In Memoriam: Madeleine L’Engle


Madeleine L’Engle, the celebrated author of A Wrinkle in Time and many other books of fiction and Christian essays, passed away on Thursday at the age of 88. From the New York Times, Sept. 8:


Madeleine L’Engle, an author whose childhood fables, religious meditations and fanciful science fiction transcended both genre and generation, most memorably in her children’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” died on Thursday in Litchfield, Conn. She was 88.

Her death was announced yesterday by her publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A spokeswoman said Ms. L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had died of natural causes at a nursing home, which she entered three years ago. Before then the author had maintained homes in Manhattan and Goshen, Conn.

“A Wrinkle in Time” was rejected by 26 publishers before editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux read it and enthusiastically accepted it. It proved to be her masterpiece, winning the John Newbery Medal as the best children’s book of 1963 and selling, so far, eight million copies. It is now in its 69th printing.

In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Marygail G. Parker notes “a peculiar splendor” in Ms. L’Engle’s oeuvre, and some of that splendor is owed to sheer literary range. Her works included poetry, plays, autobiography and books on prayer, and almost all were deeply, quixotically personal.

But it was in her vivid children’s characters that readers most clearly glimpsed her passionate search for answers to the questions that mattered most. She sometimes spoke of her writing as if she were taking dictation from her subconscious.

“Of course I’m Meg,” Ms. L’Engle said about the beloved protagonist of “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The St. James Guide to Children’s Writers called Ms. L’Engle “one of the truly important writers of juvenile fiction in recent decades.” Such accolades did not come from pulling punches. “Wrinkle” has been one of the most banned books in the United States, accused by religious conservatives of offering an inaccurate portrayal of God and nurturing in the young an unholy belief in myth and fantasy.

Ms. L’Engle, who often wrote about her Christian faith, was taken aback by the attacks. “It seems people are willing to damn the book without reading it,” Ms. L’Engle said in an interview with The New York Times in 2001. “Nonsense about witchcraft and fantasy. First I felt horror, then anger, and finally I said, ‘Ah, the hell with it.’ It’s great publicity, really.”

The book begins, “It was a dark and stormy night,” repeating the line of a 19th-century novelist, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. “Wrinkle” then takes off. Meg Murry, with help from her psychic baby brother, uses time travel and extrasensory perception to rescue her father, a gifted scientist, from a planet controlled by the Dark Thing. She does so through the power of love.

The book uses concepts that Ms. L’Engle said she had plucked from Einstein’s theory of relativity and Planck’s quantum theory, almost flaunting her frequent assertion that children’s literature is literature too difficult for adults to understand.

“Wrinkle” is part of Ms. L’Engle’s Time series of children’s books, which includes “A Wind in the Door,” “A Swiftly Tilting Planet,” “Many Waters” and “An Acceptable Time.” The series combines elements of science fiction with insights into love and moral purpose….

Her deeper thoughts on writing were deliciously mysterious. She believed that experience and knowledge were subservient to the subconscious and perhaps larger, spiritual influences.

“I think that fantasy must possess the author and simply use him,” she said in an interview with Horn Book magazine in 1983. “I know that is true of ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I cannot possibly tell you how I came to write it. It was simply a book I had to write. I had no choice.

“It was only after it was written that I realized what some of it meant.”…

Much of her later work was autobiographical, although sometimes a bit idealized. Some books, like “A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys With Jacob” (1986) and “The Genesis Trilogy” (2001), combined autobiography and biblical themes. But she often said that her real truths were in her fiction.

“Why does anybody tell a story?” she once asked, even though she knew the answer.

“It does indeed have something to do with faith,” she said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.”

Like many other children of my generation, I read all of L’Engle’s young adult novels multiple times. I reread A Swiftly Tilting Planet last year and found that it stood the test of time even better than the Narnia books (heretical thought!), which seem to have eclipsed her work in popularity among contemporary Christians. Why is that? Are her books unfairly associated with the spaced-out spiritualism of the 1960s? Is it that, like the Harry Potter books, the Christian lessons are more subtly concealed in characters’ moral choices, rather than in an obvious allegorical package (sorry, Aslan) that tames the story’s potentially “pagan” magical elements?

I often think of this passage from A Circle of Quiet, the first of L’Engle’s trilogy of Christian essay collections known as The Crosswicks Journal, as a touchstone for my relationships. L’Engle is musing on what she says to her young students when they seek her advice about their budding love affairs:


I ask the boy or girl how work is going: Are you functioning at a better level than usual? Do you find that you are getting more work done in less time? If you are, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you can’t work well, that you’re functioning under par, then I think something may be wrong….

The other question I ask my “children” is: what about your relations with the rest of the world? It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don’t like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong. (pp.109-10)

One comment on “In Memoriam: Madeleine L’Engle

  1. Leah Gregg says:

    I believe that some Christians were offended by the Unicorns that they ride on. However, according to my friend Mariela there are unicorns in the bible (not sure about that but its charmng to think so). L’engle has much better character development then Lewis, imho.

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