Madeleine L’Engle’s Remarkable Accomplishment in The Wrinkle in Time

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.

“Your faults.”

“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 showso I haven’t watched this but I love this club and hope you’ll enjoy. 

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to Madeleine L’Engle’s Remarkable Accomplishment in The Wrinkle in Time

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    Brenton, Thank you for this marvelous decades-belated review of L’Engle’s masterpiece.

    Intrigued by your reference to the “five-book trilogy we know as the Time Series,” I clicked on the link and was taken to your own “Pilgrim” announcement posted 28 October 2015, which tells us about the five-book trilogy we know as the Ransom Series. Was that your intent? Clarify, please.

    Charles

    Like

    • I’ll perhaps have to clarify that link, Charles. It is a cute joke, when I suggest that the “Ransom books” (that I call the Ransom Cycle) form a five-book trilogy, much like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker trilogy and L’Engle’s growing Time books. They are now a set of two Quintets with one book shared between the Meg-Calvin generation and the kids, so I’m not sure what that’s called! I’ve come to like these “trilogies” that grow as the authors play around a bit. Christopher Paolini’s books. And maybe that might be what’s holding Patrick Rothfuss up a bit (it is a three-day story, so has to be a trilogy).

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        So far I’ve only read all four of what Wikipedia calls “Kairos”: “First-generation (Murry)”, and remember my copy of Many Waters has a complicated if lucid chart of all sorts of books (I haven’t dug it out to check, before submitting this comment…) – and find it the most easily enjoyable of those four (which may sound curious re. the destruction of nearly all life on earth!).

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        • Ha, it occurs to me that there are actually names for these series! It is “Murry,” not “Murray.” And the Murry series is 4 books, but An Acceptable Time also features the Murry 1st gen. So 2nd gen is 4 books, 1st gen 4 + 1, with 8 total.
          Still, the 5-book trilogy sort of fits. Or perhaps 4 1/2 book trilogy, like the Ransom Cycle.

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Like

  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    The book with the green head on the front and the flying horse-man is the one I read.

    Like

  4. Hannah says:

    Thanks for this great review, showing ao ‘how Meg with her faults is the gift to the reader’! It is ao why I love the books by Elizabeth Goudge, with the ‘anti-heroes’ shining as the best characters: e.g. the Dean and Isaac, the watchmaker in “the Dean’s Watch” and John, the country vicar in “The Rosemary Tree”.

    Like

  5. Hannah says:

    She also wrote fairy tales, and I just found this on Wikipedia: “In 2001/2002 J. K. Rowling identified (her fairy tale) “The Little White Horse” as one of her favourite books and one of few with direct influence on the Harry Potter series.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for saying it so well in so many particulars!

    Even successful writers have stopped protractedly, indefinitely because publishers have somehow suddenly decided there is no place for them – I think, for example, of Barbara Pym, with a sixteen-year gap between No Fond Return of Love (1961) and Quartet in Autumn (1977).

    What would a young (or writerly young, middle-aged) L’Engle-like writer do, now? Something like Andy Weir did, with The Martian – giving it away free online, to start with?

    In any case, how blessed many variously Meg-like young people are, that she succeeded – and not them alone!

    Like

    • Personally, I love the stories where someone pounds out the pavement and finally breaks through. It is my hope for myself on a number of fronts, yet, of course, that never means that I am publishable or another writer is readable. Still….
      Maybe the Andy Weir approach. But people haven’t paid attention to the epistolary nature of The Martian: it is a series of logs, working perfectly for blogs (web logs). He was voracious, the book is weirdly technical, and the main character has this idiotic optimism. So the whole thing is a throwback and push forward.
      I should write about it… but I don’t know the method would work for fairy tale fantasy, for example. It does work in Amazon for romance, apparently.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Very interesting considerations! I remember Stephen King was trying something a few years ago about seeing who would pay for the next chapter after a couple free ones (if I remember correctly!) – but I don’t remember hearing how that turned out…

        Would something episodic enough be analogously blogable? But then, episodes of what length, with what effect on the plotting and storytelling? (What would The Lord of the Rings be like, blogged – or even The Hobbit?)

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        • I don’t know if the two are linked necessarily, but I think that the Hobbit is more bloggable than LOTR because it is more episodic. Think of novelists that are really short story writers–like Mark Twain and L.M. Montgomery: they are more suitable to blogs, methinks.
          But today? I don’t know the rules.

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  7. H.P. says:

    “Her science fiction had too many fantasy elements, and as fantasy her books are far too sciency…. 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.”

    Both of these used to used to be very common for speculative fiction, although that was very rapidly changing by the 1960s.

    Like

    • Is it still fluid today? Or are the SF/Fantasy lines fast and hard?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I was shocked to hear from a successful (young adult) novelist how (as it were) ‘toxic’ Christian elements are regarded as being, in the UK, in recent years.

        Like

        • There’s always trends. Overt Christianity is in distaste these days, but spiritual themes with Christian imagery still works.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I haven’t read enough of Vanessa Romo’s stuff to have a sense of her as a writer and thinker, but her correction on 30 March – “An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Easter as ‘the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere at all, but rather arose into heaven'” – may suggest that a lot of spiritual themes with Christian imagery could be ‘sneaked in – and “past watchful dragons”‘!

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Dana Ames says:

    I recently found out that Farrar, Straus & Giroux was the company that took a chance on Flannery O’Connor’s less than mainstream and deeply Christian kind of writing…

    Dana

    Like

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