By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published February 16, 2012
Some of us, if we are fortunate, have a moment in our ‘tween years when we learn to love reading. I am convinced that we are all naturally drawn to language as children; we marvel at its sound, we wonder at its meanings, we seek to master our own command of the mystery that is the word. Then, sadly, when the allure of picture books fades, and the joy of learning to read lapses into the drudgery of school, so many children abandon that primal attraction to narrative and imagination. It is at this crucial juncture between childhood and adolescence that good books most need discovering.
My own rediscovery of the joy of reading came, as it has come for generations of young Americans, at the age of 10 in a suburban Atlanta library when a librarian solemnly intoned the words that bring to a close the first chapter of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved masterpiece “A Wrinkle in Time”: “Speaking of ways, pet, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”
“A Wrinkle in Time,” which after a legendary number of rejections won the prestigious Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to literature for young people, turns 50 this year. And for the past 50 years, children have thrilled to the story, and the lessons, embodied in the short novel that follows that cryptic sentence about a tesseract.
“A Wrinkle in Time” is a story about some misfit children—Meg Murry and her gifted younger brother Charles Wallace—who are befriended by a group of peculiar women to find their missing father. The women—Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which—are a strange bunch indeed. One of them is a ragamuffin. The other speaks almost entirely in famous quotations. The third has difficulty speaking at all, as she isn’t quite fully materialized. They might be sorcerers. They might be fallen stars from another galaxy. They might be angels. One thing is certain: They know how to get around. And the way they travel, by tesseract, or “wrinkle,” is surely one of the most memorable means of transport in American literature.
The motifs in the book are familiar, old as time itself. Among the book’s principle themes are the archetypal search for the missing father, the assertion of the dignity of the individual, the knowledge that real community depends upon acknowledgement and respect of differences rather than mindless conformity, and the desire to find genuine love in the midst of a universe that at times seems to have no use for love. In the midst of the world that makes up the novel, the reader encounters a mysterious planet ruled by one central “intelligence” known as IT; Aunt Beast, a great symbol for enduring love; and the unforgettable Black Thing, the embodiment of all the evil in the world. Through all of these motifs, and in all of these iconic characters, the children learn what all of us must learn: the responsibility implied by the gifts of conscience and free will, the essence and persistence of love, and the belief that goodness and innocence can triumph over evil.
Now all of that seems very serious for the average 12-year-old. But this is the genius of the novel, the genius that is the same for all great children’s books. L’Engle takes her audience seriously. Indeed, L’Engle, who died in 2007, never thought of herself as a writer for children. She thought of herself simply as a writer whom children happened to read. Further, she envisioned her role as a writer as a vocation. Speaking in her Newbery Medal acceptance address, L’Engle said that the writer “has as clear and vital a vocation as anyone in a religious order. We have the vocation of keeping alive the excitement in leading young people into an expanding imagination.” This vocation, L’Engle argued, comes not necessarily from the writer’s own knowledge or experience, “but out of something both deeper and wider.”
This mysterious depth, the essence that informs the book and which I think children intuitively understand even if they can’t articulate it, is indeed the voice of God. Indeed, L’Engle said, it is not until we are grown that we understand the best books come from the “one universal language.” It is not coincidence that L’Engle closed her Newbery Medal speech by alluding to the “extraordinary, marvelous thing about Genesis.”
L’Engle was a devout Christian. At times she was allied with New England Congregationalism, at others a kind of Christian Universalism. Formally and most enduring, she was an Episcopalian, and served as writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. But she described herself most fittingly as a Catholic, and described the Episcopal Church as allied with the Roman Catholic faith because of “our attitude toward the Eucharist.” Most of all, perhaps, L’Engle embodied the spirit of Vatican II ecumenism; she believed in and valued deeply her sacramental and traditional faith, but also respected and learned from other Christian denominations.
This religious faith, which the astute younger reader may recognize, should be obvious to the adult reader. In fact, I believe that one reason adults continue to return to “A Wrinkle in Time,” aside from the happiness that comes in reliving a moment from their youth, is that they recognize the book has something profound to say about our most fundamental beliefs and our common humanity. The novel affirms that we were made in love and called to love; we were made by a creator who created us to share in the joy of creation. The Murry children, their father, and their many friends are like us in that they are often frightened, and even appalled, by the fallen world, but they refuse to succumb to despair. In hurtling across space and time they are in many ways engaged in a symbolic act of faith, and their faith is rewarded by the very things that faith promises: redemption, clarity, love. Is it any accident that in trying to explain herself to Meg Murry, Aunt Beast finally makes herself clear by quoting St. Paul, “We look not at the things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal. But the things that are not seen are eternal.”
“A Wrinkle in Time,” I am sure, will also continue to endure. If you have not read the book, or if you haven’t read it for many years, it warrants another look from an adult perspective. And for students, particularly those in the middle school years, it is essential. Locally, readers in the archdiocese should know that Tom Key’s Theatrical Outfit in downtown Atlanta will produce a play by John Glore based on the book; the play runs from April 11 through May 6 this year, right on time to celebrate and reaffirm 50 years of its timeless appeal.