Last night, I finished Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, such that I had a hard time putting it down. What is interesting is this: I didn’t experience much pleasure while I was reading A Wind in the Door, but it provoked a lot of thoughts. With A Swiftly Tilting Planet, however, I did experience pleasure, mostly from my desire to understand how the various plot elements fit together. But, strangely, it has not stimulated too many philosophical or theological thoughts in my mind, at least not thus far. At the same time, who knows what thoughts will emerge as I write this post?
A Swiftly Tilting Planet is about a South American dictator, Mad Dog Branzillo, who is threatening to start a nuclear war. Charles Wallace, the prodigious boy of A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, is now 15, and he travels through time with a unicorn to prevent this catastrophe. He does so by entering various people throughout history. He does not possess them, but his mind melds with theirs, such that he absorbs their personalities while influencing them to make certain decisions. So the book has the feel of Quantum Leap and The Butterfly Effect, though there are differences.
Charles first enters a Native American boy, who shelters himself from exposure to a nearby tribe, which has a lot of violence, strife, and murder. He thus becomes the ancestor of a peace-loving tribe in the New England area. That tribe is later visited in the twelfth century by Madoc, the next person Charles enters. According to legend, Madoc fled from Wales with his brother due to his family’s violent struggle for the Welsh throne. In L’Engle’s telling of the story, Madoc is separated from his brother Gwyddr, yet Gwyddr later confronts Madoc when Madoc is about to marry into the tribe. Gwyddr’s goal is conquest and domination, but he flees to South America after he loses the fight with Madoc.
Throughout the story, Charles enters other characters who are somehow connected to Madoc and Gwyddr, including a Welsh Puritan, a Civil War author, and Chuck O’Keefe, the brother of Calvin’s embittered mother. Charles’ mission is to halt the perpetuation of Gwyddr’s war-mongering descendants in South America, and to encourage instead the thriving of Madoc’s peace-loving line. Charles succeeds in changing history, since he prevents the birth of Mad Dog Branzillo and causes there to emerge a peaceful leader in South America, one who is committed to the just distribution of the world’s resources. Through these seemingly insignificant yet interconnected characters, Madeleine L’Engle stresses a point that appears in many of her works: we are all significant, for our actions can have a major impact on the world, even if we do not immediately see it.
Obviously, Madeleine L’Engle was against war, which she views as the product of selfishness and greed. Overall, she does not address the question of whether or not there are situations in which war is justifiable (e.g., self-defense, protection of the weak, etc.). She does offer some ostensible motives for Mad Dog Branzillo’s actions, for she says that he views them as just retribution against the West for its selfish misuse of the world’s resources. While she acknowledges that he has a valid point, she emphasizes that war is not the answer, since that would destroy both the United States and South America. In addition, Branzillo’s problem with the West is solved peacefully at the end of the book, under another leader. We are also left wondering if Branzillo’s motives are truly what he claims them to be, since he does come from a line of acquisitive people. Madeleine L’Engle offers important thoughts about war, but I wonder what she’d want the President to do if a real madman threatened to blow up the world. Going back in time to change history sounds good, but it is not a realistic option.
L’Engle seems to believe that certain ideas are necessary for peace to exist. For her, God loves everyone, people of different cultures believe many of the same things, and divisions are partly the result of a lack of understanding. These ideas play out in her section on the Puritans. She says that God loves the Native Americans as well as the white settlers, and she also presents their religious beliefs as roughly the same. According to L’Engle, both Christianity and Native American religions hold that there was an ancient harmony in the universe that somehow got disrupted by evil. I don’t know enough about Native American religion to evaluate this statement. I’m sure that people in all cultures realize that the world falls short of some standard of goodness, but the dispute is how to solve the problem. On the issue of a lack of understanding creating division, L’Engle discusses the Puritan witch hunts. The good characters have powers such as telepathy, the ability to see visions, and knowledge of herbs. L’Engle sees these as gifts of God, but Puritan New England does not share her view!
There is also a good section of forgiveness. Calvin’s mother is someone we indirectly encounter in A Wrinkle in Time. She’s not that good of a mother. She is bitter with life due to her experiences, and she looks old and worn out despite her relatively young age. Well, we learn that she once had a brother and a grandmother whom she loved very much, and her grandmother told her that hatred hurts the person who hates. She pointed to one of their ancestors, a princess who was abandoned by her royal husband (who married her on false pretenses, out of an impure motive). According to the grandmother, the princess never gave in to hate, and God took care of her through all of her afflictions. Unfortunately, Calvin’s mother gives in to hatred rather than trusting God. Still, she gets an opportunity to connect with her heritage (and hopefully heal) in the course of the book, and her actions end up saving humanity from destruction.
So, overall, I really enjoyed this book. I don’t agree with everything Madeleine L’Engle says, but she certainly makes me think, even while I’m being entertained.