A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), by Madeline L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is one of the classics of YA science fiction; in A Wind in the Door (1973), science fiction sits uncomfortably beside fantasy, injected with a hint of mysticism; A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) has abandoned the science fiction genre entirely. It has “preciously little science in it” but blends fantasy and mysticism with the political fears of the moment: nuclear war. Like the source of the preceding quotation,1 A Swiftly Tilting Planet is better for not subscribing even loosely to the parameters of the science fiction genre.

In this fantastic tale, 15-year-old Charles Wallace travels not through space but through time, on a wind-riding unicorn–pegasus named Gaudior (“more joyful” [46]). A pregnant Meg (now O’Keefe) lies in her attic bed (yes, again it is “a dark and stormy night”) and accompanies him through “kything,” communicating mind-to-mind.  She is strengthened in her abilities by a recently arrived replacement for the ever-vigilant Fortinbras: a stray dog, whom Charles Wallace tells us is named Ananda (“that joy in existence without which the universe will fall apart and collapse” [38]). As in A Wind in the Door, when we learn that Louise the Larger (the pet garden snake) is actually a “Teacher” in the greater universal community, animals have a strong mystical connection, used to support the Murry children in their attempts to save the world; also like A Wind in the Door, the narrative clues are not particularly subtle. But at least A Swiftly Tilting Planet has an interesting story to tell, and a mystery to solve, that keep the reader guessing well into the plot.

The pervasive theme in this novel is the archetype most often represented by Cain and Abel. L’Engle takes for the basis of her version the Welsh legend of Madoc, published in epic poetic form by Robert Southey in 1805. The original had only the youngest Welsh prince, Madoc, fleeing internecine strife to found a new, more peaceful life in America (although in Southey’s poem he ends up waging religious war on the Aztecs, and converting them, and ultimately founding a colony). In L’Engle’s version, he and an older brother, Gwydyr, cross the waters: like Cain and Abel, one is peace-loving, one is full of a greed for power. Charles Wallace, sent to alter history and thus prevent nuclear annihilation at the hands of a South American despot, enters “Within” the peaceful Madoc, as he does a number of subsequent characters, and begins to learn the long and complicated history of Madoc’s and Gwydyr’s decedents, intertwined as it is with the history of Calvin O’Keefe’s forebears as well as the Southey poem. And yes, the plot is presented in as complicated a manner as this sounds, even moreso.  Young readers will actually enjoy the historical puzzle L’Engle builds for us, even if to the adult reader it seems somewhat contrived.  Charles Wallace visits some interesting moments in history: prehistoric Native America, first contact with the indigenous peoples, the Salem witch trials, the Civil War. These are combined with more recent fictional moments that will similarly interest readers: namely, the early life of Calvin’s seemingly unimportant and ineffectual mother. There is “more to her than meets the eye” (24, 278), certainly, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet shows characters and readers alike how wrong it is to judge a person without knowing the full story.

Where A Wind in the Door felt uncertain of its genre, and did not really beg continuation, A Swiftly Tilting Planet brings the reader back into the Murry–O’Keefe families’ lives and leaves us wondering where their stories will go from here.

___________

1   James DeMille, A Strange Manuscript Found in Copper Cylinder, 1888 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2000) 226.

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