Madeleine L'Engle Essay - Critical Essays


While L’Engle’s works have been defined as Christian science fiction and fantasy, she resisted this label. The books of the Time Quartet do lend themselves to a religious aspect, in that L’Engle presents an incarnation of evil and sets it in opposition with the powers of good represented in the power of love and selflessness. She considered herself religious and close to God, and a fair amount of her recognition and interviews appear in Christian publications. She attended an Episcopal church in New York and was affiliated with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she served as writer-in-residence.

L’Engle felt herself very connected to a God of love and was greatly influenced as a child by her reading of George Macdonald’s books in which he tells the story of being excommunicated from his church because he refused to believe that two-thirds of the world’s peoples (those who are not practicing Christians) were not worthy of a heavenly afterlife. She commented in an interview that she was very inspired by Macdonald’s theology of love. The manifestation of religious belief in her Time Quartet lies in the fact that what triumphs in these novels over the incarnation of evil is the power of love, which each character discovers.

The series trilogy of time travel-centered novels for young adults has been criticized, however, by fundamental Christian groups as defying the text of the Bible in its portrayals. For example, A Wrinkle in Time is often criticized for portraying the three female guides as witches and the brain which stands for the evil that takes over Charles Wallace as Satan. Each of the trilogy’s novels uses some element of the supernatural, such as a unicorn or unconventional cherubim, to aid the child characters in their quest against the forces of evil. L’Engle allows her imagination to wander and create a world of possibilities which she does not consider contradictory to a belief in God, because she asserts that belief in God does not require facts.

What these unconventional novels did was take two ideas, science fiction and religion, and link them as they had never been linked before. L’Engle said that science fiction takes a scientific idea and poses the question, “What if . . . ?” It is this type of speculation that stirs the imagination of the young reader. Also, by setting up a dichotomy between good as embodied in the child characters and their guides and evil as embodied in those who aim to destroy and thwart the children, L’Engle enters the realm of religion because the power these children possess is the power of belief and love, which L’Engle posits as essential to Christianity and true knowledge of God.

This dichotomy of good, the children and their quest, versus evil, the force which destroys all things, gives way to two major themes which dominate this series. The first is the search for identity, or self-discovery (the eternal questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”), and the second is the power of love, communication, and selflessness over hate, division, and greed.

The discovery of self which each character undergoes and develops in the series is aided and supported by the characters who serve as guides and partners to the children in their quests. This discovery leads the children to the mastery and recognition of the second theme, the power of love and faith or belief. When the children are impatient, prideful, and controlled by fear, they begin to lose to evil, but when they let go and follow their guides and their compulsions, opening themselves up to each other and acting out of love, they are victorious and able to conquer the evil that threatens them and their loved ones.

The science-fiction devices which L’Engle used to create the foundation of the novels’ plots include the presence of supernatural beings with superhuman powers, the ability to kythe (communicate with a being through thoughts only), and the ability to tesser (travel back and forth in time and place). These devices recur in each of the quartet’s novels. The characters’ abilities to use and accept them correspond to their success and their discovery of their true valuable and loving self.

A Wrinkle in Time

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin travel (tesser) through time, with the help of three guides, to find their father, who got lost experimenting with time travel.

A Wrinkle in Time was L’Engle’s third novel to be published. The novel opens with Meg Murray, a girl just entering high school, the middle child and only daughter, going downstairs in a storm to find her little brother, Charles Wallace, waiting for her. The reference is made to the ability of Charles Wallace to know her thoughts, which readers later discover is the ability to kythe, or communicate thought from mind to mind without speaking. This is the first indication of the special abilities Charles Wallace possesses and develops throughout the trilogy.

During this storm, the children’s first guide appears at the Murrays’ door dressed as an old homeless woman might and calling herself Mrs. Whatsit. She informs the family that the tesseract is real. The tesseract is the physics formula explaining time travel which Mr. Murray was exploring at the time of his disappearance.

When Meg and Charles Wallace later go to visit Mrs. Whatsit, they encounter Calvin, a fellow student with Meg, who tells them he also followed a compulsion that led him to come to Mrs. Whatsit’s house at the same time. They enter the house, where they meet for the first time their other guide, Mrs. Who. She tells the kids to leave and that she and her cohorts will fetch them when the time comes.

Meg spends the next few chapters attempting to come to grips with herself and her unhappy situation at school, in which her teachers think she is not intelligent and she is not doing well. She also struggles with her own security because she compares her plainness to the beauty of her mother and other peers. She encompasses the common insecurities of the adolescent girl. However, she is aware that Charles Wallace is special and that she has a special connection to him.

Then, on a walk in the garden, they encounter the two guides and a new one, who appears only as an ephemeral shape of a person, Mrs. Which. The guides proceed to attempt to explain tessering (or time travel), and they take the children to a pleasing planet from which they come and teach them about the evil forces they refer to as the Black Thing, which is a sort of cloud covering many planets. At this point in the novel the dichotomy sets the evil as a cloud that surrounds a planet and thus infiltrates the minds of its people, dictating their actions. The planet they see, they are...

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