Time Quintet: Don't Worry, Be Happy

[Wrinkle Content Note: Unconscious Undressing, Captivity, Torture, Recreational Drug Use]

Wrinkle Recap: After their confrontation with IT went badly, Mr Murry teleported himself, Meg, and Calvin away. Charles Wallace was left behind. Meg is now badly wounded.

A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 11: Aunt Beast

I gave Mr. Murry a lot of crap last time for passively letting aliens pick up his daughter and carry her away, but it turns out that he's actually going to protest because this scene starts on his next sentence. I'm so used to modern notions that a chapter ending should signal a scene-change that this was actually jarring to me, ha.

   “No!” Mr. Murry said sharply. “Please put her down.”
   A sense of amusement seemed to emanate from the beasts. The tallest, who seemed to be the spokesman, said, “We frighten you?”
   “What are you going to do with us?” Mr. Murry asked.
   [...] “Tell me,” the beast said. “What do you suppose you’d do if three of us suddenly arrived on your home planet.”
   “Shoot you, I guess,” Calvin admitted.
   “Then isn’t that what we should do with you?”
   Calvin’s freckles seemed to deepen, but he answered quietly. “I’d really rather you didn’t. I mean, the earth’s my home, and I’d rather be there than anywhere in the world—I mean, the universe—and I can’t wait to get back, but we make some awful bloopers there.”
   The smallest beast, the one holding Meg, said, “And perhaps they aren’t used to visitors from other planets.”
   “Used to it!” Calvin exclaimed. “We’ve never had any, as far as I know.”
   “I don’t know.”
   The middle beast, a tremor of trepidation in his words, said, “You aren’t from a dark planet, are you?”
   “No.” Calvin shook his head firmly, though the beast couldn’t see him. “We’re—we’re shadowed. But we’re fighting the shadow.”
   The beast holding Meg questioned, “You three are fighting?”
   “Yes,” Calvin answered. “Now that we know about it.”

Murry being afraid of the Beasts is supposed to signal that they come from a bad shadowed planet where cruelty and mistrust is the rule, and here in 2019 we find that I hate this passage with all the passion of a thousand fiery suns. Murry has just been subjected to a nonlinear eternity of torture after landing on the wrong planet by accident! Even if he came from the most peaceful planet in the universe, that experience is going to leave him jittery in this new situation. Trauma is allowed to hurt people, and it's not a mark of suspicious badness when someone doesn't immediately trust strangers.

Then, too, we have this weird "planet of the hats" philosophical argument that if earthlings would shoot these beasts, why shouldn't they do the same in return? This is so weirdly jarring after seeing the little boy on Camazotz, because we know for a fact that "dark planets" can contain good people and that there's a difference between "what the ruler of a dark planet would demand to do to you" vs. "what the inhabitants would do to you if left to their own devices". Nobody on Camazotz was cruel or unkind to the children; the most unkindness they met (beside IT) was people being vaguely annoyed with them for interrupting them while they worked. Considering interruption of routine is a one-way ticket to the reprogramming center, that's a lot of forbearance there!

Presumably L'Engle means the question to be rhetorical, but it's a terrible rhetoric. Morality isn't defined as doing unto others what they would do to you, and she knows that. For an unfallen planet to consider that idea some kind of useful gotcha in this situation--with three very frightened people and one very ill person--doesn't fit the setting of, well, an unfallen planet.

   The tall one turned back to Mr. Murry, speaking sternly. “You. The oldest. Man. From where have you come? Now.”
   Mr. Murry answered steadily. “From a planet called Camazotz.” There was a mutter from the three beasts. “We do not belong there,” Mr. Murry said, slowly and distinctly. “We were strangers there as we are here. I was a prisoner there, and these children rescued me. My youngest son, my baby, is still there, trapped in the dark mind of IT.”
   [...] “We must take this child back with us,” the beast holding her said.
   Meg shouted at her father. “Don’t leave me the way you left Charles!” With this burst of terror a spasm of pain wracked her body and she gasped.
   “Stop fighting,” the beast told her. “You make it worse. Relax.”
   “That’s what IT said,” Meg cried. “Father! Calvin! Help!”
   The beast turned toward Calvin and Mr. Murry. “This child is in danger. You must trust us.”
   “We have no alternative,” Mr. Murry said. “Can you save her?”
   “I think so.”
   “May I stay with her?”
   “No. But you will not be far away. We feel that you are hungry, tired, that you would like to bathe and rest.

I....guess? I don't really like this and it's hard to suss out why. Maybe it's because I've been a child in a hospital and I remember how much it meant to me to have my hungry, sleep-deprived mother by my side in a scary place. Maybe it's because, having been to the ER with my own furbabies, I understand why "go rest and eat" can be utterly useless advice to (some) parents in (some) situations where their child is hurting. Sometimes it's easier to be beside them than to go away and leave them to others.

Then, too, we're back to this cozification of Murry's trauma in a way that rings false to me. The man has just been locked up and tortured by aliens for years, and more recently has had his son taken captive. He seems a little too comfortable with being separated from his remaining child. And while it may be true that they have no choice and that logically the best thing to do is to trust these strangers, here's the thing: trauma often doesn't give a damn about choice and logic. I'm not demanding that Murry have a panic attack as they take Meg away, but it wouldn't be unreasonable if he did.

   “This little girl needs prompt and special care. The coldness of the—what is it you call it?”
   “The Black Thing?”
   “The Black Thing. Yes. The Black Thing burns unless it is counteracted properly.” The three beasts stood around Meg, and it seemed that they were feeling into her with their softly waving tentacles. The movement of the tentacles was as rhythmic and flowing as the dance of an undersea plant, and lying there, cradled in the four strange arms, Meg, despite herself, felt a sense of security that was deeper than anything she had known since the days when she lay in her mother’s arms in the old rocking chair and was sung to sleep. With her father’s help she had been able to resist IT. Now she could hold out no longer. She leaned her head against the beast’s chest, and realized that the gray body was covered with the softest, most delicate fur imaginable, and the fur had the same beautiful odor as the air.
   I hope I don’t smell awful to it, she thought. But then she knew with a deep sense of comfort that even if she did smell awful the beasts would forgive her. As the tall figure cradled her she could feel the frigid stiffness of her body relaxing against it. This bliss could not come to her from a thing like IT. IT could only give pain, never relieve it. The beasts must be good. They had to be good. She sighed deeply, like a very small child, and suddenly she was asleep.

It's funny (and jarring) to read this series and go from L'Engle saying things like this--that evil can only give pain, and that relief and pleasure are inherently good--to railing against female sexuality in later books as being the forbidden fruit that corrupts our good christian boys and leads our girls to become pregnant out of wedlock. Apparently L'Engle found it easier to become more conservative as she and her children grew older and the world began to seem more complicated, which is a shame; I would have loved a Christian series to argue that drugs and sex are fine as long as they feel good.

For the record, I am almost certainly taking this passage more broadly than L'Engle intended; I'm comfortably certain that she isn't really trying to assert there is no pleasure on the side of evil. I strongly suspect that L'Engle bucketed pleasure into different types, and then assigned morality to those types. Humans in general have an interesting tendency to categorize pleasure such that the pleasure to be had from riding a pretty boyfriend like a pony is illicit and lustful and tainted but the pleasure to be had from gazing on a sunset over a glittering lake is good and pure and sanctioned. So I suspect this is less of a statement about Evil being only able to cause pain, and more of a statement on Evil's inability to give "real" relief and comfort.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no in-universe Orgy Planet to go with Oppressive Communist Planet but if there were then I suspect the handwave would be that the people there are secretly just as miserable as the folks on Camazotz. The large number of orgasms would presumably be cold comfort to the fact that they were walled off forever by the Black Thing from the light and comfort of God and his angelic stars, et cetera. I mention this because I don't want people to take away from this that L'Engle was sex positive because hooboy hang on to your hats for that later.

Ironically, though, the morality as stated here does fit a lot of non-Christian paganism. "Does this thing feel good? Yes? Does it hurt someone else, or secretly hurt yourself? No? Well, have fun and keep doing it then, if you want!" That's the basic thought underlying the Wiccan rede: As long as you're not hurting anyone (including yourself), do the things you want without guilt or fear.

   When she came to herself again there was in the back of her mind a memory of pain, of agonizing pain. But the pain was over now and her body was lapped in comfort. She was lying on something wonderfully soft in an enclosed chamber. It was dark. All she could see were occasional tall moving shadows which she realized were beasts walking about. She had been stripped of her clothes, and something warm and pungent was gently being rubbed into her body. She sighed and stretched and discovered that she could stretch. She could move again, she was no longer paralyzed, and her body was bathed in waves of warmth. Her father had not saved her; the beasts had.

Oh god, they undressed her while she slept. I completely forgot about that and it's not a good thing for me; it was the part of my childhood surgeries that I dreaded the most. There's something very vulnerable about going to sleep with clothes on and waking up without them or with different ones on. Why can't her parent be here for any or all of this? He seriously can't rest and eat in the same room while they rub salve on her?

   [...] “No, lie still, small one. You must not exert yourself as yet. We will have a fur garment for you in a moment, and then we will feed you. You must not even try to feed yourself. You must be as an infant again. The Black Thing does not relinquish its victims willingly.”
   “Where are Father and Calvin? Have they gone back for Charles Wallace?”
   “They are eating and resting,” the beast said, “and we are trying to learn about each other and see what is best to help you. We feel now that you are not dangerous, and that we will be allowed to help you.”

I confess to being deeply confused by this line. If the humans were dangerous (either actively through choice or passively through some moral contagion) would the beasts not be "allowed" to help them? By whom? God? Angels? Are they micromanaging the actions of the unfallen worlds? And why wouldn't they be allowed to help them? Helping evil can be evil, depending on a lot of circumstances, but helping a child not die would seem to fall pretty heavily in the category of "yes, do this thing". Is there a circumstance in which letting a child die from Black Thing poisoning would be the moral choice?

   “Why is it so dark in here?” Meg asked. [...]
   Perplexity came to her from the beast. “What is this dark? What is this light? [...] We do not understand what this means, to see.”
   “Well, it’s what things look like,” Meg said helplessly.
   “We do not know what things look like, as you say,” the beast said. “We know what things are like. It must be a very limiting thing, this seeing.”
   “Oh, no!” Meg cried. “It’s—it’s the most wonderful thing in the world!”
   “What a very strange world yours must be!” the beast said, “that such a peculiar-seeming thing should be of such importance. Try to tell me, what is this thing called light that you are able to do so little without?”
   “Well, we can’t see without it,” Meg said, realizing that she was completely unable to explain vision and light and dark. How can you explain sight on a world where no one has ever seen and where there is no need of eyes?

I do like this part. It's nice to have aliens who are alien and have differing bodies and senses than our own. (It does seem strange that we've seen Winged Centaurs, Beasts, and......Camazotz Humans with identical building structures to our own. There's a fanfic begging to happen where Camazotz was actually settled by a group of earthlings just a few years before Murry popped in.) It's nice, also, to see a common earth disability (blindness) treated here as perfectly normal and natural for a culture and in no way limiting or pitiable. This goes on for a while with Meg trying and adorably failing to communicate why her eyesight is so important to her.

   “Charles Wallace!” she cried. “What are they doing about Charles Wallace? We don’t know what IT’s doing to him or making him do. Please, oh, please, help us!”
   “Yes, yes, little one, of course we will help you. A meeting is in session right now to study what is best to do. We have never before been able to talk to anyone who has managed to escape from a dark planet, so although your father is blaming himself for everything that has happened, we feel that he must be quite an extraordinary person to get out of Camazotz with you at all. But the little boy, and I understand that he is a very special, a very important little boy—ah, my child, you must accept that this will not be easy. To go back through the Black Thing, back to Camazotz—I don’t know. I don’t know.”

If you've never read this post by Shaenon Garrity about the character Anthony from For Better or Worse, I highly recommend it. As a writer myself, I think a lot about #5:

5. Everyone’s constantly talking him up. It’s like the strip has become a FBOFW fanfic written by Anthony. In every storyline in which he appears, at least one Patterson is sure to launch into a speech about how great Anthony is. Maybe it’ll be Elly, commenting wistfully that she’s sorry Liz broke up with him (you know, ten years ago, when they were in high school). Maybe it’ll be John, pontificating on the many virtues of Anthony, most of which are visible only to John. Maybe it’ll be Liz herself, reflecting wide-eyed on how much Anthony has accomplished. Which makes sense, since Anthony, an accountant with a small suburban ranch house and a failed starter marriage, has clearly achieved much, much more in life than Liz, who went straight from university to teaching underprivileged Native American children in the remote north. I mean, there’s no comparison.

Many of Anthony’s supposed good qualities are informed attributes: they come from what other people say about the character, not from the actions of the character himself. On more than one occasion, for instance, John has commented on how smart and funny Anthony is. Despite his stereotypically nerdy appearance, Anthony has never come off as especially smart, and I can’t recall him ever exhibiting a sense of humor. Not as a teenager, not as an adult. And this is in a strip where most of the characters are constantly cracking jokes and making groan-worthy puns.

Anthony’s most exemplary action to date has been taking responsibility for his young daughter (with help from his unseen mother), but even that’s just basic decency. Most people, after all, take care of their children. It puts him a cut above his evil ex-wife, but that’s about it. And readers might be more inclined to think kindly of Anthony’s fatherly devotion if the characters in the strip didn’t keep jumping in to gush over it.

This nonstop chatter about Anthony’s greatness may be the element that most turns readers against him. If he were just a dull, dorky loser, he’d annoy us. But he’s a dull, dorky loser whom we’re expected to hold in awe, and therefore we hate him.

I bring this up because hooboy was that a paragraph just now. I can almost read the editor's note that said something like "you have Meg blaming Murry but she has a point; shouldn't he feel more guilty about leaving his son behind?" and instead of going back to edit what had been written L'Engle apparently figured she'd just fix it here. He's "blaming himself", we're told. While he's....off eating and resting and leaving Meg alone because he doesn't really need to be here for her being healed back from the brink of death. Not like she might want to see her lost father or find his presence comforting.

And! He definitely shouldn't blame himself, we're given to understand from the Beasts; he's actually an extraordinary person to have done as much as he did and then we all voted and agreed to give him a medal. It's so much, it's too much, and it doesn't make me like Murry more nor does it really fit (in my opinion) with the Beasts' characterization. They were suspicious and wary of people who come from shadowed planets; shouldn't they be extremely worried about the fact that Murry beelined for Camazotz on his first tesser and then spent years suffused in darkness?

I'd honestly like this a lot more if they had him under armed guard and that was why he couldn't be with Meg. Seems like a sensible precaution; who's to say that IT didn't send him here (or let him go on purpose) in order to infiltrate this paradise and darken it with traces of the Black Thing? And his son apparently succumbed to evil in record time, that's gotta be worrying. I'd like this so much better if the Beasts were wary of Murry and Charles Wallace rather than talking them up as the bestest, most extraordinary, very special, so good characters.

Anyway, isn't Charles Wallace "special" because he's slightly less fallen than his fallen planet peers? So he's... almost as special as every single child on this unfallen world? Again, why are the Beasts gushing over him like he's the best thing in the universe? They haven't even met him! All they know about him is what Calvin told them and Calvin has known Charles Wallace for less than a day! And what Calvin knows him best for, right now, is the hubris which made him think he could resist IT and instead caused him to be taken completely under control to the point where he's ITs new favorite flesh suit. Not an impressive resume!

   “But Father left him!” Meg said. “He’s got to bring him back! He can’t just abandon Charles Wallace!”
   The beast’s communication suddenly became crisp. “Nobody said anything about abandoning anybody. That is not our way. But we know that just because we want something does not mean that we will get what we want, and we still do not know what to do. And we cannot allow you, in your present state, to do anything that would jeopardize us all. I can see that you wish your father to go rushing back to Camazotz, and you could probably make him do this, and then where would we be? No. No. You must wait until you are more calm. [...] Don’t worry about your little brother.” The tentacles’ musical words were soft against her. “We would never leave him behind the shadow. But for now you must relax, you must be happy, you must get well.”
   The gentle words, the feeling that this beast would be able to love her no matter what she said or did, lapped Meg in warmth and peace. She felt a delicate touch of tentacle to her cheek, as tender as her mother’s kiss.

No, nobody said anything about abandoning Charles Wallace; you just implied that it might be too hard, even impossible, to be worth trying. We're doing that thing again where the narrative is making Meg out to be unreasonable but she's actually making perfectly salient points. Then we have this extremely weird and deeply uncomfortable framing: "I can see that you wish your father to go rushing back to Camazotz, and you could probably make him do this". Meg could "make" her father do something? Meg is a goddamn child. Her father is an adult. She cannot "make" him do a dang thing. She can guilt-trip him, sure, but she doesn't have institutional power over him. That is messed up in the extreme to me, and heavily implies that Meg's perfectly reasonable beef with her father leaving her brother behind is somehow in itself coercive. It is not! Her feelings are not coercive.

As for this "don't worry; we wouldn't leave him, we just don't have any idea how to get him (and also if we deem him or you dangerous we will stop helping you)" attitude, it seems to hinge on the idea that Charles Wallace is fine right now and the only danger is that he might not get back to earth. He's...being tortured, though? Murry was tortured for information that IT will surely want from Charles now, plus there's the fact that just being ITs flesh-suit is its own kind of torture. The fact that the adults keep exhorting Meg not to have emotions about this extremely emotional thing is very unsettling to me.

The added thing where the Beast gets tetchy with her (leading to the fear that they might stop helping) and then floods her with relief hormones is also making me pretty dang uncomfortable. Yes, these creatures are the Good Guys by author fiat, but this sequence would not at all be out of place in a thriller where the Bad Guys are trying to brainwash the protagonists. "Don't worry, rest for now, we'll fix it later, stop questioning us, eat this food" was basically the tactic of the giants who were planning to eat Edmund and Jill, just saying.


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