L’Engle as a Second Language


I’ve recently tried to catch up on Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and I’ve read the novels in her Chronos and Kairos series, but I realize I haven’t reviewed them individually. I do have some thoughts I’d like to share, though. As such, this entry is probably going to be a bit disjointed. The former series focuses on the Austin family, and the latter on the Murrys and O’Keefes. It’s worth mentioning that the first book with Calvin and Meg as adults, The Arm of the Starfish, was written before The Wind in the Door, where they’re still kids.

L’Engle also ties together the two series, with the same characters being referenced and sometimes even appearing in both.

The first two Chronos books, Meet the Austins and The Moon by Night are the fairly realistic experiences of the friendly and somewhat old-fashioned Austin family, particularly focusing on Vicky, the second of the four children, and her coming of age. The author admitted that Vicky was largely based on herself, and some elements of the stories were inspired by her own childhood. There’s more of a science fiction aspect to Starfish, in which Calvin is trying to find a way to transfer the regenerative properties of starfish to humans. This one is also a thriller, where the protagonist Adam Eddington is caught up in a mysterious conspiracy and not sure whom to trust. This is the book that introduces Canon Tallis, an Episcopalian priest and international adventurer, who reappears in The Young Unicorns. While this is an Austin family book, Vicky isn’t the main viewpoint character, and the realistic style of the first two books changes to a tale of a mad scientist disguised as a genie using a miniature laser to try to take over New York City with help from a gang of boys. A Ring of Endless Light has a fantastic element in that Vicky finds out she has an ability to communicate with dolphins, but it’s nowhere near as weird. International intrigue plots like the one in Starfish return in Dragons in the Waters (probably the one I remember the least) and Troubling a Star, the latter of which returns to the imaginary South American country of Vespugia from A Swiftly Tilting Planet. While Charles Wallace had altered the nation’s history so that it had a peaceful leader, it’s here revealed that another dictator had taken over.

L’Engle’s religious faith plays a significant role in her works. Hers is mostly a tolerant kind of Christianity that allows for doubt and is generally pro-science. The Austins are Episcopalians, but have no problem with discussing issues with people of other religions. There still are some moments that rubbed me the wrong way a bit, though. I believe it’s in Ring that a character insists you should never be totally sure of anything, then not long after seems absolutely certain that there’s an afterlife, something that pretty much can’t be proven with existing means. It also might be worth mentioning that the primary atheist character is the perpetually annoying and self-centered Zachary Gray. He shows up to hit on Vicky in two different books, then on Calvin and Meg’s oldest daughter Polyhymnia (who prefers to go by Polly) in A House Like a Lotus. He’s pretty creepy about it, yet both girls can’t help being attracted to him because of how exciting and mysterious he seems. I think readers are supposed to have some sympathy for the guy, who is suffering from severe heart problems and grew up rich but not particularly attached to his parents, and he does make a valid point sometimes. In Moon, he sings a satirical doom-and-gloom song that Vicky finds disturbing, which makes her a little difficult to identify with for a fan of Tom Lehrer and Robyn Hitchcock. The song in question has apparently been misattributed to Lehrer, but is actually by Sheldon Harnick, the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof. Anyway, since we have a good-looking, unstable, reckless rich guy named Gray who is drawn to innocent, bookish girls, I wonder if E.L. James has read any of these. I’m pretty sure she also mentions Thomas Tallis. I’d also like to note that Lotus portrays a gay couple in a positive light, even if finding this out leads Polly to think her mentor was making a sexual advance toward her when she probably wasn’t, at least from what I recall. Another theme that shows up a lot is characters being self-conscious about their looks, which comes up with all three female protagonists. Makes sense, but I did find it weird that Vicky was jealous of her sister’s good looks when said sister was nine. But then, I’ve obviously never had a comparable experience. The young Meg is jealous of her mom’s good looks, too.

Speaking of L’Engle, I would also recommend Amy’s post on tesseracts.

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4 Responses to L’Engle as a Second Language

  1. Bryan T Babel says:

    Perhaps you should never be totally sure that you should never be totally sure about anything.

    • Nathan says:

      That’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? The way I see it, though, you can be skeptical of everything, but if you don’t proceed as if certain things are true, it would be impossible to function at all.

  2. So, I did an image search for all the Austin family book covers in one image for yet another (but probably last for awhile) L’Engle post I’m writing, and guess where the best image I found sent me? HERE! I AM HEREBY STEALING YOUR IMAGE OF THE AUSTIN FAMILY CHRONICLES FOR MY OWN POST!

    Which is nice, because I don’t think I actually got to read this post at the time, because you’d think I would have found some comment to make, like “Zachary Gray sucks and every reader knows it” or something.

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