“If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate” (98). This is the fundamental premise of L’Engle’s second installment in the Time Quartet. When I read it as a teen, I remember thinking this novel far less accessible than A Wrinkle in Time, an impression that is less strong as an adult reader. It does still fall below the first novel in terms of interest level, mainly, I think, because the underlying metaphor—however inspiring—does not provide enough variety when sustained over the length of the novel.
The story opens with Charles Wallace, now a severely bullied grade one student, seeing “dragons” (which turns out to be a “cherubim,” the first demand upon the readers incredulity) in the garden. We then descend down to the lowest level of biological life, the mitochondria (real) and farandolae (fictional) that are a part of mammalian cells. Meg and Calvin, with their hitherto despised principal, Mr. Jenkins, embark on a Fantastic Voyage into Charles Wallace to save him—by saving his farandolae—from illness. The metaphoric lesson is social, political, and environmental: we must work together—at all levels and in all ways—for the greater good. The Echthroi that the protagonists fight are posited as the cause of all war, all evil: implicitly the “Black Thing” that they first encounter in A Wrinkle in Time. Perhaps that is what bothered me as a child: the basis of evil is too simplistic, the message too transparent, where subtlety would be more effective. The message of Naming as self-empowerment is repeated far too often: there is only the one theme around which each of the three trials Meg and her friends face is centred.
So why, then, does this novel still succeed? I think the answer lies, once again, in the characters L’Engle has created. Even Mr. Jenkins, whose transformation from harsh administrator to a more compassionate man would be unbelievable in less adept authorial hands, is presented such that we believe his change is not only real, but permanent. The wisdom of Mrs. and Mr. Murry, briefly revealed, also rings true, and is far more effective social and environmental instruction than the more pervasive metaphor underlying the plot. And Meg has grown: her insecurities are still there, still real, but she has become more self-aware, which enables her to face the new challenges valiantly.