On Tesseracts and Muffins

I’ve been teaching Wrinkle in Time this past week, along with its sequel, A Wind in the Door.  The story of Meg’s journeys–first out into the galaxies beyond our own, and then in, to the tiniest cells in the human body,  is so familiar to me that I can recite big chunks of it by heart. The first few times I read these books, I was Meg, with the notable exception that Meg’s talent is for math and mine emphatically is not.

Many of my students are reading these books for the first time and for college students who came of age with Harry P and his crew, Meg’s story seems “really dark,”  “very science-y,” and “kind of weird.”  I think they were waiting for jolly details like wizard trading cards and all-flavored jelly beans, and instead they got quantum physics. 

If you’ve not read Wrinkle, it’s the story of how Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their new friend Calvin, help save the Murry’s father, a scientist who has been trapped on Camazotz, a planet governed by a huge brain known as IT. IT controls everything–no one needs to think or worry because IT takes care of it all. Everyone on the planet has “learned to relax, to give in, to submit.”  Rescuing Meg’s father will be a defeat not only for IT but also for the Darkness that threatens to consume Earth and other planets. Meg is helped on her quest by Mrs. Who, Mrs, Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, who appear on Earth as witch-like vagrants but later prove to be…well, something fairly extraordinary.

One of the joys of the Harry Potter books is how fully Rowling creates the wizarding world, right down to the sort of candies children would eat and the sports they’d play. But the wizard world stays more or less separate from the muggle world, at least until all hell breaks loose in the later books. What I loved–love–about Meg’s story is that even as she leaves our galaxy to go to Camazotz, her world is our own. It always seemed entirely possible that perhaps I could find a way to another world, or that I would become an unlikely combatant in the fight against evil.  Harry is an “ordinary boy” but, of course, he is in fact extraordinary–that whole Boy Who Lived thing.  Meg remains resolutely, sometimes humiliatingly, ordinary–and in her ordinariness is her gift.

You’d think that it would be hard to argue with a book in which the final weapon against totalitarian evil proves to be good old-fashioned love but in fact Wrinkle in Time is on the ALA list of frequently banned books – and if you need even further reason to read (or re-read) it, Sarah Palin tried to have it banned from the Wasila library (Harry Potter is on the list too). Perhaps it’s the fact that L’Engle equates Jesus with Bach, Beethoven, and Marie Curie as fighters against Darkness, (which an Alabama parent claimed, in 1990, diminished Christ’s importance). Or perhaps Palin simply disapproves of books that might spark a reader’s imagination.

In her Newberry Award acceptance speech, L’Engle said “there are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe, that we can help our children avoid by providing them with “explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.”

It’s no wonder that Palin et al would like this book put way high up on the top shelf where no one can reach it. L’Engle’s book stirs up fresh life; it is explosive in its belief that creativity and imagination are the only weapons we have against a seductive darkness that tells us how wonderful it is  to be free of responsibility, to relax, submit, let go.  Reading Meg’s story now, almost forty years after I read it for the first time, reminds me that now, perhaps more than ever, we need to fight against being “muffins.” Hope, Meg reminds us, takes imagination.

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