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A love letter to A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

July 13, 2009

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (1978)
Kronos Quartet, Book 3

Length: 304 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy

Although I very rarely write about books I’m re-reading, and particularly books I’m re-reading for the bazillionth time, it has happened once before (for Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer), and I thought I’d do another entry in the series – well, if two posts nine months apart are enough to constitute a series. What the hell, it’s my blog, I’ll make it a series if I want to. Let’s call it “A Love Letter to Lit”, shall we?

A Swiftly Tilting Planet deserves its own love letter. I don’t go in for lists of lifetime favorites, because it’s too hard to narrow down my lifetime of books into five, or ten, and to tell whether I love a book because of nostalgia, or on its own merits. Regardless, if someone was standing with a pair of scissors to my library card and forcing me to to pick my all-time favorite books, A Swiftly Tilting Planet would almost certainly be #2 on the list. (#1 is Francis Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, but we’ll save that for another entry in the series. :) I can’t count the number of times I read this book as a child, and I recently re-listened to it, and it turns out I love it just as much at twenty eight as I did at eight.

Summary: Charles Wallace Murry is now fifteen, although he’s just as quiet and serious as he was when he was younger. On one fateful Thanksgiving night, Mr. Murry receives a call from the President, informing the family that Mad Dog Branzillo, the dictator of a small South American country, has threatened the world with nuclear war. With a charge laid on him by Mrs. O’Keefe, his sister’s normally taciturn mother-in-law, to avert the disaster, he heads out to the starwatching rock, where he speaks the rune she taught him. The universe sends him help in the form of the unicorn Gaudior, who will take Charles Wallace back in time. In each time, he must go Within a host, seeking to find the Might-Have-Been, the one choice that can change the course of history, and forestall nuclear war.

Review: Okay, so, why do I love this book? First and foremost, I love how neatly, and how beautifully everything fits together. As Charles Wallace goes Within a different host in each period of history, the book almost reads like a collection of short stories – like Cloud Atlas, although much more intertwined. I love how tiny details, names, histories, places, and words of power reappear, slightly modified, in each time, and I love that the book is structured with each line of Patrick’s Rune becoming a chapter title. It’s a book concerned with genealogies, and the historical legacies of our choices, and while these concepts may be somewhat contrived and somewhat simplified (it is a kids’ book, after all), the way L’Engle weaves together past and present is much more intricate and complex than it initially appears.

At Tara in this fateful hour,
I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness,
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness.

Oooh, that still gives me shivers.

I’ve said before that Charles Wallace in this book is one of my Book Boyfriends, but that’s not really true. Rather, I’ve got a crush on every character that Charles goes Within – who are really all different aspects of Charles himself. I can’t put my finger on why exactly I love them so much, other than that they’re all kind, honest people, and, as the book says, all filled with the Old Music. I actually decided, as a child of maybe ten or eleven, that if I ever had a son, I was going to name him Bran – one of the names that features heavily in this book – despite anything even vaguely resembling a Welsh heritage of my own.

Much has been made of L’Engle’s Christian slant to her writing, but I never noticed any such slant as a child, and even though I can kind of see it as an adult, it’s not nearly so obvious as in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Most of her characters are Christians (although not “obviously” so), and words like God and Heaven are capitalized throughout, but when Charles Wallace calls on “all Heaven” for help, he’s sent a flying, time-traveling unicorn. Christian values like love and self-sacrifice are emphasized, but I don’t find it to be proselytizing in the slightest.

I think, at heart, what makes A Swiftly Tilting Planet my favorite out of the Kronos Quartet is that 1) it focuses on Charles Wallace, so there’s much less of Meg’s whining, which got old rather quickly in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door; and 2) there is, in general, a lot less talking and a lot more doing, and the plot moves much more rapidly through a variety of scenes and stories, all of which interconnect to form one wonderful whole. 5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: While readers of Madeleine L’Engle’s earlier books are going to be the most likely to pick this one up on the basis of name-recognition, I don’t think either of the previous books are required to understand and enjoy A Swiftly Tilting Planet. It’s also got a very different feel than her earlier books, so I really think everyone should give this childhood favorite a chance.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Inkweaver Review
Is that really it? Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The big kitchen of the Murrys’ house was bright and warm, curtains drawn against the dark outside, against the rain driving past the house from the northeast.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2009 2:08 pm

    I’ve read the first two books in the series, and I can’t say I’ve been blown away by them unfortunately :( I enjoyed the first one okay but the second just did nothing for me.

    It’s a shame because I’ve mostly only heard good things about the series.

  2. July 13, 2009 2:15 pm

    Bart – Try A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seriously. While I like A Wrinkle in Time well enough, I’m right there with you about A Wind in the Door – I read it once or twice as a kid, didn’t like it, and then re-read it recently and still really, really didn’t like it. Nothing happens! It’s all boring new-age talk! The third one is much better. :)

  3. July 13, 2009 2:16 pm

    I’ve never read any L’Engle. (if I did as a kid, I’ve forgotten.) I’ll tbr this, thanks!

  4. July 13, 2009 7:13 pm

    You know, I haven’t read this author either. I don’t know how she managed to pass me by. I’ll keep this one in mind.

  5. July 13, 2009 11:50 pm

    I LOVE L’Engle. Have I really never reviewed this? I know I have reread it several times, but maybe it was before blogging… I should reread them this summer!

  6. July 14, 2009 7:26 am

    I’ve only read the first book, finally finished it a few months ago after 4 starts, the first time bein when I was in the 6th grade. I do want to read next book sometime, so I just skimmed your review :-) I’m not entirely surprised that there’s not a lot of reviews of it out there… I didn’t even know it was a series until a year ago, it’s not something widely known.

    One thing interesting was, I recently watched S.Darko, and they had tesseracts in it. The movie was pretty much a waste of time, but for that.

  7. July 14, 2009 8:27 am

    This is my favorite too, absolutely, of the books about the Murrays. I was never bothered by Meg, particularly, but still, this one has always been the most vivid in my mind. I remember being totally bewildered by the whole “dandelion clocks” business in the last story.

  8. July 14, 2009 3:56 pm

    I didn’t even realize there was more after A Wrinkle in Time although A Wind In The Door sounds familiar. Since I LOVED AWIT, must rectify. Immediately.

  9. July 15, 2009 8:14 am

    This is my favourite among the four I’ve read! For some reason, I’ve yet to read “An Acceptable Time.”

  10. July 15, 2009 9:43 am

    Care & Anna – You’ll have to let me know how she stands up to a first-time reading as an adult. I think it’ll still be good, but I’m so biased by my childhood reading that I can’t say for certain.

    Kailana – Yup, I was in the mood for old favorites, so I did a re-read this summer. Plus they’re quick!

    thekoolaidmom – These books were such a large part of my childhood that it shocks me that they aren’t more widely known. I guess my grade school librarian must have been a L’Engle fan, or something.

    Jenny – I wasn’t bothered by Meg as a kid – heck, me and my nerdiness and my too-thick glasses identified with her – but on a re-read as an adult, she is kind of whiny.

    Carrie – A Wind in the Door is BY FAR my least favorite, and can (and should?) easily be skipped in favor of A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

    marineko – I read An Acceptable Time as a kid (although I remember it taking me a few tries to get into it), and I liked it well enough, but I haven’t re-read it in at least a decade, so I don’t remember much about it… except one scene in the beginning where Polly’s swimming at night in the pool the Murrys have added onto their house. That scene’s stayed really vivid, for some reason.

  11. July 15, 2009 11:17 am

    I re-read A Wrinkle in Time earlier this year for the first time in probably 30 years, and was a bit disappointed to be honest. I found it to be very religious, though that was not the problem really. Too much talking and not enough doing sums it up nicely.

    It’s interesting to see the third book is your favorite. That is a rare thing, I suspect.

  12. July 15, 2009 11:25 am

    C.B. – A Swiftly Tilting Planet isn’t All Action, All the Time or anything – a lot of the action still does take place in people’s heads, or in small decisions – but it moves a lot faster, and there’s a lot less standing around and talking about the power of love and whatnot.

    As for the third-book thing, while the Kronos Quartet is technically a series, L’Engle’s books are a lot more independent than a normal series – they feature the same characters, but they don’t really build off of each other nearly as much as most series do.

  13. July 16, 2009 1:41 pm

    I like your love letter. I’ve read everything by L’Engle, and although I don’t love this one as much as you do, I liked them all.

  14. July 16, 2009 11:29 pm

    Jeanne – I’ve read a lot of L’Engle’s books, but definitely not all. Which one’s your favorite?

  15. July 18, 2009 1:15 pm

    Well, after a post like this, how can I not read this book? I had been meaning to continue with the series, but I think I’ll follow your advice and read this before book two.

  16. July 21, 2009 9:54 am

    Nymeth – I don’t think you’ll be sorry. :)

  17. Catriona permalink
    January 6, 2010 3:48 pm

    I’m the opposite of most of these people it seems. I loved A Wind in the Door better then a Wrinkle in Time. But A Swiftly Tilting Planet was always a favorite, was is An Acceptable Time (which I’m re-reading AGAIN! ^_- ). When I was little my father read all Madeline L’Engles books to me, minus Many Waters and House like a Lotus. But all the others he read to me and I’ve always loved them. I read them in Elementary school when I was being bullied, in middle school when I was enduring the hell of puberty, and now in college as I try to figure out exactly who I am.

    As I’ve grown the stories have too, getting better and better. Which is what a good story should do I believe. I think the theology is evident, especially in the later books, the O’Keefe series for example with Canon Talis, and Bishop Colubra, but for some reason, L’Engles theology always seems MORE to me then normal Christian theology (which I’ve been surrounded by my whole life). It’s richer, fuller, something I’d actually want to embrace. It’s beautiful.

  18. April 28, 2010 10:45 am

    I actually found this one to be a little confusing. I had a hard time following all the different characters with similar names. I still liked it though but not as much as I remembered liking it as a child.

  19. A Wrinkle In Time and Spirited Away permalink
    December 28, 2010 7:35 pm

    I love the first and second book. they were great. but the third half half. i would like Meg and Calvin to be in it because it isn’t much fun without them.

    Thanks for reading

    P.S. who likes the movie Spirited Away

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