This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Madeleine L’Engle’s now famous, A Wrinkle in Time. I remember being one of those enthralled readers when I was in elementary school. I have just finished re-reading the book. So many of her passages had etched themselves into my young imagination. For instance, I will never forget the sensation I had as I read of the near death of Meg and her being nursed back to health by Aunt Beast.
It is instructive to remember that Wrinkle nearly went unpublished. The number of publishers that shrugged it off as untenable for the market is legendary. Though the numbers vary, L’Engle herself said it was around twenty eight. She routinely kept the rejection letters with her so that when a publisher would approach her after her stardom and say something like, “I wish we had the opportunity to publish you,” she would thumb through her stack on the spot and say, “Oh, but you did, and here is the rejection letter …”
To be sure, the genre was confounding. On the one hand it was early science fiction, a work that reflected her interest in physics and the sciences. How else would she develop the ideas of bending space and tessering? But that was not the troublesome aspect for publishers. Their problem was with her thinly veiled religious ideas. I can now see their point. Wrinkle is what we would call in Christian literature an apologetic. It makes the case for faith in its own popular terms.
In a cross between Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, L’Engle wove together themes of estrangement, reconciliation, redemption, evil, moral courage and the ultimate power of love. All in two hundred short pages.
If she was influenced by the whole Christian tradition and authors like Baum, Lewis and J.R. Tolkien, she was also an antecedent for fantasy epic dramas we now take as part and parcel of the cultural mainstream – The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter. All of these fantasy thrillers deal with the epic struggle between good and evil, forces of light and darkness, powers visible and invisible. They are mythological in scope and content.
Like L’Engle this genre of literature plays at the intersection of science, magic, and human darkness and transcendence. But she is really more closely aligned with the likes of a Lewis. Wrinkle was a sci-fi apologetic, the stuff that kept publishers sweating and fellow authors guessing.
Those who neither sweat nor guess are the continuing generations of young readers who encounter Wrinkle for the first time. It is for them as fresh as it was for me. And if they happen to catch her not-so-deeply concealed themes, that would, I am certain, bring a smile to an author who bristled at the suggestion that she wrote children’s books. She just wrote, said L’Engle, and if it happened to work for children, well, then it did.