Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle

The Time Quartet (or maybe Quintet?)
by Madeleine L'Engle

MY ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES: In four books published between 1962 and 1986, American author Madeleine L'Engle created a unique world of cosmic fantasy, with the six members of the exceptional Murry family caught up in the classic battle between good and evil.

Mr. and Mrs. Murry are renowned scientists. The father is constantly being called to Washington to consult with the President, or to Cape Canaveral to consult with NASA. The mother is doing her own private experiments in an old stone dairy-pantry converted into a lab, where she earns a Nobel Prize while cooking her children's dinners over a bunsen burner. The middle children, twin boys Sandy and Dennys, are bright and athletic and popular, and quite ordinary. With the exception of the last novel in the Quartet, however, most of the action centers on two members of the family: the oldest child, ugly-duckling Meg, going through a difficult adolescence; and the extremely gifted but mysterious baby of the family, Charles Wallace.

Together with a lanky, redheaded boy from the wrong side of the tracks, named Calvin O'Keefe, Meg and Charles (and others) have a series of adventures that bring them in contact with the evil Echthroi--fallen angels bent on erasing everything from existence--and various other sinister forces. But they also meet a series of wonderful beings who help them combat the forces of darkness, maintain the balance of the universe, and keep the Old Music of the spheres humming even into our shadowed, troubled world.

Whether you are a Christian or not, these unique stories will trouble, challenge, excite, and uplift you. Though L'Engle is outspoken in her Christian beliefs, these novels are not evangelical tracts or creedal statements. They express a unique worldview, at least of a fantasy world (but a very realistic one, much like our own); a world sometimes visited by cherubim, centaurs, angels, and unicorns; a world in which all matter, and all living things, join in a song of praise and a dance of joy to the Creator, and yet where evolution is presupposed; a world in which Celtic runes, Bible stories, and quotes from the Psalms interweave with myths, tribal religions, and a vaguely cyclic view of history; a world in which Jesus, Ghandi, and Buddha are listed as comrades, and in which time travel, space travel, molecular biology, quantum physics, metaphysics, and theology intertwine.

It's very weird, but it's also thrilling, moving, romantic, and full of lovable characters. And it teaches lessons--lessons about love and hate, faith and skepticism, war and peace, forgiveness and sacrifice. I recommend the Time Quartet, which I read and re-read in three different decades of my life and still find just as challenging and magical as ever. Though L'Engle is a prolific author, and I have heard good report of some of her other books (such as Meet the Austins and the whole series of teen-romance-fantasy-mysteries that follow it), these are the only ones I've ever seen on sale. They are, apparently, by far her most popular works. The books of the Time Quartet are A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), and Many Waters (1986).

CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION/UPDATE: All right, I'll admit it. I shot from the hip when I wrote my original "Book Trolley" introduction to the "Time Quartet." Since then I have learned that the series is sometimes also described as the "Time Quintet" with the addition of An Acceptable Time (1989). But this latest book is also reportedly the conclusion of a separate quartet featuring the children of Calvin and Meg O'Keefe. The other books in this "O'Keefe Quartet" include The Arm of the Starfish (1965), Dragons in the Waters (1976), and A House Like a Lotus (1984). This quartet can thus be distinguished from the "Time Quartet" or "Murry Quartet," focusing on the Murry children, or grouped with it as the "Murry-O'Keefe" series.

Muddying the waters even more is a distinction between two Greek words for time, kairos and chronos, which roughly correspond to "time in the abstract" (or from God's point of view) vs. "time as we measure it by the clock." The Murry/O'Keefe books are related to "kairos-time," whereas another major group of books by L'Engle - focusing on the Austin family - are related to "chronos-time." Plus, just to make sure we never get this straightened out, there are crossovers between the kairos and chronos sequences of books. So to simply call the four books reviewed below "The Time Quartet" is clearly an oversimplification of a vast body of works caught up in a complex web of interrelationships, and all of it related to some concept of "time." As the above referenced Wiki puts it: "Further overlaps between characters connect virtually every L'Engle novel into one massive series of books."

So forget about it. Here are four books by Madeleine L'Engle that share a common cast of characters, and are often sold as a set. The series interpenetrates, and is interpenetrated by, other works by the same author that may interest you if you like these books. I'm still getting used to them being a "quartet" after reading them as a "trilogy" when I was a kid. Since L'Engle died last September, I guess her fans are at liberty to sort out her "canon." My interest does not extend that far.

A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L'Engle
Recommended Age: 12+

Meg Murry is having trouble coping with her adolescence. She isn't doing well in school (except in math). She is temperamental and hyper-sensitive. Her teeth have braces, her eyes have spectacles, and her hair just can't be tamed; she has a hard time believing that she'll ever take after her gorgeous, multiple-doctorate, experimental scientist mother. Teachers and other kids don't know what to do with her. Meanwhile, her younger twin brothers are normal and popular. Her baby brother Charles Wallace is eerily gifted. And her father, last known to be working on a top-secret project for the government, hasn't been heard from in years, and the word on the street is that he isn't coming back.

Suddenly four remarkable individuals burst into Meg's life, and things begin to change. First is the handsome, popular, red-headed athlete and top student from the wrong side of the tracks, Calvin O'Keefe, who instantly adopts Meg, Charles Wallace, and their mother like the family he has been waiting for all his life. Then come three very, very strange women - Mrs. Whatsit, who acts as though she isn't accustomed to wearing a human form; Mrs. Who, who talks in quotations because she has trouble expressing herself verbally; and Mrs. Which, who is so far gone that she mostly just shimmers in midair, and whose voice sounds like a sound-effect that would cost loads of money in a Hollywood movie.

These three... I don't know what they are!... beings send Calvin, Meg, and Charles Wallace on a hair-raising adventure through outer space, partly to rescue Mr. Murry, and partly to aid the resistance against the spreading Powers of Darkness. Using a mind-boggling fourth-dimension concept called a tesseract, they tackle a planet that has "given in," where everyone's mind and body is controlled by the horrible IT.

Here is a terrifying nightmare vision of a bureaucratic society (or perhaps a totalitarian one) run amok, where every cause of unhappiness has been surgically removed but the result is, no one is happy. It is a vision of how evil can deceive people who have good motives, and how the faults of very flawed people can become their redeeming traits. But it is also a lesson in how to love something totally alien, and how potent a weapon love can be, against the darkest evil.

This is the first book in the Time Quartet. It is also a winner of the annual Newbery Medal for distinction in American literature for children. And for good reason: your guts will love this book. And your brain will get a jolt out of it, too.

A Wind in the Door
by Madeleine L'Engle
Recommended Age: 12+

About a year after the adventures in A Wrinkle in Time, Meg and Charles Wallace Murry get another chance to put their special gifts to use.

It has long been known that Charles, age six, is a very special child. Apparently, the balance of the whole universe depends on him now. And that is exactly what is threatened when a sickness, welling up from the most unimaginably tiny parts of him, endangers his life.

It begins when Charles Wallace confides to Meg that there are dragons in the twins' vegetable garden. Soon the dragons turn out to be something even more awesome. Enter a "Teacher" (with a capital T) and a Cherubim (yes, it's a plural noun, but it's a singular Cherubim), who send Meg, her boyfriend Calvin, and a couple of other unlikely heroes into the front lines of the battle between good and evil... not in outerspace, but in innerspace, deep inside one of Charles Wallace's mitochondria.

Get used to words like mitochondria and farandolae. You'll see a lot of them in this book. But they are also richly imagined and vividly depicted, along with other far-out concepts such as kything (like telepathy, only better). These are, after all, stories about an incredibly gifted child, in an above-average family. But you don't necessarily have to be a gifted child to love this book, and the other books of the Time Quartet, of which this is the second novel. Sometimes in her exuberance, L'Engle seems to lose her grip on prose narrative and break into song. Her writing is poetic, even when it is not verse.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet
by Madeleine L'Engle
Recommended Age: 12+

Several years have passed since the events chronicled in A Wind in the Door. Meg Murry is now Mrs. Calvin O'Keefe, and the twins (Sandy and Dennys) are now in law school and medical school, respectively. Child-prodigy Charles Wallace is now 15, though he is small for his age and looks about 12. They all come together for the Thanksgiving holiday, while Calvin is overseas and Meg is seriously pregnant.

Joining the Murrys is Calvin's loveless, unlovely, and seemingly unlovable mother, Mrs. O'Keefe. Nevertheless things are going well until Mr. Murry gets a phone call from the White House. A madman is threatening to press the nuclear button and wipe out the world. Unless a miracle happens, mankind has 24 hours to settle affairs.
Of all people to make that miracle happen, it just has to be the toothless old biddy, Mrs. O'Keefe. She recites a mysterious rune, almost forgotten since her childhood, and commissions Charles Wallace to straighten things out. With the aid of a unicorn named Gaudior, a yellow dog named Ananda, and his sister Meg (who stays in touch through a rare form of communication called kything), Charles flies back in time and goes Within one person after another, looking for the "Might-Have-Been" that can set history on the right track again.

It won't be easy, with the Echthroi (spirits of darkness) opposing him at every turn, and the lives he enters falling more and more deeply under their shadow. From an ancient legend come to life, to a Salem witch trial... from a depression-era Family Tragedy to the Civil-War-era travails of a crippled novelist... Charles Wallace and Gaudior follow the trail of the Might-Have-Been on which the future of the world, if not the universe, hangs in balance. Along the way the power of St. Patrick's Rune unfolds, a prophetic song goes through many mutations, and we even catch a glimpse of a unicorn hatchery (!!!).

This is a marvelous book - my favorite out of the Time Quartet, in fact. It's thought-provoking and emotionally intense, and it will grab you right to the very last paragraph. If the tales of the Murry family had ended here, in my opinion, they would have been perfect.

Many Waters
by Madeleine L'Engle
Recommended Age: 14+

In this strange postscript to the Time Quartet, we go back to a time before the events in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and zoom in on the Murry twins, Sandy and Dennys, who (when I last read this series, after becoming a Potterhead), suddenly resemble Fred and George Weasley in my imagination. Until now they have not been really important characters, and their skepticism has always been a foil to the wonderful, cosmic adventures of their siblings Meg and Charles Wallace.

But now they are right in the thick of things, and it's all because they ignore a sign on the door of their mother's laboratory: "Experiment in progress. Please keep out." Even if their parents had told them about their experiments in time travel, they would not have believed them. And so they are quite surprised to find themselves on the spot as Noah builds the ark.

And now that they're personally involved in it, the Bible story which they've always thought of on the same level as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, suddenly takes on a great deal of urgency. Now they have to play a role in the cosmic battle between good and evil that threatens to derail history-as-we-know-it, that threatens to prevent what is supposed to happen from happening. And they wonder whether they really want it to happen after all.

It's interesting to see how L'Engle imagines the details of the Noah flood story from the perspective of 20th-century, too-bright-for-their-own-good youths. She puts her own characteristic twist on the biblical story, including a fictional daughter of Noah named Yalith, as well as the distinctive personalities of Noah's wife and three daughters-in-law who, in the Bible, are not named, but in Many Waters are named Matred, Elisheba, Anah, and Oholibamah (I love the sound of that last name - and it is similar to an actual biblical name).

The twins offer the narrative an unusual point of view, since they are so slow to relinquish their skepticism about what is happening around them. It makes for a perplexing story with subtleties no one but the author, perhaps, can explain, but with a certain appeal too.

Though I myself will always regard Many Waters as the poor cousin of the original Meg-and-Charles-Wallace trilogy, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Lovers of storybook magic will enjoy unique glimpses of manticores, griffins, and unicorns; and fans of the Bible (like me) will be intrigued by an insight into a very mysterious time in our world's history, when seraphim and nephilim were involved in human affairs and woolly mammoths stood four feet tall. Anyway, once you've gotten your foot in the windy door of the Time Quartet (or Quintet), you'll want to go all the way through it. Don't take my word for it. Try it.

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