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. Because she finds it difficult to verbalize, Mrs. Who communicates almost entirely in idioms and quotations (presented in their original language along with a translation); she cites, among others, Seneca, Dante, A. Perez, Shakespeare, Horace, Euripides, Cervantes, Delille, Goethe, and my personal favorite:
Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.2
Mrs. Whatsit appears first to Meg and her family as a disheveled tramp, and it later becomes apparent that the shapes taken by the "three witches" (a deliberate reference by the author to Shakespeare's Macbeth) are just forms they choose for their own amusement. Mrs. Whatsit confides later that she is “exactly 2,379,152,497 years, 8 months, and 3 days” old and that she had once been a star (in the literal, astronomical sense of the word). At one point, in order to carry the children and show them what they will be battling, she transforms herself:
”Now don’t be frightened, loves,” Mrs. Whatsit said. Her plump little body began to shimmer, to quiver, to shift. The wild colors of her clothes became muted, whitened. The pudding-bag shape stretched, lengthened, merged. And suddenly before the children was a creature more beautiful than any Meg had even imagined, and the beauty lay in far more than the outward description.
Calvin fell to his knees.
”No,” Mrs. Whatsit said, though her voice was not Mrs. Whatsit’s voice. “Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”3
The “three Mrs. W’s” take the children to see the Happy Medium, who shows them, from the safe distance of a planet in Orion’s belt, the dark cloud that covers Earth:
”But what is it?” Calvin demanded. “We know that it’s evil, but what is it?”
”Yyouu hhave ssaidd itt!” Mrs. Which’s voice rang out. “Itt iss Eevill. Itt iss thee Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!”
”But what’s going to happen?” Meg’s voice trembled. “Oh, please, Mrs. Which, tell us what’s going to happen!”
”Wee wwill cconnttinnue tto ffightt!”
Something in Mrs. Which’s voice made all three of the children stand straighter, throwing back their shoulders with determination, looking at the glimmer that was Mrs. Which with pride and confidence.
”And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
”Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
”Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.
Mrs. Who’s spectacles shown out at them triumphantly. ”And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
”Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
”Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
”Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
”And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Ghandi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”
”Now you, Meg,” Mrs. Whatsit ordered.
”Oh, Euclid, I suppose.” Meg was in such an agony of impatience that her voice grated irritably. “And Copernicus. But what about Father? Please, what about Father?”
”Wee aarre ggoingg tto your ffatherr,” Mrs. Which said.
”But where is he?” Meg went over to Mrs. Which and stamped as though she were as young as Charles Wallace.
Mrs. Whatsit answered in a voice that was low but quite firm. “On a planet that has given in. So you must prepare to be very strong.”4
A Wrinkle in Time is Meg’s coming of age story, from the loss of innocence that comes with her first viewing of the Black Thing to her “shattering yet ultimately freeing discovery” 5 that it is she, with all of her faults, who must rescue her father and her brother. She learns the difficult lesson that Father is not omnipotent, and that merely locating him does not make everything all better. She has help from the ‘three witches’, Calvin and Charles, and from my favorite character, a being she calls “Aunt Beast”, who is blind but sees more clearly the true nature of things than those who are sighted—Meg is given help and support, but she is also pushed into a position where it is she alone who must act. She does not go willingly at first, or gracefully, but Meg does finally find the strength within herself to do what must be done.
The enemy Meg fights is a totalitarian, homogenizing force which permits no independent thought or action in its subjects. Middle schoolers reading the book recognize on some level the appeal of sameness, of belonging, of everyone being ‘in tune’--the need to fit in and be part of a group is so very strong in adolescents. But at the same time, none of us are ever completely able to accomplish that goal, and it is also part of our nature to cheer for the outsider, the underdog who can't or won’t behave `properly'. Of all the characters in the book, Meg is the least able to fit in with a group, even when that ability would prove useful. As such, she becomes the champion for uniqueness and individuality when it becomes not a matter of making nice, assimilation, or integration, but of resisting the annihilation of the self.
A strong sense of love—-for family, for all that is Good, and increasingly for Calvin—-courses through the book:
Now instead of reaching out to Calvin for safety, Meg took his hand in hers, not saying anything in words but trying to tell him by the pressure of her fingers what she felt. If anyone had told her only the day before that she, Meg, the snaggle-toothed, the myopic, the clumsy, would be taking a boy’s hand to offer him comfort and strength, particularly a popular and important boy like Calvin, the idea would have been beyond her comprehension. But now it seemed as natural to want to help and protect Calvin as it did Charles Wallace.6
A friend who recently finished A Wrinkle In Time for the first time (does anyone only read it once?) commented that the theme of Love as all-triumphant is well worn. I’m sure this was the case in 1962 when the book was new, but I can’t help but think that many of the stories written since that time owe some of their ideas to L’Engle’s book. Like Ursula LeGuin, whose hero in A Wizard of Earthsea confronts evil inside himself, L’Engle is introducing universal themes to a young audience. There are few authors who can present this gift more gracefully.
Like St. Exupery in The Little Prince ("That which is essential is invisible"), L’Engle makes the point repeatedly that things are not always what they seem, or what they look like: “We do not know what things look like, as you say,” (Aunt) Beast said. “We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.” 7 Not only is this a truth that bears repeating, a story that brings this message home is of great comfort to any "misfit" adolescent reading it who feels that s/he just doesn't fit in.
If you missed this book while you were growing up, find a copy. It won’t take long to finish, and your life will be the richer for having read it.
1 The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
1962; Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, ISBN 0440228395, page 31.
book review on Amazon.com
; no author cited
L’Engle, pages 88-89.