18/11/2016

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I’m enjoying re-reading favourite books by authors I’ve enjoyed, interspersed with some new ones. So I delved into my Madeleine L’Engle collection, and in the past year I have re-read both her best-known classic for older children, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and its sequel, ‘A Wind in the Door.’.

I’ve just finished the third in the author’s Time Quintet, ‘A Swiftly Tilting Planet’. I would like to say I have re-read it, but after the first few chapters I realised that I have absolutely no recollection of ever having read it before. This makes sense, when I think about it: the novel wasn’t published until 1978, by which time I was eighteen, and had little time for reading fiction. We acquired our paperback edition of this book in the late 1990s when my sons were young teenagers; either they read this or my husband read it to them, but I never read it myself.

Until now. I emerged from the story feeling quite elated, although also a tad confused. Elated because it’s a powerful story, blending history, mythology and Christian faith, with an awareness of evil in the world that is very topical. Naturally there’s a positive ending - this series was written for older children and younger teens - but there’s an exciting path along the way.

At the same time I was somewhat confused because are a lot of characters, many of them with similar names, in several different time periods. This is deliberate: Charles Wallace, the fifteen-year-old hero of this book, has to travel through time (on the back of a unicorn) in order to make minor adjustments to history in order to ensure that a crazy dictator doesn’t start World War III.

The way it’s written is very clever. Charles’ older sister Meg, now married and expecting her first baby, is able to ‘kythe’ with him to keep him on track, and to know where and when he is at every point. Charles is under attack; the ‘echthroi’ - the enemies of humanity - don’t want him to change anything, and he’s armed only with a poem - a ‘rune’, as they call it - calling heaven’s powers to himself, in a paraphrase of part of the famous St Patrick’s Breastplate prayer. Each chapter title then focuses on a separate part of the rune, as Charles learns more about his task.

Perhaps if I’d read more slowly, or kept notes of the time periods and specific names, it would all have been clearer. Perhaps, if I’d known a bit more about American history, it would have made more sense. As it was, I got the general idea, and enjoyed each brief scenario in itself, but entirely lost track of several threads and missed the eventual significance of how Charles actually succeeds in his mission.

It doesn’t matter; a deeper theme of the book, which struck me powerfully, was that of waiting for ‘the wind’ to guide, rather than trying to work out what to do based on reason and logic. I liked the way Charles Wallace - and the unicorn Gaudior, his angelic guide and transport - was given the freedom to follow his own reason, even against advice, and gradually had to learn to listen and trust that he would be led in the right path.

Some have complained that there’s too much of Christianity in these books; some complain the Christian parts are too pagan or ‘liberal’. I found the blend exactly right; this is science fiction at its best, in my opinion, with an underlying Christian worldview and a message of good triumphing over evil. It can be read at several different levels, by children, teens or adults, and provides a great deal to think about.

Highly recommended. It stands alone, but is probably best to read after the preceding two books in the series.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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