Monday, March 29, 2010

Madeleine L'Engle: An Amazing Inspiration

Since this is the last Sunday/Monday of March, I would love to share with you the full version of the report I put together for the Broad Universe celebration of speculative fiction's maternal bloodlines.

This report was on Madeline L'Engle, one of the most memorable speculative fiction writers from my childhood. I've read her books more times over than any other book I own - possibly even the Bible, and I was raised Catholic! - and when I started looking for selections to read for this presentation, I ended up reading A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the first book I ready by her, all over again in one sitting.

If you haven't already discovered L'Engle, I hope this gets you to check out her books. If you're already a fan, why not give them all a reread and enjoy her magic all over again.

Madeleine L'Engle Camp, born November 29, 1918, had a mind and soul made for tessering long before she wrote about it in her award-winning books. She was crossing genre boundaries long before the terms slipstream and interstitial fiction entered our vocabulary, going a step further than C.S. Lewis and blending her faith with not only fantasy and myth, but hard scientific theory. She transcended time in her observations about science, culture, and government. What she spoke of and wrote about in the 60s and 70s is just as pertinent today.

L'Engle began writing stories and poetry at five years old and immediately became lost in those worlds - much to the aggravation of most of her teachers. She found school boring, but was always learning. Her teachers accused her of being lazy, a troublemaker, and even for plagiarizing because her writing level was far to high for a child her age. Fortunately, L'Engle's parents supported their daughter, to the extent Madeleine's mother took reams of the girl's written work to fight and win against the accusation of plagiarism.

Throughout her life, however, L'Engle rejected conformity. She had problems with schools that stripped students of individuality and referred to them with numbers, for example. She was highly intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself. In her 1998 acceptance speech upon receiving the Margaret Edwards American Library Association's Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in the Field of Young Adult Literature, she says:

"So WRINKLE, when it was finally published in 1962, after two years of rejections, broke several current taboos. The protagonist was female, and one of the unwritten rules of science fiction was that the protagonist should be male. I'm a female. Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?

Another assumption was that science and fantasy don't mix. Why not? We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth."

To match her unconventional personality, L'Engle had a deep love of both science and language - and she saw no problem accepting the paradox of science and faith. Despite a lot of the Christian research and faith that comes through in her writing, her books - especially Newbery Award Winning A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels - are some of the most banned books in American history.

She wasn't especially surprised at that; it was parents and authoritarian figures who did the banning, and she didn't trust them much anyway. These people didn't understand and were unable to comprehend the complexity of paradox and transcending boundaries - but children were. In fact, she is frequently quoted in her observation, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

While L'Engle, herself, adored science and trusted children to follow the story - even through quantum physics, language was her first love. Language and the story. She says, in her acceptance speech for A Wrinkle in Time's Newbery Award in 1963, " What a child doesn’t realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairy tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture. Many Newbery books are from this realm, beginning with Dr. Dolittle; books on Hindu myth, Chinese folklore, the life of Buddha, tales of American Indians, books that lead our children beyond all boundaries and into the one language of all mankind." She echoes this again in '98 for her Margaret Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech, "During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called THE FORGOTTEN LANGUAGE, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time, is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years."

L'Engle added dimension to these myths, and called attention to the fact they are myths and repeat themselves. She brought in science and tied it, inexorably, to the power of story, to an overall Unity of faith - Truth with a capital T.

"Truth transcends facts," L'Engle stated in an 1991 interview for "If I don't believe it, it isn't true. I'm going to stay on the side of truth no matter how much it hurts. Facts end; stories are infinite. Stories have a richness that goes way beyond fact. My writing knows more than I know. What a writer must do is listen to her book. It might take you where you don't expect to go. That's what happens when you write stories. You listen and you say 'a ha,' and you write it down. A lot of it is not planned, not conscious; it happens while you're doing it. You know more about it after you're done."

L'Engle died only recently in 2007, and in her lifetime she published over 60 books, won over 50 awards and honors, including several honorary Doctor of Letters, Humane Letters, and Literature from prestigious colleges across the US, the Newbery Medal, several Newbery Honor awards, the American Book award, the Margaret A. Edwards lifetime achievement award, and the World Fantasy lifetime achievement awards. Her magic, faith, and logic continue to transcend time and space as her books are still re-released and in constant circulation.


Before I started this project with Broad Universe, I only knew Ms. L'Engle through her words - and through the fact that just in the spring before she died, a friend of mine wrote her a letter asking for some words of advice for her daughter who was turning 14. Ms. L'Engle responded with a four page letter of inspiration for the 14-year-old.

The books resonate with every molecule of my being every time I reread them, and simply in picking the passage I'm about to read, I ended up rereading A Swiftly Tilting Planet, my first introduction to L'Engle, in its entirety once more - learning even more lessons 20 years after I purchased it for a quarter or fifty cents at a yard sale.

Even as an adult, I didn't realize all the reasons why this book - and all of her books that I read - meant so much to me. I knew a good part of it was how she could balance real Faith, Magic, and Science and make it WORK. Believably. Everything was true, even amidst apparent contradiction and paradox. It still was Truth with a capital T.

But some of her quotes I found did a good job of spelling out to my "grown-up" mind the things my inner child just KNEW and was okay with knowing.

Taken from under women's history and Madeleine L'Engle quotes:

"The world of science lives fairly comfortably with paradox. We know that light is a wave, and also that light is a particle. The discoveries made in the infinitely small world of particle physics indicate randomness and chance, and I do not find it any more difficult to live with the paradox of a universe of randomness and chance and a universe of pattern and purpose than I do with light as a wave and light as a particle. Living with contradiction is nothing new to the human being."

Along with:
I do not think that I will ever reach a stage when I will say, "This is what I believe. Finished." What I believe is alive ... and open to growth.


Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.

In addition to, most of my resources came from - with other sources from the links page there.


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