The Madeleine L’Engle Reread

Unicorns Against Nuclear War: A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Perhaps dissatisfied with the novels she had written about the children of Meg and Calvin O’Keefe, in 1978 L’Engle again turned to the Murry family for another novel featuring dazzling trips through time and space, this time on the back of a unicorn. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is simultaneously one of L’Engle’s most beautiful and poetic novels, filled with joy and despair, and also one of her most frustrating, a book that both celebrates her earlier books while completely contradicting some of their most important and fiercely argued ethical points. I find myself dazzled and irritated.

The novel opens as the President of the United States decides to interrupt the Murrys’ Thanksgiving dinner with a nice cheerful announcement that nuclear war is about to start the next day, thanks to a deeply anti-democratic South American dictator infuriated at Western governments. Like, thanks for killing the Thanksgiving feeling there, president. Seriously. I have never figured out why the President bothered to call Mr. Murry at all—it’s not as if the guy can do anything to help—except, of course, to allow his son, Charles Wallace, already identified as special in previous novels, to know that something deeply evil is going on.

The announcement shocks and horrifies the family, including Meg’s unpleasant mother-in-law, Branwen Zillah O’Keefe, who in the next indication that something odd is going on, admits that she had not wanted to come to Thanksgiving dinner at all, but had felt compelled to. Under this same compulsion, she recites an old Irish rune (a rather striking bit of poetry) which the elements inside and outside the house react to. An impressed Charles Wallace realizes that he needs to listen, and, while maintaining a deep telepathic contact with his sister Meg (in one of the book’s only two references to A Wind in the Door) heads out to the stargazing rock to listen to the stars and the wind. Once there, he recites two lines of the rune, and summons up a unicorn.

(In 1982, our junior high school class asked L’Engle if this would actually work. She said she did not know of any real cases. Talk about a crushing disappointment.)

The unicorn announces that he has been sent to help Charles Wallace change something that might have happened, but didn’t, into something that might have happened, and did—a Might Have Been. To do so, Charles Wallace will be sent spiraling back through time, going Within the bodies of Branwen O’Keefe’s ancestors and relatives, learning the connections between his home village, Wales and the South American dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo.

In a previous post, a commenter pointed out that Charles Wallace is not the most interesting of protagonists, and this is true. He’s flawed, yes, by arrogance and a conviction that he’s always right, but although these flaws get him into trouble, somehow they are not very interesting. And although L’Engle constantly tells us that Charles Wallace is unusually intelligent and bright, it takes three-quarters of the book to get him to act with any intelligence whatsoever—and even there, I can’t tell if this intelligence is coming from him or the person he is Within at the time, Matthew Maddox.

Far more interesting are the men and boys that Charles Wallace enters, although the quality of these jumps, well, varies. The strongest time jump is probably that into young Chuck Maddox (although this is also the time jump that throws the entire series into chronological chaos), especially after an abusive stepfather injures Chuck badly enough to cause severe brain damage, leading to some of the most intense language and poetry of the book. The weakest of these time jumps is possibly the one set in Colonial times, telling the story of the young seer Brandon Llawcae. As a kid, I was impressed with the idea that the Native American Zylle would not cry when giving birth since she was in the presence of a white midwife—”the mark of the Indian,” as other characters note with approval.

Years later, I find this…let us say improbable. But more problematic is the crisis, when Brandon calls out the rune, bringing lightning down to burn the church just as Zylle is about to be hanged. The villagers react with stunned horror, the realization that they are wrong, and stunned horror—and this reaction just feels completely false. They were, after all, hanging Zylle on suspicion of witchcraft, and their response to seeing actual magic and someone manipulating weather events through an Irish rune is to stop the hanging? No way.

The use of the unicorn is unquestionably glorious, leading to the novel’s richest, most imaginative chapters. Highlights include Charles Wallace watching the birth of creation, an accidental stop in a post-apocalyptic world, and a visit to the unicorn hatching grounds. On the other hand, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the only way to stop nuclear war is to change the ancestry of Mad Dog Branzillo—if Charles Wallace can change the past so that Branzillo is descended from the peaceful line of the Good Prince Madoc, all will be well, but on the other hand, if he remains a descendant of the “bad” line of the evil brother Gwydyr/Gedder, all will go boom.

I am, as always, fascinated by the concept that changing the past allows the future to be changed—for the good or for the worse. And the double destinies that Charles Wallace sees (through the eyes of the boys he is Within, of the blue eyed baby who is the bringer of peace, and the dark eyed, dark skinned baby who is the bringer of war….


This is not the only unfortunate racial implication of the book, with its fixation that little blue eyed babies bring luck to Native Americans and small, disgruntled South American countries alike, and its depiction of peaceful, innocent Native American communities with the powers of healing and magic. Fortunately, L’Engle also adds a certain cynicism to some of her Native American characters that prevent them from being complete stereotypes.

But the real problem here is twofold: one, the idea that genetic heritage can determine later moral choices (seen in other bloodlines as well), and two, the way that Charles Wallace, as he travels in and out of the bodies of other people, removes those choices for them.

In previous books, L’Engle had made passionate pleas on behalf of free choice, with her hero Canon Tallis even arguing that it was better to allow evildoers to walk the streets of New York than to remove the power of free will and choice. Here, she has Charles Wallace take away Harcels’ choice to see other worlds. That this decision is made by a white teenager to keep a Native American in ignorance is not helpful, even when Meg fiercely tells us that

“It was the right thing to do…It has to be the right thing.”

Was it? Was it really better to keep Harcels ignorant about what other people—people within a short bird flight of his home—are like?

For L’Engle, the answer is yes, since this ignorance keeps Harcels joyful – and her chief concern in this book is the destruction of joy and the need for joy in the universe. The evildoers here, Gwydyr, Pastor Mortmain and his descendent Duthbert Mortmain, the Echthroi, and the offscreen South American dictator, are those attempting to destroy joy and the universe. I agree with L’Engle that the destruction of joy and creation is a terrible thing, and the universe (well, at least our planet) could use more of both. But I agree still further with the words she gave to Canon Tallis, and it grieves me to see her abandon that stance here.

(And if the hint in Chuck’s narrative is correct, in the original timeline, Matthew Maddox married Zillah; in the changed timeline, Matthew sends Zillah to marry his brother, Bran. While this does avert nuclear war, I find it…what is the word? Icky. And speaking of that time jump, in a small historical footnote, although Mark Twain was certainly published by 1865, he had not yet been recognized as a major American writer; his first novels were not published until the 1870s.)

Also abandoned in this novel: all hope of maintaining chronological order between books, as Mrs. Murry remembers her mother telling her:

“about one spring, many years ago now, where relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were so tense that all the experts predicted nuclear war before the summer was over. They weren’t alarmists or pessimists; it was a considered, sober judgement….After that, she waited each spring for the pussy willows, remembering, and she never took their budding for granted again.”

The earliest this could refer to is, I suppose, 1946, although the more likely year is 1962 or 1963, a decided nadir in U.S./Soviet relations. But even assuming that we use 1946 for the date, “many years ago now” means that the earliest A Swiftly Tilting Planet can be set is sometime in the 1950s. Let’s say 1952—with Meg pregnant with Polly, who is 12 at the time of The Arm of the Starfish—let’s say 1964—which takes place about a year before The Young Unicorns, set when almost no one knows what lasers are. 1965. I can just barely do this.

But wait! In A Wrinkle in Time, Charles Wallace is said to be five. In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, he’s fifteen, so ten years have passed. Fair enough. But if he is 15 in 1952, then A Wrinkle in Time must take place in 1942—and it beggars disbelief that no one in that novel would have failed to mention a little worldwide conflict that just happened to be going on during that year, not to mention that the Manhattan Project was still in the design/research stage that year.

A more likely scenario is that A Wrinkle in Time is set sometime in the 1950s, with A Swiftly Tilting Planet in the 1960s,and the O’Keefe/Austin books in the 1970s. This, as we’ve already seen and will see has its own problems—including the not so slight problem that Branwen O’Keefe, in her late 40s or early 50s (or possibly older) in this novel is described as wearing blue jeans at the age of 12 or 13, a look that did not really begin until the 1950s. This once again suggests that A Swiftly Tiliting Planet actually takes place in the late 1970s, but is the closest solution I can wrangle from this. (The Chuck/Branwen O’Keefe interlude also mentions trucks, highways and frequent planes, so can take place no earlier than the 1920s.)

Other inconsistencies between books also appear: Sandy and Dennys, five years older than Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, now appear to be at least seven or eight years older, since Charles is 15, and Sandy and Dennys are in law and medical school, respectively, and seem to be in their early 20s. (Granted, the twins could have entered law and medical school at the ages of 19 or 20, but that isn’t the sense given in the book.) To balance this, L’Engle also casually name drops Dr. Louise Colubra, and the end of the book finally gives some sort of explanation of why no-one in The Arm of the Starfish and Dragons in the Waters seems to remember travelling through the universe or the existence of unicorns.

Thus my mingled appreciation and fury. I love the thought (not original to L’Engle) that the universe must have joy in order to continue (as unscientific as this thought might be.) And L’Engle’s embodiment of that joy in the unicorn Gaudior is one of her best creations. This book has so many glorious moments—the moment of creation and the disruption of the harmonies that soon follows; the trip to the unicorn hatching grounds, with the healing moonsicles and the baby unicorn; the riding on a unicorn through time—that I want to love it. I really do. But for all its joy, it is also a book that makes complete nonsense of the already problematic time stream of her other books, and worse, that loudly approves its protagonist’s meddling with genetics and the decisions of others. And that is not something I can love.

Mari Ness has never ridden on a unicorn, unless merry-go-rounds count. She lives in central Florida.


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