After finding The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe disappointing, I moved on to another famous fantasy tale for a second glance. It was an easy enough read, lots of dialogue and light on description, which seems to be very common in books intended for younger readers. It makes the book read quickly and the plot moves at breakneck speed. I ended up wishing more time was spent detailing the world; The primary goal is to introduce the reader to the Murrys and their friends, and at this, it succeeds.
I’m starting to realize it’s a bit naive of me, but the Christian viewpoint is never the first lens I apply to any book I read. I really had no idea that the book’s author, Madeleine L’Engle, was applying her own Christian cosmology to her fantasy vision. I did not find it terribly obstructive, though it hints why she feels contented to leave so many questions unanswered. I expected a bit more of a science fiction bent when Mr. Murry is noted to be on a mission for the government. But it’s not to be found; the tesseract is more magical than technical.
Though I remember checking out and having read all five books of the quintet as a child, I don’t remember being struck enough by the book to reread. However I’ll not fault the book for my lack of notice; I was probably bored by the lack of talking animals. Meg Murry seemed to me to be more an older sister than alternate self. I remember thinking she was much older than she is stated in the book. Indeed, she is the oldest of the Murry children but at thirteen–hardly be the picture of maturity. She spends much of the early book seeking out her father. But that decreases over the course of the book and is one of the few ways in which Meg can be compared to a typical child. She is yet another main character whose super-power is that she has no super-powers, except of course, for an unlimited amount of spunk.
It was not an advantage to have a mother who was a scientist and a beauty as well. Mrs. Murry’s
flaming red hair, creamy skin, and violet eyes with long dark lashes, seemed even more
spectacular in comparison with Meg’s outrageous plainness. Meg's hair had been passable as long
as she wore it tidily in braids. When she went into high school it was cut, and now she and her
mother struggled with putting it up, but one side would come out curly and the other straight,
so that she looked even plainer than before.
I love the phrase ‘outrageous plainness’ for it perfectly captures that this ordinary girl is, of course, no ordinary girl. What is plain about a mop of hair that has a personality of its own? Long braids are a luxury, as is having a mother with the serenity to care for it. I wonder how many young girls who need to be touched by this book are seeing themselves as second-rate compared to perfection-personified Mother. That being said, it’s all a ruse since Mrs. Murry has an even worse problem than Meg; she is perfectly ordinary. (“I’m blessed with more brains and opportunities than many people, but there’s nothing about me that breaks out of the ordinary mold.”) Ah, she is perfectly humble as well.
Mrs. Murry is one of many Angels that back our heroes. A woman of infinite faith, she writes her husband letters every day though he is lost in space. She is no coarse, vulgar mother like Calvin’s. (he says to Meg, “You don’t know how lucky you are to be loved.”) Her beautiful appearance is a suggestion of a goodly, loyal spirit, a spirit Meg inherits. She has the courage to risk bodily harm to protect her family.
“You don’t know the meaning of moderation, do you, my darling?” Mrs. Murry asked. “A happy
medium is something I wonder if you’ll ever learn. That’s a nasty bruise the Henderson boy gave
you. By the way, shortly after you’d gone to bed his mother called up to complain about how badly
you’d hurt him. I told her that since he’s a year older and at least twenty-five pounds heavier
than you are, I thought I was the one who ought to be doing the complaining. But she seemed to
think it was all your fault.”
“I suppose that depends on how you look at it,” Meg said. “Usually no matter what happens people
think it’s my fault, even if I have nothing to do with it at all. But I’m sorry I tried to fight
him. It’s just been an awful week. And I’m full of bad feeling.”
Mrs. Murry stroked Meg’s shaggy head. “Do you know why?”
“I hate being an oddball,” Meg said. “It’s hard on Sandy and Dennys, too. I don’t know if they’re
really like everybody else, or if they’re just able to pretend they are. I try to pretend, but it
isn’t any help.”
“You’re much too straightforward to be able to pretend to be what you aren’t,” Mrs. Murry said.
“I’m sorry, Meglet.”
Meg has strong emotions that drive her actions, this makes her appear childish but her motivations are surprisingly self-actualized. She does not fear the other children, because they cannot see her family for what they are, she reacts the only way she knows how, with her fists. Presented with a world that does not mirror her enlightened upbringing, she cannot reconcile the difference. Her family members are all very different from each other, but inside the walls of their house, they manage to create an environment of acceptance and support. Sandy and Dennys sound more like pets than siblings but I will reserve judgement until I read the rest of the series.
And the kids go on, Meg posing the straight man to her brother’s psionic prescience and Calvin the eager apprentice. The trio whizzes through the universe with the help of the Mrs. Ws and true to the fantasy appellation, the reader gets to see a number of fantastic worlds. I am reminded of the psychedelic depiction of Heaven in Dante’s Paradiso; God’s Creation is a mystery of Light and Magic. If God is infinite, then Humans are just one player in a strange cosmos.
Camazotz represents the worst society that humans can create–this is where Evil thrives. This stolid, grey-scale world has none of the creativity that marks Earth, there is only sameness.
In front of one of the houses stood a little boy with a ball, and he was bouncing it. But he
bounced it rather badly and with no particular rhythm, sometimes dropping it and running after it
with awkward, furtive leaps, sometimes throwing it up into the air and trying to catch it. The
door of his house opened and out ran one of the mother figures. She looked wildly up and down the
street, saw the children and put her hand to her mouth as though to stifle a scream, grabbed the
little boy and rushed indoors with him. The ball dropped from his fingers and rolled out into
We are given a familial scene; a neighborhood with mothers and children. But where the Mrs. Murrys create a home where individuality is encouraged, Camazotz is a place where the residents fear sticking out. This child is like Meg, an ‘oddball’, except on this planet, the residence of Evil, he must be scooped up and hidden away, his originality snuffed. He is the artist, the philosopher, the rebel who dares to be different. However he has no real intention to disobey, he is not trying to bring down the totalitarian regime with arrhythmic ball-bouncing. No, he is letting us know that even in a world such as this one, innocent chaos can never be entirely silenced. Order imposed from the outside is doomed to fail.
When the boy appears before the children again, he has been captured and is being re-educated.
In the room a little boy was bouncing a ball. He was bouncing it in rhythm, and the walls of his
little cell seemed to pulse with the rhythm of the ball. And each time the ball bounced he
screamed as though he were in pain.
“That’s the little boy we saw this afternoon,” Calvin said sharply, “the little boy who wasn’t
bouncing the ball like the others.”
Charles Wallace giggled again. “Yes. Every once in a while there’s a little trouble with
cooperation, but it’s easily taken care of. After today he’ll never desire to deviate again.”
But this scene betrays the real problem with Camazotz; Evil is not in control. Like a jockey who must keep whipping his horse, the leadership is insecure and must use pain to keep the citizens in line. The citizens do what they do because they fear punishment, but they do not create the society themselves. It is ultimately an optimistic view of human nature because it is not the humans who oppress each other, rather humans are oppressed by an outside Evil that they cannot hope to overcome without help from outsiders. If they are sheep, at least they are benign sheep.
Camazotz is where Meg must come into her own and show herself as capable of taking care of those around her. Her devotion to her father enables her to rescue him with faith. She can run through the barrier around him, that is she can warp reality to her desires, simply because she wants to find him.
This is what makes Meg an example of a tale of human exceptionalism.
Mrs Whatsit had said, “Meg, I give you your faults.”
What were her greatest faults? Anger, impatience, stubbornness. Yes, it was to her faults that
she turned to save herself now.
Meg is the resilience of the human spirit. Viewed by other humans, it is the ‘anger, impatience, stubbornness’ of which she damns herself. It is the same attitude that caused her to punch a boy in defense of her family before this wild adventure started. But these vices express Meg’s strength of will, her refusal to quit her quest.
She resists leaving Camazotz to regroup on Ixchel. She is angry and determined to return to rescue her brother. But this interlude proves essential to her growth. She meets the creature she names Aunt Beast and accepts herself as weak and in need of care from others. It is only after she accepts her own weakness that she can receive love, and in turn give it back in the final scene.
“You’re lying,” she replied, and she felt only anger toward this boy who was not Charles Wallace
at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she
became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT. The red miasma swam before her eyes; her
stomach churned in ITs rhythm. Her body trembled with the strength of her hatred and the strength
With the last vestige of consciousness she jerked her mind and body. Hate was nothing that IT
didn’t have. IT knew all about hate.
“You are lying about that, and you were lying about Mrs Whatsit!” she screamed.
“Mrs Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs Whatsit loves
me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs Whatsit's love, and her father's, and her mother's, and the real Charles Wallace's
love, and the twins', and Aunt Beast's.
And she had her love for them.
What Meg has needed has been within her all along; she simply needed to have grown up enough to give love instead of receive it. She has saved her father and become a leader in her own right. Now she is able to channel that selfless love and protection outward to save others. IT desires pure order; tolerance is its anti-thesis. Meg, born of the love she was given by her extraordinary family, finally begins to give it back.
It’s a sudden ending, and it surprised me when I found it. Like I said, I was expecting more of a science-fiction edge to this story which it really didn’t have. When you’re reading Ender’s Game it’s not exactly like Ender just has this emotional relevation that he’s just the best and then he beats all the aliens. I mean, I guess that’s how it happens in a way, but he overcomes some big task, some enemy, I don’t know how you want to put it, but he wins the big gold medal. I guess it’s a bit of a hollow ending when you really get down to it.
I set out to write Meg an insufficient heroine, a young woman whose oddball status came more from her attitude and not her talents. I had a problem with her not having any superpowers, but I suppose that is the point. She is distinctly human because she is the human spirit embodied. The will of humanity that refuses to die in the face of Evil and Order. She is not someone a young reader can empathize with, but one they must strive to become. The classic ‘wisdom beyond her years’; she’s had teachers and guardians we all dream to know and as a result, bravery beyond her station.