Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Swiftly Tilting Planet presents Charles Wallace with a quest to save the world from Maddog Branzillo, who would start nuclear war. He is given only an ancient rune as clue by a mysterious Mrs. O’Keefe. Charles Wallace goes out to the star-watching rock to contemplate and, after saying the rune, is greeted by Gaudior, a unicorn who takes him back and forth through time on the wind as he attempts to discover what in history caused the nuclear threat to appear in the present.
L’Engle explores the idea of the butterfly effect—the idea that one decision or flap of a butterfly’s wing can affect the present or the future—in this final novel of the original trilogy. She gives Charles Wallace the ability to go within people as he travels and to live through their eyes, hopefully changing for the better the outcome of his present. Charles Wallace’s mission is to find the might-have-been whom he can change, therefore preventing the present threat from ever having happened.
Meg is married and pregnant with Calvin’s baby, and her function in this novel is to support Charles Wallace and kythe with him her love and the information that she finds out about the history he is experiencing. The plot moves between her experiences of what he sees and his conversations with Gaudior.
This novel allows Charles Wallace to develop his talents and to learn patience and love for all the characters from history whom he inhabits. By letting go and being them, he is taken to the right place and is able to change the course of history, with Meg’s support and love to back him. The power of love is present here in two aspects: the love that Meg gives Charles Wallace, which sustains him, and the love that Charles Wallace develops for the people he embodies. This selfless love is what allows him to make the right decision at the right time when he is in the body of the correct person. This supernatural out-of-body experience is the most extreme form of science fiction and fantasy in the series, yet it allows Charles Wallace to understand and love Mrs. O’Keefe, the bitter old mother-in-law of Meg who renounced love years ago and rediscovers it through Charles Wallace.
Chapter 1 Summary
The Murry family gathers in their home on Thanksgiving amidst a severe thunderstorm. Meg Murry O’Keefe, expecting her first child, has outgrown her teenage awkwardness into as lovely a woman as her mother, the Nobel-winning scientist. Mr. Murry, a physicist who is regularly consulted by the White House, is making a model of a tesseract with fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace, whose delayed physical development makes him look like a twelve-year-old. Sandy and Dennys, the twins, are home from law and medical schools. Mrs. O’Keefe, Meg’s mother-in-law, sits by the fire, withdrawn from the family that she resents. Calvin, Meg’s husband, is in London presenting a scientific paper. The family members discuss their childhood, when most of their meals were cooked by Mrs. Murry in her attached laboratory over Bunsen burners.
The phone rings and Meg answers it and gives it to her father—it is the President of the United States. Mr. Murry listens carefully, his face going blank. After he hangs up, he tells his family that there is a threat of war from “Mad Dog” (El Rabioso) Branzillo, dictator of the South American country, Vespugia. Branzillo has threatened to fire nuclear weapons at America, and the President has vowed retaliation if he does so. The threat of global annihilation hangs of the Thanksgiving dinner.
Mrs. O’Keefe, listening in to the conversation, tries to remember a poem from her Irish grandmother called “Patrick’s Rune,” beginning with the lines, “In this fateful, all heaven with its power….” As the storm intensifies, the electricity goes out, and Mrs. O’Keefe remembers the rest of the rune. As she chants it, the weather calms and the electricity returns. She tells Charles Wallace (whom she calls "Chuck") that he must use it to stop Branzillo. She asks to go home, and Dennys drives her. While Sandy prefers to dismiss her as an odd old woman, Mr. and Mrs. Murry take her seriously. Charles Wallace does as well, citing the effect her chanting had on the weather. Meg, ever protective of her baby, wonders what the outcome of the next twenty-four hours will be. She fears the end of the world, but Sandy and Dennys cynically say that the world has it coming. The abuse of the planet and the environment may be the cause of Branzillo’s threats. Calvin calls from London and speaks to each of the family members and tells Meg that he loves her. Meg thinks again about the rune that her mother-in-law chanted. It spoke of fire and strength, both of which, as Charles Wallace points out, can be used to destroy or create.
Chapter 2 Summary
Meg sleeps in her old bed in her childhood bedroom in the attic. She misses Fortinbras, the family dog, for the security he used to give. A kitten jumps on her bed, giving her what comfort it can. Meg hears Charles Wallace coming up the steps and entering her bedroom. He is troubled by the rune that Mrs. O’Keefe gave him and is not sure how it can be used to stop Branzillo. He asks Meg what Mrs. O’Keefe’s maiden name is, thinking it will be important. Meg cannot think of it and Charles Wallace tells her to relax so that they can “kythe,” an intense form of mental communication. He draws the knowledge out of her, and she says that the name is Maddox, and her middle name begins with a “Z.” Maddox sounds familiar to Charles Wallace; he remembers something connected to an old British poem about two brothers fighting. He says that he must go out to the star-watching rock, the special place where the members of the family seek solitude and where many of their adventures began. Meg wants to go with him, but Charles Wallace tells her that she must stay behind so that he can kythe with her here. Besides, he needs to be alone, since something is blocking his understanding. He warns her that he may be going somewhere for an indeterminate amount of time.
As Charles Wallace leaves, Meg lies down to sleep but sits back up when she hears a dog barking. She goes downstairs to find Charles Wallace and her parents with a dog in the kitchen. Mrs. Murry tells Meg that their new dog has found them. Meg feeds her, and Charles Wallace says that her name is Ananda, which is Sanskrit for “that joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse.” Meg asks her mother if Mrs. O’Keefe’s name is Branwen and Mrs. Murry says that the Maddox family used to be prominent in the area. Mr. Murry says he would like to research the history of the village but never has the time.
With his parents’ reluctant permission, Charles Wallace goes out to the star-watching rock and begins to chant Patrick’s rune. Immediately the stars increase in brightness and a beam of light flows down to Charles Wallace, solidifying into a unicorn. Charles Wallace is able to mentally communicate with the unicorn, who says his name is Gaudior, which is Latin for the same joy as Ananda is in Sanskrit. Gaudior is to take Charles Wallace where he can perform his mission. He warns the boy to beware of Echtroi, enemy spirits who are set on destruction. Gaudior begins to gallop and then takes off, riding up onto the wind and over the stars.
Chapter 3 Summary
Meg discovers that she can kythe more easily with Charles Wallace if she rests her hand on Ananda. She goes back into Charles Wallace but sees nothing but darkness, yet the darkness is good. Light appears, and it is also good. Then a star swallows up the dark and becomes the dark, which is not good; the glory of the harmony of light and dark has been broken. She sees galaxies, solar systems, and planets rushing by until she comes to a planet just forming. Soon rain falls on the planet and cools it, and then the ocean appears. Dry land is formed and covered with green plants. Dinosaurs come to life and then die off.
Charles Wallace finds himself with Gaudior in a glade surrounded by antediluvian trees. When he asks Gaudior where they are, the unicorn replies that they are where they started out, but now they are in a different When, many years before the coming of humans. Gaudior explains that it is easier for him to travel through time than space. Soon they travel forward in time to the meadow with the star-watching rock, which is now a small mountain of stone. Gaudior explains that Charles Wallace has been called to accomplish a purpose, which is to a time where Might-Have-Been has yet to happen. He is to be sent Within someone and will change events to stop the evil that is now taking place in Charles Wallace’s world. Charles Wallace is frightened at the thought of going Within someone, losing contact with Meg and perhaps losing himself. Gaudior explains that going within is similar to kything, which relieves Charles Wallace somewhat. He gains strength from the fact that he must achieve this mission for the well-being of Meg and her baby. Gaudior and Charles Wallace move to a time when people inhabit the valley, which is now covered by a lake. Charles Wallace sees structures by the lakeside. He sees a young boy, who Gaudior explains is named Harcels, of the People of the Wind. Harcels calls for a creature similar to a dolphin. Gaudior says...
(The entire section is 546 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
As Gaudior carries Charles Wallace through the heavens, the stars sing as they turn on their axes, causing the most beautiful harmonies to play. Soon Charles Wallace and his mount are assaulted with an overwhelming stench of death and decay. Gaudior explains that they have arrived at a Projection of a future of the Echthroi. The surface is solidified lava, with heat rising from it. A misshapen creature shuffles toward them. Charles Wallace chants Patrick’s Rune, and snow begins to fall. Gaudior rises up into the heavens and Charles Wallace fights a drowsiness that threatens to overtake him. Soon, he lands in a new When, much later than the time of Harcels, but still far in the past. The star-watching rock has eroded, and the lake...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Madoc is filled with joy at the sight of the brother he thought was dead. Gwydyr, however, seems cold and distant. When Madoc explains that he believed Gwydyr to have been killed by a serpent, Gwydyr responds that it was his wish that his brother think so. He explains that there is room for only one king. Madoc pleads with him that they leave Gwynedd in search of peace. Gwydyr says that he has come to claim Zyll for his own. Zyll tells him that it is too late, that she and Madoc have been made one. Gwydyr’s response is that his laws are stronger than the laws of the People of the Wind, and the warriors in the boats reveal their spears hidden in their paddles. Reschal (the Old Man) reveals that he had heard the drums the previous...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Charles Wallace asks Gaudior to take him to Vespugia in 1865. Gaudior explains that it is difficult to travel in both space and time together, so he will take him to 1865 first. As they travel through space, Charles Wallace is attacked by an Echthros. Gaudior saves him and carries him in his teeth. When they land in 1865, Charles Wallace sees that the lake is gone and the star-watching rock is reduced to the size which he has known. He also notices log cabins in the valley and identifies them as being earlier than 1865. Gaudior suggests that they examine this time where they have been sent, rather than seek to go where they had intended.
Charles Wallace soon finds himself with Brandon Llawcae, a young boy from the...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Charles Wallace asks Gaudior if there were such horrors as the Salem Witch Trials on other planets. Gaudior explains that evil happens wherever the Echthroi are. They discuss what they have learned from being Within Brandon. Charles Wallace sees that there is a triangular connection with Wales, Vespugia, and his own place and time. He suddenly realizes that Madoc spelled in Welsh is Madog, similar to Mad Dog, as in El Rabioso Branzillo. He tells Gaudior that they must get to Vespugia to see what the connection is, no matter how difficult it is for Gaudior to travel to a different location in space. Gaudior points out that, evidenced by their trouble the last time, problems arise when they try to be too specific as to time. Though...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Gaudior and Charles Wallace find themselves on a beach, injured from their fall and the tightness of the rope. Charles Wallace is unable to untie the knots but finds a plant with strong, serrated edges that allows him to cut through them and release him. Gaudior sees that it will take weeks to heal, so he decides to take Charles Wallace back to his home where the Echthroi cannot reach him. On arrival, Charles Wallace sees eggs and realizes that the unicorns hatch from these eggs. He watches as one hatches. At first, the young unicorn prances around Gaudior but runs away when he catches sight of Charles Wallace. Now that they have healed, Gaudior suggests that they let the wind take them where they need to go instead of planning on...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Meg wakes up to the shrill sound of the telephone ringing. Fearing that it is the President with bad news, she is relieved to hear that it is only Mrs. O’Keefe, who demands that someone come to get her as she has found something important to show Mr. Murry. Meg cannot remember what she was kything, but she knows that it is something important about Mrs. O’Keefe. When her mother-in-law arrives, Meg says her childhood name, Beezie. Mrs. O’Keefe is surprised, saying that name would be better forgotten.
Mrs. O’Keefe, intrigued by the name Branzillo, had gone on a search and found a letter from Bran Maddox in Vespugia to Matthew Maddox, the writer. Bran says that when he came to Vespugia, he was met with the legend...
(The entire section is 448 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Charles Wallace, from his place Within Chuck, sees nothing but experiences a torrent of smells. He feels the pain from Chuck’s head and then sees a fight between Gwydyr and Madoc at the edge of a lake. He sees a unicorn lower its blazing horn to touch Chuck’s head and pour light into it.
Charles Wallace hears a voice, similar to Gaudior’s but not exactly, calling to him. He still cannot see anything, not even darkness. Meg, in her room, has tears in her eyes, but she does not know why. She sees Gaudior, also weeping, proclaiming that this was a victory for the Echthroi. Meg thinks of Mrs. O’Keefe downstairs and believes that the change from Beezie to what Mrs. O’Keefe has become is an evil victory indeed....
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Charles Wallace comes back into the light. Gaudior explains that Duthbert Mortmain had Chuck institutionalized. They take off once again, landing in a city square surrounded by tall, windowless buildings. Two men with guns come toward them, and Gaudior takes off before they can shoot. He tells Charles Wallace that that was a Projection. Meg in her bedroom continues to kythe through Charles Wallace and sees a young man and a woman on the star-watching rock. From their clothes, she can tell that it is around 1865.
Charles Wallace experiences deep pain this time as he goes Within Matthew Maddox, who has been crippled from a horse-riding accident. He looks at Zillah and thanks her for coming to talk with him. He explains...
(The entire section is 536 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Meg, Sandy, Dennys, and Mrs. O’Keefe run across the lawn toward the star-watching rock. Meg has to pull her mother-in-law over the wall and down the path. They find Charles Wallace there, his eyes closed and his skin as white as death. Meg cries to Mrs. O’Keefe, calling her by her childhood name of Beezie, and tells her to recite Patrick’s Rune. Mrs. O’Keefe breathlessly begins, joining herself to her grandmother and Chuck. Dennys bends over Charles Wallace and feels that he has no pulse. Meg joins with Mrs. O’Keefe in chanting the rune.
Charles Wallace sees the light returning slowly and the pain disappearing. He is on the star-watching rock with Gaudior bending over him. The unicorn explains that Charles...
(The entire section is 500 words.)