Editor’s note: The following essay was originally posted on June 25, 2016. A CWR review of the movie “A Wrinkle in Time” will be posted soon.
Aliens. Angels. Time travel. A planet ruled by an evil disembodied brain. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time has it all.
But it has been a while since we had a book like hers. In recent years, young adult novels like like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games have dominated both our libraries and the box office. Much of today’s popular dystopian fiction with a sci-fi twist packs an exciting punch, and it has both teens and adult readers understandably hooked. Yet as Christians in search of good literature, we may find ourselves unsatisfied by the worldview of books like these, a worldview that—while vividly drawn—seems a little thin and rings a bit hollow.
That’s because much YA (young adult) fiction today operates entirely within a materialist universe—that is, a world completely without a spiritual or supernatural realm. It’s a world without breadth or depth, a bit like looking at things through the end of a cardboard tube. This kind of fiction centers on earthly, physical, and emotional struggles without even a hint of the transcendent realities that Christians know undergird the universe. Materialist fiction cannot explain evil and does not understand the good. It narrows the human person by denying the soul, and it radically reduces our existence to a short earthly life. As human beings, we crave something more, because an art that limits itself to this narrow material realm misses too much of reality, and denies itself many of the essential qualities of a good tale.
That’s why it’s time to turn back to a classic: Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time, which offers a view of the universe truer and more beautiful than the one portrayed by much of today’s YA fiction. L’Engle’s novel, which won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1963, tells the story of Meg and Charles Murry, whose scientist father has gone missing while on a secret government mission. Along with their friend Calvin, and guided by three mysterious and powerful angelic beings, the children set out in search of their father. But they quickly get swept up into a conflict much bigger than themselves: the great cosmic battle between good and evil.
Unlike many of today’s sci-fi writers, L’Engle believes what St. Paul once wrote to the Ephesians, that “we are not contending against flesh and blood,” but rather “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Like J.R.R. Tolkien before her, L’Engle depicts the forces of light at war with what she calls the shadow of “The Black Thing.” A powerful evil entity, rather than simply fascists or monsters, lies at the heart of all the evil in the world.
This evil being can kill the body, but it can also kill the soul—something Christians recognize as the reality of sin. When Meg has a brush with The Black Shadow, her body barely survives. But she also bears what one of the characters identifies as “spiritual damage”: a terrible bitterness and resentment poisoning her relationship with her companions. And, like the ice at the bottom of Dante’s Inferno, L’Engle’s satanic being freezes (rather than burns) the soul and body, chilling them with “a cold that cut deeper than the wind on the bitterest of winter days at home.” It freezes because it is the utter absence of love.
Arrayed against the powers of evil, we find the angels, whose disguise as three jocular and eccentric old women masks their incredible power and beauty. L’Engle describes the moment when one of the creatures reveals its true form: “From the shoulders slowly a pair of wings unfolded, wings made of rainbows, of light upon water, of poetry.” Like St. John in Revelation 22, one of the children falls down to worship; but the angel immediately corrects him: “Not to me, Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”
But the most profoundly Christian truth offered by L’Engle’s book is that weakness and love can overcome even the most powerful evil. As Meg recovers from her encounter with The Black Thing, her caregiver tells her, “You must be as an infant again. The Black Thing does not relinquish its victims willingly.” When Meg must go alone to rescue her brother Charles from the clutches of IT, an evil brain in service of the shadow, one of the angels gives her the words of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”
Christians find their power in weakness, L’Engle believes, but the greatest power can be found in love. Fighting to save her brother, Meg tries first to defeat the hypnotic influence of IT by using her anger and hatred. Instead, she nearly falls victim herself:
it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT. The red miasma swam before her eyes; her stomach churned in ITs rhythm. Her body trembled with the strength of her hatred and the strength of IT.
To dwell in hatred does not liberate, but the act of loving does. Only by focusing on the tender love she has for her little brother Charles can Meg ultimately free him—and herself—from the terrible power of the enemy.
Although L’Engle was a faithful Episcopalian, her novel does not offer us a textbook of Christian doctrine. While she elsewhere affirms Christ’s divinity, and while in the novel one of the angels quotes the first chapter of John’s gospel about Jesus, the work remains ambiguous about Christ’s divinity and His precise role in this cosmic battle. Catholic readers may likewise find the imaginatively-blurred line between angels and stars somewhat confusing. Still, L’Engle’s novel offers us a profound and refreshing Christian story that does what good fiction should do. With real power and beauty, she tells us the truth about good and evil, about the universe, and about ourselves. L’Engle rejects the shallow materialism of modernity: her fictional world is a deep world, one in which sin, Satan, angels, and grace are as real as you or I.
As she ends her novel, L’Engle even hints at a return to Eden, when the family members find themselves reunited in the lush vegetable garden of their home, “on the sweet-smelling autumnal earth.” But for L’Engle, Earth is an Eden under siege, and our story is not yet over. Some planets serve the light, while others lie utterly in the thrall of the shadow. But the Earth remains contested territory. For Madeline L’Engle, this is where we come in, fighting in the service of light. As one of the angels, quoting the Roman poet Juvenal, tells Meg, “Vitam impendere vero. To stake one’s life for the truth. That is what we must do.”