Oh, yeah, this is full of spoilers.
I’m willing to bet that most of the people who read Madeleine L'Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet do so because they read and loved A Wrinkle In Time. These readers are already familiar with the Murry family, they know about tesseracts and traveling instantaneously through time and space to other worlds; they are used to having to suspend disbelief. A book that features a time-traveling, winged unicorn and Charles Wallace’s ability to go “within” other people is going to delight, rather than confuse. Pleased to be back in the warm company of Meg and her family—pleased to learn that Meg has married Calvin O’Keefe and is pregnant with their first child—the reader may not even notice (as I didn’t, for years and years) that the characterizations of the Murrys themselves are a little over-the-top. Lines like
”After all, those Bunsen-burner stews did lead directly to the Nobel Prize. We’re really very proud of you, Mother, although you and Father give us a heck of a lot to live up to” 1
will slide by without a second glance, as the reader turns his/her attention to the model of the tesseract that Charles Wallace and his father are building (how does one build a three dimensional model of the fifth dimension?) and becomes caught up in L’Engle’s complex and compelling story. Make no mistake about it; there is magic here.
As usual, L’Engle has created an intellectually challenging as well as deeply enjoyable read. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the story of time travel and Might-Have-Beens, and the ideas presented within will stretch the minds of her readers. It is in this book that we meet Gaudior (”more joyful”), a unicorn, learn about the ancient evil embodied by the Echthroi (“the enemy"), and welcome a new dog to the family—a 'yaller dog' whom Charles Wallace promptly names Ananda, from the Sanskrit, “That joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.” 2
The characterizations in this book hold true with A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Meg, no longer gawky, no longer bespectacled and awkward-- lovely now, in fact-- still turns to her father, Charles Wallace, and Calvin for comfort and support. Charles Wallace is still battling hubris, still learning that he can't control everything, or understand and solve all problems intellectually.
Once again, L’Engle’s novel opens on a dark and stormy night. The family is gathered at the Murry’s for Thanksgiving; Calvin is in London giving a talk on immunological systems of chordates, but the rest of the family, including Mrs. O’Keefe, Calvin’s mother, is present. Their world changes in an instant with a call from The White House—The President warns Mr. Murry3 that Mad Dog Branzillo, a dictator in Vespugia, is threatening nuclear war:
”One madman in Vespugia,” Dennys said bitterly, “can push a button and it will destroy civilization, and everything Mother and Father have worked for will go up in a mushroom cloud. Why couldn’t the President make him see reason?”…”If Branzillo does this, sends missiles, it could destroy the entire human race—“
Sandy scowled ferociously. “—which might not be so bad—“
“—and even if a few people survive in sparsely inhabited mountains and deserts, there’d be so much fallout all over the planet that their children would be mutants. Why couldn’t the President make him see? Nobody wants war at that price.”
“El Rabioso sees this as an act of punishment, of just retribution. The western world has used up more than our share of the world’s energy, the world’s resources, and we must be punished,” Mr. Murry said. “We are responsible for the acutely serious oil and coal shortage, the defoliation of trees, the grave damage to the atmosphere, and he is going to make us pay.”
Charles Wallace moved out of his withdrawn silence to say, “It hasn’t happened yet, nuclear war. No missiles have been sent. As long as it hasn’t happened, there’s a chance that it may not happen.”
Dennys: “I suppose, cosmically speaking, it doesn’t make much difference whether or not our second rate little planet blows itself up.” 4
Meg counters her brother’s pessimism with the example of farandole and mitochondria—how the most minute being can have a profound impact on much larger life forms, and in fact on the whole universe—not simply a chain reaction, but
“More than that. Interdependence. Not just one thing leading to another in a straight line, but everything and everyone everywhere interreacting.” 5
During dinner, the storm raging outside knocks out the electricity. Taciturn Mrs. O’Keefe recites Patrick's Rune, which was taught to her by her grandmother, and the elements seem to respond:
"In this fateful hour I place all Heaven with its power--"
". . . the sun with its brightness And the snow with its whiteness"
and the rain outside turned to snow
" And the fire with all the strength it hath "
the fire in the fireplace smokes and flickers, and then burns strong and bright
" And the-- the lightning with its rapid wrath"
the power comes back on in the house; the furnace begins to hum; the room fills with light and warmth
" And the winds with their swiftness along their path"
the wind outside howls, and shakes the house
“…And the sea with its deepness
And the rocks with their steepness
And the earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness.” 6
and Mrs. O’Keefe turns to Charles Wallace, calls him Chuck, and tells him to stop Mad Dog Branzillo. Use the rune, she says, and stop him. Then she asks to be taken home.
Later in the evening, Meg goes up to her attic room, to bed. Charles Wallace goes outside by himself to the star watching rock, where he recites the first two lines of the rune, and the unicorn Gaudior appears. Throughout this dark night, Charles Wallace and Gaudior travel through time ( but not space—that’s harder for unicorns—they stay in the area that is, in Charles Wallace's time, his back yard) and Meg watches and listens by kything (communicating telepathically) with Charles Wallace.
Gaudior takes Charles Wallace back to beginning, where there was nothing. And then:
a surge of joy.
All senses alive and awake and filled with joy.
Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light.
Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being, in joyful rhythm.
The morning stars sang together and the ancient harmonies were new and it was good. It was very good.
And then a dazzling star turned its back on the dark, and it swallowed the dark, and in swallowing the dark it became dark, and there was something wrong with the dark, as there was something wrong with the light. And it was not good. The glory of the harmony was broken by screeching, by hissing, by laughter which held no merriment but was hideous, horrendous cacophony.
The breaking of the harmony was pain, was brutal anguish, but the harmony kept rising above the pain, and the joy would pulse with light, and the light and dark once more knew each other, and were part of the joy. 7
Gaudior explained to Charles Wallace that the disharmony he witnessed was caused by a destroyer, an Echthros, which had come from the good but wanted all the glory for itself. Since the beginning, the Echthroi have traveled the universe, and shadows have followed. Echthroi try to confuse and corrupt; to tip Might-Have-Beens toward chaos and destruction. This night, it is Charles Wallace’s job, with Gaudior’s help, to go within people of different times, to try to find the Might-Have-Been that lead to the current evil threatening the world, and try to change it.
The people whom Charles Wallace goes within--becomes a part of, and is able to influence in small ways—all follow the bloodline of The People of the Wind, and of Madoc, son of Owain, king of Gwynedd. Madoc marries Zyll, of the People of the Wind, and it is their blue-eyed descendents who hold a promise of peace:
Lords of water, earth and fire,
Lords of wind and snow and rain,
Give to me my heart’s desire.
Life as all life comes with pain,
But blue will come to us again.
Lords of blue and Lords of gold,
Lords of winds and waters wild,
Lords of time that’s growing old,
When will come the season mild?
When will come blue Madoc’s child?
Lords of space and Lords of time,
Lords of blessing, Lords of grace,
Who is in the warmer clime?
Who will follow Madoc’s rhyme?
Blue will alter time and space.
Lords of spirit, Lords of breath,
Lords of fireflies, stars, and light,
Who will keep the world from death?
Who will stop the coming night?
Blue eyes, blue eyes, have the sight. 8
Madoc came to the New World from Wales with his brother Gwydyr when their father died and their other brothers began to fight over the throne; although Madoc seeks only peace, Gwydyr craves power and control over the People of the Wind, and the brothers fight. Madoc uses the rune; roses burn; the brothers wrestle for a day and into the night. Madoc defeats Gwydyr, who departs in shame (and eventually finds his way down to South America, to Vespugia).
Through Charles Wallace, we follow the descendents of Madoc. Charles Wallace goes within Brandon Llawcae, who lives during the time of the Salem witch hunts—Brandon, who is made a brother to his friend Maddok of the People of the Wind, and whose brother Ritchie marries Maddok’s blue-eyed sister, Zylle. Brandon also uses the rune in a time of great peril—when the small-minded, fear-driven pastor of the community decides that Zylle is a witch and must hang. Ritchie and Zylle later leave the settlement and return to Wales; generations later, their children’s children also end up in Vespugia.
Charles Wallace also goes within Matthew Maddox, whose twin brother Bran fights in the Civil War and comes home both injured and embittered. Matthew, a writer, is paralyzed from a fall off a horse some years before. His second novel, Horn of Joy, explores the theme of brother against brother, weaves in their family’s legend of a Welshman who comes to live among the Indians, and mentions a time-traveling unicorn. (Notice that the title of this story within a story corresponds nicely with Gaudior’s name, which means more joyful.) Bran eventually moves south to Vespugia, where a group of Welshmen are establishing a settlement; it is up to Matthew to make sure Bran’s fiancé, Zillah Llawcae, reaches him. In Vespugia, Bran and his sister Gwen find another branch their family legend, in the form of Indians Gedder and his sister Zillie (descendents of Gwydyr's line). Matthew is able to kythe with Bran, and dreams visions of his life in Vespugia. He also dreams of a young boy from the future, a boy who knows the legends and urges him to send Zillah to Bran, and stop Gwen from marrying Gedder. 9
That young boy is Chuck Maddox, twelve-year-old brother of Branwen Zillah Maddox (called Beezie). Chuck and Beezie hear stories of their ancestors from their Grandma—stories of Madoc and the Indian Zyll, and also stories of the English princess Branwen, who married an Irish king. It is from Branwen that the rune comes—-and it is Beezie, who grows up to marry Paddy O’Keefe and give birth to Calvin, and eventually become Meg's mother-in-law--who gives the rune to Charles Wallace. Brandon Llawcae was told the rune by Zillo, father of Maddok and Zylle, but it may be that Madoc only knew the rune (and was able to pass it on to his descendents) because Charles Wallace, within him, knew it . . .
Chuck and Beezie’s story is indeed, in my opinion, the saddest in the book. Chuck is twelve when his father dies and his mother remarries Duthbert Mortmain (descendent of the witch-hating Pastor Mortmain), who turns out to be abusive. Chuck blocks a blow aimed at his grandmother, and ends up falling down a flight of stairs and fracturing his skull. After the accident, the world spins for Chuck, and he is able to move through layers of time. He “dreams” about riding a unicorn; he sees brothers fighting and roses burning; he confuses Zyll with Zylle and with Zillah, and urges Matthew to send Zillah quickly to Bran in Vespugia. Beezie, who had been such an open, happy, golden child, becomes increasingly withdrawn. Her father and beloved grandmother died within a year of each other, and then Chuck, because of the accident, was no longer able to support or comfort her. Beezie ends up marrying Paddy O’Keefe to escape her life, to get away from her stepfather. Mortmain has Chuck placed in an institution, where he dies within a year.
Matthew succeeds in sending Zillah to Bran in Vespugia, although he is too weak to accompany her. Bran and Zillah have a son, Matthew, who the Indian children call by a combination of his parent’s names, Branzillo. His birth marks the change in the Might-Have-Beens; it is his (and Madoc’s) descendent, not Gwydyr’s, that will someday be the leader of Vespugia.
When Charles Wallace returns home, no one but Meg and Mrs. O’Keefe remember the President’s call and the threat of war. El Zarco, the blue-eyed leader of Vespugia, has always been known as a man of peace.
I did not know until recently that Madoc's legend-—at least the part about a Welshman coming to the New World long before Columbus, and the existence of his blue-eyed descendents among the Indians--existed outside of Madeleine L’Engle’s creation. It does; not only that, but Branwen's legend, and St. Patrick's Breastplate, which is the source of the rune, do as well. Not only that; kythe is a real word, meaning to make known, or to come into view, according to Mr. Webster.
This is a novel that can be read again and again. There are painfully sad, agonizingly unjust passages (the witch hunt, the tragedy of golden Beezie Maddox ending up as angry, resentful, silent Mrs. O'Keefe, Chuck's accident, Matthew Maddox's paralyzing accident and early death10) mixed with pure fantasy (a trip to the unicorn hatching grounds, reminiscent of scenes in Anne McCaffrey's dragon books), and also achingly beautiful descriptions of love and joy. There are ideas enough for a dozen readings, and words and phrases ("whistling in the dark", "Make haste slowly") that eventually became a part of my vocabulary. I'm 35, going on 36, and I still think this young adult novel is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold, rainy, snowy day.
Thanks to ac_hyper for setting the bar so high with her writeup, and to Alias Mother Jonez for the factual information on the legends.
1 L’Engle, Madeleine, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Dell Publishing, 1978, page 6.
2 ibid., p. 38.
3 Oddly, it is almost always “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Murray, not “Dr.”.
4 L’Engle, Madeleine, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Dell Publishing, 1978, pp.11-16.
5 ibid., p. 17.
6 ibid., pp. 18-21.
7 ibid., pp. 49-50.
8 ibid., pp. 116, 221, 225, and 251, respectively.
9 Gwen has the blue eyes, but hers were "a colder blue and glittered when she was angry." (p. 234.) We also know she's not the right one to carry on the line, of course, because her name starts with Gw, like Gwydyr.
10 A sickening stench usually accompanies actions by the Echthroi, or signals their proximity. Matthew smelled it when he was thrown from his horse and paralyzed; Meg smelled it when the Echthroi tried to snatch Charles Wallace from within Chuck.