Time Quintet: Cloven Pines

[Wrinkle Content Note: Fascism, Hypnotism, Captivity]

Wrinkle Recap: Charles Wallace has "allowed" himself to be hypnotized and is now being piloted by IT. Meg and Calvin have been led to see her father.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 9:IT

Things are going to start happening faster now; there are 12 chapters in this book and we're on 9 at the moment. This is interesting to me from a craft standpoint because there were quite a few chapters which came before in which mostly... nothing happened. What was the narrative value of the flying centaurs singing passages from Isaiah? How did the visit to the Happy Medium advance character? Never mind, let's go, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.

   Meg rushed at the man imprisoned in the column, but as she reached what seemed to be the open door she was hurled back as though she had crashed into a brick wall.
   Calvin caught her. “It’s just transparent like glass this time,” he told her. “We can’t go through it.”
   Meg was so sick and dizzy from the impact that she could not answer. For a moment she was afraid that she would throw up or faint. Charles Wallace laughed again, the laugh that was not his own, and it was this that saved her, for once more anger overcame her pain and fear. Charles Wallace, her own real, dear Charles Wallace, never laughed at her when she hurt herself. Instead, his arms would go quickly around her neck and he would press his soft cheek against hers in loving comfort. But the demon Charles Wallace snickered. She turned away from him and looked again at the man in the column.
   “Oh, Father—” she whispered longingly, but the man in the column did not move to look at her. The horn-rimmed glasses, which always seemed so much a part of him, were gone, and the expression of his eyes was turned inward, as though he were deep in thought. He had grown a beard, and the silky brown was shot with gray. His hair, too, had not been cut. It wasn’t just the overlong hair of the man in the snapshot at Cape Canaveral; it was pushed back from his high forehead and fell softly almost to his shoulders, so that he looked like someone in another century, or a shipwrecked sailor. But there was no question, despite the change in him, that he was her father, her own beloved father.

Your mileage may vary, but I think this part is good. Describing characters is hard and even more so when a character doesn't appear the way another character expects them to. Here we get a description of Mr. Murry that both conveys the hardships he's endured and shows how much he's changed from Meg's perspective. It's nice and neat and packs a lot into a small space.

(Though I do have to wonder why IT's captivity process apparently involves a total lack of grooming. I'd think IT would be more fastidious than that. And since Murry practically embodies the Absent Minded Professor trope, I wouldn't think "no haircuts, mwuhahaha" would work particularly well on him as an interrogation technique. I guess it didn't, since he still hasn't submitted to IT.)

   [...] “He doesn’t see us, Meg,” Calvin said gently.   “Why? Why?”
   “I think it’s sort of like those little peepholes they have in apartments, in the front doors,” Calvin explained. “You know. From inside you can look through and see everything. And from outside you can’t see anything at all. We can see him, but he can’t see us.”
   “Charles!” Meg pleaded. “Let me in to Father!”
   “Why?” Charles asked placidly.

I continue to feel slightly betrayed by how often Meg needs obvious things explained to her. Of course Mr. Murry can't see them; the column he's in is transparent, so if his eyes aren't focused on his own daughter a few feet away then he can't see and it's probably a property of the material he's imprisoned in. Meg was previously established as being smart as a whip but bad at schooling, but now that they're on the adventure she just repeatedly flails while one or more of the boys feeds her information. Given that I remembered this book as having a Strong Female Protagonist, I feel a little let-down by my low middle school expectations.

   Meg remembered that when they were in the room with the man with red eyes she had knocked Charles Wallace back into himself when she tackled him and his head cracked the floor; so she hurled herself at him. But before she could reach him his fist shot out and punched her hard in the stomach. She gasped for breath. Sickly, she turned away from her brother, back to the transparent wall. 

What the damn hell is with these peoples' idea that cracking a six-year-old's head open like a Cadbury Cream Egg is a good idea? For all Calvin and Meg know, the physical violence they keep inflicting on Charles Wallace may be making him weaker and more susceptible to being held by IT.

I'm going to have to start summarizing a bit or we'll be here all day.

Charles Wallace tells Meg that the only way to "help Father" is to "do as I have done, and go in to IT". Meg pulls out a stubborn no, saying she doesn't see how her being "a zombie" will save their father. That's an interesting word to use there since Charles Wallace has displayed no zombie-like traits so far; his situation is more akin to demon possession (with an evil, smirking creature taking control of him) and the narrative has even stated as such ("the demon Charles Wallace snickered").

But I digress. Charles argues against Meg, and Meg calls out to Calvin for advice: 

   “Calvin,” Meg asked in agony, “will it really save Father?”
    But Calvin was paying no attention to her. He seemed to be concentrating with all his power on Charles Wallace. He stared into the pale blue that was all that was left of Charles Wallace’s eyes. “And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate/To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands . . . /she did confine thee . . . into a cloven pine—” he whispered, and Meg recognized Mrs Who’s words to him.
   For a moment Charles Wallace seemed to listen. Then he shrugged and turned away. Calvin followed him, trying to keep his eyes focused on Charles’s. “If you want a witch, Charles,” he said, “IT’s the witch. Not our ladies. Good thing I had The Tempest at school this year, isn’t it, Charles? It was the witch who put Ariel in the cloven pine, wasn’t it?”
   Charles Wallace’s voice seemed to come from a great distance. “Stop staring at me.”
   Breathing quickly with excitement, Calvin continued to pin Charles Wallace with his stare. “You’re like Ariel in the cloven pine, Charles. And I can let you out. Look at me, Charles. Come back to us.”
   Again the shudder went through Charles Wallace.
   Calvin’s intense voice hit at him. “Come back, Charles. Come back to us.”
   Again Charles shuddered. And then it was as though an invisible hand had smacked against his chest and knocked him to the ground, and the stare with which Calvin had held him was broken. Charles sat there on the floor of the corridor whimpering, not a small boy’s sound, but a fearful, animal noise.

I don't... what.

Calvin's superpower was supposed to be communication, not Siren Song. ("While speaking, everyone within earshot takes a -2 penalty to all actions.") He's not communicating with Charles Wallace, he's trying to ensorcell him with his angelic magic in contrast to IT's demonic powers. This isn't an intervention, it's a fight for who gets to control Charles: IT or Calvin, with Calvin trying to wrest control from IT.

Why, too, is Calvin speaking like Charles ought to recognize The Tempest for what it is? He knows their family isn't literary; Meg's worst subject was English when Calvin quizzed her earlier. Is this just the author indulging in her literary interests here? Hell, I took an entire semester on Shakespeare in college--with a fancy English degree at the end--and I barely remember this part of The Tempest. I was too focused on the racism and then, later when the 2010 film came out, on Helen Mirren.

Ben Whishaw and Helen Mirren from the Tempest

I must say, as an author, that stuff like this bugs me. First: not everyone is good at memorization and quoting on command. I am wicked smart in certain areas, but I cannot word-for-word quote anything with the exception of songs. (Apparently my brain has to have a melody to pin the words to.)

Second, if you're going to indulge and have characters quote Shakespeare, fine (*long glance at Athena from my Earthside series*) but you have to be aware that if anyone around them recognizes the quote (or even just doesn't reply with "what the hell are you babbling on about"), that impacts their characterization quite a bit: they are now implicitly canonized as reading enough Shakespeare in their free time that they can recognize snippets of his plays on demand and under stress. The Mrs. W's quote, yes, but the children were established as (realistically!) not recognizing much of what they said.

Anyway. Calvin uses voice-magic on Charles; the attempt doesn't free him but does remove him from being an immediate threat. Meg seems pretty chill about her brother's body being flung across the room again, and I'm kind of sad that Book #2 will revolve around Charles being sick and weakly but won't tie the connection as to why he's frail and physically damaged back to his treatment in Book #1. (It seems a logical inference after being a punching bag on an alien planet, but apparently little boys are made of rubber in this universe.)

Meg then begs Calvin to use his siren powers on her father... somehow.

   “Calvin.” Meg turned on him, clasping her hands intensely. “Try to get to Father.”
   Calvin shook his head. “Charles almost came out. I almost did it. He almost came back to us.”
   “Try Father,” Meg said again.
   “How?”
   “Your cloven pine thing. Isn’t Father imprisoned in a cloven pine even more than Charles? Look at him, in that column there. Get him out, Calvin.”
   Calvin spoke in an exhausted way. “Meg. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to get in. Meg, they’re asking too much of us.”

Again... Meg is not coming off as... very smart here? What does she expect Calvin to do, "speak" his magic at the plexiglass surrounding Mr. Murry? "Your cloven pine thing" just... doesn't make sense... does Meg think that the power was in Calvin's exact words and what he was talking about rather than how he was doing it, with the sustained magician's eye contact and low hypnotic vocal tones and such? Because if the content of what he said was important, that was lost on me.

For the record, I 100% agree with Calvin's exhaustion. He doesn't know what to do, he doesn't know how to get in, and the angels are asking too much of these children. But Meg, like any good D&D player when her wizard has used up his spell slots, starts frantically digging through her inventory looking for something to throw. This is the very next line in the book, I didn't cut anything:

   “Mrs Who’s spectacles!” Meg said suddenly. Mrs Who had told her to use them only as a last resort, and surely that was now. She reached into her pocket and the spectacles were there, cool and light and comforting. With trembling fingers she pulled them out.
   “Give me those spectacles!” Charles Wallace’s voice came in a harsh command, and he scrambled up off the floor and ran at her.

Boy, Charles got over his Calvin-induced whimpering pretty fast, huh.

So here's a thing I don't get and I never noticed it until now: why didn't IT already know about the glasses and take them away back when we had a room full of guards physically restraining the children? We know IT has access to Charles' memories; he's been yammering on about the Mrs. W's for the last chapter and using memories to back up his points. IT must therefore have access to the memory of Mrs. Who's glasses being given to Meg. Why didn't IT remove them from the equation before now? Was Charles holding that nugget of information back? Was there just too much to ransack at once and IT overlooked an important detail? I feel this is an important thing I'd want to know, were I a sister trying to understand how this possession works so I can fix it.

   She barely had time to snatch off her own glasses and put on Mrs Who’s, and, as it was, one earpiece dropped down her cheek and they barely stayed on her nose. As Charles Wallace lunged at her she flung herself against the transparent door and she was through it. She was in the cell with the imprisoning column that held her father. With trembling fingers she straightened Mrs Who’s glasses and put her own in her pocket.
   “Give them to me,” came Charles Wallace’s menacing voice, and he was in the cell with her, with Calvin on the outside pounding frantically to get in.

I hate to criticize an action sequence after all the talking but... this seems really contrived, though it pains me to admit it. Calvin exhausts himself so Meg just magically remembers the glasses in her bag, then she just happens to fall against the plexiglass she boinked into a few moments before. I guess the advantage of writing explicitly Christian literature is that coincidences can be racked up at a higher level (because God Did It) but I feel this ought to have been earned a little more.

Meg runs at her dad and goes through "something dark and cold" and then she's in his arms and it's lovely and huggy and sweet and there's some slightly clunky (depending on how charitable you are or aren't) reiteration of people making "remarks about Charles Wallace" (L'Engle seems to think that neurodivergent kids are picked on less when they have a father at home which... eh? I guess?) and the "letters had stopped coming" and Mrs. Murry (not "Mother", despite being in Meg's head? interesting.) "showed a rare flash of loneliness or grief."

Which... I do understand the value of a stiff upper lip for the sake of not frightening your children, but Charles Wallace is a genius, Meg is an almost-genius, and the twins are geniuses-but-hide-it-well. Mrs. Murry can't have thought she was effectively hiding the reality of the situation from her kids, or if she did, that she would be able to keep doing so for much longer. I... kind of feel that showing grief and loneliness would not actually be a bad thing for the people in this family? I feel that suppressing all the grief probably made the kids feel more frightened and lonely and sad rather than less so?

I don't know, but there's something odd about how Mrs. Murry is repeatedly praised for hiding her emotions so well. It couples in a way I do not like at all with the way Meg keeps being described as hysterical. Maybe the implication is that youth is emotional while Mrs. Murry is older and more mature and has the New England dignity and gravitas of a beautiful competent sorta-widow, but it feels whiffy on the internalized misogyny meter. It's not a bad thing for women to cry, and it's not bad for families to share grief out in the open together rather than everyone trying to button it all up.

I'm just casting back to that first chapter when Meg woke up crying and missing her father and couldn't sleep, so she came downstairs and Charles made her cocoa and Mrs. Murry came down too, and they all just... pretended that they weren't up and sad and sorrowful for the same reason. I remember as a child taking that as proof that this was a Very Intelligent Family who were above lesser mortals who had messy emotions, but now they just seem unhealthily repressed and in need of therapy. Therapy for everyone! But especially Meg and Mrs. Murry and Charles Wallace.

   Her voice broke on a happy sob. “Oh, Father! Oh, Father!” 
   “Meg!” he cried in glad surprise. “Meg, what are you doing here? Where’s your mother? Where are the boys?”
   [...] “We have to go to Charles Wallace,” she said, her words tense. “Quickly.”

I will grant you that I've never been imprisoned in a situation like this, but I do not think "glad surprise" would be my response to my long-lost daughter in my arms after years of mental torture and interrogation. Like, either IT has his family (mega-bad) or he's hallucinating (still pretty bad) or IT can cause him to hallucinate his family (just plain bad). None of those things are good things.

Murry paws at Meg's face and she realizes he can't see. She does an empirical test (SCIENCE! YES!) by pushing the glasses down her nose and realizes she's in utter darkness without the glasses. (Wait, doesn't she have peripheral-- Did L'Engle ever wear-- Never mind, moving on.) She offers him the glasses which... again, I'm disappointed because why can't she just lead him out herself? I don't know, it perhaps makes sense to give up your magic talisman to the nearest adult, don't get me wrong, but it shows how much YA/MG have changed over the decades.

   His fingers closed about the spectacles. “Darling,” he said, “I’m afraid your glasses won’t help.”
   “But they’re Mrs Who’s, they aren’t mine,” she explained, not realizing that her words would sound like gibberish to him. “Please try them, Father. Please!” She waited while she felt him fumbling in the dark. “Can you see now?” she asked. “Can you see now, Father?”
   “Yes,” he said. “Yes. The wall is transparent, now. How extraordinary! I could almost see the atoms rearranging!” His voice had its old, familiar sound of excitement and discovery. It was the way he sounded sometimes when he came home from his laboratory after a good day and began to tell his wife about his work.

*rubs at temples*

I think we'll take a break here.

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