After reading my review of A Wrinkle in Time, several people have mentioned to me that they have never gotten around to finishing all five novels in Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet. Having just finished A Swiftly Tilting Planet, I want to urge readers to return to this series specifically to enjoy this third novel; in my opinion, it is even better than the first two. While A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door both talk a great deal about how everything in the universe is interconnected, a lot of the plot twists in these two books seem simplistic and somewhat arbitrary. Many story elements lack a believable explanation – or any explanation at all. It often seems to me that L’Engle did not have explanations for many of the events in her own novels, and that she relied too heavily on the repeated declaration that humble creatures such as humans and angels cannot fathom all the ways of the Universe.
In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, though, L’Engle weaves a much more complex story that illustrates the interconnectedness of all people and things. Charles Wallace Murry, the especially intelligent and intuitive child from the first two novels, is now fifteen years old and must travel back and forth through time in order to discover and influence how the descendents of two intertwined families effect the fate of the modern world. Riding on the back of the unicorn Gaudior, the Wind blows Charles Wallace from the communities of ancient Native American and Puritan Welsh settlers to his own home town only a generation previous to his own, then back again to the time of the American Civil War. He is blown from his home on the East Coast to planets unnamed, then down to a fictional country in Patagonia, the southern-most portion of South America.
As Charles Wallace and Gaudior are blown from place to place, back and forth across time, they are repeatedly attacked by the Echthroi, fallen angels who are the source of all pain and destruction. The Echthroi wish to keep Charles Wallace from reliving and changing events from the past, events that will prevent the birth of a cruel South American dictator now threatening to destroy Charles Wallace’s present world. Despite the violent assaults of the Echthroi, Charles Wallace must “go Within” many of the members of the Maddox and Llawcae families in order to help them make a series of crucial decisions and restore the balance of good in the world.
The way that L’Engle has Charles Wallace moving back and forth through time – not simply going all the way back and then reliving each generation in chronological order – creates added mystery and tension in the novel. It is much easier to swallow Gaudior’s declarations that humans and unicorns are too humble to understand the ways of the Wind and the Universe because ultimately, the jumbled order in which Charles Wallace must experience events in the Maddox and Llawcae family trees comes to make sense. He must unravel one piece of the mystery and understand certain events before he is able to travel even further back in time to influence other things, but in the end, all comes out right.
Charles Wallace’s success is particularly due to a rune, a magical verse of ancient origin which had been passed down through generations. It is Mrs. O’Keefe, the mother-in-law of Charles Wallace’s sister Meg, who first recites the rune and bestows it upon Charles. He is then able to use it at key times throughout the novel, calling upon the power of Heaven and the universal elements to come to his aid:
At Tara in this fateful hour,
I call on 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!
Cleverly, L’Engle also uses the rune to structure the novel itself – each chapter is named for a line of the verse and deals with a specific element. This adds structure to the chaotic way that Charles Wallace and Gaudior go hurtling across time, balancing the confusion of the characters with a sense of underlying order – the order and purpose that Gaudior adamantly maintains does indeed exist, even if he and his young human friend cannot see or understand that order. There is beauty to be found in this tension between the seen and the unseen.
Because the events of the novel seem much more logically plotted and explained, I find the conclusion of this novel to be much more satisfying than the first two in the series. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading A Swiftly Tilting Planet and recommend it even for readers who have not picked up A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. While it builds upon the previous two novels, first-time readers can also follow the story of Charles Wallace and Gaudior, the Maddox and Llawcae families without knowing much about the events of the past two books. I would imagine that almost anyone would enjoy trying to unravel the mystery of these two family trees, a mystery which spreads across generations and has incredible influence on the fate of the whole Earth. With this book, L’Engle clearly illustrates the interconnectedness of all people, something which she extols throughout her series, and emphasizes that despite our individuality, each of us is part of something greater.