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Madeleine L’Engle and Faith in Literature

Madeleine L’Engle and Faith in Literature

Madeleine was no denier of the existence of evil. In fact, one could argue that more than any other writer of children’s fiction, she named evil for what it is — a demonic presence at war with God—and empowered her characters to fight it. As L’Engle scholar Don Hettinga writes, “She recognizes that evil sometimes appears under the guise of good, that, as she repeatedly reminds readers, the devil often masquerades as an angel of light. In fact,” he adds, “the plots of the books in the Time Trilogy are built to some degree on that assumption.”1

Which of us, when reading A Wind in the Door (1973), for instance, doesn’t shiver at Meg Murry’s chance encounter with her sworn enemy, principal Mr. Jenkins, in a field behind the house at dusk — a Mr. Jenkins who, when startled, “rose up into the night like a great, flapping bird, [and] flew, screaming across the sky, became a rent, an emptiness, a slash of nothingness—“?2 He wasn’t Mr. Jenkins, of course; he was an “Echthroi,” a demonic projection, an image so creepy and startling that we forget we’re reading a children’s book.

“How many of us call the devil by name today?” Madeleine wrote in Walking on Water. “If we see God’s love manifested for us in the Incarnation, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, then we need to also recognize the malignant force that would try to destroy God’s love in a particular way, too.” Ever the student of literature, she argued, “The antagonist in a story or play is never vague or general; there is always a person behind the forces of evil; otherwise we will not take them seriously…”3

For Madeleine, the devil is real; evil has a personality; it’s gathering power across the universe; it’s actively at work to smother and obliterate the light. The battle between light and darkness is not some kind of abstract imbalance that needs to be recalibrated: it’s war.

Don Hettinga told me, “I can’t think of many other children’s novels published prior to [A Wrinkle in Time] — other than, of course, the Narnia series or, perhaps, something by George MacDonald — that so clearly delineated good and evil. Shortly after Wrinkle, though, we see more — Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence, both appeared in the mid-sixties.” And by the mid-’90s, of course, Harry Potter had arrived at Hogwarts for one of the biggest showdowns between good and evil in all of recent literature. The enemy in J. K. Rowling’s series is referred to in whispers, by most characters, as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”; but Harry dares to say the enemy’s name aloud, Voldemort, and in that naming we hear echoes of Madeleine L’Engle again.

Call evil what it is, Madeleine insisted. Even, and perhaps especially, for children.

Let’s not forget the Anglican-Episcopal tradition into which she was baptized. The baptismal rite from the 1892 edition of the Book of Common Prayer instructs the presiding minister to tell the parents of the child candidate (sternly, we can imagine, in a voice not unlike Mrs Which’s), “I demand therefore: Dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the sinful desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?” To which the (somewhat startled) parents are to answer, “I renounce them all; and, by God’s help, will endeavor not to follow, nor be led by them.” In keeping with those bold, vibrant words of the liturgy, Madeleine could dare to call evil what it was. She could look at something like nuclear war, for instance, and say, in effect, “But that is not of Christ. That’s evil. That’s Satan at work. And I renounce it.”

Ultimately, for Madeleine, the love of God in Christ is more powerful than evil and will outlast all things. “And the light shineth in the darkness,” says Mrs Who in that pivotal moment in A Wrinkle in Time; “and the darkness comprehended it not.”4 As we noted earlier, the quote is from the first chapter of John’s gospel (John 1:5) — “John who speaks most closely to my understanding,” Madeleine described him, “who helps put the mind in the heart to bring wholeness.”5 And Madeleine loved that word, comprehend, which extends also to the older meaning: to encompass, overtake, overcome.

The darkness does not overcome the light but rather the reverse.

And how? “Jesus!” Charles Wallace replies, in that Sunday school answer to which those of us steeped in irony roll our eyes. But Madeleine was dead earnest.

Picture the bold minister again, glancing up at the congregation with glasses that look suspiciously like Mrs Who’s. He prays stridently from the 1892 baptismal rite: “Grant that this Child may have power and strength to have victory” — and everyone, even the people who slipped in the back late, strain to glimpse the baby’s round face — “and to triumph, against the devil, the world, and the flesh.” Wide-eyed, the parents and the people respond, “Amen.”

Dare we pray such prayers for today’s children? Dare we name aloud the enemy they’re up against? Dare we claim that God will not fail with any part of His creation? That in Christ, light and goodness eclipse darkness and evil, now and forever?

Dare we say with the congregation — with Madeleine herself — Amen?

Watch the Video

  1. Hettinga, Presenting, 14.
  2. L’Engle, Door, 46.
  3. L’Engle, Walking, 165–66.
  4. L’Engle, Wrinkle, 89.
  5. L’Engle, Irrational Season, 28.

Excerpted with permission from A Light So Lovely by Sarah Arthur, copyright Sarah Arthur.

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Your Turn

Madeleine L’Engle was that rare breed of novelist who wrote about God without apology. She acknowledged the fact that there’s real evil in the world and a real God who is bigger. Come share your thoughts with us on our blog. We want to hear from you! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full