Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

If you like time-traveling unicorns, this is the book for you!

Age Range: 8+

Genre: children’s literature, time-travel

This is the original cover. The geometric design is interesting, though Gaudior is a bit too cute.

Synopsis: When the Murry family meets on a stormy Thanksgiving evening, none of them expect the world end. It’s up to fifteen-year-old Charles Wallace and his unicorn companion, Gaudior, to stop the nuclear threat posed by the South American dictator of Vespugia, Madog Branzillo, who seeks to “punish” the “Western world” for its arrogance (12). Guided only by the cryptic song of a madwoman the boy and his unicorn must travel back in time to discover the roots of Branzillo’s madness. With Gaudior’s help, Charles Wallace finds himself inhabiting the minds of four different boys throughout the history of his small New England town…and finding that the future of mankind is safe only through uncovering forgotten links of blood and spirit.

Although I dutifully reread A Wrinkle in Time to prepare for the movie version, my rereading of A Swiftly Tilting Planet was much more rewarding. Possibly this is because I am more of a fantasy person and a historical fiction buff than a sci-fi person. This book reminded me of Edward Rutherford’s London (and his other place-based sagas)and Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat, but with higher ethical stakes and oodles of suspense.

Analysis:

Although Gaudior is an important character because he provides Charles Wallace the means to travel through time, he’s ultimately pretty static. So I will say a few words about him and then move onto the more interesting parts of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, namely its structure and the way it illustrates some of the problems with white people doing time-travel in North America.

Gaudior: The Time Travelling Unicorn!

Gaudior appears in a “flash of radiance” and possesses a “silver horn which contained the residue of the light” (44). He is “utter and absolute perfection,” of course. He also comes across a bit like Spock in Star Trek. He’s rather humourless and uninterested in indulging Charles’s human curiosity about how unicorns exist.  There’s a bit of a call-back to Alice’s unicorn in Through the Looking-Glass when Charles Wallace asks “What are you, really?” and Gaudior counters “What are you, really?” (45). When Gaudior asserts that he is “not real” but also “the only reality,” he is compelling Charles to look past scientific certainties.

Gaudior’s snarkiness is the most interesting thing about him. He isn’t particularly pleased to be helping Charles in the beginning, because going to Earth is “considered a hardship assignment” (46). We never find out if Gaudior has done anything to deserve going to Earth as a reprimand, only that he slowly comes to be fond of Charles Wallace.

As if to appease unicorn buffs, there’s a random side journey when the two go to heal and regenerate in Gaudior’s home planet. There, we learn that many unicorns are hatched out of eggs and survive by eating moonlight and drinking starlight (164). The egg image explains two things, namely how/if unicorns are born with horns (a foal uses its horn to hatch out of an egg), and why some unicorns like Gaudior have wings. But this scene is brief, and we learn nothing about how Gaudior relates to the rest of his people. Gaudior’s last ride is also pretty awesome, as he becomes “as large as a constellation” and in doing so, allows Charles Wallace to be all moments of time at once, “part of the harmony, part of the joy” (270). (But…does Gaudior get promoted from hardship assignments when he gets back? Why can’t we find out?)

Ultimately, A Swiftly Tilting Planet has little interest in Gaudior for his own sake. He and Charles Wallace ride the wind together, and Gaudior helps Charles Wallace recognize and avoid the Echthroi. He is the portal through/with which Charles Wallace travels through time. That is all.

BUT THE TIME TRAVEL IS AWESOME!

The Structure of A Swiftly Tilting Planet: The Poetry of Time Travel

L’Engle’s novelistic structure should remind readers that young people’s literature, though exciting and engaging, are seldom “simple.” Indeed, there are three ideas that structure A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

First, and most explicitly, Charles Wallace’s journey through time follows the Rune of St. Patrick, a prayer that calls upon the glory of natural phenomenon to ward off evil:

In this fateful hour,
All Heaven with its power,
The sun with its brightness,
The snow with its whiteness,
The fire with all the strength it hath,
The lightning with its rapid wrath,
The wind with all their swiftness,
The sea with its deepness,
The rocks with their steepness,
The Earth with its starkness 
All these I place

Between myself and the powers of darkness

(Here is a version of the poem set to song:https://www.youtube.com/watch?

Each chapter title is a line of the hymn and thematically dwells on the contents of that line (sun, snow, fire, lighting…). Charles Wallace and Gaudior are rooted to the “Where” of the Murry family home in the Northeastern United States; thus, travelling through time, they witness the evolution of the landscape. Travelling in time from the Bronze Era to the mid twentieth century, Charles Wallace bears witness to the the changing topography and human cultures. The pace of change may be different (slow climate and geological differences vs radical changes in human relations), but L’Engle directs our attention towards the shrinking of a lake and the wearing-down of rocks. We cannot take the physical markers of our world for granted any more than we can assume our attitudes towards gender, race, science, and belief are universal or unchanging.  

Second, L’Engle engages with the masterplot of Cain and Abel, or brother vs. brother. The novel is undergirded by the horror of “Cain and Abel all over again” and again and again (243). Madoc and Gwyndyr conflict becomes Bran and Maddok’s inability to remain friends across the lines of race which becomes Bran and Matthew’s broken kinship after the Civil War, which becomes Beezie and Chuck’s alienation after the latter’s mental injury. But ultimately it’s not the reconciliation of the two brothers but Cain’s premature self-destruction that ensures the safety of mankind’s future. While this ending is dramatically satisfying, it’s not as morally coherent. Although the twins Matthew and Bran Maddox reconcile as do two strands of Madoc’s line through Bran’s marriage to Zillah, the unified Matt and Bran defeat the single son of Gwydyr. Taking a step back, the seemingly random element of Meg kything with Charles Wallace as he kythes with Madoc, Bran, Matthew, and Chuck is itself a reparation of the Cain/Abel conflict. Meg offers Charles Wallace spiritual strength and the siblings’ mutual support in turn rehabilitates the young men in whom Charles Wallace dwells.

Third, Charles Wallace’s journey is also structured through the other Murry children’s curiosity and search for a lost novel written by one of the characters, Matthew Maddox. The Horn of Joy contains the essential information they need to know; therefore it has been stolen from their midst by the evil Echthroi There’s a teasing ambiguity as to whether the novel is missing because it exactly recounts Charles Wallace’s journey through time.

L’Engle also uses kything to play with the trope of time-travel. Whereas a simpler author would have Charles Wallace popping in and out of people’s heads in a linear fashion from past to present, L’Engle disrupts the passage of time in the last two consciousnesses that Charles Wallace visits. Charles Wallace enters Matthew Maddox; he also enters Chuck Maddox, whose imaginative play and later mental incapacitation allows him to re-enter Matthew Maddox in ways previously unavailable to Charles Wallace. Charles Wallace’s communion with Chuck also allows him to radically reevaluate Mrs. O’Keefe, whom most other characters consider to be mad, mean, and narrow-minded. All the while, Charles Wallace’s bond with Meg means that each epiphany he has in the past is simultaneously experienced in the present. By the time Charles Wallace returns to his own moment in history, every expectation he has held is turned inside out.

Well, almost every expectation.

Some thoughts about the problems of settler time-travel in North American fiction

In A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the concept of time travel relies on Charles Wallace’s ability to “kythe” or enter “Within” selected individuals; particularly the North American descendents of Owain ap Gwynedd who are reputed to have traveled to America in the late twelfth century (59). This desire to have European heritage before the arrival of the Conquistadors in South America and the Puritans in North America may speak to the anxiety felt by white Americans about their fundamental, basic otherness. They can’t claim an essential rootedness with the land, indeed, the experience of early Europeans was one of distinct alienation and aggression.

Having a Welsh ancestor (i.e. from a non-dominant European culture), who in L’Engle’s case assimilates and marries into an indigenous culture, is a way to imagine an alternative possible narrative of North American history. Madoc’s love for Zyll allows him to see the travesty of attempting to remake Cymru/Wales in his new home (78). If L’Engle’s fantasy of European assimilation into Native American culture bows to the historical record, she still makes a case for solidarity between minority cultures. As the People of the Wind find their culture threatened and denied (133-134), so do the Welsh of Great Britain who come to New England and Vespugia in the nineteenth century in order to practice their culture without persecution (236). The return to Wales of Ritchie Llawcae with his Native wife Zylle in the seventeenth century subtly suggests that the most “western” people of Europe are hybrids.

I’m not sure how I feel about the use of blue eyes as the crucial marker of supernatural power (whether for good or evil). The blue-eyed twins, Madoc and Gwydyr, father two parallel lines of powerful seers and leaders; Madoc’s people are open-hearted, while Gwydyr’s folk are arrogant, though capable. The novel’s happy ending depends on the ultimate separation of Madoc and Gwydyr’s folk. Branzillo is “El Rabioso”/Maddog (11) in one reality because Madoc’s descendent has married Gwydyr’s; Branzillo is “El Zarco”/The Blue-Eyed in another because the contamination is avoided. In this plotting, Madoc’s heritable strain of goodness is weaker than Gwydyr’s descent of badness. I wished it had been the other way around, and that resolution could only be achieved through the symbolic reunion of the twins’ disastrous first conflict.

At the same time, as the racial makeup of Charles Wallace’s “Where” shifts from indigenous to settler-European, the marker of “specialness” shifts from rare blue eyes to traces of indigenous ancestry. Yet, by the nineteenth century, interest in one’s possession of “Indian blood” is just a mark of a “romantic” disposition rather than any engaged connection to present day indigenous issues (241).

The problem might be seen best in the following exchange:

“But it wasn’t was it? They’ve been long gone from around here.”

“I think it was a bigger all-rightness than just for their tribe. Anyhow, both you and Gwen have at least a drop of Indian blood, and you both have the blue eyes of the song.” (251)

Oh dear…

Apolitical Tidbits

  • The book has a strange kinship with Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle; both L’Engle and Stiefvater reference the legend of Owain ap Gwynedd.
  • The idea of unicorns hatching also recurs in Kamilla Benko’s The Unicorn Quest (2018), where a set of moonstones on a necklace are revealed to be unicorn eggs.
  • There’s also a fun recurring interest in the evolution of language as Madoc shifts into Maddok, Madog, Maddox, Mad-Dog.

One thought on “Unicorn Book Review: A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle. New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1978.

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