Time Quintet: Death of a Star

[Content Note: Death and self-harm. Cultural and Religious Appropriation. Racialized stereotypes against Romani people.]

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 6: The Happy Medium

Chapter 6 is really long and I'm going to have to break it into several parts. The latter parts, arguably the most interesting and memorable, show us life on Camazotz and a picture of fantasy-fascism in all its well-deserved horror. The first part is more theologically-thorny and runs into a lot of the usual problems we encounter when we try to answer the question of "if a loving godbeing, then why do bad things happen?"

When we left off in Chapter 5, the children were frightened by the Dark Thing they're about to face, so the three Mrs. W's brought them to the Happy Medium to show that it can be fought and overcome. Watsonianly, this is meant to steel them for the ordeal to come and reassure them that all is not lost. (Arguably, this attempt fails because the angels are too inhuman to have considered things from a human perspective.) Doylistically, and I think more important to L'Engle, she wanted to combine a fantastical theory on supernovas with her theology on death as a cycle of life.

   Again they focused their eyes on the crystal ball. The earth with its fearful covering of dark shadow swam out of view and they moved rapidly through the Milky Way. And there was the Thing again.
   “Watch!” the Medium told them.
   The Darkness seemed to seethe and writhe. Was this meant to comfort them?
   Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining, and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure. Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing.
   “You see!” the Medium cried, smiling happily. “It can be overcome! It is being overcome all the time!”
   Mrs Whatsit sighed, a sigh so sad that Meg wanted to put her arms around her and comfort her.
   “Tell us exactly what happened, then, please,” Charles Wallace said in a small voice.
   “It was a star,” Mrs Whatsit said sadly. “A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing. It won, oh, yes, my children, it won. But it lost its life in the winning.”

I need to register again just how uncomfortable I am with the Happy Medium as a character. I cannot understand why L'Engle thought it was a good idea to include her; she's a one-note pun that would be egregious even in something like Xanth (which I remind you has pages of puns in each book, all crowd-sourced by readers) and L'Engle's treatment of her doesn't even attempt to lessen the racist impact. The Happy Medium isn't merely "happy" (an emotion which can take many forms); she's inane. Her entirely emotional repertoire is grinning like her smile is painted on and occasionally nodding off in the middle of conversation.

To be clear, we have just witnessed a supernova: the death of a star. The three Mrs. W's are a wee bit downcast because they are themselves dead stars and Mrs. Whatsit (the youngest) is still a little melancholy about her death. The children are solemn because the occasion is solemn; watching someone commit suicide in a last act of defiance against encroaching evil isn't a pleasant thing, even if it somehow serves the greater good. The Happy Medium? Still grinning an ecstatic one-note grin. Because she's happy, you see. And she's a medium because of the purple silk and crystal ball.

"Get it? Why aren't you guys laughing? Happy Medium, see what I did there?" --L'Engle, I guess?

I realize that your average white person isn't very socially aware about Romani stereotypes now, let alone in the 60's, so I'm trying to balance my criticism here between "it's still wrong, tho" and the people who will pop in to explain to me that "everyone was like that then" (spoiler: no, they weren't, and I'm not going to engage because that is trite white-centering silliness), but I keep coming back to the almost painful fact that even if Piers Anthony had written this character, it would have been better than this.

It pains me to say that. L'Engle is, in my opinion, a far better writer. But while Anthony was in many ways a hack with his puns, but he still had a love affair with the nuances of words. A "Happy Medium" in his hands would be an excuse to explore the wide range of happiness: from solemn joy to warm contentment to delighted giggles to intense ecstasy to... god, the range is endless. You wouldn't get this one-dimensional "smiling happily" response to the suicide of a star and the death of everyone within radius of the thing going up. That doesn't make the Happy Medium seem happy; it makes her seem insensitive to the point of inanity. Good people don't grin from ear-to-ear at the sight of a massive genocidal murder-suicide.

   Mrs Which spoke again. Her voice sounded tired, and they knew that speaking was a tremendous effort for her. “Itt wass nnott sso llongg aggo fforr yyou, wwass itt?” she asked gently.
   Mrs Whatsit shook her head.
   Charles Wallace went up to Mrs Whatsit. “I see. Now I understand. You were a star, once, weren’t you?”
   Mrs Whatsit covered her face with her hands as though she were embarrassed, and nodded.
   “And you did—you did what that star just did?”
   With her face still covered, Mrs Whatsit nodded again.
   Charles Wallace looked at her, very solemnly. “I should like to kiss you.”
   Mrs Whatsit took her hands down from her face and pulled Charles Wallace to her in a quick embrace. He put his arms about her neck, pressed his cheek against hers, and then kissed her.
   Meg felt that she would have liked to kiss Mrs Whatsit, too, but that after Charles Wallace, anything that she or Calvin did or said would be anticlimax. She contented herself with looking at Mrs Whatsit. Even though she was used to Mrs Whatsit’s odd getup (and the very oddness of it was what made her seem so comforting), she realized with a fresh shock that it was not Mrs Whatsit herself that she was seeing at all. The complete, the true Mrs Whatsit, Meg realized, was beyond human understanding. What she saw was only the game Mrs Whatsit was playing; it was an amusing and charming game, a game full of both laughter and comfort, but it was only the tiniest facet of all the things Mrs Whatsit could be.
   “I didn’t mean to tell you,” Mrs Whatsit faltered. “I didn’t mean ever to let you know. But, oh, my dears, I did so love being a star!”
   “Yyouu arre sstill verry yyoungg,” Mrs Which said, her voice faintly chiding.

So veering back from the puns and problematic depictions of Romani people and their culture, we need to talk about this supernova thing. As I previously mentioned, we saw a supernova in the crystal ball; the willing death of a star in order to destroy the darkness with it.

I really do think that, for L'Engle, this is a hopeful scene. Yes, the star died and stopped being a star, but the star didn't succumb to the darkness and the star has a second life now as an angel. And I expect that this theology of hope sprung from the given that supernovas already exist in our world--we see and observe them--so this was L'Engle's attempt to give them a reason to exist. A hopeful purpose, rather than just a random destructive tragedy in space.

The problem here, I think, is that if you don't start with the existence of supernovas as a given we have to work around and/or explain, then this scene and the theologies within has the potential to be horrifying. Like, no matter how bad the darkness may be--and Camazotz (which we will shortly visit) does seem to be a terrifying place--it's so bad that genocidal murder-suicide is better? Because that is literally what we just observed, unless the planets around that star had no life on them. Or no life left on them because the Darkness wiped them out. (Which may well be possible but is never established.)

Throughout these books, L'Engle has a very different view of death than I do, and that doesn't make her automatically wrong. But it is possible to go to very bad places when you let the afterlife parts of your theology take the wheel. Fred Clark has talked about the problems with the idea that the kindest thing you can do for a person is murder them the moment they become saved so they can't fall away later and go to hell. I refer you also to Will Wildman's Speaker for the Dead posts here:

[Ender Wiggins] "If you really believed that someone was perfect in heart, bishop, so righteous that to live another day could only cause them to be less perfect, then wouldn't it be a good thing for them if they were killed and taken directly into heaven?"


[Will Wildman] I would love to dive into this, except that is' one of Fred Clark's best-tread wheelhouses.  Suffice to say that this logic only works if you first assume that the sole point is to go to heaven as assuredly and quickly as possible, and not, for example, to do anything in particular on Earth with your perfection and holiness.  Screw the plebes, you got yours and if they deserved your help they should have offered you paradise first.

In a lot of ways, L'Engle's philosophy strikes me as healthier and wiser than Orson Scott Card's or Tim LaHaye's or even Lewis' in this regard, because I don't think she advocates for "die as soon as possible to get into heaven"; the star goes supernova as a last resort, and we even see that while they do have a second life as an angel, they have bittersweet regrets. I actually kind of like that? I think it's a lot healthier than a lot of the "longing for death" stuff in many other Christian works?

So we come down to the problem that, as an explanation for a naturally-occurring phenomena that L'Engle was stuck with, this isn't the worst explanation in the world for her theologies. And if you can work in that headspace, I think it works here! But if you're unwilling to accept the underlying real-world given of supernovas and question why they are a thing, then the passage becomes a lot more grim. This same problem of what to accept as givens and what to question will pop up again when we do the Noah's Ark book; L'Engle will do her damned best to gloss up a worldwide flood, but you can only put so much lipstick on that pig. It's still deity-imposed murder on a horrifying scale. And without spoiling too much, Book #2 will have some death stuff too, and in a way that really distresses me. But we'll get there.

A hard part about this passage--or, at least, for me--is that for all the problems I have with it ("wait, I'm supposed to be happy about the murder-suicide of an entire star-system?"), it's still kinder and gentler than a lot of the other classic Christian stuff that L'Engle shares a canon with. She's kind of the red-headed step-child in the book world; too Christian for the non-Christians ("what the fuck was all that stuff from Isaiah?) and too fluffy marshmallow Universalist for the hardliners like Lewis to accept.

Because, if you think about it, this passage is asserting that suicide--at least under a hopeless situation and when the alternatives are worse--is not a mortal sin. That, in fact, angels can result from self-imposed death. Given that LaHaye and his ilk will send you straight to hell without passing Go for suicide, that's an incredibly kind gesture for L'Engle to make. And that really is L'Engle in a nutshell for me: I don't agree with her theology and I'm often somewhat appalled by it, but man, I respect and appreciate the heck out of the fact that her heart was in a good place and she was trying to be compassionate.

Which is a long and rambling way of saying that I think this scene is horrifying in unaddressed ways (did anyone else in that star-system die? does anyone care?) but I also think it was L'Engle's attempt to put a hopeful and compassionate spin on things that happen in the real world (like supernovas and suicide).

   The Medium sat looking happily at the star-filled sky in her ball, smiling and nodding and chuckling gently. But Meg noticed that her eyes were drooping, and suddenly her head fell forward and she gave a faint snore.
   “Poor thing,” Mrs Whatsit said, “we’ve worn her out. It’s very hard work for her.”
   “Please, Mrs Whatsit,” Meg asked, “what happens now? Why are we here? What do we do next? Where is Father? When are we going to him?” She clasped her hands pleadingly.
   “One thing at a time, love!” Mrs Whatsit said.
   Mrs Who cut in. “As paredes tem ouvidos. That’s Portuguese. Walls have ears.”
   “Yes, let us go outside,” Mrs Whatsit said. “Come, we’ll let her sleep.”
   But as they turned to go, the Medium jerked her head up and smiled at them radiantly. “You weren’t going to go without saying good-bye to me, were you?” she asked.
   “We thought we’d just let you sleep, dear.” Mrs Whatsit patted the Medium’s shoulder. “We worked you terribly hard and we know you must be very tired.”

I said this at the beginning of this post:

When we left off in Chapter 5, the children were frightened by the Dark Thing they're about to face, so the three Mrs. W's brought them to the Happy Medium to show that it can be fought and overcome. Watsonianly, this is meant to steel them for the ordeal to come and reassure them that all is not lost. (Arguably, this attempt fails because the angels are too inhuman to have considered things from a human perspective.) Doylistically, and I think more important to L'Engle, she wanted to combine a fantastical theory on supernovas with her theology on death as a cycle of life.

If I have a problem with L'Engle as a writer, I think it lies in her choice--like Lewis--to prioritize her Doylistic goals over the Watsonian ones, because here again I feel like the children are reacting badly to this scene. They're sad for Mrs. Whatsit, and that's understandable and good, but does anyone consider the implications of what they've just been shown? They were told they needed to fight the Dark Thing and, when they expressed fear, they were shown that it can be beaten! If you... kill yourself. Um?

We keep seeing these scenes where the children have real and valid concerns or objections, these things are addressed inadequately or badly (in part because the angels are too inhuman to understand humans), and the text just sort of... keeps going on. L'Engle is skillful enough of a writer that it's easy to miss that the objections were overridden by a shiny world-building detail being flung out, but when you go through slowly like this, we see just how flimsy the children seem to be at times. Meg doesn't object that she doesn't want to die, that she wants to go back home to her mother? Calvin doesn't point out that this sort of "victory" over the Dark Thing isn't exactly reassuring? They all just silently shuffle to the next plot point without a peep, and it's disorienting to me as a reader.

Moreover, if you haven't bought into the whole Christianity thing, it's never really explained why suicide is a good thing here. What would the Dark Thing have done to the star that would have been worse than death? I presume a corruption of the soul that would have sent it to hell or removed the possibility of a second life (L'Engle tends towards the latter rather than the former because, again, kinder and gentler than a lot of the other classic Christian canon), but we're never told that. And what a beautiful example of Christian privilege this book is, really; imagine if a YA book came out this year by a Muslim author in which children learned that suicide-via-explosion is the godly thing to do when surrounded by your enemies? I don't think that would be getting a movie deal and glossy 5-star reviews, lolsob.

Anyway! I'm going to end here. Chapter 6 is super long, and basically goes: Supernova, Peeking Back Home (and again contrasting Meg's sainted mother with Calvin's stereotypical harpy and her brood), Portentous Warnings, and then Going To Camazotz. We might have to split all those up separately; I'm trying to post more often and in smaller chunks. We'll see how it goes!


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