01 March 2010


Madeleine L'Engle Novel Smackdown, Round 3B
(Revisit Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3A)

The two face-offs among the "Final Four" should probably have been blogged together, but I didn't reread all four books fast enough for that. Heck, I didn't reread the last two fast enough for them to go head to head last week . . . obviously.

At least I'm finished now, aye?

The Young Unicorns . . .

"Man is not capable of freedom. If we are given freedom we will destroy ourselves. Has this not been proven to us often enough? The only way we can be freed from the slavery of freedom is by relinquishing freedom . . . in a reasonable and pleasurable way . . . I, I am offering you the alternative to freedom; I am offering you ultimate freedom!"

The title of this novel comes from the writings of St. Macrina (the Younger?), who describes the unicorn as a creature which can be tamed only of its own free will. Indeed, the main theme of the story is whether freedom is possible in structure--in what, to other people, is practically slavery. Can one be free even when most tightly and narrowly bound?

The two "young unicorns" are Emily Gregory, a talented young pianist blinded in a mysterious accident, and Josiah "Dave" Davidson, a former hood who mistrusts open doors and yet has a collection of keys to every door in the city's huge Episcopalian cathedral. They are lucky to have a couple of "old unicorns"--the Dean of the cathedral and Emily's piano teacher--taking an interest in them.

So just what is the Austin family doing here? Okay, I know this is how L'Engle writes her books, and I do actually like it. Yet it's a bit of a problem here. For one thing, it makes it clear to anyone familiar with the Austins that one suspect is definitely a red herring. (There was a similar problem with the Murry-O'Keefes in an earlier Thriller, The Arm of the Starfish.) For another thing, it clutters up the plot with a lot of characters, all of whom are required to be round and can throw off anyone unfamiliar with the Austins. It doesn't help that the family's special lesson, quoted directly from John Donne, is that "no man is an island"--for it doesn't quite play in counterpoint to the main theme.

Oh, while I'm rambling . . . It's worth mentioning that the last third of this novel very closely parallels the last third of A Wrinkle in Time. In both novels, an imposing authority figure demands that others turn over their freedom in exchange for happiness, and proposes to demonstrate his methods on an innocent little boy. There are other interesting match ups, and if I were a L'Engle scholar, I'd like to pursue them further.

. . . An Acceptable Time

"Christ didn't just appear as Jesus of Nazareth two thousand years ago . . . Christ is, will be, and certainly was at the time the druids dug the root cellar three thousand years ago, just as much as now. We rational and civlised people have turned our backs on the dark side of God because we are afraid of the numinous and unexplainable."

L'Engle's SF/F novels all have some fascinating idea at their core. This one looks at the possibility that some pagans may have been closer to Christ than some Christians. What better way to explore that than by stepping three thousand years back in time?

When Polly O'Keefe visits her mother's childhood home, she enters a tesseract--an "acceptable time" in which all interconnected threads of far-flung souls meet and find meaning. It turns out that the Murrys' home was built on the site of an ancient stone circle, a place of great power where the strands of time and space have always been drawn taut. (Which explains everything about the Murrys, you know?)

Yet there is more going on in this novel than just an adventure. As Polly steps into the tesseract, she both unspools and weaves together two seemingly mismatched threads from the previous novel A House Like a Lotus: one is the passing of a very good friend; the other is the attentions of a young man who has been told he does not have long to live and doesn't take it well. And thus life and death become the warp and woof of this story.

"Life and death" are a favourite L'Engle pairing--second only to "time and space"--but this just might be the first novel that doesn't demand a sacrifice of life from the cast of characters. (As one of them says: "I was wrong about the Mother. The Mother asks a sacrifice of love." If I were that L'Engle scholar I like to play dress up as, I'd write a controversial paper on L'Engle writing herself into the story as "the Mother.")

Finally, I must say that L'Engle's reimaging of death as simply the closing of another time gate is one of the most beautiful meditations on death I have ever read. How lucky for me that I never saw it before. It will sound like a cliche, but I really do find new things in this novel whenever I reread it. I love that.

Round 3B: The Young Unicorns vs. An Acceptable Time

Winner: An Acceptable Time

Image Sources: a) The Young Unicorns, b) An Acceptable Time



christopher said...

Here in America in two weeks, the REAL Final Four begins it's journey... then you'll get to see what a REAL bracket looks like at my blog and why it excites me so.

Tip: Although you got it right with "Final Four", you can't just call the "rounds" by their numbers, you have to give them catchy nicknames like "Sweet Sixteem" and "Elite Eight" to gather masculine interest :)

Enbrethiliel said...


"Final Four" came from the book! =P I had no idea that alliteration was such an honoured tradition in tournament brackets. (Then again . . . it's called March Madness, isn't it?)

In a few weeks, I'll be doing more book brackets and will have a chance to take your alliterative advice.

But . . . masculine interest??? Nothing but trouble! LOL


Rae said...

How sad is it that I have not read either of these books? Anser, very sad since I loved what I did read of L'Engle!

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Rae! Welcome to Shredded Cheddar. =)

Since I'm still in a Time Travel state of mind from An Acceptable Time, I'll say that as long as you will read these L'Engle novels in the future, then you're (paradoxically) already covered.

Melissa said...

Loved your review of these books! I've read A Wrinkle in Time but not much more of L'Engle's writing. Always meant to, but just haven't gotten to it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Melissa!

The good news about having read only A Wrinkle in Time is that the rest of the books about the Murry-O'Keefe family just get better and better, so there's still lots of bright reading in your future! (Hmmmm. Well, okay, Many Waters is probably the weakest link. I actually think it's safe to skip!)

Cozy Book Nook said...

Hi-- found your blog! Oh, I loved these books as a kid and have reread several times as an adult. Actually read a bit of 'A swiftly tilting planet' in my Tues library spot-- gonna have to read them all again. I liked Many Waters-- so thrilled that the twins finally had an adventure! I will read them all back to back soon and see what I think of it now.

Enbrethiliel said...


It's nice to see you again, Lesa! =)

I, too, was happy when I finally read the twins' book. Would you also happen to share my wish that everyone in the Murry family could have known about each other's adventures??? I don't think they discussed anyone's time travel openly until Polly entered the tesseract--and even then, Mr. Murry never told her of his own experiences on other planets.

Cozy Book Nook said...

The books aren't fresh in my mind but yes, I agree with you. How could they not talk about such fantastic adventures?!