By all accounts, the young Madeleine L’Engle did everything wrong.
First, she was a woman writing in a man’s genre in the 1950s and 1960s—and writing soft SF under a feminine name without the ambiguity of initials to hide behind. Her science fiction had too many fantasy elements, and as fantasy her books are far too sciency. A Wrinkle in Time is filled with foreign language quotations, references to philosophical, scientific, and religious thinkers, and jam-packed with challenging concepts in physics and metaphysics. Perhaps most deadly to a writer trying to break out in speculative fiction in the early 60s, her books are far too religious for mainstream markets, and far too speculative for Christian audiences. Moreover, A Wrinkle in Time is too complex for little kids and missing the elements that teen books need, making it hard to market even as genre fiction.
And, of course, it begins with non-ironic cliché—”It was a dark and stormy night”—and it takes a couple of chapters for the reader to truly settle in. All of the things that would make an agent pass it up today were present in A Wrinkle in Time.
Yet, yet, it worked. A Wrinkle in Time is not a perfect book, but it is a good book, a living book, and one worthy of a big Hollywood adaptation (even an imperfect one).
For my part, reading A Wrinkle in Time was almost a physiological experience for me as a preteen. On my own dark and stormy night, in my own old-house upstairs room with creaky rafters and squeaky stairs, I read this book and seemed to feel the entire foundations of my house move. I know it wasn’t truly a change in my old-house sandstone cellars. All that was happening was that I discovered for the first time that we are hurtling through the solar system at a million kilometres an hour, that space and time are bound up in all I could imagine as history and eternity, that I was awakening into adulthood from a childhood of wonder, and that there might be something of significance outside of my little old-house room. That’s all, but that’s a lot when you are 12.
So, despite the fact that the book and the authoress were wrong in all kinds of ways, this was a really important book.
Moving outside of my draughty old house, Madeleine L’Engle managed to create a classic with her first book—a book important enough to win the Newbery Medal for 1962, to be included on almost every great kids books list, and to be adapted 55 years later as a star-soaked Disney film. This for a book that was rejected more than 30 times, and may never have been published had L’Engle not met one of the founding partners of Farrar, Straus & Giroux at a party. On the verge of giving up as a failed forty-year-old writer–how many reading are right there, right now?–A Wrinkle in Time joins the list of books that may never have been written if the author had not continued under the delusion that they might write something worth reading.
Madeleine L’Engle’s greatest accomplishment, however, is not the awards or the silver screen or the awakening of an awkward Canadian teen who wasn’t very good at hockey. L’Engle’s most remarkable accomplishment in A Wrinkle in Time, I think, is captured best in the character of Meg, the novel’s protagonist.
And at the centre of L’Engle’s break-out book is an awkward, impetuous, short-tempered, cantankerous, overly self-conscious and impatient teenage girl who isn’t terribly good looking and has no particular giftings. We will discover later in the book and throughout the five-book trilogy we know as the Time Series that Meg is actually pretty intelligent and gifted in unique ways. But the author allows the reader to be overwhelmed by Meg’s own sense of inadequacy before slowly tugging us outside of her interior doubt, loneliness, frustration, and self-disappointment.
Then L’Engle does something that absolutely transforms heroic fantasy. In a classic fairy tale moment where the fairy godmother character is giving out gifts for the journey, Mrs Whatsit intensifies Calvin’s ability to communicate and the gifts that Charles Wallace has already developed in his early childhood. But to Meg, Mrs Whatsit turns her roll of classical mentor upside down:
“… Meg, I give you your faults.”
“My faults!” Meg cried.
“But I’m always trying to get rid of my faults!”
“Yes,” Mrs Whatsit said. “However, I think you’ll find they’ll come in very handy on Camazotz.
In doing so, in allowing Meg to find her heroic heart within her fractured frame, L’Engle forges a new relationship between the reader and the hero’s quest. Meg has no prophecy that allows her to pull the sword from the stone, no peculiar inheritance to carry her into the field of battle, no enchantment that gives her supernatural strength, no secret parentage to teach her secret powers, no big adventure of self-discovery to help her reform, no special allocation of vision, and no great national alliance to ensure her victory. Instead, Meg is Meg, with all her Megness left in. L’Engle’s story, flaws and all, send stories out in a new direction from this point on.
Mrs Who will go on to give Meg some one-use magic glasses, as she gives Calvin a clue and Charles Wallace a warning. It is a fairy tale, after all—even if it is a space age one. In the end, though, success will come through the negotiation of Meg with her own self—her whole self, for without the flaws the whole adventure will fail. And Mrs Which will warn the children to stick together on their adventure—a lesson that 20th-century heroes in all kinds of stories ignore at the peril of the characters. But, in the end, it is Meg and her faults that is the gift to the reader.
I am sure I didn’t consciously make this link as a 12 year old. But I have had a lifelong attraction to the anti-hero, the unhero, the redeemed hero, and the flawed hero. I yearn for the story that turns the rules of the game upside down. One of the early versions of this was Meg, half-blind and bad at geography and barely able to keep herself from flying headlong into danger. For a Canadian boy who wasn’t good at hockey and who was overwhelmed by his own flaws, Meg was an important person to meet in the cold upstairs room of his creaky old farmhouse. Cliché or no, Madeleine L’Engle seemed to know that for many kids, many nights are dark and stormy in their own self-imagination, if not in the atmosphere beyond the roofing shingles.
With due respect to the well-deserved red-carpet remembrances of her work, this, I think, is Madeleine L’Engle’s most remarkable achievement.
Here is a Mythgard Movie Club session in A Wrinkle in Time. I haven’t seen the movie yet–we were scheduled for last Wednesday and the theatre dropped the show—so I haven’t watched this but I love this club and hope you’ll enjoy.