The website for Locus magazine — which I admit an unfamiliarity with — is hosting an open poll, which closes tomorrow on November 30th, asking readers to vote for the best novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories in the genres of fantasy and science fiction from the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century. Fortunately, they allow for multiple votes, and have conveniently broken down the categories.
Since my reading of the shorter literary forms, and of science fiction, is extremely limited, I didn’t vote for any short stories, novellas, or novelettes, and only a few sci-fi novels. For the fantasy novel ballot I filled all ten slots.
My Short List of Great Sci-fi Novels from the 20th Century
Perelandra by C.S. Lewis
That Hideous Strengthby C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Ringworldby Larry Niven
Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyby Douglas Adams (which I actually forgot to include on the ballot! Oops.)
Again, I haven’t read much science fiction, and fewer still that has really impressed me.
My Short List of Great Fantasy Novels from the 20th Century
The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeby Lewis
The Hobbitby Tolkien
Watership Downby Richard Adams
A Wrinkle in Timeby Madeleine L’Engle
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
The Last Unicornby Peter Beagle
The Neverending Storyby Michael Ende
If on a winter’s night a travelerby Italo Calvino
The Black Cauldronby Lloyd Alexander
I’ve read a fair bit of fantasy novels.
It was painful to leave certain books and authors out, and I admit that my list is very close to my list of personal favorites. I just couldn’t fit in Neil Gaiman nor Patricia McKillip, nor Lawhead, nor even Rosemary Sutcliff (though on a longer list I might put her Tristan and Iseult).
But Tolkien and Lewis are givens, of course. I doubt many would argue against A Wrinkle in Time and The Last Unicorn, although the former is frequently categorized as science fiction; I personally find it to be solidly fantasy inspired by some scientific ideas. A very neat blending, certainly.
I finished Peter Pan not too long ago and became convinced it is one of the most important fairy tales that English literature has produced, as well as one of the most beautiful.
It has been many years since I read Michael Ende, but The Neverending Story was a powerful reading experience, and the 80’s movie was formative for my childhood. I look forward to reading it again with adult eyes, but I’m fairly confident in its position here.
I’m using The Black Cauldron to stand in for the entire Chronicles of Prydain. I couldn’t bear to leave out Lloyd Alexander’s prolific, always entertaining and often moving work.
Italo Calvino is a tricky writer, and If on a winter’s night a devilishly tricky novel. I’m not even sure it’s fantasy, but it feels safer to put it here rather than in science fiction or realism. It’s the most wildly original, experimental novel I’ve ever read. Parts of it I hated, most of it I loved. It must have been a torture to conceive and write, but it was certainly a pleasure to read. Even if no one else reads it, it deserves a place on a list like this.
In the comment section, I recommended that there should be a poll for the best pre-1900 fantasy and science fiction; the real foundational stuff. Everything from Homer to Edmund Spenser to Jules Verne and George MacDonald and Hans Christian Andersen. Generally my favorite stuff. +)
You’ve all got until tomorrow to vote, so go to it! Which fantasy and sci-fi books do you consider the most important and the best?
Wind, unicorn, and boy merged into a single swiftness.
Title:A Swiftly Tilting Planet Series: 3rd in the Time Quintet Author: Madeleine L’Engle Pages: 304 Published: 1987 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.
Title:A Wind in the Door Series: 2nd in L’Engle’s loose Time Quintet Author: Madeleine L’Engle Pages: 240 Published: 1973 Spoiler-free Synopsis: A year after the events of A Wrinkle in Time. When Charles Wallace falls deathly ill, Meg and Calvin are informed by an alien Teacher that his health may affect the health of the Earth and of the entire universe. Meg must learn to fight her own hatred and prejudice in order to enlist an unexpected ally, and they all must travel inside Charles Wallace himself in order to save him and “restore brilliant harmony and joy to the rhythm of creation, the song of the universe.” (quote from book jacket) Reason for Beginning: Continuing on from A Wrinkle in Time. Reason for Finishing: L’Engle sure knows how to write a page-turner. Story Re-readability: I don’t plan on rereading it since it isn’t as strong as A Wrinkle in Time, although I wouldn’t lament doing so if I had to. It’s a fast-paced read with plenty of good, creative ideas. Author Re-readability: Her ideas are still fresh and poetic, her characters sympathetic and intelligent, and her writing sharp and energetic. Apologies for the generic adjectives, but I think they all apply. So far, I have confidence that in picking up any L’Engle book I would be treating myself to a good story, well told. Recommendation: Yes, for anyone who liked A Wrinkle in Time. Whether it is quite as good as that book is a matter of debate—I think it lacks some of Wrinkle’s poetry and interesting locales, but might have a stronger moral theme of the importance of loving even those people who seem unlovable. However, an increasing number of L’Engle’s narrative devices feel arbitrary or simply not as well thought-out as they should be, and her theology becomes increasingly worrisome.
L’Engle’s books are among the few, recently, that have kept me reading late into the night, even as I lay tired in bed; for that I am happy and grateful. It’s a delightful and relaxing feeling to let go of the surrounding world and sink into her worlds of cherubim, mitochondria, and farandolae, confident that my imagination is in the hands of a skillful and eager storyteller.
The story is not structured as strongly as A Wrinkle in Time, because there is far more talking and far less traveling. In fact, there is no traveling to exotic places at all until the second half of the book. Fortunately, the conversations are as lively and full of interesting ideas as before, and even when the pacing falters a little, there is still plenty to keep your interest.
Still, this book has more obvious flaws than its predecessor. I like that L’Engle anticipates certain apparent paradoxes or questions the reader might have, and proceeds to answer them (sometimes immediately as they come up, sometimes later). But sometimes I still felt that her story was hampered by an occasional unwillingness to just be straightforward. She keeps everything as mysterious as possible as long as she can, and while mostly this is a great storytelling device that keeps up the tension and our interest, she often ends without giving us quite as many answers—or answers that make enough sense—as we deserve. Too many of the rules L’Engle invents seem annoyingly arbitrary, and her insistence on keeping her main characters as ill-informed as possible makes it feel less like they are making sovereign choices as being pulled (sometimes gently, sometimes not) to various plot points.
The cleverness of the scene where Meg is faced with three Mr. Jenkinses, two of whom are demon-Echthroi imposters, and must Name the real one, is undermined by the illogicality of its context. It is unbelievable that the real Mr. Jenkins, having just arrived at school to find two identical men looking exactly like him and claiming to be him, would not immediately and angrily drive them out or call the police. Instead, L’Engle has him “play along” with what to him as a ridiculous game as he waits for Meg to Name him. He has no understanding of the cosmic events at all, or of what Naming is, and there is no good reason for him to interrupt his work day to put up with this. It’s lazy writing, in my opinion.
Actually, the issues of Naming and X-ing are not explained clearly. Sometimes L’Engle says that Naming is forever—specifically, that Meg is forever Named—and yet key characters like Mr. Jenkins and Sporos, and even Meg at one point, must be Named and re-Named at certain points of the story. I think that to Name someone means to remind them of who they are in their soul, their essential nature, and that you have to love them truly. It also may have something to do with salvation, considering the importance L’Engle gives it—that is, having one’s name in the Book of Life. I think this because Naming is contrasted with X-ing, which at first is stated to be utter annihilation, or “unbeing, but in practice seems to be mere physical death. There is a huge gap between those two definitions, and L’Engle can’t decide which one she adheres to. The characters speak of X-ing as the most unimaginable evil thing that can happen to someone, but then when a certain protagonist (unnamed for major spoiler reasons) gets X-ed, it is stated that they are still forever Named, and that they still exist. So that, to me, implies that X-ing is simply killing, and a person who is X-ed is merely killed in a more supernatural-seeming way and is sent to Judgment before God. However, this is my extrapolation—L’Engle is unclear and contradictory on the matter.
I cannot be sure because L’Engle herself seems confused on the issue. And it’s a rather important plot point for her to be confused on.
L’Engle’s narrative style is still excellent. Her images are colorful and imaginative without overpowering the reader with big words and overly poetic phrasing. Every line of dialogue serves a purpose and felt consistent with the characters.
This is especially impressive considering the final third of the book takes place literally inside Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, which is so inconceivably tiny that the characters do not even have the ability to see. Thus, there is no physical description in this part of the book, only mentions of surreal sensations as our protagonists kythe with each other (a kind of purely spiritual telepathy) and can sort of “feel” each other almost as if physically, but not really. It’s a somewhat confusing concept, but it works well enough. It’s a very bold risk on L’Engle’s part to have the entire climax take place in this area, and she struggles a little with conveying action with the limitation of being technically unable to describe it. For the most part, though, she pulls it off, and I enjoyed the challenge of imagining these scenes.
As in A Wrinkle in Time, all is saved by the power of love, although here it is handled a little smoother. Rather than Meg having to find a way to love the impersonal IT (but not really), here she just has to love Mr. Jenkins, the school principal she hates and constantly butts heads with. In theory this should be easier for her, but in practice it is actually harder because she knows Mr. Jenkins and has had more time to build up a prejudice against him. In fact, Mr. Jenkins becomes the most interesting and layered character in the book, and it is his development that really kept me reading.
I can understand Meg’s dogmatic refusal to cease hating Mr. Jenkins, even if it became frustrating after awhile—it is entirely immature of her, but that’s fitting for her 15 years of age. She has difficulty even conceiving of loving him because his reputation for so many years has been that of a mean, unfair man, and his ignorance of Charles Wallace’s character has led to him to allow the boy’s bullying to continue unaddressed. My favorite part is when she remembers Calvin—now her boyfriend—telling her a story of when Mr. Jenkins took pity on him because his family was too poor to afford decent shoes and bought him a brand new pair, and then clumsily tried to dirty them in order to pretend they were old hand-me-downs (so as not to make his charity obvious, and thus potentially embarrassing to Calvin). Meg’s attitude towards Mr. Jenkins forms the thematic center of the book, and it’s this tender, considerate side of him revealed by Calvin that is brought out in the course of their adventures.
Calvin himself is even more likable here than in A Wrinkle in Time. He’s far more rational, level-headed, and compassionate than Meg; his maturity is refreshing, especially since much of this book exposes her immaturity. Not that Meg isn’t likable—she certainly still is, and I enjoy the time spent with her as the main protagonist—but it is refreshing to see her faults acknowledged, so that she can grow by learning from the wisdom of others. And she does grow and mature.
Proginoskes is a nice cherubim, although I dislike L’Engle’s trend of making all aliens and supernatural creatures as casual and petty as humans. Progo developed into a strong character, though, so I won’t hold it against him. Blajeny the Teacher fills the role of the Mrs. W’s in A Wrinkle in Time, but he is not in the book enough to really develop much, and generally serves L’Engle’s purposes by unloading huge responsibilities on Meg and then not explaining himself. He was kind of nice when he was around, but was not around all that much.
Unfortunately, even considering her extremely sideways manner of addressing spiritual themes, L’Engle still manages to drift further from actual Christian teaching. Her casual mention of billions of years and evolution reveals a lack of confidence in the literal nature of Scripture. Also, the whole issue of Charles Wallace being some point of cosmic equilibrium, where his fate alone could determine the fate of the whole universe, is becoming increasingly improbable and annoying, and is rather suspect theologically. I know that ultimately this is fantasy, but L’Engle is still constructing a theological frame which has all the signs of being consistent, at least metaphorically, with her own religious beliefs, and this frame is not matching the framework of the Bible.
UTTERLY PETTY QUIBBLES
On a far, far more shallow level, I just don’t like her insistence that Proginoskes is a singular cherubim rather than a cherub. Cherub, of course, is the proper singular form of plural cherubim, but when Calvin points this out, Progo just indignantly says that he is “practically plural” and resents the association of cherub with naked winged babies. But why does L’Engle feel the need to change English grammar? She gives no reason, no validation. It’s like she thinks that by being merely contrary she is being clever and original for her young readers, but that’s not the case. She is merely being arbitrary. It’s not a big point, but it annoyed me.
Also, why bother to call dragon droppings fewmets? Fewmets is from the Old English word for the droppings of any hunted animal, whether deer or boar or fox, etcetera. Dragons, it should be known, are not typically hunted animals in the traditional sense, especially not in her book. I guess some other fantasy books or role-playing games use the term for dragons, but I really see no authoritative reason for it. It makes no sense! Argh!
Ah well. It’s still a fine book, and a good one for kids to read. I’d just recommend that any Christian parents read it first and be prepared to discuss the story from a spiritual perspective with their kids.
Title:A Wrinkle in Time Series: First in the Time Quintet, but each book works as standalone Author: Madeleine L’Engle Pages: 232 Published: 1962 Spoiler-free Synopsis: On a dark and stormy night, three strange visitors whisk away three children for an interplanetary adventure to fight an evil shadow that threatens the universe. Reason for Beginning: My fifth grade teacher had read it to the class, and I remember it being good. Since it’s apparently a classic of children’s lit and sci-fi, I was eager to revisit it. Reason for Finishing: It was refreshing to read a story that developed naturally, organically, without undue reliance on simple plot formulae. Would I reread the story? Sure, but not soon. It’s a fast read with some interesting ideas, and can be easily revisited. Took me about four days of casual reading to finish. Sharply paced. Good for reading in bed, when you are tired but want to fill your mind with some interesting adventure before drifting into dreams. Would I reread this author? Yes. She’s got good ideas, knows how to communicate them, creates charming characters, and has at least four other books in this loose series that I intend to read soon-ish. Recommendation: Especially for those interested in children’s novels and young-adult science fiction and fantasy. It’s also probably a great introduction to novel-reading for kids who haven’t been pulled in by the likes of Harry Potter and its copycats. But even for adults this book is good fun and has enough substance to make one think.
As an adventure story with dashes of philosophy, A Wrinkle in Time is excellent. L’Engle has real ideas that she wants to impart, and she generally finds the right images and story elements to convey them. The book’s pace never lags nor seems hasty. Just the right amount of character and setting development is given before the story launches into its exciting premise. In her descriptive style, L’Engle mentions only details that are important or helpful, and does not waste her readers’ time with unnecessary diversions. She generally knows what she wants to say, and says it in a focused and entertaining manner.
The characters are strongly defined and likable. Meg Murry represents what most preteen girls probably think of themselves, and her appeal is that of every awkward, good-hearted geek. “I hate being an oddball,” she complains to her mother, and repeatedly calls herself ugly or “repulsive-looking,” even though we are assured by her new friend Calvin O’Keefe that she has “dream-boat” eyes when she takes off her glasses. It was sweet to see the two of them become friends and, at least in Meg’s case, be utterly oblivious to the sparks of innocent first love. If I have one problem with Calvin, a physically gawky but sharply intelligent and perceptive boy, it’s that he seems extremely forward romantically with Meg. Their ages are never stated, but Meg appears to be about thirteen, and thus the older Calvin is about fifteen. Those two years are a huge gap, especially in the perception of kids that age, but Calvin has no qualms taking Meg’s hand without her permission, taking off her glasses to tell her she’s beautiful, or, later, outright kissing her. I suppose that’s just part of his character – that is, being fearlessly forward with people and never masking his feelings – but it feels a little jarring, considering his age. Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace has a similar problem from my view – I like him well enough, but L’Engle states that he is five years old, when his diction and ability to conceive complex ideas is that of an adult (think Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, but not played for comedy). Of course he is supposed to be a special genius, possibly telepathic, but five years still feels too much a stretch– I’d accept him easier if he were closer to eight or nine years old. Still, I like them both, especially Calvin, whose good sense and moral strength make him an interesting character and a good model for young boys.
At times it felt like A Wrinkle in Time utilizes a cosmology borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and simplified for preteens, to the point where all the theological complexity of eldils, unfallen planets, Deep Heaven, and spiritual rebellion is reduced to a war between Light and Darkness. This is not a bad thing; the details and meaning of Lewis’ invented cosmology can be difficult to untangle even for sophisticated readers. Perhaps for this reason his trilogy has remained fairly obscure, even for his fans (Lewisians?). In A Wrinkle in Time young readers are introduced to the idea of every thing in existence being linked to each other naturally by the praise they give God, their Creator. The stars are angels that battle a Dark Thing that spreads like an inky shadow throughout the universe and who seek to inspire mortal creatures to fight it also, whether or not the mortals realize it. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are shown the Dark Thing engulfing Earth and are told that it cuts off a planet’s possibility of communication with other planets and retards intellectual and creative growth. On the alien planet of Camazotz, this Evil is given a personality and a pounding rhythm by which it seduces people to give up independent thought and surrender their wills to its purposes. It thrives on anger, fear, and despair, and the only way to defeat it is through…love.
All this is good, but I wish L’Engle would have developed more the religious implications of her story. Characters, even aliens, quote verses of Scripture with some frequency when seeking answers and help, but they almost never identify the words as from the Bible, or discuss their spiritual meaning and religious context. And take this passage, where Mrs. Whatsit (a star-angel disguised as an old woman) explains the universe-spanning fight against Evil:
‘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 shone 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 Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!’ (100-101)
The qualifications for being a great fighter of the Powers of Darkness seem to be fame, notable accomplishments, and being counter-cultural – yet none of these are intrinsically good traits, morally. L’Engle lists Jesus alongside men who did not live their lives to glorify God, and by implication equates them. Jesus, of course, was no mere moral teacher, but L’Engle neither highlights His uniqueness as the Son of God nor explores what spiritual good, if any, exists in the lives and works of the other men. This is highly disappointing. From a purely literary perspective her point is not developed enough, and from a Christian perspective it is rather alarming.
A Wrinkle in Time is a fun and fascinating little book, a theological science fiction adventure fit for bright children and anyone older. In the following books of the Time Quintet I hope to see how L’Engle develops her cosmology and her endearing family of characters.
Look out for my Day 16 post on the Book Meme, coming before the day is out! David tessers away