Tesser well, Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in “A Wrinkle In Time” — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It’s true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young — a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a “figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair.” She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L’Engle’s fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, “A Wrinkle In Time” — which won the 1963 Newbery Medal — became one of America’s most frequently banned children’s books.

“If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels — the book says so. You don’t have to clarify what is already clear,” L’Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

“Don’t they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H.”

This interview came during a time when L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L’Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life — faith, family and creativity — until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L’Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called “Christian writers” were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it’s symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College — the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater — where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L’Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It’s hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with “A Wrinkle In Time.”

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.”

It’s even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in “constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes.” This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, “I am practically plural.”

The goal, said L’Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

“I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared — not kept for those who already have it,” she said. “Well, ‘Christian novels’ reach Christians. They don’t reach out. … I am not a ‘Christian writer.’ I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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