Monday, 28 July 2008

The Time Quintet by Madeleine l’Engle

I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was very young and it made a huge impression on me. I think it may have been the first book I read which had Science in it and one of its effects was to persuade me – hopeless as I was at science and maths at school – that these were subjects which might be interesting if only someone explained them properly. The book turned me into a lifelong reader of science fiction and a regular reader of New Scientist, although nothing has ever improved my maths. It was a book that made me confident about understanding ideas and, in that sense, I think it is probably one of the most influential I have ever read.

A Wrinkle in Time is the first of l'Engle's Kairos series, where the action is primarily outside the present-day world and time; they run parallel to the Chronos series, where the action is largely within our familiar world. Religion and science are the prominent themes in most of her writing, and some characters appear in both series (notably Canon Tallis, who is rather a favourite of mine). In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry's parents are both scientists; Meg, despite intelligence which is clear to the reader from the outset, feels awkward, clumsy and unintelligent at school, and it is perhaps her unhappiness that at first creates her link to her small brother Charles Wallace, who understands that she feels out of place; the link between them is to prove vital in both this, where she and her friend Calvin O'Keefe must go to rescue Charles Wallace from the planet Camazotz, and two further books in the series, A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

In A Wind in the Door, the second of the quintet (which wasn't actually written as such, since there are three other books which focus on the two families, the Murrys and the O'Keefes), Charles Wallace is again in danger and desperately ill, and Meg and Calvin must attempt to save him with the help of the cherubim, Proginoskes, by journeying into a microcosm. A Swiftly Tilting Planet delves into Celtic mythology to link old and new worlds and families across time, with the intertwined stories of Calvin's family and Welsh voyages to North America and Patagonia.*

Many Waters surprised me. It starts much like all the other books in the series, in the Murry family home, when suddenly Meg's brothers, the twins Dennys and Sandy, find themselves transported through time to the land of Noah and the Flood. As well as Biblical characters, monsters inhabit the land, and people are on familiar terms with cherubim and, in some cases, nefilim. Noah and his father, Lamech, are on first name terms with God, and there is an ark to build. The preoccupation with Christian theology is evident throughout all of l'Engle's books, of course, but the setting for this one was nonetheless unexpected.

In An Acceptable Time, published here as the final book in the quintet, the action takes place many years later, and focuses on Calvin and Meg's daughter, Polly, who is staying with Meg's parents in Connecticut while she prepares for university. The resourceful Polly finds herself caught in a tesseract, journeying through time to 3,000 years ago, where she meets two druids of the People of the Wind, the tribe previously encountered by Charles Wallace in the second book. An Acceptable Time completes the cycle of stories about the two families.

Earlier I mentioned the Chronos series, which shares some overlapping characters, most notably Zachary Gray, who appears in A Ring of Endless Light as well as in An Acceptable Time. The Chronos books, about the Austin family, are more firmly fixed within our reality, although The Young Unicorns perhaps stands slightly apart with its background of a cathedral and episcopal hubris, but death is a theme that runs through many of l'Engle's books; Meet the Austins actually opens with a death and particularly focuses on the effect it has on children. Handled with a Christian perspective I think it is always dealt with sympathetically and, not only shouldn't alienate readers from other beliefs, but should succeed in offering a sympathetic account of the ways in which adults and children seek to come to terms with it; in An Acceptable Time the author is resolute in describing both Zachary's fear of death, allowing him to become a relatively unattractive person because of it. Indeed, in a work which addresses a familiar and frequent theme in children's and young adult fiction, that of time travel, Zachary's own fear stands to articulate the peril which faces all time travellers: the doubt about their successful return. In this passage, Polly, trapped in the past watches her family in her mind's eye:

In this manner she moved through three thousand years. In eternity, her own time and this time in which she was now held, waiting, were simultaneous. If she died in this strange time, would she be born in her own time? Did the fact that she had been born mean that she might escape death here? No, that didn't work out. Everybody in this time died sooner or later. But if she was to be born in her own time, wouldn't she have to live long enough to have children, so that she would at least be a descendant of herself?
One of my pleasures of the last few months has been returning for a regular dip into this series and I think the attractively produced boxed set of the Time Quintet would make an excellent gift to young reader and adult alike. Since I started on the set as part of my reading for the Young Adult Challenge, reviewing it as a whole also offers me the serendipity of catching up on the challenge in one go, hence this long post. Since I have considered quite so many books at once, I thought it might be helpful to list them below. I have bolded those mentioned above.

The Time Quintet:

A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

Other books which feature the O'Keefes:

The Arm of the Starfish
Dragons in the Waters
A House Like a Lotus

Chronos series:
Meet the Austins
The Moon by Night
The Young Unicorns
A Ring of Endless Light
Troubling a Star

*Edited later to add that in the book the voyage is to the imaginary S. American country of Vespugia, but l'Engle used real records of Welsh immigration to Patagonia for inspiration.


  1. How ever did I miss these books? I see I have a lot of catching up to do in reading them! Thanks for the list as well - most useful.

  2. I haven't read the Chronos books and I have a horrible feeling I'm not going to be able to find them in the local library system. However, that's not going to deter me. I love the Kairos books and they stood up even better after a recent re-read. I've always thought it a shame that L'Engle is better known in the UK. Somehow she has never established the presence of, say, Le Guin, so Margarte, you shouldn't feel bad about having missed out on these because I'm sure you won't be the only UK blogger who feels like that.

  3. Margaret, apart from Wrinkle in Time, I don't think L'Engle's books have ever been easy to find here - I knew of the others because I found a copy of The Young Unicorns years ago, and loved it (can't resist a book with a cathedral in it!), so I was delighted to find the boxed set of the Time Quintet on Amazon. I'm about to start on the first of her journals, so I'll post about those later.

    Ann, I've been lucky enough to Bookmooch some of the Chronos books and I'll still working my way through them, so there will be another post on the series, I'm sure.

  4. That's really interesting.
    I've read both A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins but never seen any of the others. According to The NCC List of Children's Series Fiction, there's another Austin title, The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas, which comes before Meet the Austins. Ever heard of that one?

  5. I believe that Twenty-four Days Before Christmas and An Austin Family Christmas are short storybooks, rather than full novels - they seem not to be considered fully part of the series, so I left them out. Perhaps I shouldn't have, but I feel less interest in tracking them down.

  6. And my favorite thing about these books was the 'real' life. :<) I love that house, and have it in my mind's eye. I like it when they are all home. I liked one of the Austin books - I think it was the first one, but my favorite is the book which I've blogged about - The Twenty-four Days of Christmas. My mind just shuts off when I try to read sci-fi or fantasy.

  7. What an excellent review!!! I really have to get the rest of the series now. I'm so glad I reread A Wrinkle in Time this year, so here is my review
    and I'll let you know when I've read the others. I have one of the Crosswicks Journals, but haven't been able to find the others yet. Isn't she a marvelous writer? Ann is right, she should be more well-known everywhere than she is.

  8. Just linked to this post from my blog. I usually soak up as many Madeleine L'Engle books as I possibly can. Love her storytelling and wisdom.
    I finally finished the Time Quintet and loved your thorough and beautiful review. Thank you!

  9. What is the best order to read the Murray-O'Keefe books? I have read Wrinkle, Wind, Planet, and Waters. What order for An Acceptable Time, Starfish, etc...


  10. It's rather difficult to sort them into order, and although I tried to read in roughly chronological order, I wasn't entirely successful. Here is the best list I've found (at

    A Wrinkle in Time (Murry family)
    A Wind in the Door (Murry family)
    Many Waters (Murry family)
    A Swiftly Tilting Planet (Murry family) (O'Keefe family)
    The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas (Austin family)
    A Full House: An Austin Family Christmas (Austin family)
    Meet the Austins (Austin family)
    The Anti-Muffins (Austin family)
    The Moon by Night (Austin family)
    The Arm of the Starfish (O'Keefe family) (same summer as The Moon by Night)
    The Young Unicorns (Austin family)
    A Ring of Endless Light (Austin family)
    Troubling a Star (Austin family)
    Dragons in the Waters (O'Keefe family)
    A House Like a Lotus (O'Keefe family)
    An Acceptable Time (Murry family) (O'Keefe family)
    A Severed Wasp (Austin family, sort of)

    The website itself is well worth a visit, with details of all the major characters in L'Engle's books, and how they tie in to each other, as well as lots of stuff about the author - I think you'll find it useful. The journals are good too, if you haven't read them.

    1. Thank you so much!! I really love your website!!! Thanks for the info on the other L'Engle site as well.

      Really, great site!!

      I didn't mean to be anonymous, but I didn't know what to do with the other things. Not too computer savvy here.


  11. Hello again, I'm Nicole, the "Anonymous" poster,

    Just had to share a laugh with fellow L'Engle fans. I just started reading Arm of the Starfish. Well, with all the discussion about time and in or out of ours, just the descriptions of the way the airlines treat the passengers makes it totally out of our time!!! Can anyone remember (and can anyone even imagine it happening now) that you would be served a full and delicious dinner,(on the plane) and be treated so well as to be taken to a hotel rather than left to sleep on the floor of the airport if your flight got re-routed. I'm only scratching the surface here. I guess those really were the days. Do you think even a Tesseract would help now??

    1. Hi Nicole

      LOL, you'd have to go through security before tessering, it would take hours and you'd still have to put everything into little bags...

      My son did say that flying business class was a *bit* more civilised (well, quite a lot more by the sound of it, but he's done it once). And when I was a kid I used to fly on my own occasionally and I was pretty well cared for by the air crew the first couple of times :-)