A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – A Lesson in Description and Character

Synopsis: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

For the Writer: Madeleine L’Engle created in her fantasy novel a strong connection to everyday life, in that every event that occurs in the fantasy realm spawns repercussions in the character’s conscious, so called ‘real’ lives. This is another book in which the written descriptions of fantasy worlds and travelling between said worlds is a tasty pleasure to read and a  fine lesson in how to write them. The following is an excerpt in which, after having been sling shot through space via tessering (read the book to find out what that is), Meg arrives at an unknown destination behind her brother Charles and her friend Calvin:


Meg gasped. It wasn’t that Calvin wasn’t there and then he was. It wasn’t that part of him came first and the rest of him followed, like a hand and then an arm, an eye and then a nose. It was sort of shimmering, a looking at Calvin through water, through smoke, through fire, and then there he was, solid and reassuring.
“Meg!” Charles Wallace voice came. “Meg! Calvin, where’s Meg?
“I’m right here,” she tried to say, but her voice seemed to be caught at its source.
“Meg!” Calvin cried, and he turned around, looking about wildly.
“Mrs. Which, you haven’t left Meg behind, have you?” Charles Wallace shouted.
“If you’ve hurt Meg, any of you-“ Calvin started, but suddenly, Meg felt a violent push and a shattering as though she had been thrust through a wall of glass. [p.66,67 A Wrinkle in Time]


The preceding paragraphs and subsequent trips are even better.


L’Engle seems to riff’ on C.S. Lewis’s creations of in-between worlds, an alternate universe having repercussions in the real world, and especially in her character of IT, which seems, by the way, lifted from C.S. Lewis’s unfinished work titled The Dark Tower, and from his sci-fi trilogy, namely the ‘head’ in That Hideous Strength.


As in the excerpt above, L’Engle writes for clarity and uses precise language. She and/or her editor have taken the time to ensure L’Engle achieves what she aims to describe. Million dollar words are not littered through the dialogue. These are penny a pound words that are carefully chosen for their meaning and feel. Meg felt a violent push and a shattering as though she had been thrust through a wall of glass. Yikes! That had to be a little uncomfortable.


In the following passage L’Engle describes a town that Meg is seeing for the first time.


Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull looking flowers edging the path to the door. Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope, some were bouncing balls. Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it. She looked at Calvin, and saw that he too, was puzzled.
“Look!” Charles Wallace said suddenly, “They’re skipping and bouncing in rhythm! Everyone’s doing it at exactly the same moment.” [p.115 A Wrinkle in Time]


My favourite line is: Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. If you’ve had any experience with cookie-cutter suburbs that one simply written line may cause a wave of nausea.


But it is the characters in Wrinkle which elevate the book from a good story into a classic. There’s Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which; there’s the Happy Medium, Aunt Beast and IT: all of whom are distinctly drawn and compelling. You have read this advice before and have heard it from agents and publishers. If you want to grab readers attentions create distinct, multifaceted characters.  A dash of humour in the toolkit of the author is cinnamon to the baker.  Keep it handy on the shelf and use as often as you can.


If there is a weakness in her characterization, the malady would have to be, and I apologize to all the author’s ardent fans, in the character of Charles Wallace. He is an oft misunderstood five-year old with a very high IQ, who comes across, most notably in the dialogue, as a magnanimous, somewhat smug, young adult. In my experience Charles seems a fantasy figure much like the timeless Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. His dialogue is too measured and emotionally mature, qualities that are only gained by experience, unless self-possessed magnanimity can be a gift. It makes me wonder what Jesus of Nazareth was like as a five-year-old.

Who knows?



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