Depression looms, but have you heard this song? It makes me happy.
A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 5: The Tesseract
In Chapter 5, Meg asked if her father was fighting the Black Thing. This strikes me even now as a very Christian framing: she doesn't ask if he's trapped behind the Black Thing (he is), or captured within the Black Thing (he is), or any other framing. She asks if he's fighting the Black Thing.
Mrs Which affirms that he is fighting and, well, she's not wrong? I don't want in any way to undermine the fight involved in captivity and being a prisoner! But to be clear, he's not fighting in the sense of, like, hefting a broadsword or something. What we have here is a case where Meg and Mrs Which seem to be using an ambiguous word in the same meaning (fighting = "ideological resistance") which would be odd except that everyone is sort of gently background-radiation Christian in the same way that everyone in my writing these days is background-radiation Queer.
I'm okay with this! It's just one of those things that the reader kinda needs to be on the same page with. If you're coming along expecting a lightsaber fight, you are going to be disappointed! Adjust expectations accordingly. <3
“Yes,” Mrs Which said. “Hhee iss beehindd thee ddarrkness, sso thatt eevenn wee cannott seee hhimm.”
Meg began to cry, to sob aloud. Through her tears she could see Charles Wallace standing there, very small, very white. Calvin put his arms around her, but she shuddered and broke away, sobbing wildly. Then she was enfolded in the great wings of Mrs Whatsit and she felt comfort and strength pouring through her. Mrs Whatsit was not speaking aloud, and yet through the wings Meg understood words.
“My child, do not despair. Do you think we would have brought you here if there were no hope? We are asking you to do a difficult thing, but we are confident that you can do it. Your father needs help, he needs courage, and for his children he may be able to do what he cannot do for himself.”
Okay! Now we're all on the same page, we're going to talk about tessering. There follows a couple of pages--with pictures!--about how they don't travel faster than light, but instead they wrinkle space to get from point A to point B. They begin the explanations with an ant on a skirt and demonstrate that you can draw the ends of the skirt together and save the ant a trip.
Charles Wallace accepted the explanation serenely. Even Calvin did not seem perturbed. “Oh, dear,” Meg sighed. “I guess I am a moron. I just don’t get it.”
I must say this irks me a bit. Previously Meg was secretly smart and showed Calvin how fractions work and now she's the not-smart one again for no reason and Calvin is apparently just like "yup, yup, makes perfect sense." I mean, we could think that Calvin is just being quiet to be polite (as opposed to being quiet because he gets it), but the problem with that is he was established as super-inquisitive and not shy about speaking up earlier, so for him to clam up here seems to mean he understands. Meg is the only one who doesn't.
I could just barely believe there's something subversive going on here, if I squint, and here is why: When I was in engineering school, many of my peers thought I was stupid because I asked a lot of questions in class. (For the record, I thought I was stupid too.) Then came test time and apparently I knew the material better than anyone else because I'd asked so many questions. Either I was "smart" because I was willing to explore what I didn't know or I tested well because I remembered the things I'd asked about. Either way, there's a case to be made here that Meg, by asking questions, is the smartest of the three.
But! The book never really makes that case. If we want it made, we have to make it ourselves. Which doesn't make it non-canon, but it's a far cry from actual canon. That cheeses my grits and no mistake. Not to mention, there actually is a lot being left out by Mrs Which like "how are you powering an act that wrinkles the entirety of space-time for your convenience" and "what are the mechanics of this act and can anyone do it". I don't want to spoil, but later on Mr Murry will apparently (maybe! it's unclear! more on that later!) be able to tesser at will, so it's something humans can do, or can at least do while in possession of angelic accoutrements. So I think it's perfectly fair for Meg to "not get it" because the universe isn't a skirt and teaching-by-analogy can only go so far.
“That is because you think of space only in three dimensions,” Mrs Whatsit told her. “We travel in the fifth dimension. This is something you can understand, Meg. Don’t be afraid to try. Was your mother able to explain a tesseract to you?”
“Well, she never did,” Meg said. “She got so upset about it. Why, Mrs Whatsit? She said it had something to do with her and Father.”
“It was a concept they were playing with,” Mrs Whatsit said, “going beyond the fourth dimension to the fifth. Did your mother explain it to you, Charles?”
“Well, yes.” Charles looked a little embarrassed. “Please don’t be hurt, Meg. I just kept at her while you were at school till I got it out of her.”
Meg sighed. “Just explain it to me.”
Meg's sigh there speaks to my soul, because you may recall that earlier in the novel both Charles and Mrs Murry were like "we'll talk about it later" at Meg, but apparently they found time to talk about it together. Hey, family: Maybe Meg feels left out of the smart-people things because you're leaving her out of things.
Given what we saw earlier of Mrs Murry's gushing description of Charles as being on a pedestal all his own, I'm half-tempted to dark-canon a situation where Meg was the Chosen Child until she exhibited signs of not-being-perfect and was dropped in favor of the new magic child. (I mean, I think the real reason is that L'Engle didn't want to bog things down with an explanation earlier but wanted Charles to already know the things now, so a conversation has been retconned in as happening behind the scenes. But that authorial choice affects characterization, and we see here that characters have been choosing to not include Meg and pushing off her questions for 'later' when she asks.)
Anyway. They go through the dimensions and Charles starts calling Meg "good girl" for being smart and knowing that time is the fourth dimension which I must admit grates my chops a bit more. You might suspect a person with preternatural empathy would know how condescending that sounds.
“Well, I guess if you want to put it into mathematical terms you’d square the square. But you can’t take a pencil and draw it the way you can the first three. I know it’s got something to do with Einstein and time. I guess maybe you could call the fourth dimension Time.”
“That’s right,” Charles said. “Good girl. Okay, then, for the fifth dimension you’d square the fourth, wouldn’t you?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”
For a brief, illuminating second Meg’s face had the listening, probing expression that was so often seen on Charles’s. “I see!” she cried. “I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second I saw it!” She turned excitedly to Calvin. “Did you get it?”
He nodded. “Enough. I don’t understand it the way Charles Wallace does, but enough to get the idea.”
It is darkly amusing to me that I've spent the last twenty-four hours defending sapiosexuality on Twitter (thread here but please for the love of god let's not derail onto this in the comments below) and I'm massively against bullying people for having different knowledge than their peers, but holy hell even I am getting a little overwhelmed with this book's adoration of Smart People. Can Meg just get it? Does it have to be a flash of insight that she only grasps for the tiniest of moments? Do she and Calvin really have to be constantly contrasted with Charles Wallace, the magicalest of children?
I mean, yes, those brief "ah-ha! oh wait it's gone" insights happen in both science and religion, so I understand what is being described here, but it's starting to feel like an anvil? I think every 2-3 pages we're reminded of how much better Charles is because he understands the centaur angels and understands tessering and really just intimately understands everything. I do appreciate we're building up to his own hubristic fall, and I can easily see why this is marketed up there with Ender's Game as Books For Smart Children Who Are Smart, but it is unrelenting.
And, as several of you noted, can be quite frustrating for smart children who don't "get" all these things. (Like, tessering still doesn't make sense to me. Fifth dimension, fine; how do you do it?)
“Sso nnow wee ggo,” Mrs Which said. “Tthere iss nott all thee ttime inn tthe worrlld.”
LIKE HERE FOR EXAMPLE. You just said you can manipulate time. Well, to be fair, you said you can manipulate the fifth dimension beyond time. But that would normally imply you can manipulate the fourth dimension of time, yes? no? So we should have all the time we want, right? Or not? Look, I am just saying this is why you can't explain things with ants.
“Could we hold hands?” Meg asked.
Calvin took her hand and held it tightly in his.
“You can try,” Mrs Whatsit said, “though I’m not sure how it will work. You see, though we travel together, we travel alone. We will go first and take you afterward in the backwash. That may be easier for you.”
Backwash? What-- how-- what backwash is there in a wrinkle? How does that even? This isn't a boat! Is it a boat?
Without warning, coming as a complete and unexpected shock, she felt a pressure she had never imagined, as though she were being completely flattened out by an enormous steam roller. This was far worse than the nothingness had been; while she was nothing there was no need to breathe, but now her lungs were squeezed together so that although she was dying for want of air there was no way for her lungs to expand and contract, to take in the air that she must have to stay alive. [...] Her heart tried to beat; it gave a knifelike, sidewise movement, but it could not expand.
But then she seemed to hear a voice, or if not a voice, at least words, words flattened out like printed words on paper, “Oh, no! We can’t stop here! This is a two-dimensional planet and the children can’t manage here!”
Wait, no, but how-- you literally just talked about time as a fourth dimension (over which modern scientists argue) but now you're suggesting that the dimensions are, what, optional for a planet? Look, I am down with time being a dimension--I'll hop aboard this train with you and come along for the ride--but I am not down with the idea of a planet which doesn't have dimensions beyond the first two! How is it even a planet, are not planets round?
This feels like a concept L'Engle very much wanted to include but wasn't sure where else to put. I am not sure how much weight to give a two-dimensional planet when it has little bearing on the story and feels like fun thematic filler. But it seems to break everything that just came before, which is very vexing if you're trying to follow the in-universe science rules!
Then the tingling began to come back to her fingers, her toes; she could feel Calvin holding her tightly. Her heart beat regularly; blood coursed through her veins. Whatever had happened, whatever mistake had been made, it was over now. She thought she heard Charles Wallace saying, his words round and full as spoken words ought to be, “Really, Mrs Which, you might have killed us!” [...]
“Cchilldrenn, I appolloggize,” came Mrs Which’s voice.
“Now, Charles, calm down,” Mrs Whatsit said, appearing not as the great and beautiful beast she had been when they last saw her, but in her familiar wild garb of shawls and scarves and the old tramp’s coat and hat. “You know how difficult it is for her to materialize. If you are not substantial yourself it’s very difficult to realize how limiting protoplasm is.”
“I ammm ssorry,” Mrs Which’s voice came again; but there was more than a hint of amusement in it.
I didn't notice it in my casual reading, but I'm increasingly a little weirded-out by how non-empathic Charles and the angels are. Empathy is supposed to be their thing. Yes, it's filtered through an alien mind that doesn't understand us the way we do, but the basic empathy (i.e., "a psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others") is still supposed to be there. And L'Engle clearly knows how to write empathic aliens because we get one later in the form of Aunt Beast! So the failure of Charles and the angels to be sensitive to the needs of the other two children is jarring.
Don't get me wrong: I buy the explanation that the angels made a mistake because they aren't used to the physical limitations of humans. What I don't buy is the idea that telling someone "calm down" has ever worked on anyone ever. Anyway, it is explained as all a mistake and Calvin and Meg have literally nothing to say on the subject of the excruciating pain they just unnecessarily endured so... win? I guess?
As I noted before, this feels like something L'Engle wanted to include either despite the detriment to tone or because of it (i.e., an attempt at comic relief). I would argue that this is a good place where the writerly advice to "kill your darlings" might have applied, but ah well.
“Where are we now, then?” Charles Wallace demanded. “And why?”
“In Orion’s belt. We have a friend here, and we want you to have a look at your own planet.”
“When are we going home?” Meg asked anxiously. “What about Mother? What about the twins? They’ll be terribly worried about us. When we didn’t come in at bedtime—well, Mother must be frantic by now. She and the twins and Fort will have been looking and looking for us, and of course we aren’t there to be found!”
“Now, don’t worry, my pet,” Mrs Whatsit said cheerfully. “We took care of that before we left. Your mother has had enough to worry her with you and Charles to cope with, and not knowing about your father, without our adding to her anxieties. We took a time wrinkle as well as a space wrinkle. It’s very easy to do if you just know how.”
“What do you mean?” Meg asked plaintively. “Please, Mrs Whatsit, it’s all so confusing.”
“Just relax and don’t worry over things that needn’t trouble you,” Mrs Whatsit said. “We made a nice, tidy little time tesser, and unless something goes terribly wrong we’ll have you back about five minutes before you left, so there’ll be time to spare and nobody’ll ever need to know you were gone at all, though of course you’ll be telling your mother, dear lamb that she is. And if something goes terribly wrong it won’t matter whether we ever get back at all.”
“Ddon’tt ffrrightenn themm,” Mrs Which’s voice came. “Aare yyou llosingg ffaith?”
“Oh, no. No, I’m not.”
But Meg thought her voice sounded a little faint.
Oh. So they can manipulate time. Except on those planets where time doesn't exist (I guess?) and not so much that they can give linger explanations for things. I would complain more except I know this is a standard thing in literature with time travel: if you have all the time in the world to plan and explain and train and go over the plan one more time, the audience will be bored. This is like the "why can't they just use their cellphones" problem in modern settings. Either the author works around it (to varying degrees of success) or the author ignores the problem and the audience has to decide whether to go along or not.
Anyway, the planet they are on is very grey and misty and rocky and they trudge a bit.
Finally, ahead of them there loomed what seemed to be a hill of stone. As they approached it Meg could see that there was an entrance that led into a deep, dark cavern. “Are we going in there?” she asked nervously.
“Don’t be afraid,” Mrs Whatsit said. “It’s easier for the Happy Medium to work within. Oh, you’ll like her, children. She’s very jolly. If ever I saw her looking unhappy I would be very depressed myself. As long as she can laugh I’m sure everything is going to come out right in the end.”
“Mmrs. Whattsitt,” came Mrs Which’s voice severely, “jusstt beccause yyou arre verry youngg iss nno exxcuse forr tallkingg tooo muchh.”
Mrs Whatsit looked hurt, but she subsided.
I mentioned before that I like Calvin, and one of the things I like about him as a character is that he doesn't hog all the spotlight. He doesn't talk very much at all; as a character he largely exists to comfort, affirm, and steady Meg as she has her various emotional crises. This is not necessarily a bad thing--many teenage girls will identify with having emotional crises--but of course it does mean that the girl in the group is the one regularly being tearful, fearful, emotional, and so forth.
I will plug again that Charles should have been a girl to balance this out, but barring that I would have liked him to be the one to bring up the worry that Mother and the Twins will be scared for them if they don't return soon. I mean, sure, he's a genius and therefore knows (I guess?) that time-wrinkling is possible, but he shouldn't know that the angels chose to time-wrinkle them, right? Let the empathic child be the one having an emotional breakdown at the thought of their mother being worried for them.
And, heck, once you have the empathic child having emotional crises in addition to the one girl in the group, let the Steadying Anchor that is Calvin also soothe him as well! Then you have defused a lot of the gender politics of the situation and shown that men can be emotional and nurturing in turns without losing their value or masculinity. (In truth, Calvin will eventually fill this role for Charles after his hubristic fall. I just would have liked to see more of it here.)
“Just how old are you?” Calvin asked her.
“Just a moment,” Mrs Whatsit murmured, and appeared to calculate rapidly upon her fingers. She nodded triumphantly. “Exactly 2,379,152,497 years, 8 months, and 3 days. That is according to your calendar, of course, which even you know isn’t very accurate.” She leaned closer to Meg and Calvin and whispered, “It was really a very great honor for me to be chosen for this mission. It’s just because of my verbalizing and materializing so well, you know. But of course we can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts. And I make far too many mistakes. That’s why Mrs Who and I enjoyed seeing Mrs Which make a mistake when she tried to land you on a two-dimensional planet. It was that we were laughing at, not at you. She was laughing at herself, you see. She’s really terribly nice to us younger ones.”
This is sweet and I include it here because I like it. I like how Mrs Whatsit is proud of herself for being asked to come on this mission even as she knows that "we can't take any credit for our talents". I mean, I suppose it feeds into the ongoing thing about smart-and-talented people, but it's nice to at least see a nod that they aren't special for being born differently from everyone else and that everything boils down to the choices we make and the effort we put in and also anyone can make mistakes.
It's also nice to see that the oldest and wisest of them--Mrs Which--has limitations of her own, like physical manifestation. And it's moments like these where I remember why I think of these books as so much gentler than Narnia. Because with Lewis, some people really just are Better Than You and that means they're better all the time in all the ways that matter and you'd better listen and do as your told. (And if you don't, they'll cast a body-mogrification spell on you or something. For reals.*)
But with L'Engle... yes, Charles Wallace is Better Than You in an objective sense and yes, I don't much care for that characterization because I think it's unhealthy and one-dimensional. But I can't get nearly so worked up about it because it really does seem to be coming from a place of love. Charles and Mrs Which are clearly loved by their author and are intended to be loving and good and gentle. They're given room to mess up because they are different and strange and imperfect, but their mistakes aren't generally meant to be seen as The One True Way.
Like, I feel like if Mrs Which transmogrified someone, it would either be because they were hurting someone else and the spell was cast in defense of another or it would be an accident she would rectify as soon as it was made clear she was in the wrong. What she would not do is feed the visiting heroes a nice feast (farmed and cooked by either magic or slaves) while they laugh about how silly the transmogrified victim looks. She wouldn't do that. She's not perfect and she makes mistakes, but she's trying. And that means a lot to me.
* I hear briefly note that the idea of Stars being Angels is not even remotely new here in Wrinkle in Time and of course we saw something very similar in Narnia with Coriakin and Ramandu.
And I'm glad I just talked about the things I genuinely do like in this book because we're about to hit a thing I really, really wish L'Engle hadn't included.
Meg was listening with such interest to what Mrs Whatsit was saying that she hardly noticed when they went into the cave; the transition from the grayness of outside to the grayness of inside was almost unnoticeable. She saw a flickering light ahead of them, ahead and down, and it was toward this that they went. As they drew closer she realized that it was a fire.
“It gets very cold in here,” Mrs Whatsit said, “so we asked her to have a good bonfire going for you.”
As they approached the fire they could see a dark shadow against it, and as they went closer still they could see that the shadow was a woman. She wore a turban of beautiful pale mauve silk, and a long, flowing, purple satin gown. In her hands was a crystal ball into which she was gazing raptly. She did not appear to see the children, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which, but continued to stare into the crystal ball; and as she stared she began to laugh; and she laughed and laughed at whatever it was that she was seeing.
[TW: Images of "fortunetellers" with highly racialized elements.]
Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh. [/end TW]
Look, I am not a great expert on Romani people and culture and stereotypes against them. I remember reading The Golden Compass for the first time in, oh, 2004? 2005? and not being aware at the time that "gypsy" is a racial slur. So I don't feel like the best advocate to stand up here and talk to this, but wow this passage makes me super uncomfortable.
And, look, let's get this out of the way: No, L'Engle never says The Happy Medium is Romani. The book doesn't use the word "gypsy". But we recognize these elements. Turban. Silk. Satin. Crystal ball. Yes, all these elements can be used in non-appropriative ways; many pagans use crystal balls, many people wear turbans, many people wear silk and satin. But the combination of these elements in this sort of scene evokes a character type we are aware of: the foreign, exotic fortune-teller.
The upcoming movie casts Zach Galifianakis as The Happy Medium. I am tentatively glad that they're trying to get away from the undertones in the book of a stereotypical fortune-teller woman? But I really wish they'd cut the part altogether. I don't think the character adds anything to the book but a pun that L'Engle set up twice in the first two chapters (Mrs Murry and Charles telling Meg to find "a happy medium").
The woman looked up from the ball, and when she saw them she got up and curtsied deeply. Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who dropped small curtsies in return, and the shimmer seemed to bow slightly.
“Oh, Medium, dear,” Mrs Whatsit said, “these are the children. Charles Wallace Murry.” Charles Wallace bowed. “Margaret Murry.” Meg felt that if Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Who had curtsied, she ought to, also; so she did, rather awkwardly. “And Calvin O’Keefe.” Calvin bobbed his head. “We want them to see their home planet,” Mrs Whatsit said.
The Medium lost the delighted smile she had worn till then. “Oh, why must you make me look at unpleasant things when there are so many delightful ones to see?”
Again Mrs Which’s voice reverberated through the cave. “Therre willl nno llonggerr bee sso manyy pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleassanntt oness.”
The Medium sighed and held the ball high.
“Look, children,” Mrs Whatsit said. “Look into it well.”
We have more "exotic" elements here with the curtsying. I mean, I'm all about curtsying--I have a specialized little head-bob-and-dip that I picked up from somewhere around here--but the children didn't curtsy for the angels (who read as less exotic and more straight-forwardly white) so everyone doing so here adds an element of Other. Then, too, there's a sort of... childishness to the Medium (who never gets a name); she laughs and smiles at the good things in her crystal ball and sorrows and shies away from looking at the bad.
Meg looked into the crystal ball, at first with caution, then with increasing eagerness, as she seemed to see an enormous sweep of dark and empty space, and then galaxies swinging across it. Finally they seemed to move in closer on one of the galaxies. [...] They seemed to be moving in toward a planet. She thought she could make out polar ice caps. Everything seemed sparkling clear.
“No, no, Medium dear, that’s Mars,” Mrs Whatsit reproved gently.
“Do I have to?” the Medium asked.
“NNOWW!” Mrs Which commanded.
The bright planet moved out of their vision. For a moment there was the darkness of space; then another planet. The outlines of this planet were not clean and clear. It seemed to be covered with a smoky haze. Through the haze Meg thought she could make out the familiar outlines of continents like pictures in her Social Studies books.
“Is it because of our atmosphere that we can’t see properly?” she asked anxiously.
“Nno, Mmegg, yyou knnoww thatt itt iss nnott tthee attmosspheeere,” Mrs Which said. “Yyou mmusstt bee brrave.”
“It’s the Thing!” Charles Wallace cried. “It’s the Dark Thing we saw from the mountain peak on Uriel when we were riding on Mrs Whatsit’s back!”
What is especially vexing about this scene is that we know the children don't need crystal balls and remote viewing to see through space. They've been carried up into a atmosphere that should have been too cold for them and breathed through lilies to get oxygen (somehow?) to see out into space the Black Thing. So if the angels can muck with time and provide oxygen on a whim, why did we have the stop-over at Uriel to see the Black Thing, then come here to the Medium to see the Black Thing around Earth?
The book does address this: the angels felt it would be too shocking for the children to see the Black Thing around their own planet first, so they took them to Uriel to see it in a neutral setting. And of course this gave L'Engle the chance to show us a Redeemed Planet and to quote Isaiah at us, which was a priority for her if not for the reader. But it's a good reason why I would have expected a movie to cut all this and simply reveal the Black Thing around Earth. All this is padding for the author's interests (Christianity, puns, appropriation of other cultures for her Chimera Universalists religion) while lessening tension--the Black Thing has less impact when we've already seen it before.
[And before anyone objects that they couldn't land on Mars and look at Earth directly because of atmosphere and oxygen and such, I'm not sure that's true this continuity. More on Mars later.]
But I do think the lessening of tension is intentional here because there are theologies to be made! The Dark Thing isn't just scary, it is the specter of original sin hanging over our Battleground Planet.
“Did it just come?” Meg asked in agony, unable to take her eyes from the sickness of the shadow which darkened the beauty of the earth. “Did it just come while we’ve been gone?” Mrs Which’s voice seemed very tired. “Ttell herr,” she said to Mrs Whatsit.
Mrs Whatsit sighed. “No, Meg. It hasn’t just come. It has been there for a great many years. That is why your planet is such a troubled one.”
“But why—” Calvin started to ask, his voice croaking hoarsely.
Mrs Whatsit raised her hand to silence him. “We showed you the Dark Thing on Uriel first—oh, for many reasons. First, because the atmosphere on the mountain peaks there is so clear and thin you could see it for what it is. And we thought it would be easier for you to understand it if you saw it—well, someplace else first, not your own earth.”
When I was in Christian college, I underwent a long period where I started drawing away from Christianity. One of the things I struggled with was the belief--held by many Christians--that our planet is broken, troubled, sinful, and bad. I... I understand this point of view. I am not unaware of the many terrible things occurring on our planet right now, even as I type.
But even in the worst of my depressive episodes, I have trouble seeing our planet as fallen or troubled. Troubling things happen on her surface, of course, but I love this world. I love this planet. I don't see a bad planet with pockets of good, I see a good world with pockets that need mending.
Then, well, there's the problem that when a lot of white Christians talk about our planet being "troubled", they don't always mean the same things that trouble me. In A Wind In the Door (Book #2), Mr and Mrs Murry reminisce about why they moved out to the country and lament how bad the world is becoming:
She could hear, too clearly, her father’s voice, calm and rational, speaking to her mother. “It isn’t just in distant galaxies that strange, unreasonable things are happening. Unreason has crept up on us so insidiously that we’ve hardly been aware of it. But think of the things going on in our own country which you wouldn’t have believed possible only a few years ago.”
Mrs. Murry swirled the dregs of her coffee. “I don’t think I believe all of them now, although I know they’re happening.” She looked up to see that the twins and Charles Wallace were out of the room, that Meg was splashing water in the sink as she scoured a pot. “Ten years ago we didn’t even have a key to this house. Now we lock up when we go out. The irrational violence is even worse in the cities.”
Mr. Murry absentmindedly began working out an equation on the tablecloth. For once Mrs. Murry did not even seem to notice. He said, “They’ve never known a time when people drank rain water because it was pure, or could eat snow, or swim in any river or brook. The last time I drove home from Washington the traffic was so bad I could have made better time with a horse. There were huge signs proclaiming SPEED LIMIT 65 MPH, and we were crawling along at 20.”
“And the children and I kept dinner hot for you for three hours, and finally ate, pretending we weren’t worried that you might have been in an accident,” Mrs. Murry said bitterly. “Here we are, at the height of civilization in a well-run state in a great democracy. And four ten-year-olds were picked up last week for pushing hard drugs in the school where our six-year-old is regularly given black eyes and a bloody nose.”
They don't quite go so far as to call their move out to the country "white flight" (and Calvin will lament the lack of "lots of different kinds of kids, white, black, yellow, Spanish-speaking, rich, poor" because diversity would make Charles Wallace stand out less and become less a target for bullying--but let's be clear that using minorities to educate white people into tolerance isn't inclusive, it's exploitative) but Mrs Murry's "irrational violence in the cities" is a dog-whistle and so is the stranger-danger of having to lock doors now. When I think about the trouble on our planet that worries me, I think about destruction in families and how abuse is heaped onto loved ones who feel helpless to escape. None of that correlates to cities and locked doors.
And while climate change is bad and highway congestion and car accidents worrying, these are in some ways the concerns of the privileged. I worry about climate change too (a lot, in fact) but on the Maslow Hierarchy of Evil, I feel it comes after some basic human rights concerns that Mr and Mrs Murry are glossing over. I mean, in a conversation where in context they are discussing the universality of evil, my mind would go elsewhere than "and I thought you might have been in a car accident because you came home late, dear!" I can think of a few more evil things than that, and so it feels we're into the stereotypical Nice White Lady religion as opposed to a more intersectional view.
An intersectional religious viewpoint that genuinely took other cultures and peoples into account rather than just pilfering them would probably not consider life in 1960s United States "the height of civilization in a well-run state in a great democracy". Like, I love America like I love apple pie--which is to say a lot--and I understand that L'Engle wanted an idealized rosy-colored Washington for Mr Murry to work for, but idealizing a real world government means you're basically erasing the point of view of all the people that government was stepping on at the time. Both at home and abroad.
I'm not trying to rip on L'Engle here, I swear. But I'm troubled by the choice to bat at motes of dust while overlooking the plank in one's own eye. It's not clear when A Wind in the Door is set, but it was published in 1973. When we talk about irrational city violence, I get the impression that L'Engle isn't referring to police violence against queer people (the Stonewall riots were in 1969). When she laments lack of clean water in the area, there's no sense of governmental responsibility for that or any other place we've tainted with war and waste and technology. She describes the USA as a great democracy even as the Vietnam war was increasingly unpopular.
Maybe she didn't want to write a political novel, or didn't feel safe doing so. There's no shame in that. But if you're going to tackle evil in your novel--and especially from a Christian perspective--it matters what you dub evil and what you christen good. The government in L'Engle's works is good, perhaps from patriotism, possibly simply because Mr Murry works for them and she couldn't bear for him to be tainted. The badness is vague references to inner city violence and longing for the Good Old Days when water was clean and horses were the best transportation around.
It's a curiously anti-science position for science novels and I suspect stems out of the evangelical Christian culture that often longs for a mythical yesterday where everything was simpler (and whiter) (and queer people stayed closeted) (and no one had sex before marriage) (and exotic fortune-tellers rode into town on wagons but didn't over-stay their welcome) (and none of this is homophobic or racist, it's all just a coincidence!) (and some people might actually believe that but the reality is that this sort of longing for a mythical Good Old Days is fundamentally a white nationalist dream and the only reason some people don't see that is because white nationalism is so thoroughly normalized in our cultural consciousness).
But I digress. The important thing is that the Black Thing is sin.
“I hate it!” Charles Wallace cried passionately. “I hate the Dark Thing!”
Mrs Whatsit nodded. “Yes, Charles dear. We all do. That’s another reason we wanted to prepare you on Uriel. We thought it would be too frightening for you to see it first of all about your own, beloved world.”
We'll talk about this later, but this is why I'm intrigued by the idea that Meg fails when she fails to love the villain at the end. I honestly don't think that was intended by L'Engle to be a failure, and a large part of that hinges on this passage here. The angels and Charles--the most empathic among us--can't love sin or the incarnation of sin. There are a lot of Christian doctrines, in fact, claiming that God himself can't (or won't; it depends on the doctrine) love sin. So I never saw it as odd or unreasonable that Meg couldn't love its incarnation later in the book. But we shall see!
This is getting long and I am tempted to cut off here but the next part is important to me so I'm going to try to carry on.
“But what is it?” Calvin demanded. “We know that it’s evil, but what is it?”
“Yyouu hhave ssaidd itt!” Mrs Which’s voice rang out. “Itt iss Eevill. Itt iss thee Ppowers of Ddarrkknesss!”
“But what’s going to happen?” Meg’s voice trembled. “Oh, please, Mrs Which, tell us what’s going to happen!”
“Wee wwill cconnttinnue tto ffightt!”
Something in Mrs Which’s voice made all three of the children stand straighter, throwing back their shoulders with determination, looking at the glimmer that was Mrs Which with pride and confidence.
“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs Whatsit, the comforter. “All through the universe it’s being fought, all through the cosmos, and my, but it’s a grand and exciting battle. I know it’s hard for you to understand about size, how there’s very little difference in the size of the tiniest microbe and the greatest galaxy. You think about that, and maybe it won’t seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”
In my earlier post on Earth being a Battleground Planet, I compared this doctrine to the one we see in books like Left Behind. The thing is--and Fred Clark has talked about this--Christianity as a religion has had to cope with the reality of boredom that can set in over a lifetime. A lot of people attend church for the community--the communion of fellow hearts and souls and minds--but pastors still need to get butts in seats on days when people are tired of each other or just want to sleep in or otherwise aren't feeling the religious fire they felt at earlier points in their life.
So a lot of Christian fiction revolves around how very exciting it is to be a Christian! You're not just trying to live a good life and encourage others to do the same, you're in a cosmic battle with the powers of evil! You need to take up your sword (which is Bible verses, obvs) and become a warrior for god! This is a grand and exciting battle and a very big fight and it covers the entire universe and also some of our very best fighters have come from your planet and the next good one might even be you so don't feel like you're too small to make a difference!
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs Whatsit said.
Mrs Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”
Jesus fought the dark thing!
“Of course!” Mrs Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”
And, er, artists! More Biblical allusions here: "You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden." --Matthew 5:14
“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”
And... all the scientists? Including Einstein who was the child of secular Jewish parents and called himself a religious non-believer.
Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”
I... uh. No, Gautama Buddha wasn't Christian, nor was Mahatma Gandhi--
“Now you, Meg,” Mrs Whatsit ordered.
“Oh, Euclid, I suppose.” Meg was in such an agony of impatience that her voice grated irritably. “And Copernicus. But what about Father? Please, what about Father?”
No, Euclid was--
Of course, L'Engle doesn't think all these people were Good Christians. Lewis probably would, if he wanted to claim them. He got around the problem of "are the famous non-Christians we like in hell then, because that would suck" in The Last Battle by introducing a Calormen solider who was devoutly religious but was so good-hearted that it turned out he was accidentally worshiping Aslan all this time (not the evil Tash who doesn't want good-hearted people) and he just never noticed.
L'Engle's version is different from Lewis' version. Whereas he would say the good people in heaven were worshiping Jesus whether they realized it or not, her flavor of Christian Universalism demotes Jesus very slightly (or uplifts the other Great Thinkers) so that they're all really great and important and special! And, as I've noted, this can look at first glance to be a kinder, gentler version of Christianity because hey at least she's not consigning them all to hell for following the wrong god.
But it is also a deeply appropriative religion. She thinks she's handing out compliments here by placing these people in her book as Great Fighters against Sin, but quite a few of these people wouldn't recognize her religion if they were alive to be asked about it and most likely wouldn't be flattered by their inclusion in a list of Christian-Even-Though-We're-Not-Using-That-Word Fighters. Gandhi's inclusion in a list of fighters feels like particularly bad taste, and I believe the Buddha also included non-violence in his teachings.
L'Engle doesn't mean "fighters", of course. We're playing fast and loose with a lot of things here; Christianity is universal and isn't really Christian but actually still is, and fighters aren't fighting but rather are resisting and the thing they are resisting is an ideology that can best be summed up as a... big black space cloud... that causes inner city violence. Everything is maddeningly vague because here is the point where L'Engle really did need to make her theological case and instead she sort of just hand-waves at it. "Look, we all agree there are bad things, right? We all agree Gandhi was good, yes? Carry on, then!"
What is alarming outside the appropriation--which is seriously not cool, you guys; it's one thing to cherish a sort of "what if all religions converge" idea in your heart and another thing entirely to write a book in which you include famous dead people in your religion rather than in theirs--is this failure to define who makes a good fighter and who doesn't. The lists we get here are of religious leaders, artists, scientists, and activists. Religious leaders and activists I can understand, but we need to break down this scientists and artists thing.
We've spent several chapters fetishizing intelligent people and placing them on pedestals as not merely different from the rest of us but fundamentally better. Evolutionary offshoots and sports. Aliens and angels. Now the smart and talented people are the greatest warriors in the universal fight against darkness and sin--and this is canonical, per actual angels who presumably should know.
[TW: Violence, Sexual Assault, Medical Violence]
Now, look, I am pretty sure that L'Engle wouldn't stand here and say that Nazi scientists were bright lights against the darkness. Nor would she think that artists who rape their students have contributed to the greater good. She almost certainly wouldn't defend the Tuskegee scientists operating between 1932 and 1972. I think she would be horrified by all these things and would consider the people involved to be soldiers of darkness. I do wonder, given Mr Murry's career path, whether she understood or agreed with Oppenheimer's regret after the Manhattan project, or his belief that he was responsible in some measure for the human suffering brought about through his work. From what I know of L'Engle, I think she would be sympathetic to the man while not wanting to think too closely about the morality ripples.
But even assuming I am right that L'Engle would disavow evil scientists and artists, it is noteworthy that we don't actually talk about that here. We get a role call of names--who seem to be valued here for their contributions to science and art more than as actual flawed human beings--but no parameters for what merits inclusion or expulsion. Science and art aren't inherently Good any more than being smart is inherently Good, but we sure are dancing close to the line of suggesting they are.
This troubles me, I must say. If you're going to put theologies in your book, I feel like you need to be explicit enough to clarify these things rather than sorta waving in the direction of the theology and then running off after the plot. (Lewis does the same thing, in my opinion; I don't think he answers these questions of "okay, what does someone have to do/be to warrant inclusion in your religious club" any more clearly than L'Engle does.)
I think I have more things to say about this, but my shoulders are starting to hurt from typing so I'll wrap up for today.
“Wee aarre ggoingg tto yourr ffatherr,” Mrs Which said.
“But where is he?” Meg went over to Mrs Which and stamped as though she were as young as Charles Wallace.
Mrs Whatsit answered in a voice that was low but quite firm. “On a planet that has given in. So you must prepare to be very strong.”
All traces of cheer had left the Happy Medium’s face. She sat holding the great ball, looking down at the shadowed earth, and a slow tear coursed down her cheek. “I can’t stand it any longer,” she sobbed. “Watch now, children, watch!”
The chapter ends there. Next week: A star goes supernova in order to burn away the sin in space. This is supposed to be a good thing. (I presume people died in the wake of the supernova, but I don't think the book makes that explicit.)