The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

“It was a dark and stormy night.” The first book in the Time Quintet is the most well-known and recognizable. The book is classified as “science fantasy,” which is to say, science-fiction but also with elements of fantasy (the three traveler-guides who are often perceived as types of witches, for example, though I would argue this is a misreading). Of the five books in the series, this one is often rated as “third best,” for whatever that is worth, but I think it is my favorite. Partly, I must admit, this is nostalgia. I grew up with this story, it was my sister’s favorite, and I read it before reading any of the others (this was a re-read). That being said, if I am being honest, it is probably not the best of the five. What it lacks in, say, plot, it makes up for in other places, though, such as characterization. L’Engle understands how to draw a character in clear and in subtle ways. We know who the protagonist Meg is; her actions are not always noble, but they are always consistent to her character and ultimately work toward the good. We know who young Charles Wallace, the special genius, is, and how a boy wonder, untested, might find his first challenge is a struggle with his own ego; and we know who Calvin is, and why he belongs with the others despite not being one of their siblings. Without this first installment, I would find it difficult to understand or care about any of the characters in the later books, including An Acceptable Time, which deals with a new protagonist and, for the first time, the first-hand experiences of the Murry parents. I also much prefer the three mysterious guides, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, far more than the guides in any of the later books (although Gaudior the Unicorn from A Swiftly Tilting Planet might come close). Ultimately, what I love about this book is its unabashed embracing of science, including the wonder and, yes, the magic of reality, great and small. It also introduces a common theme to be explored in later books: the nature of good and evil, moral and immoral, selflessness and selfishness. If I have one complaint, it is the ending – where did they go? And why don’t we see them again? (Who? Read the book.) My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.   

A Wind in the Door (1973)

“If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This second in the series picks up not long after the first. It takes the elements of morality (one might even say the human soul) and science, and merges them together in seemingly impossible ways. What if we could connect every single element of all that we know, from the grand scale of the full universe to the smallest, most miniscule and unobservable atom within us, and discover that they function in a delicate relationship? In this second book, L’Engle’s exploration of religious faith (particularly Christian) and its co-existence with scientific fact begins to come more clearly into focus. Suddenly, the books begin to speak as spiritual tracts and as scientific treatises. Who does that? Well, not many, and perhaps this is what has so fascinated readers of this series for so very long, the idea that one need not prefer or subordinate a belief system to a scientific understanding of the universe, or vice versa. Of the five books in the series, I think this one is the most interesting and in some ways the most playful, as it has a Magic School Bus for grown-ups kind of attitude about it; however, the story gets repetitive at points, and the dénouement, though rather beautiful, is a bit rushed and anti-climactic. Characterization also gives way to plot and purpose, in this case, which is why I think it is important to start with A Wrinkle in Time, otherwise we might care about what is happening to Charles Wallace, but we might not understand Meg’s and Calvin’s actions quite as well. (The introduction of the anti-hero principal, though, was both funny and powerfully moving).  My Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978)

“People are afraid of knowledge that is not yet theirs.” Of the five books in this series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet is my least favorite. It jumps ahead in time by 7 or 8 years, and gives us Charles Wallace, at 15, as protagonist. The premise is absolutely fascinating: the world is on the brink of destruction, and only by visiting important moments of the past and making the one single change, at the precise right moment, will that destruction be avoided. Charles Wallace, via, somehow, Calvin O’Keefe’s mother, becomes a time traveler, with the help of an ancient Celtic rune and a magic, time-traveling unicorn named Gaudior. The one thing I found most irksome about this installment was its repetition. An evil force from A Wind in the Door is re-introduced, and the pattern Meg and Calvin followed on the tiniest scale as set in the last installment, is now followed by Charles Wallace, but in a much grander way, through time and space rather than at the cellular level, within a human body. Gaudior is funny at times, and while not emotive, he eventually becomes a kind of friend and protector for Charles Wallace. The historical episodes introduced, and the patterns of mythologies traced from the ancient Celts to the Native Americans, down to South America, and finally to present-day New England, is definitely thrilling. The fact that much of the mystery unfolds through discoveries made in textual evidence, like books and journals, also tugs at the heart-strings of any reader/writer. But the flow is choppy and Charles Wallace is, in my opinion, not well-served by the manner in which he travels. He is much too much an interesting character to have been relegated to a type of “body snatcher” whose experience is actually related through Meg’s psychic connection with him. That said, L’Engle continues her pursuit of bridging the world’s mythologies with scientific and technological advancements in an effort to highlight the ethics and morality, and necessary limitations, of intellectual pursuits, as well as human hubris. My Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0.  

Many Waters (1986)

“In the coolness just before morning she liked to go sit on one of the great exposed rocks and rest, and listen to the slow song of the setting stars.” Sandy and Dennys Murry, the brilliant but practical siblings in a genius but often impractical family, finally get their adventure in this fourth installment, and it is one of the best. Although the fourth book in the series, this one is actually set between A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The children are all still living at home, but when everyone else is away for the day, the twins–messing irresponsibly with their mother’s experiment–accidentally transport themselves to another time, which they mistake as a distant and different planet. The people are shorter, the language is different, the sun is hotter, the land dryer, and the technology non-existent. When Sandy and Dennys are discovered by the natives of this brave new world, which turns out to be their own ancient world, they are mistaken for giants or angels. Readers soon discover this is because both giants and angels exist in this time, and in this place, which is the land of Canaan just before the flood. In this antediluvian setting, Sandy and Dennys must figure out both what their purpose is in being there—was it God’s plan?—and also how to get home before the Nephilim, the fallen angels, decide they are too dangerous to their plans for world domination. With a little help from Noah’s family and the Seraphim, the teenagers manage to mend Noah’s relationship with his father and essentially save the entire human race. L’Engle makes a clear turn toward not just mythologies/faith systems in general, but the Christian religion (readers familiar with the Book of Genesis will recognize a lot of familiar names and places). Again, science and faith work together to tell a cohesive tale, rather than competing with each other in a dichotomy. Of the five books in this series, Many Waters is the most distinct, though it does reference events in prior books, and it is the most patient and complete of the stories; it never feels rushed, nor does it end too soon. My Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0.

An Acceptable Time (1989)

“I’m grateful every day that I can read and write. I don’t underestimate knowledge. But we get into trouble when we confuse it with truth.” In this final installment of the Time Quintet, L’Engle takes us a generation into the future, installing as her protagonist, Meg and Calvin’s daughter, Polly. Once again, L’Engle demonstrates her mastery of character: she understands who these people are, how they think, and what are their motivations. This is fortunate because some of the characters re-appearing from the previous novels are treated more fully, here, and we realize they are not necessarily what we expected. Are the brilliant Drs. Murry really so narrow-minded? Does the fact that they are grandparents, now, make them more cautious over Polly than they were over their own children, or were they simply not accepting the reality of their children’s adventures in the first place? After getting this far into the series, it was a surprise to be surprised by some of these characters’ actions, but in understanding their motivations, things turn out to be rather consistent after all. In addition to the Drs. Murry, we are introduced to Zachary, a semi-romantic interest for Polly, whose personality and described physiognomy are alarming from the first. He, too, remains rather consistent throughout, even to the point of disgusting the reader. In contrast are the Bishop and the native people, whom Polly and the Bishop (and Zachary) meet when a centuries’-old time circle overlaps their own, so that they can cross the time-space barrier. In this way, L’Engle again manages to place at the center of her story a discussion of religion (monotheism and polytheism, mythologies, druids, modern Christianity) with scientific possibilities. Most importantly, L’Engle explores the concepts of charity and forgiveness. What does it take to forgive someone who has committed the ultimate betrayal? The nature of evil, too, is treated with more finesse and complexity. Is it fair to call what is seemingly necessary, evil? While most of the original young cast of characters is absent from this tale, Polly is a wonderful addition: curious, gracious, flawed. Her journey to understand the universe, to understand faith, and to understand people & human nature, makes for an interesting and complex finale to a series that asks these questions consistently throughout. My Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0.

Ultimately, I have to say that I am thrilled to have finally read this entire series. I most appreciate that L’Engle finds equal space for religious and scientific exploration, without making these antithetical the way so many do, as if we must choose one way or the other. Even though I do not follow her faith, I think this is a unique success for her series. Also, for the longest time, I had no idea that A Wrinkle in Time had even one sequel, let alone four! I do eventually want to read the related novels that deal with some of the same cast (and I assume similar themes). Someday. For now, L’Engle’s Time Quintet has definitely made its way onto my “favorite series'” list. It hovers somewhere under Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and His Dark Materials, but above Chronicles of Narnia and maybe even the Percy Jackson books. Gasp! 

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17 thoughts on “The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle

  1. I was excited to read the first one, and it completely didn’t click – maybe I was too old to make a start, or maybe my expectations were wrong. But great to read your thoughts about the whole set!

  2. I loved A Wrinkle in Time as a kid, and so sought out and read all its sequels, but didn’t love them. Even as a kid, they were too didactic and full of religion for me. I got very suspicious of any story that I suspected of trying to teach me something.

    • I can definitely see where you’re coming from. I don’t like my books to come with heavy-handed sermons, and these do certainly tend toward the didactic. I think I could get passed it because I was impressed by the inclusion of multiple faith systems and all the respect for/interest in science and history, as well as the fantasy elements (Noah’s people calling on unicorns in times of need, for example).

  3. One of my favorite series, for which I’m overdue a reread. I’ve also read three out of the four books Polly O’Keefe features in (The only one I haven’t read is “A House Like A Lotus”), and I really enjoyed “The Young Unicorns,” in which L’Engle’s Murry-O’Keefe and Austin families meet.

  4. I read all the books several times each in my teens. I liked the mix of science and religion. Polly stars in…at least two other books? These characters criss-cross with the Austin family, which is much more grounded in a realistic setting. Zachary shows up often.

  5. You’ve gone and made me want to re-read the entire quintet! My fourth grade teacher (one of my favorites) read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my class, so I have some very fond memories of it as well. I read the other four a few years later but forgot the depth of L’Engle’s philosophy. You’ve written a really beautiful set of reviews on an underappreciated series 🙂

  6. These are really wonderful reviews, Adam, and you make me want to continue with the series. I did not find A Wrinkle in Time readable as a kid. I read it all the way through about a year ago and thought it was ok. I didn’t realize it was connected to more books, which actually look more interesting to me. I haven’t been able to get into L’Engle’s fiction in the way I can her nonfiction, which are some of my favorite books.

      • If you want to know about her, she was very good at keeping journals where she talks about her family life as well as her writing process and her musings on the world. The four main books, called the Crosswicks Journals, are A Circle of Quiet, The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, The Irrational Season, and Two-Part Invention. I absolutely love these and as an aside sometimes Amazon bundles these together sold cheaply for the Kindle.

        Walking on Water is about being an artist and a person of faith, being a Christian who respects science and the call and pull of the artistic life and how God fits in. (“am I a Christian writer or a writer who happens to be Christian”? my paraphrase)

        Penguins and Golden Calves is her thoughts on adventure and life and God through her trip, I think she was 70 years old, to Antarctica.

        As a person she was fascinating to me and someone who is in the top 5 of my list of people (dead or alive) I want to have coffee with!

  7. Thank you so much for this post! I am almost embarrassed to admit it, but I haven’t read these books yet. However, I recently added A Wrinkle in Time to my TBR list, and your post has confirmed that I really need to read them all 🙂

  8. My very favorite thing about Wrinkle, and about L’Engle in general, is her ability and desire to embrace science AND her faith. The two don’t have to oppose one another. As one who shares her faith, I don’t believe they do oppose one another. They walk hand in hand. One reveals the other.
    I have read A Circle of Quiet, the first of the Crosswick journals. I’d like to read Walking on Water, but I’m pretty sure it benefits the artist more than the layman reader. She was an incredible woman.

    • “My very favorite thing about Wrinkle, and about L’Engle in general, is her ability and desire to embrace science AND her faith.”

      I am not a Christian, but this ability she has and the way she is able to articulate it really impresses me and is one of the reasons WHY I love her nonfiction (besides we get to know her better :)). I think you should give Walking on Water a try. You might be surprised, but I know “so many books so little time!

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