A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeline L'Engle, for Timeslip Tuesday

I've known for over a year that the time was going to come when I would re-read A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeline L'Engle (1978), for a Timeslip Tuesday post. But I've been putting it off. This is a book that I loved when I read it back the year it came out, and for the next five years of re-reading. It's also a book that I knew I would have problems reading again as a grown-up, and I was right.

In A Swiftly Tilting Planet (the third of L'Engle's series that began with A Wrinkle in Time), the mad dictator of a Latin American country is about to plunge the world into nuclear war. Fortunately, the forces of good in the greater universe don't want our world destroyed, and so a time-travelling unicorn is sent to Charles Wallace, who is now a teenager. As he travels, courtesy of the unicorn, into the past to change the might-have-been that led to the dictator's rise to power, his big sister Meg follows along telepathically, providing a narrative framework in the here and now for his adventures.

The unicorn carries Charles Wallace back to the primordial Eden that is L'Engle's vision of Native North America. There he is first inserted into the mind of a person from the past, and finds it an easy and pleasant experience. Gradually, though, as unicorn and boy come closer to the might-have-been, the evil forces of chaos work against them more strongly...and the emotional intensity, both good and ill, experienced by Charles Wallace grows...

On the plus side--it's a riveting story, with lots of emotional heft. It was the first book I read in which the consequences of nuclear war were portrayed--L'Engle's time-travellers make several unwanted detours to "projections" of possible futures, and my young self was profoundly disturbed by them, and consequently very much invested in hoping for a hopeful outcome for the story. Another section, in which L'Engle portrays a 20th century family falling apart, which includes an abusive stepfather and a brain-damaged boy, was also a powerful experience for my child-self reader.

And boy, did that self love the scene in which the baby unicorn hatched.

Fast forward to the present. The baby unicorn leaves me cold (sigh. Not L'Engle's fault). But much more importantly than that, L'Engle's version of the native people of New England leaves me infinitely colder. She clearly wanted an idyllic, fantasied people (they frolic, for instance, with fantastical creatures), and so historical/cultural accuracy, or even an approximation thereof, goes out the window. Here's her very inaccurate description of New England village life around 1500 years ago:

"Between the rock and the lake were strange huts of stone and hide, half house, half tent, forming a crescent at the lake's edge.

In front of and around the dwellings was activity and laughter, men and women weaving, making clay from the lake into bowls and dishes, painting the pottery with vivid colors and intricate geometrical designs." (page 58)

(there wasn't weaving, we have no evidence that pottery was painted, and the "strange huts" are strange indeed)

Also disturbing is the arrival of a Welsh prince and his entourage into New England long before 1492. This bothers me not only because it is a set piece of peaceful, environmentally friendly native peoples vs white people with the potential for violence, but because the intrusion of Celtic romantic-ness strikes me as naive wish fulfilment (and goodness knows, in my line of work I have grown sick of people telling me, with great fervor, about all the Celtic dolmens scattered around New England).

And I was also bothered by the whole bit about blue eyes. You see, the Celtic prince brought over the gene for blue eyes...and it his descendant, via the Native American princess, who becomes the Latin American dictator, or, if Charles Wallace changes things, the Latin American peace loving democrat. Both have blue eyes. Why the heck L'Engle thought blue eyes were just the thing to make her characters special beats me; as may be the case with the Celtic Prince bit, it seems like she was trying to make her history of the Americas one comfy for (blue eyed) Europeans.

Time-travel-wise, it's rather an odd one, because the time traveller is always contained within a host body. So although Charles Wallace can reflect on what he's experience, he's not actually there himself, and the time-travel is more a tool for the plot, than the point itself. Not necessarily a bad thing (it works of the story), but it does mean that this book isn't one I'd recommend to fans of time travel stories as such.

So now I've re-read it, and I probably never will again...and I sigh, because I did love it so...


  1. Ack, this post made me very sad. A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my favorite of L'Engle's books when I was a kid (though I have absolutely no recollection of the baby unicorn hatching), but all of your points are excellent. I fear I would feel the same if I reread it.

    ...If I were sensible I'd never pick it up again but I know I'm going to because now I HAVE TO KNOW. :P

  2. I only read A Wrinkle in Time. Thanks for sharing this. It's sad when you re-read a book later and don't like it that much. But sometimes with the knowledge we acquire as we get older, we understand the problems with a story.

    I wonder if she'd write the book the same way in the world today.

  3. I loved L'Engle's Austin family books and felt the same way (well, the details were different) when I reread Meet the Austins (I was wondering if it might make a good read-aloud for my own kids, and decided No). But despite loving fantasy, particularly the sort that has something to do with the real world, I didn't like Wrinkle in Time and never read the rest of the Time books. I wonder if all the kids who love When You Reach Me will go back to the whole series?

  4. I know I read this when I was younger but I can't really recall the details. It's sad that you "lost" one of your childhood favorites but it really happens.

  5. I find a lot of this vibe rereading almost all of L'Engle's books -- her romances have been reissued with gloriously gorgeous new covers - good - but the scenarios and relationship issues in which the characters find themselves make me want to ram my head against something. I LOVED The Arm of the Starfish. I'm scared to even look at it now.

    I have the full set of L'Engle's timeslip novels. ...and because I know I should not, I'm going to reread them all now.


  6. Tanita and Jenny--I will be curious what you think!

    I think L'Engle got a lot stranger as she grew older--An Acceptable Time, the last book in the loose series of Meg and Polly and all, is virtually unreadable, and even though it, too, is a timeslip, I'm not going near it with a barge pole.

  7. That's interesting. Even when I was a kid I thought A Swiftly Tilting Planet had veered into bizarro world too far for me. My friends and I made fun of the dialogue: "Isn't it ironic that the end of the world comes from a small Latin American country? More turkey, Meg?" And I had loved the previous two books. I also liked Charles Wallace much better as a kid than a teenager, so that was part of it.

    Although I did love the Conrad Aiken reference in the title. :)

  8. truly, mb, it verges on the silly...

  9. Interesting perspective on one of my childhood favorites. Dare I read it again?


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