Wind, unicorn, and boy merged into a single swiftness.
Title: A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Series: 3rd in the Time Quintet
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “When fifteen year-old Charles Wallace Mury shouts out in desperation an ancient rune meant to ward off the dark, a radiant creature appears. It is Gaudior, unicorn and time traveler. Charles Wallace and Gaudior must travel into the past on the winds of time to try to find a Might-Have-Been—a moment in the past when the entire course o events leading to the present can be changed, and the future of Earth—this small, swiftly tilting planet—saved.” (Back Cover)
Reason for Beginning: I continued on from A Wind in the Door because L’Engle’s writing is consistently engaging and her stories powerful.
Reason for Finishing: See above. Nothing’s changed.
Story Re-readability: I might reread this eventually, but not for some time. It’s an easy reread because the narrative style is so beautiful and well-paced, but none of L’Engle’s books have quite elevated themselves to my Pantheon of Books, as it were.
Author Re-readability: Even though now, after this book, I am taking a break from L’Engle to focus on other authors, I will easily come back to her in the future. She is one of the most readable authors I have read, for beauty and clarity of phrase, for interesting ideas, and for organic plots populated with warm, well-developed characters.
Recommendation: It is completely possible to read this book, or the two before it, independently and without having read the others. Thus I would heartily recommend A Swiftly Tilting Planet to anyone interested in the subject matter, even if they don’t want to or for some reason can’t get a hold of A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. Fans of L’Engle’s previous books will want to see how the Murry family has grown and developed in the intervening nine years. In fact, this may be my favorite of the series so far, though that’s not to say it is perfect. But the bottom line is, this is excellent storytelling of the kind we too rarely receive.
I may end up saying more negative things than positive things about this book, so keep in mind that A Swiftly Tilting Planet is quite close to being my favorite of the first three books. It is more beautiful, and in some places more powerful, than either A Wrinkle in Time or A Wind in the Door. This third book, though, has more elements that I think hold it back from being the best expression of its story.
A time-traveling unicorn is a greatidea. A winged unicorn that literally flies through time and drinks moonlight and fights demons with a telepathic boy in order to avert a nuclear apocalypse is a fantastic idea. It leads to some beautiful images that cry out to be illustrated, or perhaps even animated.
I like that L’Engle skips about nine years to show us a fifteen year-old Charles Wallace and a married-and-pregnant Meg. We see how they have grown up, but they are still recognizable as the same characters we love from the previous books. The narrative device of Meg sitting at home and kything with Charles on his adventure is welcome and useful. The time-traveling is streamlined because only Charles and Gaudior, the unicorn, are involved, but whenever the plot threatens to become confusing, L’Engle brings the reader back to Meg, who can puzzle over what has happened and give the reader some clearer answers. Because the time-travel is used to explore two branches of the same family over millennia leading up to the present day, the interlocking genealogies and Might-Have-Beens can start to blend together.
History buff that I am, I love the time-travel aspect. It gives L’Engle the opportunities to greatly vary her cast of characters and, thematically, reveal the hand of God throughout history. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make the best use of these opportunities. The characters I will discuss in the next section, and her theology in the final section, but from a story perspective I feel that her portrayal of the Native Americans is lacking. The “People of the Wind,” she calls them, and they are all uniformly perfect, almost magical people in touch with their past (and God, by other names) and unfailingly kind and tolerant; always the best of the good guys. Since I know L’Engle is capable of more complexity, I wish she would have spent more time making the Native Americans more realistic and less of a caricature with all the right answers all the time.
My other problem with the story is perhaps more subjective. Some time-travel stories have the past set in stone as utterly unchangeable, while others, like this one, have the hero changing the past in order to avert disaster in the present. The upshot is that when the hero returns to his present time victorious, it is a different present time than the one he left. So when Charles Wallace succeeds (not much of a spoiler, really) and returns to the night that started it all, his family remembers different events that night than he does, because the events Charles Wallace and Meg experienced literally did not happen for them. It’s like when sci-fi stories solve the public exposure of aliens by erasing everyone’s memory. I never find these endings satisfying, because they erase the experiences and struggles that have led to the characters’ growth. The other Murrys were learning a lot and growing so very much in their different reactions to the specifics of the nuclear threat that when it’s all erased and made “okay” by Charles Wallace’s tampering with history, it feels like a letdown. Why negate all that character development?
The greatest strength of the series is the Murrys themselves, who are consistently a healthy, intelligent, affectionate, and complex family. While Meg and Charles Wallace are the designated odd ones of the family—that is, less socially adept and more worried, but also more cosmically significant, than the others—I like it best when all six members are working together as a unit. They would make a potent force if they ever went on an adventure all together. Charles Wallace still suffers from overconfidence in his own abilities and a tendency to try to take things into his own hands, but generally he has matured believably from his six year-old self. He’s more likable than in the previous books, where he would sometimes be a little too solemn and wise.
Gaudior the time-traveling winged unicorn is a welcome addition, fulfilling the role each book has of an otherworldly guide and mentor. I don’t get why he is always blowing silver bubbles; it’s a weird image, but I suppose L’Engle decided it was whimsical enough to seem properly strange. But Gaudior is a fine character. I like him even more than Proginoskes the cherubim in A Wind in the Door (who was quite a nice fellow himself, if a bit prejudiced against humans at the beginning). He’s gentle, wise, and forgiving, with a touch of good humor beneath his sober surface. He reminds me very much of Falcor the Luckdragon from The Neverending Story.
Lots of time spent with the people Charles Wallaces goes Within, so that there is quite a large cast of characters. Each family in each period of time that he visits is a descendent or ancestor of the previous one, and the same few names crop up with slightly different spellings throughout: Madoc, Madog, Maddok, Maddox, Matthew, Bran, Brandon, Zylle, Zyllah, Zillah, Zillie, Richard, Ritchie, Rich. Characters with the same names throughout history seem to essentially be the same person, or fill the same roles in their families. Thus Matthew is similar to Maddox, and all versions of Zylle/Zyllah/Zillah/Zillie are beautiful, sensitive, wise young women, though they live hundreds of years apart. Likewise, both Duthbert Mortmains are mean, dumb, lustful brutes. I suppose it is convenient from a storytelling perspective, but it carries the unfortunate implication that anyone who carries the name of a disreputable ancestor is destined to be just as disreputable, free will not seeming to enter into the picture.
Similar to the problem with L’Engle’s portrayal of Native Americans is her portrayal of the early Pilgrims and Puritans, which is embarrassingly shallow and clichéd. They have one good representative in the Llawcae family, who are fine, godly people who are well-versed in Scripture, but one gets the sense that they are only so good because they are designated thus from a story perspective. All the other Puritans are portrayed as small-minded sheep who follow the demagogical Pastor Mortmain, a hysterical witch-hunter full of false superstitions. This one-dimensional caricature believes that singing is inherently evil and at one point actually cries out “Storytelling is of the devil!” (145) Having an over-the-top villain is one thing, but L’Engle uses Mortmain as her representative of the culture of that time, and I believe it’s a gross misrepresentation. She really should know better.
Delightfully, L’Engle’s writing is even more beautiful and poetic than before.
The great unicorn flung himself into the wind and they were soaring among the stars, part of the dance, part of the harmony. As each flaming sun turned on its axis, a singing came from the friction in the way a finger moved around the rim of a crystal goblet will make a singing, and the song varies in pitch and tone from glass to glass. (72)
As always, she wastes no words but carefully chooses the right ones for maximum effect and clearest communication.
Gaudior’s breath came in silver streamers. He had folded his wings into his flanks to prevent the Echthroid wind from breaking them. Boy and unicorn were flung through endless time and space. (166)
She manages the tender balance between communicating the richness of her own mental image and allowing the reader’s imagination to embrace the scene and own it.
As the baby [unicorn] had been following Gaudior in the steps of the dance, so it imitated him now, eagerly trying to drink moonlight, the rays dribbling from its young and inexperienced lips and breaking like crystal on the snow. Again it tried, looking at Gaudior, until it was thirstily and tidily swallowing the light as it was tipped out from the curve of the moon.
From an orthodox Christian perspective, L’Engle’s theology is getting more suspect, unfortunately. Charles Wallace is brought through various ages of the Earth, and it becomes apparent that L’Engle is using an evolutionary schematic for the planet’s development. There is no Adam and Eve—rather, she seems to say that the earliest human groups were pure and unfallen. Unfallen, that is, until some early humans were corrupted by Echthroi and discovered violence. She has this happen to Europeans first, and later spreading to the ancient Americas.
This is a bizarre rewriting of biblical history that makes no sense from a spiritual perspective, as it negates the rationale behind Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice. The Bible specifically says that sin was passed directly from Adam by his bloodline to all of humanity. (Romans 5:11-2 “And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.”) Thus Christ became of that bloodline and redeemed it. In L’Engle’s rewriting, this redemption is impossible.
Also, her most holy and Christian-seeming people are usually old pagans, like the Native Americans, who are in tune with the Old Music and follow God by different names. Unfortunately, she never mentions Jesus Christ or redemption, and seems to think that these primitive beliefs are the actual, pure worship of God rather than shadows that, while pointing the way to Christ, do not provide salvation themselves. She borrows the form of Lewis and Tolkien’s metaphors without the substance.
SUMMARY OF RECOMMENDATION
I do heartily recommend A Swiftly Tilting Planet to anyone interested in time-travel, fantasy, or anything related to this subject-matter, and especially to fans of the previous two books. The writing is very pretty and the story excellent. Christians will need to be aware of the book’s serious spiritual errors, but that should not preclude us from enjoying the good that is present. We need more books of this storytelling caliber.