Last night, I finished Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. I was reading some wikipedia articles about Madeleine L’Engle, and wikipedia’s summary of A Wind in the Door was actually pretty good. Unlike the article on A Wrinkle in Time, which focused almost entirely on plot, the one on A Wind in the Door summed up both the plot and the themes.
As I read the wikipedia articles, what really interested me was that I had actually met Meg and Calvin before. When I was at Harvard, I read A House Like a Lotus on one of my flights, and the book was about Poly O’Keefe, the daughter of Calvin (a marine biologist) and Meg O’ Keefe (a mathematician). So they married, and Meg apparently outgrew her social awkwardness, though she managed to pass some of it down to Poly. The book was rather realistic, so I had no idea that Calvin and Meg had fantasy adventures when they were younger.
On a surface level, the message of A Wind in the Door is not that complicated. It is that we should view others as human beings with selves, value, qualities, and purpose. L’Engle calls this practice “naming” someone. The most noteworthy example concerns the principal at Meg’s elementary school, Mr. Jenkins, who is an extremely unlikable and intimidating character. Meg always feels inadequate in his presence, since she was always called into his office when she did something wrong (or unusual). Moreover, Meg’s odd (and genius) brother Charles Wallace is continually bullied at school, and Mr. Jenkins neither interferes to stop it nor recognizes Charles’ talents. Essentially, two other Mr. Jenkinses (who are actually demons) pop up, and Meg has to identify the real one. She dismisses the ones who are on a power trip, concluding that the real Mr. Jenkins is the insecure one who feels like a failure, yet has occasionally done some good things (as when he bought Calvin some shoes). Meg discovers that Mr. Jenkins has rarely been allowed to be himself, and she walks him through the process of self-discovery.
At first, Meg sees Mr. Jenkins as a drag on her mission, in which Meg, Calvin, Mr. Jenkins, and other characters find themselves in Charles Wallace’s body. Charles has a disease at a cellular level that is threatening his life, and a significant part of saving it is a technique called kything, which is a form of non-verbal telepathy in which people can be themselves. The characters need to kythe in order to communicate, but Mr. Jenkins is not good at it. The reasons are that he is old and reluctant to adopt new practices, and also that he is not secure enough to be himself around others, or allow others to be themselves around him. An angel continually tells impatient Meg that Mr. Jenkins has an important role to play in the mission, even though he is unsure what that role specifically is. In the end, Mr. Jenkins adds depth, helps others understand what is going on, and risks his life for the mission.
For Charles to be cured, a mouse-like part of the cell has to deepen, which entails maturing into a tree. A group of destructive demons, the Echthroi, try to discourage the mouse from performing his role. They tell him that he will have no fun as a tree, that he should try to take over the land, and that nothingness is preferable to his current position. Mr. Jenkins points out that selfishness–seeing oneself as the center, as opposed to performing one’s role in a bigger picture–is the root of much destruction in life (e.g., war, etc.). By not deepening, the mouse is actually acting against his own self-interest, since he’ll perish if Charles dies.
Those are the plot and the themes. Now for my reactions. Although L’Engle’s message appears rather simple, there must be a lot of depth to it. First, I thought that Mr. Jenkins’ transformation was rather unbelievable, since he went from a cold, uncaring principal to someone who was willing to sacrifice himself for others. But Madeleine L’Engle may have had a reason for portraying Mr. Jenkins the way that she did. For her, there was a reason that Mr. Jenkins was cold and uncaring. Once he got through his own personal barriers, his true self–the one underneath his cold exterior–could more fully emerge.
Second, I thought that the Echthrois‘ message to the mouse was contradictory. They were telling him to embrace nothingness, even as they encouraged him to try to take over the land. But you need to exist to rule something, don’t you? Again, there may be an explanation for this, but I will probably need to think a lot before I discover it. I’ve encountered this sort of inconsistency in other stories. In George Lucas’ novel Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kanobe says that Darth Vader pictures all of life perishing in an apocalyptic catastrophe; yet, there he is, trying to increase the empire’s power and restore order to the galaxy. In the New Testament, the devil seeks to discourage Jesus from going to the cross (Mark 8:33), yet he enters Judas and helps bring about Jesus’ crucifixion (John 13:27). Evil doesn’t always make sense.
Third, I’m wrestling with Madeleine L’Engle’s views on communitarianism. On one hand, she values individuality and resists conformity, almost like Ayn Rand. In A Wrinkle in Time, for instance, the sinister IT enforces conformity and makes everyone do the exact same thing, and he is not tolerant of mistakes. On the other hand, L’Engle seems to argue in A Wind in the Door that people are not ends in themselves (or the center of the universe), since they have roles to perform in a larger picture. I’m sure there’s value to what she is saying, but something about it rubs me the wrong way. It strikes me as rather Soviet, or it seems to treat humans as part of a factory, or as cogs in a machine. I know that she’s not for making people into drones, but she’s not entirely Ayn Rand in her view on humanity.
My final point for today is this: There are many evangelicals who love Madeleine L’Engles‘ works, since they often incorporate biblical themes. But Madeleine L’Engle has also been on the religious right’s hit list, since her works often appear on lists of banned books. I can understand why some Christian conservatives are leery of her fiction. There is one wikipedia article that associates Charles’ telepathic ability with New Age concepts about the next stage of human evolution. So Madeleine L’Engle must have been the J.K. Rowling of her day! At the same time, I like the way that she teaches Christianity in an outside-of-the-box sort of way.