Thu
Feb 2 2012 3:30pm

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….

Yeah.

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 Starfishlet’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.

This article is part of The Madeleine L'Engle Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
25 comments
Cameron Tucker
1. Loialson
The book has flaws...but they never bothered me. When I read fiction, I never really try to overly mesh it with real life, as I'm reading to be away from RL. So with all of the timeline problems in her books, I was just feeling like: There are things authors are good at, and things they're not so good at. Focus on the first, and enjoy it's merits, and I'll enjoy the book. Recognize the second, but not dwelling on them or letting them affect me, and I'll stay grounded.

I have to do that with people too. I dunno, it works for me.
GlennG
2. GlennG
Huh. You know, after all this time, I can STILL recite Patrick's Rune. it obviously made an impression. And I've always been more than slightly annoyed with the Universe that it doesn't listen and respond.

Danged ol' Universe.
Colleen Palmer
3. arianrose
I suspect ignorance is, indeed, bliss in this one. Since I've never read anything by L'Engle except the Time Quartet (I swear, it *was* a quartet when I first read it), the issues of timing bother me not really at all. To me, as a child, these books were always set "back then." I wasn't quite sure when "back then" was, exactly, but by the late 80's, it was so far removed from my reality that it was just this nebulous time that used-to-be.

Incidentally, that's also exactly how my brain processes Heinlein, as well. I simply cannot grasp an America that is so different from my own, and so ... I don't, really.

This is still probably my favorite book for the absolutely beauty of it. It was my hands-down favorite as a child, certainly. And how I loved the rune!

As an adult, I suspect I'll have more issue with the "forced genetic manipulation" than I did as a child. I believe my child-mind saw this as much like Quantum Leap, or something similar. Charles Wallace is simply "setting things right." Something interfered way back when, and it's an infection that needs to be cured. Does this excuse it? No, not really.

I'm disturbed that I didn't twig to the racism as a child, and that's all I have to say about that.

As far as Charles Wallace not being very compelling, he was to me when I was growing up. For all that I'm female, I deeply related to Charles Wallace, even moreso than Meg. Here was a child that was precocious, misunderstood, isolated, sensitive, and... prone to arrogance and cockiness that lead to trouble. I was that child. (With the exception of being misunderstood. My parents likely understood me well enough, but I think all bright children will believe, at some point, that they are criminally misunderstood.)

Hmmmm. I suddenly have a thought about Charles Wallace being Bean from Ender's Game, but this has gone on long enough, I think.
GlennG
4. Bayushi
I remember this book. (In some ways, it's because I remember finishing it at 1 am, at which point, my mom had been telling me to go to sleep for at least 4 hours.)

As an almost 40-year-old, I can grant the flaws, and the biggest ones are the race-centric attitudes, which I failed to catch then, and the elimination of free will.

However, when I think of this book, it's mostly of that one night that I first read it, when I was unable to put it down until I found out what happened. (Yeah, this post isn't helpful, I'm still focused on politics.)
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Loialson - I love your philosophy, and it even works for me when I'm reading fluffy books and television.

But when I encounter books with a serious intent, as this one, I find it much harder to turn off that inner critic. Maybe because I'm a writer.

In any case, I went into the timeline issues in a little more depth because it's come up in the comments -- I should have clarified that in the post.

@GlennG - The Rune is one of L'Engle's most powerful bits of writing. When she allows herself to write poetry in her prose, she's good, really good -- as with the Rune here.

@Arianrose -- Charles Wallace making decisions for the people he's Within is certainly similar to Quantum Leap, but with two significant differences: in Quantum Leap, with the exception of only one episode (the JFK one) we and Sam never "heard" the inner narrative or viewpoint of whatever person Sam had leapt into that particular week. In this book, we do, so we know what they are thinking. And more critically, Quantum Leap never had a history of arguing for free will/choice; Quantum Leap was more about setting things "right" -- in other words, going along with destiny instead of fighting it or choosing it. It's a different philosophical approach, and it does color the way I view each one.

I missed the racism when I was a kid as well, despite going to a very multicultural elementary school in Italy -- I was just clueless.

The thing is, yes, Charles Wallace is precocious, misunderstood, isolated (maybe not sensitive), all things that, like you, I was, but he's also in this book just bland. I think the problem is that for the most part the people that he's going Within are just a lot more interesting.
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
Unicorns Against Nuclear War

Is anyone but me imagining this as a T-shirt? (worn by unicorns at Occupy Vespugia, natch)

Vespugia returns in Troubling a Star.
GlennG
7. Finny
This has long been my favourite of her books (with The Young Unicorns second). I love the imagry, the characters, the unicorn (though to me he's an equalacorn, since he's got both a horn and wings), the poetry, everything. I'd never noticed the racism, I think because to me people are just people; I don't even notice skin colour or anything like that even IRL, much less in books. People are just people.
GlennG
8. vifetoile
Oh, this book. It used to be hands-down my favorite, and now it is probably my least favorite.

I mean, the poetic parts of the music of the spheres and all that is beautiful, but they become so frequent I start to lose track of the plot. You mentioned the racial/genetic unfortunate implications, but they're rivaled by the complete flatness and passivity of basically all of the women, except for Mrs. O'Keefe (... kind of) and Meg O'Keefe. And Gaudior is supposed to represent joy, but he never *seems* all that joyous to me. His first words to Charles are "Don't push your understanding too far." He seems always stern, restricting, cold. And Charles *is* pretty bland.

But oh, I love the rune. How I love the rune. When I found out it was based on an actual poem/prayer, it sent me into ecstasies. I now have two versions of it memorized. I think it perfectly encapsulates the theme in the L'Engleverse of the power of goodness and innocence even when it's passive, because the rune is ultimately passive, it's stepping back and saying "I ask the heavens, the sun, the sea, the lightning, etc. to bear witness to my innocence and to stand between me and darkness." It just says so in an incredibly cool way.
GlennG
9. Julie Kahan
This was my favorite book when I was in sixth grade. (Though I was not able to find anyone who agreed with my suggestion that a better ending would have been Meg giving birth to a Mrs. O'Keefe's blue-eyed grandchild.)

It never occurred to me that Matthew would have married Zillah; I got the impression that he would never marry, due to his handicap, or at least that because of it, she saw him purely as a brother rather than a potential romantic partner. Didn't he die not long after the end of that sequence? Or was that Chuck?

Chronology - I think you just have to let each book stand alone and not try to make a consistent chronology. Wasn't there a reference to the moon landing the A Wind in the Door? (Mrs. O'Keefe probably married quite young, which would make her in her early 40's at this point. She just looks older because of her hard life.)
James Hogan
10. Sonofthunder
Such a gorgeous book. Always one of my favorites to just slip into and enjoy with a nice hot cup of cocoa.

Thanks for the thoughtful look at it, Mari - much enjoyed reading!
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Pam Adams -- Yes, but it returns with cute penguins instead of a magnificent unicorn. Not that I entirely object to the penguins, mind you.

@Finny -- Oh, I missed the racism myself when I first read it, and although I probably still would have noticed some of the issues with the portrayals of Native Americans, I probably would have missed the whole blue eyed European = good savior of the world if I hadn't in the meantime developed such an instinctive reaction against genetic destiny.

The poetry of the book is gorgeous.

@vitetoile -- Part of the problem with the women of this book is that whenever they do attempt to take an active, versus passive, stand, they get punished for it -- most clearly in the case of Gwen (a minor character), an active, passionate woman who tries to control her own destiny and gets shipped down to Vespugia for it and cries and cries, and only gets to return in the new timeline thanks to Charles Wallace's manipulation of events.

I do love the idea of summoning the forces of nature and beauty to stand between yourself and darkness, and I have to agree with the consensus that this is the best part of the book.

@Julie Kahan -- The strong implication is that in the original timeline, Matthew married Zillah - he is in love with her, and her fiance, his twin, headed down to Vespugia and married Zylle instead (possibly because Zylle set a situation where Zedder found Bran and Zylle in a compromising situation) and Gwen married Zedder; Zeddar's descendant threatened the planet with nuclear war. That betrayal might well have been enough to get Zillah to marry Matthew, and there's an indication in the Matthew storyline that Charles Wallace has to push Matthew to give Zillah up, and originally, Matthew never gave Zillah the money.

To add to this, Chuck's father says that Matthew Maddox is one of his ancestors, another indication that originally Matthew and Zillah married.

@SonofThunder -- It is a cold weather/hot cocoa sort of book, isn't it?
GlennG
12. Maac
Hmm. As an 11-year-old, I missed the racial issue because I believe I thought of both Branzillo and El Zarco as white. (I am black.) Possible versions of the same white guy, variant one ancestor. (Being of Hispanic culture does not indicate race, as there are Hispanics of just about every race, and I was in a heavily black-Caribbean-and-Hispanic school at the time). I was twigged by the "blue eyes are better" thing, though. I was also guilty of magical thinking about Native Americans (and jealous of their stereotypes. Ugh. Not proud of that one). Dang this stuff is complicated.
Chris Chaplain
13. chaplainchris1
Mari - I don't recall if I've commented on your reviews before, but I have enjoyed them very much and they've recommended books to me I'd never heard of, for which I'm very grateful. But...I've not enjoyed your L'Engle reviews. I think it's interesting that you mention wanting, but not being able, to really like this book. That's how I've felt about most of these reviews, so I've been operating under the "if you can't say anything nice" philosophy.

But...there's just some out-and-out errors and misunderstandings here, as far as I can tell. First and most importantly, the charge of racism. There's a very basic misunderstanding here. You posit that the choice Charles Wallace is influencing is between "the blue eyed baby who is the bringer of peace, and the dark eyed, dark skinned baby who is the bringer of war…." That's flat-out wrong. Both (potential) babies are blue-eyed. The question is, will it be the blue eyes flecked with gold of Madoc's family, or the cold blue eyes of Gywdyr's? It's not at all that "little blue eyed babies bring luck to Native Americans and small, disgruntled South American countries alike...". Gwydyr and Gedder both are blue-eyed, both are power-hungry, neither brings (good) luck.

I think there's a fair argument, actually, that it's not blue-eyed Europeans who bring luck and salvation at all. Madoc assimilates and becomes one with the People of the Wind. Gwydyr retains his European/conquering ways, and endangers everyone. One could easily read this as an anti-European polemic - see what harm these Welsh princes did by bringing their ways and their ways to the native Americans.

The charge of genetic determinism is more justified, and L'Engle herself has the characters referring to Mendel. But there are two other important factors, here. First, we have to consider nuture as well as nature. Madoc and Zillah were in love, and joyful in their union, and presumably raised their kid(s) with that, within the context of a loving and supportive extended family in the People of the Wind. Gwydyr was greedy, envious, felt entitled, and bitter over having his "destiny" stolen. He apparently passed this legacy on, in the form of a story passed on to his descendants about their destiny to rule. I think it's undeniable, too, that Gwydyr would be a very different father than Madoc. Family histories and patterns of behavior do get passed on and recycled. Those patterns can be broken, of course - as when folks bread generations-old patterns of abuse or alcoholism, for instance, or as happens negatively in the book, when the healthy patterns of the Maddox family are shattered by tragedy and Duthbert Mortmain, warping Beezie and her children.

And by one other factor, which shouldn't be neglected...the influence of the Echthroi, who got their hooks into Gwydyr. Between the influence of Gwydyr himself, and the subtle manipulation of the Echthroi, it's no wonder his family became warped.

Still and all, L'Engle does still seem to be using some genetic determinism, in ways that are as skeevy to my adult mind as Tolkien's talk in LOTR about the men (and women) of Westernesse mingling their blood with that or "lesser" men. I wonder what kind of book could have been written about Charles Wallace influencing Gywdyr's descendants, trying to help them break the patterns of their family? But then, the book does say that CW wouldn't be able to go Within hosts who were very different from him....

And this brings me to the issue of free will. I really don't think I've considered this before with this book, so kudos (and curses!) to you for making me consider it from a different angle. But I don't think the free will implications are as bad as you do. Yes, CW interferes with Harcel's choice...but I believe the book states that this is the only time he does so. And remember that Harcel is *twelve*. He's a child, and CW (though only 15) is much closer to being an adult. And adults make decisions all the time about how old children should be before they're exposed to certain things. Paternalistic? Maybe. But I categorially reject your implication that it has anything to do with race. Harcel's elders know about the violence of these other tribes, that's WHY they don't want Harcel exposed to it yet. Presumably, as an adult, he will know, just as the People of the Wind in Madoc's time aren't innocent - they show up to the wedding with concealed weapons, after all.

Beyond that one choice of Harcel's, I don't think CW controls anything. The book makes clear several times that his efforts to control things makes things go wrong. As far as I can tell, it's not anything that CW does that makes the difference. It's his presence. In part it's the Observer effect, and in part it's that as he Kythes deeply to go Within his (apparently not unwilling) hosts, they become one. Matthew, for instance, seems to have access to some of CW's knowledge. His observations and his knowledge influences the (from what I can tell) free choices of his hosts, and destiny changes.

There's also the strong implication that it's not only Charles's actions, but Beezie's sacrifices, that make the difference. "It was herself" she placed between everyone and the powers of darkness.

There are other things I could spend time quibbling about - I like the visit to Brandon Llawcae's time, for instance; the rune isn't magic, it's prayer; it's not only Native Americans who have magic, as ancient Welsh princes and 17th century immigrants know about scrying, I've never seen anything hinting that Matthew ended up with Zillah in any timeline, as he always died immediately after finishing the 2nd novel, etc. - but this sums up most of it.
Chris Chaplain
14. chaplainchris1
Oh - and the chronological concerns don't bother me. It's like trying to figure out how old Batman is.

And the President called Mr. Murry b/c Mr. Murry is an adviser to the president - on scientific matters, ostensibly, but they've obviously developed a rapport. The president was calling to talk to a friend, not because he thought Mr. Murry could fix things.
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@Maac - I missed the racism as well; it happens.

@Chaplainchris1 -- First, let me just note -- you certainly do not have to like or agree with any of my reviews. They're just my opinions, not dogma :) Not to mention, it's the internet. Universal agreement is impossible.

Ok, that said...

The chapters from Matthew's viewpoint make it fairly clear. I went back and checked, and you are right: Gedder has blue eyes, though his sister Zillie does not. But both are also very clearly described, by L'Engle, as Indians/Native Americans, and both Chuck and Matthew's viewpoints make it equally clear that the key for the future is that the South American leader of Vespugia must descend from the mostly Welsh with slight traces of Native American Bran/Zillah, and not the mostly Native American with slight traces of Welsh Gedder/Zillie line. This is absolutely related to the anger and resentfulness of the Gedder/Zillie line - but, the descendants of Ritchie Llawcae, who returned to Wales filled with bitterness and anger, have managed to lose their fury in a shorter time span. It's only the South American line, which mingled with Native Americans, that holds on to anger. And regardless, the destiny of the native South Americans is completely controlled by the blue eyed children.

I also rechecked the descriptions of the two babies. The bad baby is described as having eyes "set close together;" and with skin "darker and darker." Brandon sees him as an older man with dark skin. The good baby is always described in the text as having blue eyes, to the point of being called "Little Blue Eyes," and his skin color does not darken, so is therefore still white.

With Harcels - yes, he's only 12. Nonetheless, a white American made the decision that a Native American should not follow his instincts and go exploring. And while I doubt this was a conscious thought on L'Engle's part, it follows a long, long history of white Americans making decisions on behalf of Native Americans, something L'Engle was aware of since she addressed some of it in this book, and that's where the problem lies.

Charles Wallace himself says that he changed both Harcel's and Brandon's actions - Brandon by trying to save Zylle. With Matthew, I think you're right - the change there is that Matthew manages to access Charles Wallace's knowledge, which in turn comes from Chuck's knowledge of what happened in the original timeline, before the Might Have Been was changed.

The hint that Matthew and Zillah ended up together is in Chuck's chapters, where we learn that Beezie and Chuck's father is a direct descendant of Matthew Maddox. Mr. Maddox calls Matthew Maddox his "illustrious forebear, from whom I may have inherited an iota of talent...." The letters and diaries in this chapter more than strongly suggest that Zillah never made it to South America; there's a diary entry from her showing that she is turning to Matthew for comfort, and wondering if she will ever become Zillah Maddox, followed by wondering which twin would have asked for her hand if Matthew had not been injured, adding that she loves them both tenderly. This is before Charles Wallace goes Within Matthew Maddox, changing Matthew's timeline -- and as you note, in that case, this seems to come less from any decision making by Charles Wallace and more from the information Matthew picked up from Charles Wallace's memories of being in Chuck and knowing that Zillah's failure to go to South America ended up badly for everyone. Charles Wallace makes that more clear later -- the Might Have Been wasn't any of Charles Wallace's other actions, but Matthew's decision to send Zillah to South America, which did not happen in the original timeline.

I agree that Matthew died after finishing his second novel -- but that wouldn't have prevented him from being briefly married to Zillah, especially if she had heard that Bran had found himself in a compromising position with Zyllie. (Auugh. Too many Zyll names!)

Agreed that the president just called Mr. Murry up as a friend, but, man, talk about an unhelpful friendship on both sides -- all Mr. Murry says is, yes, I understand, thanks for calling, and all the president does is ruin Thanksgiving dinner :) Oh well.
Andrew Love
16. AndyLove
Chronology - I think you just have to let each book stand alone and not try to make a consistent chronology. Wasn't there a reference to the moon landing the A Wind in the Door?
Yes there was - a character wonders if Meg's mother is old enough to remember the moon landing, which implies that "Wind" takes place in the 90s or so.

But as you say, it's best to not get to wrapped up in the chronological issues. I read "Swiftly Tilting Planet" the year it came out, and liked it so much I read it three times straight through before returning it to the library; the book was a great comfort to me, in particular, because my grandfather had just passed away, and I needed very much to be distracted from grief.
GlennG
17. Sanagi
I had problems with this book but none so much as the fact that the characters from A Wrinkle In Time grew up to be boring.
Pamela Adams
18. Pam Adams
(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.)
Wait a minute- you got to meet L'Engle.? Cue the insane jealousy. (Sorry, Richard Peck, who was my eighth-grade author meeting, you just don't cut it in comparision.)

My thoughts on the book are much like yours- without the unicorns, this book is flat, flat, flat. And I think that there are repercussions when we get to Vicky's Vespugia book.....

On another topic, I started reading Edward Eager- why have I never heard of these? They are absolutely charming!
GlennG
19. WendyB
You're the only person I've ever heard/read suggest that Matthew and Zillah married. I think the text makes the opposite pretty clear, using the same quotes you use. Chuck's father says "my illustrious forebear" and not "my great great great grandfather"; he isn't necessarily talking about a direct descendent. Matthew wants Zillah around because he loves her, not because he thinks he gets her if Bran doesn't.

I'm grateful to this book for making it so that the first time I heard about the "White Savior" problem, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

The most awesome thing about this book is that roses burn. Roses! Burn! With a purifying flame!
Mari Ness
20. MariCats
@Andy Love -- :: nods :: My main reason for discussing the chronological issues in this post was because they came up in earlier discussions, and this is the book where it all falls apart. You can make most of the other books work out, because they are less set in specific times, but not this one.

@Senagi - Heh.

@Pam Adams - No, I never met her. My junior high class set up a telephone interview with one of the then relatively rare speaker phones, and she talked about writing and her books.

And we'll be seeing Vespugia again.

@WendyB -- Uh --

That's exactly what "forebear" means -- "direct ancestor." Especially when used in the singular, it means someone that you are directly descended from, but more remotely than a grandfather/great-grandfather. The phrase "my umpteenth great grandfather" is a later term.

So Chuck's father states, outright, that Matthew Maddox was his direct ancestor. The text tells us that Matthew was only interested in one woman -- Zillah -- who tells us in her diary that she loves them both tenderly.

So, yeah. In the original timeline Matthew never did send Zillah off. In the new timeline, Matthew had access to Chuck's memories of what happened because of this, through Charles Wallace, and managed to do the unselfish thing and send Zillah off.

Agreed about the burning roses, though.
GlennG
21. WendyB
Not really. "Forebear" is colloquially used to mean someone back in the family tree, just as "ancestor" is. I think if Matthew and Zillah were the founder's of Chuck's and Mrs. O'Keefe's line, that would have been explicit and also something to be explored.
GlennG
22. WendyB
Can't be, come to think of it. If Matthew and Zillah were Chuck and Beezie's great-great-grandparents (three greats, whatever), then when Charles Wallace fixed the might-have-been and Zillah procreated with Bran instead, then Mrs. O'Keefe would have ceased to exist, or anyway been a different person. I don't expect (or require) M L'E to follow through with all points of logic and physics, but there's such a big deal made about El Zarco vs. Mad Dog Branzillo that the reader can tell she was thinking about this.

Also (I only found this while skimming and considering just now), M L'E herself uses the word "forebear" in the non-direct-descendent sense I mention above. "And your maiden name was Maddox." Meg smiled at the old woman. "So they were forebears of yours, this Bran Maddox, and his brother Matthew, and his sister Gwen."
Mari Ness
23. MariCats
@WendyB --

"Forebears," in the plural, means someone back in the family tree.

"Forebear," in the singular, means a direct ancestor. Mr. Maddox, in a better position to know than Meg, states clearly that Matthew is his forebear, singular, and that he has inherited some of Matthew's literary gifts. I agree with you completely that L'Engle was considering this very carefully, along with the time paradoxes; in a book that is entirely about ancestry and the importance of having the right ancestors, this is a deliberate word choice.

The text then tells us:

Matthew is in love with Zillah and cannot take the thought of her leaving; he does not encourage her to leave with Bran. We hear constantly that he longs to touch her and hold her; after Bran leaves she visits him regularly and he misses her deeply any time she doesn't show.

Zillah admits to being in love with both brothers, and realizing that this is something she had better not even think about, while wondering if she will ever be married. (This is in the Chuck chapters.)

Bran tells us that he is not sure how long he can wait for Zillah, because he is tempted by Zillie. Shortly afterwards we hear that he is getting pressured to marry Zillie, who is looking at him adoringly.

Chuck/Charles Wallace manage to tell Matthew - through Charles Wallace -- that Gwen playing with and marrying Gedder will be trouble, as will Bran marrying Zillie. Matthew begs Bran telepathically to wait for Zillah -- who in this new timeline is on her way.

Matthew gets Bran's letter telling him that Zillah has arrived.

Matthew, still in contact with Chuck/Charles Wallace, both of whom had read the original letters and knew what happened in the original timeline, cries out, "Oh Zillah, my Zillah," and dies, after noting that the timeline has changed.

After the timeline changes, the letter brought by Mrs. O'Keefe changes, and Bran tells us that his son, young Rich, will be heading to Merioneth, to continue the name of Maddox and Llawcae -- so that Mrs. O'Keefe is still descended from Zillah, but from Bran, instead of Bran's twin brother Matthew. (I forgot that bit when talking about the Gwen/Rich ancestry above, but Mrs. O'Keefe also notes that she has plenty of Llawcaes in her past, so after the change in the timeline she's probably descended from both Gwen/Rich and Bran/Zillan.) Since Bran and Matthew are identical twins, it's not that much of a switch, and thus not enough to change Mrs. O'Keefe that much.

Charles Wallace says, "When Matthew sent Zillah to marry Bran, and Gedder was killed, that was the Might-Have-Been." In other words, in the original timeline, those two things didn't happen, and yet, as you note, Mrs. O'Keefe was descended from the Maddoxes (Meg remembers the name well before Charles Wallace begins changing the timelines) and the only Maddoxes in 1865 are Bran, Matthew, Gwen and their father.

.....you know, this is probably the closest reading of the text I've ever done. I'll agree with you that I'm making some assumptions with A Ring of Endless Light (which I'm popping over to next), but here the text seems very explicit.
GlennG
24. Mike Allen
Arriving late to this. My main memory of A Swiftly Tilting Planet when I read it as a child was that that, to my shock -- after the eye-popping, brain-expanding wonders of the first two books -- I found the third volume, despite its save-the-universe stakes, to be sluggish and boring. In hindsight maybe it was the difference between Meg and Charles Wallace as protagonist that did it.
GlennG
25. rirene
I read it to mean that Mr. Maddox was descended from the Maddoxes through Bran's son who returned to New England.

The main difference I noticed between the two possible blue-eyed babies was that one had wide apart eyes and one had close-together eyes.

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