Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet offers readers a deeply engaging and refreshingly strange encounter with goodness and beauty, along with some potential problems. The five novels, the first of which is the famous A Wrinkle in Time, vary considerably in style and in content, the first two being excellent reading for all ages, the middle two being more appropriate for older teens, and the last novel a depressingly inferior B-side. Despite being marketed today as a series, the books are standalone works published over a period of twenty-seven years. Because the novels vary so wildly in quality, content, structure, and age appropriateness, one really must evaluate each book individually, as has been done below. L’Engle’s series displays a quirky kind of theological cosmology, wonderfully charged with meaning and life, but not without some questionable elements. Each book is quite unique, and has its own audience.
A Wrinkle in Time (10+)
When her beloved father disappears while performing top secret experiments, Meg Murry, her gifted brother Charles Wallace Murry, and unexpected friend Calvin O’Keefe become entangled in a battle that spans time and space. To save their father, the Murrys must confront the Black Thing, a cosmic force of privation that connives at destroying whatever is beautiful, and that wants to collectivize, reduce, and ultimately degrade all persons. Three strange women, who are more than they seem, help the protagonists to confront their own vices, discover their own strengths, and carry their own weight in the war that rages throughout all the heavens.
This captivating story makes mystery and wonder feel both fun and weighty. L’Engle has a gift for recovering for her readers a sense of glee at the vast and beautiful cosmos, which is not just an enormous “space” filled with chemical reactions, but rather an arena, a place, a personal thing, meant to delight, terrify, and captivate the human heart. Hers is a world in which it is as natural to talk about special relativity as to quote St. Paul, as natural to follow Jesus as to read Shakespeare. Her characters are believable and well-drawn, and the Murry family is an extremely likable, good family. This book does a very good job of showing the drama of Christian charity, of making it real, normal, eminently practical, and exciting. Through Meg’s struggles with her vices, her discovery of what it will cost her to really love, and L’Engle’s realistic and sympathetic portrayal of human imperfection, the reader enters into the drama of freedom and love. A delightful book.
A Wind in the Door (10+)
This haunting novel is the best of the bunch. While A Wrinkle in Time is faster paced and has more of a popular feel, A Wind in the Door has a gravity, an artistry, and a mysticism that sets it apart. There’s so much substance here, it’s hard to know where to begin.
In prose both lyrical and economical, L’Engle paints a powerful portrait of spiritual warfare. Several years older, Meg is recruited by a mysterious Teacher named Blajeny who seems a bit like a high angel, and a bit like an embodiment or personification of the Holy Spirit. (L’Engle’s vagueness here and elsewhere is one of the chief objections some people have to her writing.) The Teacher teams Meg up with Proginoskes, a many-eyed Cherubim straight out of the book of Ezekiel. As Namers — beings with a special vocation to call others to be what they truly are — Meg and Proginokes must confront the terrible Echthroi. The gifted Charles Wallace is again the special target of evil, which has come after him in the form of cellular disease.
L’Engle’s genius lies in showing moral evils and physical evils as different faces of the same enemy. Likewise, she makes the love of God a tangible force that keeps the universe in being, gives beings their specific natures, and calls them to act the parts assigned them, roles they must discover for themselves in the painful forge of human freedom. In A Wind in the Door, to name a being is to love it by recognizing it for what it is, with all its uniqueness, its unrepeatability, its eternal value. To name a being is also to embrace the cost of love, and the telos of this loving embrace of the names of others is the beautiful and terrible sacrifice of one’s own life for love of the other. What makes this book feel positively inspired is its elegant solution to a very difficult problem: how to reconcile the personal affirmation of love with the self-immolative dimension of love. This is a book that will put autumn in your soul, and move you to stillness. It also contains theological curiosities that may give pause to some readers; see the discussion at the end of this review.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet (14+)
Though a well-written and interesting novel, this third book also poses some challenges for younger readers. Besides containing content that, though not inherently objectionable, would be inappropriate for a grade schooler, the book is also theologically weird in ways that have often bothered its Christian audience.
On the positive side of the ledger, consider that while A Wrinkle in Time unfolds on a galactic and personal scale, and A Wind in the Door takes place on a galactic and quantum scale, A Swiftly Tilting Planet involves confronting evil on a historical and political scale. In order to thwart a villain on the verge of launching a nuclear holocaust, Charles Wallace, pursued by the Echthroi, must go back in time and enter into the minds of historical players at critical decision points. Precipitating all of this is a visit by Calvin’s disturbed mother — now Meg’s mother-in-law — who introduces Charles to the Rune of St. Patrick, a prayer (or is it spell?) that plays a recurring role in the story. The story is well-executed, the characters rich and believable, and the ending is satisfying. Still, the book raises a few concerns.
Specifically, elements in the book come across as gnostic, or dualistic, and there’s some mature material. Some or all of the spiritual elements could be read in a more traditional way, but their immediate impression, the impression they are most likely to leave on impressionable readers, is a bit sketchy. The rune that plays such a critical role seems intermediate between a spell and a prayer, though it could be interpreted as a kind of sacramental, and it’s based on the Breastplate of St. Patrick. Likewise, the narrator’s account of the fall of the Echthroi (fallen angels, essentially) is traditional in the sense that it affirms the universe was created good, but it’s also potentially problematic in that this good creation is said to have originally encompassed both “light” and “good darkness” with the harmony between them part of the original created order, until broken by a “dazzling star” who “turned its back on the darkness” and brought about a deformed darkness, which is wickedness. What is “good darkness” in ontological terms? L’Engle, in her poetic way, doesn’t define this loaded term. The book also deals with witch trials, with superficial forms of Americanized pseudo-Christianity that disguise lust and racism, with domestic abuse, and with one instance of grooming by an abuser whose advances are narrowly thwarted at great personal cost. These are all real evils that have existed in history and that exist today, but this material narrows the book’s audience.
Many Waters (16+)
Many Waters is the most difficult of the five novels to review, due to its tricky subject matter: sexuality. Meg and Charles’s fifteen-year-old twin brothers, Sandy and Dennys, step into their parents’ laboratory and accidentally send themselves to the antediluvian world. There they encounter a diminutive, loincloth wearing people who live on an oasis in the desert. The reader soon realizes that these people are none other than the extended family of Noah. While there’s no sign at first of the coming flood, Sandy and Dennys have more immediate problems to confront: their new awareness of feminine beauty, and, along with this, an attractive but destructive enemy called lust.
L’Engle sets the stage by making artful use of the story of the sons of God, the daughters of men, and the Nephilim (Gen 6:1-4), a story from Genesis that directly precedes the Deluge, and which seems to serve as evidence of the growing wickedness of the human race just prior to the flood. No doubt, biblical scholars and theologians would have much to say about how to properly read those passages, but L’Engle, the novelist, uses it as a thematic backdrop for contrasting properly ordered sexual attraction, and one of its effects — a wholesome family — with lust, and its effects, the erosion of the healthy family and the vulgarization of the social order. She does this by pitting the angelic seraphim, servants of El, against the nephilim, who’ve turned their backs on El. The former assist Noah’s family, while the latter are imprisoned on Earth and have chosen to take human women as wives. It is the nephilim who introduce and promote “new ways” of approaching the matter of marriage and sexuality; specifically, they sever the relationship between the two by dividing daughters from their families, and by seducing and “marrying” human women.
Many Waters definitely rejects lust, and links it to destruction of the social order, but the book will still bother many traditional readers. This is because L’Engle not only contrasts lust with the purity of virginity, but she also showcases married sensuality. By putting Sandy and Dennys in the presence of tribal nudity, by describing the beauty of the female body, and by alluding to the well-ordered and natural sensuality in the relationship between Japeth and his wife — while at the same time celebrating virginity — L’Engle is taking a very clear stand. She is saying that sexuality, in its normal context, is a very good thing, and normal thing, just like virginity, but she is also taking a swipe at prudery. By restricting herself to the kind of descriptive language found in Song of Songs (from which the book’s title is derived), she seems to obliquely remind the reader that even the Bible contains healthy images of sensuality, and that this is a normal and good thing. Though the book does not describe marital acts in any way, it still confronts the reader with nakedness and sexuality, and a few instances of temptation. Because of its approach, this book may offend even some of those who basically agree with its worldview. There’s also some questionable theology here with respect to angels, and the book takes a loose view of the inspiration of Scripture. There’s also a single instance of very harsh language.
An Acceptable Time (13+)
Published twenty-seven years after A Wrinkle in Time, An Acceptable Time is the dud of the group. The novel follows Meg and Calvin’s daughter Polly O’Keefe and her obviously untrustworthy acquaintance, Zachary, as they stumble upon a time gate that leads to Native American druids (yes, you read that correctly). L’Engle wrote multiple series and sub-series which connect and overlap in various patterns, and both Polly and Zachary’s characters come from these side books. As part of the Time Quinent, their relationship makes little sense, and both characters feel very one-dimensional and underdeveloped. The book lacks organic unity, has little in the way of plot or character development, and is loaded with scientific and historical nonsense, and a mixture of interesting and iffy theology. However, this is the only book that clearly affirms a Trinitarian theology and which unambiguously affirms the full divinity of Christ.
The novel starts off well-enough, with many of the well-drawn domestic scenes, sci-fi conversations, and mysterious encounters that make L’Engle so fun to read, but the cracks soon begin spreading, and they never really stop. The novel simply lacks the kind of organic unity and life that distinguishes a story from a mere narrative vehicle for “the author’s message.” It very quickly becomes obvious that the characters are little more than mouthpieces for what L’Engle thinks on a whole range of matters, and it even repeats the tired story that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his scientific views (as opposed to his denial of Christ’s divinity, which is a position L’Engle herself would reject). The thin plot seems forced, and the book reads a bit like a tract or a rant. It’s a tedious read, and a very unfortunate addition to what is otherwise a very captivating series. While the book’s ultimate theme, God’s infinite mercy and Christ’s presence in the world even in the deep past, is a good one, the novel is just not well-executed.
As the foregoing discussion illustrates, generalizing about Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet is difficult, but we can say a few things about its strengths and about its weaknesses. L’Engle does an excellent job of recovering the numinous, the mysterious, and the wonderful. As Proginoskes says, “Human beings cannot take too much reality,” but her books do a wonderful job of pulling back the veil of unreality and plunging readers into the world of the extraordinary that lurks behind the ordinary. She’s not reactionary or irreverent toward the sciences, but with a great respect and love for them, she recovers the stars and planets for us as places, and makes us see just how strange, mysterious, and magical the created world really is. She renders believable the presence of angels and the purposes of God, while also drawing our attention to an ever-present battle between angels and demons that rages from the heavens to the earth, from the galactic down to the quantum scale. Her novels show that this battle is ultimately a battle over souls, but one that has social, ecological, and cosmic ramifications. In fact it is a battle in which every little skirmish matters, and everything is at stake. She renders palpable and immediate the Presence and Love of God as a force that actually moves the universe, and is not distant from it. In the Murrys she gives us a strong family that displays a healthy secularity, but which seems to take prayer and God as givens.
On the other hand L’Engle’s wonderful illustration of God’s immanence, and her rejection of a dry, rationalistic theology sometimes comes at the price of seeming to collapse important distinctions. The distinctions between grace and nature, spirit and matter, and, to an extent, God and His operations in the world, sometimes dissolve or disappear in her writing. Distinctions, as Meg discovered on Camazotz, are incredibly important; sometimes everything depends on them. A careful reading of L’Engle’s novels reveals a certain impatience with and suspicion of the “barnacles” of traditional Christian theology. In her personal life she was, by all accounts, a very prayerful person, and her approach to Christianity is very mystical, but mysticism without sufficient theology can lead to confusion.
The problematic areas in L’Engle are directly tied to her strengths. She powerfully shows how love can conquer evil by its ability to name us as we truly are, but her confidence in love’s conquest of evil seems to involve forgetting that a condition of that love is freedom, that free beings can choose, and that the faculty of choice, if it does not come to an end, would never definitively achieve the good toward which it aims. Hence her problematic suggestion that the fallen angels, the nephilim, are still the brothers of the seraphim. Similarly, she does an extraordinary job of recovering the immanence of God, the God who is not only the transcendent source of supernatural grace, but who is so present in every motion of the created world that the operations of the Holy Spirit pervade the operations of nature, and sustain it in existence. And yet, God isn’t nature, isn’t the wind, isn’t the music of the spheres, though He is present in all these things. I appreciate L’Engle’s Franciscan-like impatience with the rationalistic pseudo-scholasticism which is so obsessed with definition that it cannot encounter the mystery of God, cannot let go of the sense of control that comes with having a ready answer for every mystery. She certainly seems to have a better sense of the active tenderness of God, of His incomparable, mysterious action in the created world, than some Christian novelists who are more orthodox, yet there is a vagueness and an idiosyncratic unorthodoxy expressed in her stories. Though she may not be a sure guide for the education of the Christian mind, she positively excels in the education of the human heart.
- Analyze the following quote from A Wind in the Door:
“All Proginoskes’s eyes were shielded by his wings. ‘I am a Namer. The Echthroi would un-Name. If I do not go with them, then I must X myself.’
‘I’ll ask a riddle. What do you have the more of, the more of it you give away?’
‘Oh, love I suppose.’
‘So, if I care more about Naming than anything else, then maybe I have to give myself away, if it’s the only way to show my love. All the way away. To X myself.'”
- What does Naming have to do with loving?
- What does Proginoskes mean by “X myself?” Can something that is wonderful also be terrible?
- Does the above quote remind you of any the words of Jesus in the New Testament?
- According to Christian theology, the angels have already definitively chosen for or against God, but in this series the battle in the heavens is happening now (otherwise Proginoskes wouldn’t have to make a choice for or against the Echthroi). Leaving aside the theological issue for a moment, what is the literary advantage of L’Engle’s showing us this battle in “real time”?
- In the first two books, Charles Wallace is being bullied and mistreated, and although this pains his parents, they also don’t fly to his rescue, insisting that he has to adapt to the situation without compromising his kind soul. How can we react to unjust treatment in a way that preserves our rights and dignity but which also forces us to become stronger, to adapt?
- The books have strange inconsistencies, with characters sometimes acting as if they had little or no knowledge of what happened in previous books. Do you think these inconsistencies are deliberate? If so, what do they mean?