“It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it. Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.”
– Madeline L’Engle
I was around 10 years old when I first read Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The book played a big role in shaping my love of reading. I can still remember, rather vividly too, the joy I of entering an unexpected and uncharted world so full of wonder and imagination. I was struck by her ability to take simple constructs and characters (with names like Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit) and weave it into such elegant prose and powerful symbols of light and dark.
It taught me about the joy of discovering new worlds and new ideas. It also taught me about the ways in which these new worlds and new ideas can challenge our old ways of thinking. The more we see and experience of the world the more we see of the darkness, but there is also greater opportunity for the light to shine in the darkness. As circumstance begins to steal Meg’s sense of innocence and optimism, this unassuming heroine modelled for my young mind what it looked like to embrace the challenge of discovering new worlds and ideas even as the darkness looms, a darkness that L’Engle allowed me to interpret through the lens of my own struggle and my own experience helping me to make sense of the world I happened to live in as well. It taught me to embrace the idea there is more to this world and this life than what I can see from my limited perspective and to trust in a greater purpose for my life.
So suffice to say I was genuinely surprised to read in my later years that this book which had such a great impact on my life has also managed to evoke a strong current of criticism, especially when it comes to rejecting the novel’s religious undertones.
Go on any discussion group, chat page or review site and it won’t take you long to find comments like these:
“I understand what the book is saying about conformity, and that we must all think for ourselves if we must prevent the encroachment of pure evil. A world where we all thought alike would be a world without suffering or alienation, love or hate, etc. Being different is important for us all. I’ll grant L’Engle that the message about feeling out-of-place is helpful to kids, and helpful for adults, too.
Sadly, that message gets quickly swept aside so that L’Engle can use Christianity to paint a vastly broad good-versus-evil picture that is horrendous. Too horrendous. Ironically horrendous, given how A Wrinkle In Time exemplifies a faux-Christian value system into which all of our students must be indoctrinated.”
“L’Engle kills the tone of this story by peppering the narrative with strange, out-of-place declarations of Christian belief. For a story that seems largely secular, the odd Bible quotes and religious one-sidedness felt out of place. In a world where an unseen God can murder all of humanity with a flood and wind up on the “good” list, while an egalitarian dictator who asserts its will without killing anyone is on the “evil” list, sign me up for the latter.”
“The whole *point* of the book doesn’t feel necessarily Christian in the same traditional sense in which “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” feels Christian, but I could forgive it much less for all the references.”
“The question is, after The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, what excuse does an author have for writing YET ANOTHER fantasy-land novel that corresponds to a Christian world-view? What Madeleine L’Engle brings to the table is a cursory knowledge of astronomy, the imagination of a brown paper sack, and half-assed characters designed only to demonstrate her personal beliefs.”
Or my personal favourite…
“Brain vs faith? Not only was I was rooting for the brain, I henceforth propose that sneaky Christian literature hiding amongst sci-fi be labelled with a big ole Tipper Gore style warning sticker.”
Criticism From the Other Side…
The irony of course is that a book that managed to be rejected umpteen times before finding a publisher and that went on to secure a spot on the “Most Banned Books of All Time” list was not only rejected because of its religious flavour, but subsequently rejected by the religious community as well for its liberal interpretation of the Christian faith, noting among other things its perceived embrace of witchcraft and demonic imagery.
Lucy Tang says this in her article titled “We Will Wrinkle Again”:
“To be reductive, L’Engle’s life philosophy is the kind of happy religious pluralism in which Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together in peace. Needless to say, conservative Christians were not thrilled about the easy conflation.”
– Lucy Tang in article We Will Wrinkle Again
It’s no wonder L’Engle thought “to hell with this”. If readers weren’t looking to condemn her to a figurative hell, there were plenty willing to do this literally.
Reading It Again For the First Time
It has actually been over 25 years since I last picked up the book, so in light of the upcoming movie release I decided to revisit it. I was curious then to see how my growing awareness of the book’s criticism might fit with my experience as a child.
What I understood this time around, or what I discovered, is an author who decisively, and rather brilliantly if you ask me, lays claim to an unforgiving but richly fertile middle ground, refusing to give in to categorization and embracing the opportunity to really challenge readers of all shapes and sizes to truly discover what the story means for them.
Kelly Beaty in her wonderful analysis of a Wrinkle in Time on Study.com puts it this way:
“She rejected being forced to adapt her work to specific genre or expectation. The result? Well it would seem she managed to tick people on all sides. But those who came to embrace the story were genuinely affected by it.”
As with all great children’s literature, the joy of reading it again as an adult is the ability to recognize my childhood experience through a more informed perspective. As a child Meg liberated me to face my own monsters, monsters which represented a struggle with chronic nightmares, school bullies, fear of the faceless unknown, and a struggle to belong. As an adult I found the book to be a powerful commentary on on the world I have since come to know. She sheds light on the idea that the ways in which I struggle to see and accept myself and the ways in which I struggle to see and accept others plays a big part in how I am able to live in the world I have since come to know. And these interconnected themes of acceptance and belonging are explored through recognziable symbols that imagine the sort of socio-political ideologies that tend to push back against our ability to live into this given responsibility, to ourselves and to others, in adequate and helpful ways.
I also found a new and surprising depth in the ways L’Engle imagines Meg’s loss of innocence. The way the perception of her father as invincible is shattered digs deep into our own tendency to idolize and even romanticize our isolated and narrow perceptions of the world, ultimately revealing this paradigm shifting heroine (the first truly strong female figure to represent science fiction/fantasy in such an effective fashion) to be a deeply conflicted and struggling soul. And in shaping her this way it helped remind me that it is okay to struggle and to feel sorrow and grief over the ways in which discovery and awareness can challenge the world we once understood to be true. When we give ourselves over to this kind of discovery, the truth that A Wrinkle In Time considers is that where our understanding is challenged, a new and much larger understanding awaits. And as we watch Meg slowly transform over the course of the story, the way she responds to these changing perceptions, not just of her father but of the world she encounters in its place, reveals not just a common human struggle but the kind of strength necessary to navigate this struggle. The kind of strength that sees her grow in her ability to forgive, to accept and to love, and also to wonder once again.
A New Found Appreciation
Rereading the book I found I loved it every bit as much as I did when I was younger. The way it unmasks our tendency towards fear feels like a timely message in an age where fear seems to be prevailing. And far too often it feels like we, as a collective society, allow this fear to perpetuate a hate for that which we don’t truly understand. When the darkness looms it is easy to feel hopeless, this hopelessness feeds into our fear, and this fear leads to hate. L’Engle’s memorable tale reminds us that the light we need to overcome the darkness is in fact love, and that love is more powerful than fear.
So where criticism has come down on this book for referencing Jesus and quoting scripture, citing it as a betrayal of their trust and shameless indoctrination, I found, both as a child and as an adult, a necessary spiritual voice who was far ahead of her time. Her ability to bridge the conversation between religion in science at a time when these things seemed hopelessly opposed is impressive, and her ability to push ahead and contribute both to the fields of science and of faith is inspiring. At the same time her ability to write from a position of religious conviction while adopting such an inclusive disposition (which she reflects on quite wonderfully in And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings) formed what is, as Professor Jim Burkio puts it in an article for the Huffington Post, “a sophisticated yet simple mediation on mystical, progressive Christianity.”
In so many ways She was a woman far ahead of her time, imagining a world where strong woman characters would have plenty of room to grow and develop and challenge and where young female readers could have someone to look up to. Imagining a world where science and religion did not need to stand opposed, and where faith itself might even stand taller than religion itself. Imagining a world where individual worth and God’s universal grace could inform our social responsibility.
She was a woman brave enough to tell her story in a world that didn’t want to hear it and brave enough to tell it in ways that defied genres and categorization. That the book went on to earn awards and be determined a classic is a testament to this sense of strength and determination, and it is because of this that readers like myself were able to be challenged by her stories.
From Book To Film
I am incredibly interested to see how the coming film reinterprets her vision. The last time it was adapted (to animated film) the religious and spiritual symbolism was essentially edited out. If the film takes after L’Engle and manages to be brave enough to include this symbolism, I think it could help breathe her vision anew for a generation that desperately needs to hear it and feel it in our present context. As a woman far ahead of her time, time seems to have caught up with us in a very real way, which is precisely why we we need to be reminded of what it looks like to truly wonder and love again in a world full of fear and darkness.
And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeline L’Engle