Time Quintet: Turkey Dinners and Light Promises

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: The kids have gone into a very big building, asked questions of strangers there, and are now being detained by a random man.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 7: The Man with Red Eyes

I realized today I haven't been including recaps at the top of each entry in this series like I do with Narnia. I apologize and have added a recap now, though coming up with the recap was a bit jarring. I'd not noticed as a child just how much this sequence feels like a railroaded plot from a harried dungeon-master.

The kids were dropped on a hill and told to wander around until something happened. They walked through a village, interacted with a couple of NPCs, then came to a city that seemed strangely featureless except for one enormous building that is bigger than the biggest thing ever. They went into the imposing building after pursuing a line of logic familiar to most gamers: why is the building there if we're not meant to go into it? Then they asked an NPC who they are and what they do here and the NPC is now taking them to the level mini-boss (The Man With Red Eyes) and the boss behind the mini-boss (IT).

Unfortunately for our children, they're about to learn why you need to grind a level or two before you meet up with the boss. All that magic equipment on your character sheet will only get you so far.

   The man took from his pocket a folder filled with papers of every color. He shuffled through them carefully, finally withdrawing one. [...] “You may be detained for a few days,” the man said, “but I’m sure they won’t be too hard on you because of your youth. Just relax and don’t fight and it will all be much easier for you.” He went back to his seat, leaving the children standing and staring at the blank wall.
   And suddenly the wall was no longer there and they were looking into an enormous room lined with machines. They were not unlike the great computing machines Meg had seen in her science books and that she knew her father sometimes worked with. [...]
   Calvin muttered something.
   “What?” Meg asked him.
   “There is nothing to fear except fear itself,” Calvin said. “I’m quoting. Like Mrs Who. Meg, I’m scared stiff.”
   “So ’m I.” Meg held his hand more tightly. “Come on.”

I am amazed at how much I edited books as a child, apparently without any consciousness of doing so. If I remembered the Central Intelligence building at all, I remembered the children bravely exploring it, not just walking meekly down a corridor when told to do so by the first adult they interacted with. This gets the job done narratively, of course, yet I can't help but wonder: was this what the angels intended?

SPOILERS: We're never really told what the angels intended for the children to do and this bugs me. It seems like the plan really was for them to just walk into the room with IT, get imprisoned with their father, pull their father out with the Magic Glasses, and then tesser away. This part goes to plan but as a downside they accidentally leave Charles Wallace behind because his pride was his downfall (as the angels warned).

But... this seems incredibly risky? What if IT decided to kill them instead of imprison them? What if IT imprisoned them but not in the same cell as with their father? I have so many questions as to why this plan was the absolute best plan for rescuing Mr Murry--as well as why we needed these three children to do it and not, I don't know, a professional rescuer chosen from among the angel ranks. I feel these children's presence should be at least sort of justified by the narrative?

Anyway. The children walk down the hallway of computers.

   After they had walked for what seemed like miles, they could see that the enormous room did have an end, and that at the end there was something.
   Charles Wallace said suddenly, and his voice held panic, “Don’t let go my hands! Hold me tight! He’s trying to get at me!”
   “Who?” Meg squeaked.
   “I don’t know. But he’s trying to get in at me! I can feel him!”
   “Let’s go back.” Calvin started to pull away.
   “No,” Charles Wallace said. “I have to go on. We have to make decisions, and we can’t make them if they’re based on fear.” His voice sounded old and strange and remote. Meg, clasping his small hand tightly, could feel it sweating in hers.

This is the second time in as many chapters where we've seen a character experience intense dread only for the group to decide to ignore it, and I feel like we have to tackle this problem because I... don't understand the philosophy here.

Outside the Central Intelligence building, Calvin received a premonition--which we've been led to understand are never wrong--that going inside would be dangerous. Despite the fact that the angels didn't tell them to go there, the children have no reason to think Mr Murry is inside, and they have a whole planet to explore first before tackling this particular building, they went inside anyway. Now Charles is feeling something trying to psychically attack him and again, for no reason, the kids just push on ahead. This doesn't feel like bravery, it feels like railroading.

Charles Wallace, child of scientists and smartest five-year-old on the planet Earth says, "We have to make decisions, and we can't make them if they're based on fear." That makes no sense! This series is happy to embrace evolution as a scientific fact--a rare and welcome thing in a Christian novel--but in that case Charles must surely know that fear is a valuable evolved trait. Making decisions based in fear is why humans in general exist, and arguably why Charles Wallace in particular is alive. At some point in even his short life, he must have made a decision--not to cross the road until it was clear, perhaps, or not to put a dodgy mushroom in his mouth out of curiosity--"based in fear" that kept him alive. Fear is a good thing. Fear is what keeps us from walking up to lions and petting them. Fearless people often do not live long in our world.

Now, okay, yes, sometimes we need to do certain things in spite of fear, and that's arguably the definition of bravery: being afraid of a thing that needs doing but doing it anyway. But... the thing needs doing for the person to be brave and admirable to do it in spite of their fear. You don't get bravery points for just being like "cripes, this seems dangerous and scary, let's do it because we're afraid!" That's not bravery, that's foolhardiness: the act of foolishly throwing caution to the wind and taking reckless chances and engaging in dangerous impulsive behavior.

I can't tell if L'Engle just outright forgot that the children don't actually know Mr Murry is in this building--there's no reason for him to be, and just because it's the biggest building they've seen so far doesn't make it the biggest on the planet; there's an entire planet to explore just outside the door and I can't get over that fact--or if this is supposed to be some kind of philosophical statement on fears and faith. But a statement of faith would make far more sense if the angels had told them to come to this building.

As it is, they've wandered here on their own and both Calvin and Charles have felt a tugging in their hearts telling them this is a bad idea. In any other Christian literature, that would be divine guidance from God that they're ignoring. And yet I think we're supposed to see this as brave, not stubborn or reckless. I would be happy to view their actions as brave if they had a reason for walking in like this and ignoring all their fears saying this is a bad idea. Any reason will do! Instead I'm left wondering why they don't go back outside and do a little more reconnaissance. Maybe they could ride in hidden inside a laundry cart and get Mr Murry out that way.

   As they approached the end of the room their steps slowed. Before them was a platform. On the platform was a chair, and on the chair was a man.
   What was there about him that seemed to contain all the coldness and darkness they had felt as they plunged through the Black Thing on their way to this planet?
   “I have been waiting for you, my dears,” the man said. His voice was kind and gentle, not at all the cold and frightening voice Meg had expected. It took her a moment to realize that though the voice came from the man, he had not opened his mouth or moved his lips at all, that no real words had been spoken to fall upon her ears, that he had somehow communicated directly into their brains.
   “But how does it happen that there are three of you?” the man asked.
   Charles Wallace spoke with harsh boldness, but Meg could feel him trembling. “Oh, Calvin just came along for the ride.”
   “Oh, he did, did he?” For a moment there was a sharpness to the voice that spoke inside their minds. Then it relaxed and became soothing again. “I hope that it has been a pleasant one so far.”
   “Very educational,” Charles Wallace said.
   “Let Calvin speak for himself,” the man ordered.
   Calvin growled, his lips tight, his body rigid. “I have nothing to say.”

Now we get into the meat of the chapter and all the creepiness we've been missing up to this point: this is creepy and I love it, yes, good. Creepy man with a creepy gentle voice that creepily deposits directly into their brain, check. And he creepily knows (I guess?) that Mr Murray has two special children (although it's odd that he doesn't know about the twins or assume Calvin could be one of them) and he creepily loses hold of his facade of nice reasonableness when faced with insubordination and a detail he'd not expected. GOOD. This is an excellent fascist villain, well done.

   Meg stared at the man in horrified fascination. His eyes were bright and had a reddish glow. Above his head was a light, and it glowed in the same manner as the eyes, pulsing, throbbing, in steady rhythm.
   Charles Wallace shut his eyes tightly. “Close your eyes,” he said to Meg and Calvin. “Don’t look at the light. Don’t look at his eyes. He’ll hypnotize you.”
   “Clever, aren’t you? Focusing your eyes would, of course, help,” the soothing voice went on, “but there are other ways, my little man. Oh, yes, there are other ways.”
   “If you try it on me I shall kick you!” Charles Wallace said. It was the first time Meg had ever heard Charles Wallace suggesting violence.
   “Oh, will you, indeed, my little man?” The thought was tolerant, amused, but four men in dark smocks appeared and flanked the children.

Yes. Good.

Well, not good, obviously. But creepy! And yet... I keep returning again to the angels. Was this how this meeting was supposed to go? I understand why it goes the way it does from a Doylist perspective, of course, but I am still hung up on the Watsonian perspective: is it supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing that the children are standing in the lair of Evil Incarnate, flanked by faceless bodyguards and in danger of being hypnotized? Is everything going to plan or has shit hit the fan? As a reader, this isn't exactly an academic question; it sets expectations for the scene as well as a sense of how nervous I should be for the characters.

   “Now, my dears,” the words continued, “I shall of course have no need of recourse to violence, but I thought perhaps it would save you pain if I showed you at once that it would do you no good to try to oppose me. You see, what you will soon realize is that there is no need to fight me. Not only is there no need, but you will not have the slightest desire to do so. For why should you wish to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble? For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”
   “We will make our own decisions, thank you,” Charles Wallace said.
   “But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don’t you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Let me show you. Let us say the multiplication table together.”

The Man With Red Eyes (MWRE) tries to hypnotize them with the multiplication tables and it's a very nicely creepy scene, but I'm wrenched back to the realization that Meg has stopped being a point-of-view character and has started being one of those little GoPro cameras mounted on a helmet for easy recording. Charles resists by yelling nursery rhymes and Calvin resists by reciting The Gettysburg Address. Meg, at long last, resists by... yelling "Father!"

   “Father!” Meg screamed. “Father!” The scream, half involuntary, jerked her mind back out of darkness.
    The words of the multiplication table seemed to break up into laughter. “Splendid! Splendid! You have passed your preliminary tests with flying colors.”
   “You didn’t think we were as easy as all that, falling for that old stuff, did you?” Charles Wallace demanded.

The effort to resist wasn't easy so this is either admirable bravado in the face of danger or Charles' pride acting up again (or both/and), but I'm left wishing we had a mental response from Meg on this subject to clear that up. Is she panting? afraid? worried? triumphant? drained? Possibly a little of each, and yet she's silent as a protagonist. I remember liking these books for having a girl protagonist (so rare!) and yet I'm struck by how little Meg has actually been allowed to do in the first half of the book.

L'Engle seems at last to notice that because after a little more chat Meg gets to talk. She's not the communicator of the group--Calvin is--but this is more than she's been allowed to do so far on this planet so I'm happy.

   “If you please,” she said, trying to sound calm and brave. “The only reason we are here is because we think our father is here. Can you tell us where to find him?” 
   “Ah, your father!” There seemed to be a great chortling of delight. “Ah, yes, your father! It is not can I, you know, young lady, but will I?”
   “Will you, then?”
   “That depends on a number of things. Why do you want your father?”
   “Didn’t you ever have a father yourself?” Meg demanded. “You don’t want him for a reason. You want him because he’s your father.”
   “Ah, but he hasn’t been acting very like a father, lately, has he? Abandoning his wife and his four little children to go gallivanting off on wild adventures of his own.”
   “He was working for the government. He’d never have left us otherwise. And we want to see him, please. Right now.”
   “My, but the little miss is impatient! Patience, patience, young lady.”
   Meg did not tell the man on the chair that patience was not one of her virtues.

This is good and as an adult I find myself wishing it were explored a little more. I identified very strongly with Meg's loyalty to her father and her insistence that you don't want a father for a reason, you want him because he's your father, but it's worth noting that I loved my own dad so this made sense to me. I can well imagine other children having a very different reaction.

But I would especially love to see this explored because this is a Christian novel set in a universe with a very distant divinity. This isn't unusual--we never see the Emperor Over the Sea in Narnia, after all--but if there's a Father God analogue in Wrinkle, he's so distant we don't even have a name for him. Flying centaurs sing verses from Isaiah on unfallen planets, but no Father God walks in their Edenic gardens with them, or at least not while we are there. We see angels and later in the series we'll see more, but never any God--and Jesus is mentioned in the same context as Leonardo da Vinci in terms of great movers and shakers against the Black Cloud of Sin.

"He hasn't been acting very like a father lately" is an accurate, if unfair, assessment of Mr Murry; he hasn't been acting like a father because he was imprisoned and rendered unable to return to his family. But it's an accurate, and possibly fair, assessment of any god this universe might contain. Where has he been all this time that the Murry children and O'Keefe children have been suffering? Why does he send his angels to put these children in danger rather than rescuing Mr Murry any other way? Why, in the next book, will he be content to let many people die of a new and serious illness but send supernatural intervention to save Charles?

There are no easy answers to these questions. They concern the nature of God and the problem of evil in our world. Theologians have struggled with them for centuries, so I don't expect L'Engle to have a pat answer to the question. But it is disappointing to see the question so tantalizingly raised in the context of one father without seeing it applied to the other Father that goes unremarked upon in the picture. And it's not like I made the author include passages from Isaiah as world-building flavor! Once you do that, I feel you've brought these questions and expectations on yourself.

Back to the text, Meg--having been allowed to talk too much--now goes silent as the MWRE tells them they can communicate with him telepathically. Charles refuses to do so, then runs up and hits him.

   Suddenly Charles Wallace darted forward and hit the man as hard as he could, which was fairly hard, as he had had a good deal of coaching from the twins. [...]
   The man gave a wince and the thought of his voice was a little breathless, as though Charles Wallace’s punch had succeeded in winding him. “May I ask why you did that?”
   “Because you aren’t you,” Charles Wallace said. “I’m not sure what you are, but you”—he pointed to the man on the chair—“aren’t what’s talking to us. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I didn’t think you were real. I thought perhaps you were a robot, because I don’t feel anything coming directly from you. I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but it’s coming through you. It isn’t you.” [...]
   “Try to find out who I am, then,” the thought probed.
    “I have been trying,” Charles Wallace said, his voice high and troubled.
   “Look into my eyes. Look deep within them and I will tell you.”
   Charles Wallace looked quickly at Meg and Calvin, then said, as though to himself, “I have to,” and focused his clear blue eyes on the red ones of the man in the chair. Meg looked not at the man but at her brother. After a moment it seemed that his eyes were no longer focusing. The pupils grew smaller and smaller, as though he were looking into an intensely bright light, until they seemed to close entirely, until his eyes were nothing but an opaque blue. He slipped his hands out of Meg’s and Calvin’s and started walking slowly toward the man on the chair.
   “No!” Meg screamed. “No!”

Charles doesn't hear her so Meg does a flying tackle and drags him to the floor. (Side-note: Why are there even bodyguards here? They're almost Chekovian in their failure to ever meaningfully go off.) He bonks his head on the floor and she cries and he snaps out of it and the MWRE threatens their father.

   The man on the chair spoke directly into Meg’s mind, and now there was a distinct menace to the words. “I am not pleased,” he said to her. “I could very easily lose patience with you, and that, for your information, young lady, would not be good for your father. If you have the slightest desire to see your father again, you had better cooperate.”

This is interesting to me because we have another example of plot-railroading here: they have to participate in the hypnotizing of Charles Wallace because otherwise Mr Murry will be harmed, or at least kept indefinitely away from them. Again I have to wonder if this is all going to angelic plan? If so, it's hard to see Charles' decision as hubris when they apparently have no other choice if they want to proceed. We get some back-and-forth that drags out this already long chapter. Here's the gist:

1. Meg says she's hungry and that the MWRE should feed them. He offers to feed her if she stops interfering. Meg rejects both the deal and the idea of his food, saying "I wouldn't trust it."

2. Charles says “Okay, what next? We’ve had enough of these preliminaries. Let’s get on with it.”  The MWRE points out that they were getting on with it before Meg interrupted. Meg insists that she or Calvin be the ones to brain-meld with the MWRE, but only Charles' brain is advanced enough to try; it would be fatal for Meg or Calvin.

3. The MWRE has food brought in on a room service cart. Meg finds a turkey dinner suspicious and the MWRE notes the smell is artificial and a trick of the brain. Charles can smell nothing. The children decide to eat in spite of their earlier suspicions.

4. The food tastes delicious to Meg and Calvin, but to Charles it "tastes like sand" because "You’ve shut your mind entirely to me. The other two can’t. I can get in through the chinks. Not all the way in, but enough to give them a turkey dinner."

5. Charles points out that they don't really have a way to make the plot move along except to walk into the obvious trap and perform the brain-meld as requested / subtly-demanded.

   The man lifted his lips into a smile, and his smile was the most horrible thing Meg had ever seen. “Why don’t you trust me, Charles? Why don’t you trust me enough to come in and find out what I am? I am peace and utter rest. I am freedom from all responsibility. To come in to me is the last difficult decision you need ever make.”
    “If I come in can I get out again?” Charles Wallace asked.
   “But of course, if you want to. But I don’t think you will want to.”
   “If I come—not to stay, you understand—just to find out about you, will you tell us where Father is?”
   “Yes. That is a promise. And I don’t make promises lightly.”

To Charles' credit, he does at least try to arrange a promise that he can get back out again. IT promises that he will be able to, and this is another interesting aspect of the text I wish we could explore in more depth. IT says he doesn't make promises lightly and--if we're meant to believe him--that would suggest he's telling the truth and Charles can get out from the brain-meld. Yet later, he will not emerge even though he (apparently) wants very much to leave.

So what does this mean? Is it as simple as the bad guy being willing and able to lie? Is IT pulling a Jedi Truth like the director in the movie The Truman Show? That movie is about a man placed in the most insidious manner of captivity possible: Truman's entire life is a controlled television show for the entertainment of others and he doesn't realize that all of reality around him is constructed. His captor states Truman can leave any time, eliding how difficult it is to leave a cage you don't know is there:

CHRISTOF: He could leave at any time. If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there's no way we could prevent him. I think what distresses you, really, caller, is that ultimately, Truman prefers his "cell," as you call it.

Christof continues to insist that Truman "could leave" even while he summons apocalyptic winds and storms--nearly drowning Truman in the process--in an attempt to keep him caged and controlled. Is Charles Wallace buffeted by storms while IT claims he "could leave" if he just really wanted it bad enough? And yet... we recognize that "Jedi Truths" are effectively lies in situations like this. So what does it mean when IT says it doesn't make promises lightly?

   “Listen,” he said to Meg and Calvin. “I have to find out what he really is. You know that. I’m going to try to hold back. I’m going to try to keep part of myself out. You mustn’t stop me this time, Meg.”
   “But you won’t be able to, Charles! He’s stronger than you are! You know that!”
   “I have to try.”
   “But Mrs Whatsit warned you!”

Mrs Whatsit did warn him, but can an angelic warning against hubris make sense in a context where Charles is right and they have no other way to proceed? They're captured, their father is inaccessible, and they'll be hypnotized sooner or later--their captor already threatened to starve them into submission, for goodness' sake! If anything, it seems like Charles is making the sensible choice to go into the brain-meld while he's strong as opposed to later when he's weak after time spent in captivity.

This troubles me. I feel if you're going to have a warning about hubris, the characters should have had a chance to choose differently. Perhaps that choice came and went back when they decided to plunge headlong into the Central Intelligence building, but if that was the event horizon for the Hubristic Fall, then I wish that had been made clearer at the time.

   “I have to try. For Father, Meg. Please. I want—I want to know my father—” For a moment his lips trembled. Then he was back in control. “But it isn’t only Father, Meg. You know that, now. It’s the Black Thing. We have to do what Mrs Which sent us to do.”
   “Calvin—” Meg begged.
   But Calvin shook his head. “He’s right, Meg. And we’ll be with him, no matter what happens.”
   “But what’s going to happen?” Meg cried.
   Charles Wallace looked up at the man. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”
   Now the red eyes and the light above seemed to bore into Charles, and again the pupils of the little boy’s eyes contracted. When the final point of black was lost in blue he turned away from the red eyes, looked at Meg, and smiled sweetly, but the smile was not Charles Wallace’s smile.
   “Come on, Meg, eat this delicious food that has been prepared for us,” he said.
   Meg snatched Charles Wallace’s plate and threw it on the floor, so that the dinner splashed about and the plate broke into fragments. “No!” She cried, her voice rising shrilly. “No! No! No!”
   From the shadows came one of the dark-smocked men and put another plate in front of Charles Wallace, and he began to eat eagerly. “What’s wrong, Meg?” Charles Wallace asked. “Why are you being so belligerent and uncooperative?” The voice was Charles Wallace’s voice, and yet it was different, too, somehow flattened out, almost as a voice might have sounded on the two-dimensional planet.
   Meg grabbed wildly at Calvin, shrieking, “That isn’t Charles! Charles is gone!”

That's it! That's the end of the chapter! A very nice cliffhanger to pick up on next time.


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