01 February 2010


Madeleine L'Engle Novel Smackdown, Round 1

We can't just sit down at our typewriters and turn out explosive material.

I took a course in college on Chaucer, one of the most explosive, imaginative, and far-reaching in influence of all writers. And I'll never forget going to the final exam and being asked why Chaucer used certain verbal devices, certain adjectives, why he had certain characters behave in certain ways. And I wrote in a white heat of fury, "I don't think Chaucer had any idea why he did any of these things. That isn't the way people write."

I believe this as strongly now as I did then. Most of what is best in writing isn't done deliberately.

-- Madeleine L'Engle, in her Newbery Award Acceptance Speech

It is difficult to find related, worthwhile things which would fit into brackets of four, eight, sixteen or thirty-two, which is why I haven't done a second Bracket in a while. (These sorts of lists have to be found as well as made.) Then a few nights ago, I happened to notice that I have fifteen L'Engle novels in my personal library, which meant that I only needed one other to get this part of my book collection into a nice, contentious bracket.

Having found that one other as well, I plunged right in . . .

Round 1

The Arm of the Starfish vs. A Swiftly Tilting Planet

An SF Thriller about a scientist who may have discovered how to regenerate people's amputated limbs and whose family has just become the target of greedy villains, or a Time Travel Saga that traces the destiny of a family that has come to carry, more so than others, the fate of the entire world? An icy blonde temptress named Kali or a talking unicorn named Gaudior? Swimming with dolphins or watching a new unicorn hatch from its egg? A Cold War writer flirting with conspiracy theories or a Christian author seemingly fascinated by metempsychosis?

Winner: A Swiftly Tilting Planet, because I still know Patrick's Rune by heart!

A House Like a Lotus vs. The Moon by Night

The first novel was the first truly challenging one I read in my life, and I still think that L'Engle was very brave to write Polly's story that way . . . but I think she completely dropped the ball when she brought in the character of Omio near the end of the story, all for the sake of making a pet point. The second novel was the only L'Engle book I ever explictly recommended to all my 400 students, because I loved what she did with Psalm 121 (120) . . . but I've never warmed to Vicky Austin as a narrator.

Winner: A House Like a Lotus, because a few chapters of Omio ex machina is preferable to a whole book of Vicky "Mary Sue" Austin.

The Young Unicorns vs. Troubling a Star

Now let's talk about setting! The first novel is set in New York City, and L'Engle's love for this huge, eclectic metropolis is still the basis of the mystique it holds in my mind. The second novel is set partly in Antarctica, a continent she first visited in her seventies and of to which she could probably say, "Late have I loved thee!" There are also the colourful supporting characters: in the first book, a blind pianist, her curmudgeonly Greek teacher, and the former gang member who finds the light in helping her navigate her dark world; in the second, a prince of a tiny European country, a conscripted soldier who would rather be a musician, and a harpist who attracts baby penguins to her lap, and several others, many of whom might have something sinister to hide.

Winner: The Young Unicorns, because it is NYC I still long to see and its bohemians I still long to meet.

Dragons in the Waters vs. A Ring of Endless Light

The first tale of a murder mystery at sea should be more compelling than it has proven to be over the years. Yet I can barely remember the plot! On the other hand, I remember very much about the second book, Vicky Austin's summer-long meditation on human mortality, especially Mrs. Austin's answer to skeptic Suzy's question of why we pray for people when we can't be sure our prayers do anything: "It's an act of love."

Winner: A Ring of Endless Light, because it is both more memorable and more heartbreaking.

A Wind in the Door vs. Many Waters

I love it when L'Engle dabbles in science; I cringe when she dabbles in Scripture. The first book sends its characters deep into the cells of a sick little boy, to convince his mitochondria to "deepen" for his sake; the second takes its characters several thousand years back in time, to help Noah build the Ark and to learn that both "many waters" and much time cannot quench true love.

Winner: A Wind in the Door, because it really does realise its themes better.

A Wrinkle in Time vs. And Both Were Young

It seems like no contest, doesn't it? The first book is practically legendary for having been rejected by dozens of publishers before it finally came out in print, won the Newbery Medal, and established L'Engle as a force in YA literature. The second is an earlier, slightly derivative story about a lonely, artistic girl learning to endure boarding school, with none of L'Engle's thematic venturesomeness. Yet it must be said that even the former is not as polished as the books which came later . . . though that's actually a good thing for the first book in a series to be.

Winner: A Wrinkle in Time, because it really was no contest. =P

An Acceptable Time vs. Meet the Austins

Can you imagine the wave of nostalgia the first book, the last in its series, was riding when it first came out? Meg Murry-O'Keefe's eldest daughter spends a holiday with her Murry grandparents, in the home where her mother grew up, star watching rock and all. Who cares about exotic settings when one can be at home with reassuring and wise people? Home is also important in the second book, which happens to be the first in another series in which everybody has remained forever young. Indeed, the charm of the Austins' household has never lost its freshness and never failed to delight anyone "meeting the Austins" for the first time.

Winner: An Acceptable Time, because the autumn sunset of revisiting old friends trumps the spring dawn of making new ones.

Two-Part Invention vs. Camilla

Yes, the first book is actually a memoir rather than a novel; but after her own children were quoted describing it as "pure fiction" and "good bullshit," I decided it would be the sixteenth book in these brackets. The second book is a very artsy, almost Salingeresque coming of age story, which, now that I think about it, has no plot. What it does have are a constellation of sensitive impressions, scattered thoughts, and poignant lost opportunities worthy of a real group of stars the astronomy-mad heroine would know about. Yet there was always something about Camilla Dickinson's first-person account that made me wonder whether she was reliable when it came to herself . . . How ironic that this comes up now, aye?

Winner: Camilla, because fiction which contains truth is superior to truth which contains fiction.

Image Source: Madeleine L'Engle


Cym Lowell said...

Excellent thoughts on Chaucer and why/how he wrote.

Love your blog...you're one of my daily stops!


Enbrethiliel said...


Thank you, Cym! You've really made my day! =D

Dorian Speed said...

I love Madeline L'Engle, but I don't know what happened to my collection of her books - I guess my mom probably gave them away at some point. We have a homeschool book club and I just read A Wind in the Door with my nine- and ten-year-olds. They really enjoyed it. I have an autographed copy of A House Like a Lotus which my mother got for me at a book club event of some sort. I hate to tell her that it's the only one of L'Engle's books I really didn't care for.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Dorian! Welcome to Shredded Cheddar. =)

I started reading L'Engle when I was twelve, at a time when the merchandisers of local bookstores didn't make stocking the YA sections a priority. (So they'd have #2 in a series because it won some award but never order #1.) It took me seven or eight years to collect those fifteen novels, and I'd probably have a heart attack if my mother gave them away!

Noxxtis said...

Last summer, my mom got me a few more books to add to my small library One of those books was "A Wrinkle in Time"

I love that book...but I stopped in the middle for some reason I can't remember. What other books of hers would you recommend?

Enbrethiliel said...


She used to be my favourite writer in the world, so when you ask which titles of hers I'd recommend, I'm tempted to say, "ALL OF THEM!"

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is probably my favourite of her SF/F books, but it's the third in the series which begins with A Wrinkle in Time. I think it can be read as a stand-alone, if you remember enough about the characters of Charles Wallace and Meg.

It would be easier, I think, to ask me which books I don't recommend. *cough*Many Waters*cough*

Belfry Bat said...

hey! i'm getting used to the purplorange!

l'Engle has definitely been one of my favourites. How odd that it's been hard to find many of her books! Now, however, being a student at a Metropolitan University, with a humungous library, I think only the suggestion to go find them was missing ... !

But Enbrethiliel, I think you're only half-done this bracket? Is round 2 coming in a later post?

Enbrethiliel said...


I recently tweaked the palette to make the purple darker and therefore easier on the eyes! =D

You might remember that my first tagline was, "If the colour scheme doesn't scare you off, the content just might!" Well, now that Sancta Sanctis is on its last legs, I want to make Shredded Cheddar easier to read.

Yes, Rounds 2, 3 and 4 of this smackdown are coming later. =) I might actually have to do some rereading!

Leah C said...

Hi, found your blog through Semicolon's Saturday review of books.

I love Madeline L'Engle. You've inspired me to reread some of my favorites and read some that I missed before!

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks for stopping by, Leah. =) Any excuse to read, right? ;) I'm happy to have provided one.

Sherry said...

I love Madeleine L'Engle, too, although you're right about some of her theology being cringe-worthy. I thought that some of the things I read after her death about her personal life and marriage were really sad.

But her books are wonderful. My favorite is the little-known Love Letters, and I also like A Severed Wasp very much. Will those adult novels be a part of your second smack-down?

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Sherry! =) Thanks so much for visiting!

I haven't read either Love Letters or A Severed Wasp, but I've been wanting to read the latter for years. Someone has remarked to me that L'Engle's books are unusually hard to find for those of a hugely popular writer, and that has always been true for me. As I mentioned earlier, it took me seven or eight years to collect the few books I have now.

Round 2 of this smackdown is already up.

I'm not sure what the "contestants" of my next smackdown will be, but sadly, they won't be L'Engle's other novels.

Connie said...

This is great! As a huge L'Engle fan, with an obsession over literary characters (works) battling it out? This is just wonderful. Can you do Jane Austen next?



Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Connie! =)

I actually had an Austen vs. Bronte smackdown planned next . . . but I had problems working out a bracket. I'll see what I can do, though, because the Austen-Bronte conflict (real or perceived) has always been an interest of mine.

Were you able to find the other rounds of this smackdown? If not, then you can find them easily if you click on the "Madeleine L'Engle" tab under the post.