Here you’ll find both my thoughts and Enbrethiliel’s on the subject of Children’s/YA author Madeleine L’Engle (best known for A Wrinkle in Time). If you’re interested in L'Engle, check out my reviews of her individual novels and come back to read part two of our debate, which will be posted next week.
Madeleine L'Engle, Science Fiction and Fantasy
Enbrethiliel’s take: I'm one of those readers who became a Madeleine L'Engle fan as a child because of her Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her Time Quintet was to me what C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia were to millions of other children: a magical introduction to the seemingly-ordinary, but really wonderful world we live in. As a child, I could feel her fascination with tesseracts, mitochondria, virtual particles, and soon became hungry for more. While still in high school, I started reading non-fiction books on the hard science – physics being my favorite.
But the scientific and fantastic elements of L’Engle’s novels could not have drawn me on their own; what really sets these books apart from other Adventure Lit for teens is that L'Engle casts everything into a greater cosmic context. (Again, a comparison with Lewis seems apt.) Her “Kairos” books (A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) and her more realistic “Chronos” novels (Meet the Austins, etc.) are both thoughtful, deeply emotional, and existentially open-ended series, despite their other significant differences. In all of her novels, we get a peek into certain workings of the universe, but they don't clear up the great mysteries of life for us any more than real-life scientific discoveries solve the mysteries of religion. In these stories, science resolves the immediate conflict – finding the missing father, healing the sick boy, preventing a nuclear war – but it is simply one weapon in the greater war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I'm kind of a sucker for good vs. evil on such a cosmic scale, so this conflict is what gets me in the end.
Little Wonder’s take: I love Children’s Fantasy Literature and I grew up reading (and re-reading) The Chronicles of Narnia, so I definitely agree with Enbrethiliel that a comparison between Lewis and L’Engle’s work is quite fitting. I actually didn’t start to read L’Engle’s works until I hit college, though, and took a Children’s Literature course. Consequently, The Time Quintet doesn’t have the same nostalgic appeal for me as it does for many readers and I have come at the series with a more critical eye. I also have to admit that while I’m a huge fan of Children’s Fantasy, I’m a much less avid reader of Science Fiction. Since L’Engle’s novels contain a lot more “Sci-Fi” than The Chronicles of Narnia, I couldn’t seem to get into the swing of The Time Quintet with as much unmitigated enthusiasm.
Unlike Enbrethiliel, I’m not a “science person,” but I think that my issues with L’Engle’s Science Fiction have less to do with my dislike of physics and more to do with my expectation that Sci-Fi should be at least somewhat credible. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but I want some actual Science in my Science Fiction. I’m not talking about the tesseracts and all the time travel stuff that L’Engle invented – that I can buy as Fantasy, for whatever reason. It was all the discussion of mitochondria and farandolae in A Wind in the Door that really got to me. First of all, mitochondria are very real components of individual cells – something that we all learn about in high school biology. But Charles Wallace starts telling his classmates about mitochondria, his kindergarten teacher scolds him for making things up. Despite the fact that a kindergarten teacher wouldn’t be teaching those concepts, she would have at least heard about them… mitochondria themselves aren’t Fantasy. Farandolae, however, are completely fantastical – something L’Engle invented, as far as I can tell. Something that I had a hard time buying, to be honest – probably because we know so much more about mitochondria now.
But I’ve been chastised by more than a few book bloggers and L’Engle fans to remember that when The Time Quintet was first published, all this was pretty revolutionary stuff for Children’s Literature. I suppose we didn’t know quite as much about the science itself, the makeup of mitochondria, etc. in the 1970s. So I’m willing to admit that L’Engle did a fairly good job of inventing a entertaining story. The Magic School Bus element to the story, when Meg and her companions shrink and enter Charles Wallace’s mitochondria, is pretty cool, even if it’s not really my thing. If only she connected the dots between everything a little bit better – I often feel like L’Engle’s “science” would be more believable if she could explain it a little bit better. A lot of times, I think I’m disappointed because she falls back on the line that “we just can’t understand these things because our human minds cannot fathom them…” But if you’re the author, it’s your job to fathom things better than the rest of us.
Enbrethiliel’s last word: Lauren's critique reminds me that another thing I love about L'Engle is how eclectic she is: her stories are made up of very varied themes and ideas. She wrote about what fascinated her; and I doubt that there was anything in creation that didn’t. Yet it does not follow that all those elements work well together outside of her own mind, in a text that must stand alone. I'm reminded of the old saying, "Please all and you please none": L'Engle has something to draw everyone in . . . but also something to turn everyone off. A Wrinkle in Time, for example, has been criticized by some for being too overtly Christian for a Science-Fiction book, and by others for being too overtly neo-pagan for a Christian book. In my own case, while I'm happy to suspend disbelief as I read her fantasies about distant planets, mitochondria, and time traveling unicorns, I echo Lauren's wish for credible storytelling when it comes to L'Engle's religious elements. Completely made up Science Fiction I will happily swallow; completely made up Scriptural Fantasy I will choke on. And since each book in her Time Quintet is an insoluble mix of both, even their status as old favorites can’t keep the cognitive dissonance of a reread from reaching symphonic proportions!
Stay tuned for part two of our “duel”: we will be discussing Madeleine L’Engle and Feminism, plus the novel An Acceptable Time.
If you are interested in participating in a “duel” with Little Wonder in the future, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some authors that I'd like to spotlight in the future include: C.S. Lewis, E.L. Konigsburg, Philip Pullman, Lois Lowry, and L.M. Montgomery. But I'd be open to suggestions and willing to "duel" on the subject of a single novel, as well.