Friday, July 19, 2013

Shining in the Darkness: A Wrinkle in Time

There are passages in fiction that still get me choked up every time I read them. The first is the scene with Miser Shen in Bridge of Birds. I wrote about that a while back.

Meanwhile I will cry, 'Ah Chen, your father is here!' I can but weep for you, and call your name."

Another is from the end of the Last Unicorn:

Prince Lír stood between her body and the Bull, weaponless, but with his hands up as though he thought he still held a sword and shield. Once more in that endless night the prince said, "No." He looked very foolish, and he was about to be trampled flat. The Red Bull could not see him, and would kill him without ever knowing that he had been in the way. Wonder and love and great sorrow shook Schmendrick the Magician then, and came together inside him and filled him, filled him until he felt himself brimming and flowing with something that was none of these. He did not believe it, but it came to him anyway, as it had touched him twice before and left him more barren than he had been. This time, there was too much of it for him to hold; it spilled through his fingers and toes, welled up equally in his eyes and his hair and the hollows of his shoulders. There was too much to hold — too much ever to use; and still he found himself weeping with the pain of his impossible greed. He thought, or said, or sang, I did not know that I was so empty, to be so full.

The Lady Amalthea lay where she had fallen, though now she was trying to rise, and Prince Lir still guarded her raising his naked hands against the enormous shape that loomed over him. The tip of the prince's tongue stuck out of one corner of his mouth, making him look as serious as a child taking something apart. Long years later, when Schmendrick's name had become a greater name than Nikos's and worse than afreets surrendered at the sound of it, he was never able to work the smallest magic without seeing Prince Lir before him, his eyes squinted up because of the brightness and his tongue sticking out.

The third comes from A Wrinkle in Time. I love this book. I read it for the first time in the fifth grade. I went to a tiny little grade school, and I had an absolutely astounding number of truly excellent teachers. Mrs. Race had the class read the book (We each got our own paperback copy and I wouldn't be surprised if she paid for them all out of her own pocket), and it remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.

I think the religious elements of the work would keep it out of most classrooms today (and Mrs. Race was probably pushing the envelope of what was acceptable even back then, but she was awesome that way), but it really shaped my adult understanding of what goodness is.

I've touched on this before, with my pieces on Mister Rogers and Superman, but I still believe in goodness, in the human potential, and the human obligation to be good.I'm an atheist now, and I have been for a long time, but I still think it's the best argument for Christianity that I've ever read. I don't believe in supernatural forces of Good and Evil, but natural forces of good and evil exist all around us. Evil isn't glamorous; it's weak and afraid. Good isn't naive or weak or foolish; it's strong and tender, and above all, loving.

Now, I like a good Revenger's Tragedy of Jacobian Demigods as much as anyone, but not every jerk is a Byronic Hero. Sometimes he's just a thug with a grudge. I enjoy reading about heroes who are essentially good people, but it seems that there are too few, with goodness too often a mask or a sham. I don't want to be nostalgic for a past that never was, but I'm more acutely aware of this tendency with a child of my own. Subversion of apparent goodness is done so often that it's what I expect from a storytelling perspective. It's nice to see goodness played straight once in a while.

It's a rare story that features unambiguous goodness. The only pop culture example that springs immediately to mind is Avatar: The Last Airbender. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. I like faults in my characters, and I like nuance, and an easy way of injecting some is introducing certain shades of grey to a character. 

Madeleine L'Engle
With that said, I think that L'Engle does a wonderful job depicting a variety of flawed, but good characters. Meg is impatient, temperamental and poisoned with doubt and Charles Wallace's pride almost swallows him. But their love for each other (and the love they learn to give themselves) lets them pull through.

The author of a Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle, didn't publish the book until she was 44, which is inspiring in its own way. Its publication was delayed by the fact that it's a difficult book for children to read, but it's probably still a children's book, (it won a Newberry Medal after all) and it was a science fiction book with a female lead, which L'Engle said, "just wasn't done at the time." (I think that the argument can be made, unfortunately, that it still isn't done.)

To get to the ostensible point of this post, the passage that I like is that when the characters are in the cave of the Happy Medium and the characters are talking about humans who have opposed the darkness.

"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who's spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"

"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."

"Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?"

"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out, "and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!"

Now Calvin's voice rang with confidence. "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!"

What can I say? I love the sentiment of poets and scientists and humanitarians as the champions of humanity. 

It also led to this exchange.

Lily: Who was Einstein?
Me: You've probably seen a picture of him. He was a scientist with crazy hair.
Lily: Is he the guy who walks around the street in the Simpsons game?
Me: (Pause) No, that's Sideshow Bob.
(Later on, I showed her a picture and she said he looked familiar. She just didn't know the name to put to the face)

I commented that I liked this book because it has so many girls in it. Lily replied "Of Course. Everybody loves super cool girls. Meg is nice and kind and smart and pretty."

And, of course, not everyone does love super cool girls. Books and movies are still created with adolescent boys (and arrested adolescent boys) in mind and women and girls as heroes are pitifully underrepresented. But I hope that she hangs on to that belief for as long as she can, and I hope that, by the time that she would see that it's not true, that things have changed to the point that it is, and she has all the super cool girls she could ever want.


  1. I liked the four or five sentences I read. I had to skip a lot because spoilers.

    1. I was actually going to spoiler tag them, but then I figured that the Last Unicorn is 45 years old and Wrinkle is over 50, so whatever statute of limitations govern spoilers on them have long since expired.

  2. Peter S. Beagle has a story in Weird Tales #361, on sale now!

    (Not that I'm promoting my own work, or anything. But that's 100% what I'm doing.)

    1. I see you're in remarkably good company in that issue!