A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Author: Madeleine L’Engle

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Time Quintet (#3)

Published: 1978

I read it: May 2018

a swiftly tilting planet

I’m going to criticize this book for the number of similarities to its predecessor, A Wind in the Door, but there’s one similarity that’s simply a pattern in L’Engle’s stories, and one that I’m a fan of. I’m talking about the starting point of each book, in which we meet the characters at the Murray household and they all sit around preparing a meal until they hear mysterious, threatening news about the fate of the universe. Modern readers can quickly call to mind being introduced to Harry at the Dursley’s house over and over, and L’Engle used the same effect. The strategy has the added bonus of supporting the “companion” concept in case someone is reading the series out of order.

In other ways, this story is far too similar to the previous one. Instead of the angel Proginoskes who is constructed to challenge our notions of angels, the guide this time is the unicorn Gaudior, constructed to challenge our notions of unicorns, mostly by being curt and to the point and explaining that he’s simply on assignment (just like Proginoskes, although Gaudior looks like what we think a unicorn would look like). As the human protagonist and supernatural cohort jump from one task to the next, their journey is mostly a psychological one. They get inside the heads of characters from various pasts, L’Engle once again illustrating the limitations of the human mind to conceptualize the very large and small (in this outing, moreso on the planes of time and heredity rather than of physical size).

While these similarities caused my interest to slacken halfway through the book, I’m somewhat more disappointed about the differences, and how ill-used they seem. Meg is not the primary protagonist of the book, because she’s pregnant. This seems like a logical decision at first: Meg is with child so what better time to instead focus on the teenage Charles Wallace? But wait… Meg is pregnant! What better time to use her as a protagonist? If the craziness of growing a baby in one’s body can’t be used to illustrate the wonders of the universe, I’m not sure what can. Meg and Charles Wallace do “kythe” throughout the book so Meg can experience the adventure vicariously, but on the page it comes across as indecision. Is this Meg’s story, or is it not? Why try to have it both ways?

As far as Charles Wallace is concerned, L’Engle seems uninterested in exploring this critical age in his life. Not that I necessarily need a teenage boy coming-of-age story (I came here for the fantasy, specifically the demons reaching at the unicorns through the clouds) but the inner dialogue of the character points to no age at all—everything here could have occurred immediately after the events of book two. (Minus Meg’s pregnancy of course, but heck, just have her be sick or something.) The unicorn helps Charles Wallace go “Within” others, and he becomes a passive observer in their heads. It’s through these secondary historical characters that L’Engle weaves together a complex tale of ancestry and alternate realities, couching the specter of current evil in the idea of it being passed down through bloodlines and rooted in brotherly disharmony:

Over and over again we get caught in fratricide. … We’re still bleeding from the wounds. It’s a primordial pattern, left us from Cain and Abel, a net we can’t seem to break out of. And unless it’s checked it will destroy us entirely.

The time hops needed to trace the descendants, though intricately planned, are quite confusing. L’Engle ambitiously touches on witch hunts, inter-cultural marriages, child abuse, and disabilities. The ancestry is not that of the Murrays, but rather the O’Keefes. Calvin is married to Meg but away on business, and it’s his mother (referred to as “Mom” by Meg, adding an extra layer of confusion when Meg’s actual mother is right there in the room) who is the nexus of solving the puzzle. You’d think it would make sense to have these discoveries be Calvin’s and not Charles Wallace’s. Now Calvin will never get his own adventure in this series.

Despite the overly twisty narrative, I still appreciate L’Engle’s elegant construction. The way the chapters are framed around a poem (or rune) used by the characters is lovely. The table of contents allows you to read the poem all the way down, with each particular line being a chapter title. The chapters themselves often tie in to the natural calamities described in the verses (“The fire with all the strength it hath” or “The lightning with its rapid wrath”). Even if I don’t get around to reading the fourth and fifth books of the series, I’ve come to appreciate the Time Quintet’s combinations of titles, covers, and ambitious storytelling, and how mythology is mixed with concerns for our present, past, and future worlds.

2 thoughts on “A Swiftly Tilting Planet

  1. Interesting review. Thank you. I read all of these books, and several others by L’Engle, when I was in elementary school. I recall very little about them now, except for Wrinkle in Time which I remember in detail. The man with red eyes has and that town were all the children bounce the ball at the same time have haunted me for decades now.

    There is something powerful in the repetition of each set up, like you mention here. Having all the characters together in an opening scene. It’s want we want as young readers, families together. Pulling them apart provides young readers a reason to read, to see if they all get back together in the end. It even recalls the closing to Where the Wild Things Are when Max gets home to find his mother has left his dinner by his bed.

    • Thanks for reading the review and commenting, I really appreciate it!

      You outline why the setup that L’Engle chooses works so well. That homey feeling is palpable on the page, and it’s frightening when the characters are drawn away from it by spectacular events and creatures. I particularly love the connection to Where the Wild Things Are.

      I’m curious whether young readers still gravitate toward these books. Are the stories dated at all? Too heady? A Swiftly Tilting Planet was confusing for me, but if a kid was completely immersed in the story then maybe they could track the whole plot.

      Did you see the recent movie version of A Wrinkle in Time? I have not yet.

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