Learning to Tesser


So this Ten Books That Stuck With You meme.  Here was my original list:

Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander
C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
–, That Hideous Strength
Madeleine L’Engle, The Young Unicorns
GK Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Connie Willis, Blackout/All Clear
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor (etc.)
Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

And I got into a discussion with my aunts about The Young Unicorns versus A Wrinkle in Time: I’d chosen TYU partly because AWIT is the go-to, but partly because it presents the great struggle between good and evil as taking place on the Upper West Side, the neighborhood where I grew up, in the catacombs of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I have since found this to be a profoundly realistic view of reality.  Almost documentary, really.

But actually I think that I have to go back to AWIT.  Because so much of what I now know to be true, so much of what I am giving my life to, I ran into for the first time in Meg Murry’s adventures.  This is not a book to give to children to read if you want them to grow up to become good non-judgmental postmodernists.  You give a kid this, and then a little bit later you give him Brave New World, and you’ll find that you’ve raised yourself a little First Things columnist; he’ll never be satisfied with The Nation.

Mrs. Whatsit and Calvin on Free Will, Responsibility, and Why Freedom is Not Freedom to Redefine Reality (note: this does not work as a description of free will and predestination, though.)

“How can I explain it to you? Oh, I know. In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet.”

“Yes, yes,” Calvin said impatiently…

“Kindly pay me the courtesy of listening to me.” Mrs Whatsit’s voice was stern, and for a moment Calvin stopped pawing the ground like a nervous colt. “It is a very strict form of poetry, is it not?”


“There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter, yes?”

“Yes.” Calvin nodded.

“And each line has to end with a rigid rhyme pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet, is it?”


“But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.” Calvin nodded again.

“So,” Mrs Whatsit said.

“So what?”

“Oh, do not be stupid, boy!” Mrs Whatsit scolded. “You know perfectly well what I am driving at!”

“You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?”

“Yes.” Mrs Whatsit said. “You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.”

Meg, IT, and True and False Views of Equality 

Charles Wallace had fought against his power by shouting out nursery rhymes, and Calvin by the Gettysburg Address.

“Georgie porgie pudding and pie,” she shouted out, “kissed the girls and made them cry.”

That was no good.  It was too easy for nursery rhymes to fall into the rhythm of IT.

She didn’t know the Gettysburg Address.  How did the Declaration of Independence begin?  She had memorized it that winter…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As she cried out the words she felt a mind moving in on her own, felt IT seizing, squeezing her brain. Then she’ realized that Charles Wallace was speaking, or being spoken through by IT.

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”

“Good girl, Meg!” her father shouted at her.

But Charles Wallace continued as though there had been no interruption. “In Camazotz all are equal. In Camazotz everybody is the same as everybody else,” but he gave her no argument, provided no answer, and she held on to her moment of revelation.

Like and equal are two entirely different things.

For the moment she had escaped from the power of IT.

And a Most Important Moment…

(although sadly undercut by lines immediately following…)

“What is going to happen?”

“Wee wwill cconnttinnue tto ffightt!”…

“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs.Whatsit, the comforter. “…some of the best fighters have come from your own planet…”

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.

“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs.Whatsit said.

Mrs.Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly.

“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

Finally, per my friend Kristen, who said “I can’t believe you didn’t include…” and was right– but warning, SPOILERS, do not read unless you’ve already read the book–

“Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.

And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.

She knew!


That was what she had that IT did not have.

She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.

And she had her love for them.

But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

But she could love Charles Wallace.

Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.

Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.

I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in the forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.

“I love you!” she cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!” Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs. “Meg! Meg! Meg!”

“I love you, Charles!” she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

A whirl of darkness. An icy cold blast. An angry, resentful howl that seemed to tear through her. Darkness again. Through the darkness to save her came a sense of Mrs Whatsit’s presence, so that she knew it could not be IT who now had her in its clutches.

And then the feel of earth beneath her, of something in her arms, and she was rolling over on the sweet smelling autumnal earth, and Charles Wallace was crying out, “Meg! Oh, Meg!”

“Meg!” came a call, and there were her father and Calvin hurrying through the darkness toward them.

Still holding Charles she struggled to stand up and look around. “Father! Cal! Where are we?”

Charles Wallace, holding her hand tightly, was looking around, too, and suddenly he laughed, his own, sweet, contagious laugh. “In the twins’ vegetable garden! And we landed in the broccoli!”

Image at the top via this blog. Many thanks!


6 responses to “Learning to Tesser

  1. We’re reading the everlasting man TONIGHT.

  2. Just wanted to remind you that I took a writing class from Ms. L’Engle a few years before she died. What impressed me first was a story she told about how she had moved to CT and was about to give up writing the book. She didn’t think she could find a publisher. The other, smaller things about her: she swam every day and recited the psalms as she swam and she never read magazines ever. Or that’s what she claimed!

  3. N– I know! I love that you did that, and I’d heard about her rejections– something ridiculous, like 40 rejections before she found a publisher or something like that. Her actual church-church, i.e. the one she went to on Sundays, was a place called All Angels, right down the street from Zabars. I went there for the first time the other night for a performance– such a cool place, artsy and social-justicey and proximate to good bagels.

  4. The class in the nunnery was on upper bwy, around 105th st., closer (than Zabar’s) to where she lived…now that I’m thinking about it. IT was a cool building.

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