Madeleine L'Engle

A Swiftly Tilting Planet

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A Swiftly Tilting Planet Summary

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Madeleine L’Engle’s classic young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time, received the 1963 Newberry Medal, and is the first book in her Time Quintet. A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), the series’ third book, chronicles the continuing, fantastic adventures of the exceptionally smart Murray family. Charles Wallace, now fifteen years old, is recruited to rescue the planet from nuclear annihilation at the hands of a South American despot. His mission takes him traveling through time and confronting evil as he seeks to alter the past to undo the perils of the present.

The novel opens on a dark and stormy Thanksgiving at the Murray house, perhaps somewhere in New England, sometime in the 1970s. Mrs. Murray, a brilliant scientist, has received the Nobel Prize. Her daughter, Meg, is married to Calvin O’Keefe, and expecting her first child. Meg’s younger brother, with whom she can communicate by kything, a type of telepathy, is preternaturally intelligent. Mr. Murray is a renowned physicist and occasional Presidential advisor. When the phone rings, it is, indeed, the President, soliciting advice on how to avert nuclear war with Mad Dog Branzillo, the dictator of Vespugia, who is threatening to launch missiles within twenty-four hours.

Meg’s husband is currently traveling, but his mother, the cantankerous Mrs. O’Keefe, sits silently by the fire. Now she speaks up, and what she recites is an Irish rune, or poem. She turns to Charles Wallace, tasking him with ensuring peace between Vespugia and the U.S. Although he has no idea how to proceed, he accepts this responsibility. He feels drawn to the star-watching rock outdoors. Before leaving, he and Meg agree that, whatever may come, they’ll keep in touch telepathically.

At the rock, Charles spontaneously speaks lines from the rune, and Gaudior, a unicorn, appears. He explains Charles’ mission: With Gaudior, he’ll travel to different “Whens” to change the outcome of the pivotal “Might-Have-Been” moments in history that allowed the mad dictator to be born. This will entail using Charles’ telepathic powers to go “within” various people they encounter so as to discover the right Might-Have-Beens. Gaudior has difficulty traveling through space and time simultaneously, so they’ll venture through several Whens while remaining in the same Where. Finally, he warns Charles that evil spirits called Echtrhoi will try to sabotage them, because the Echthroi’s ambition is to destroy the world.

After flying a thousand years into the past, the pair lands in a meadow near the star-watching rock, which is larger. Meg, kything with Charles, shares his experience. A young boy, Harcels, appears. His mind will be Charles’ training-ground for learning to go within quietly, and then steer Harcel’s actions inconspicuously. When practice is over, Gaudior and Charles move to another When, pre-Columbian America.

Charles goes within Madoc, son of King Owain. Madoc and his brother, Gwydyr, are the only survivors of an ocean voyage from Wales. There is animosity between the brothers due to Gwydyr’s malevolent nature. They compete to marry Zill, a Native American woman who belongs to “The People of the Wind,” and a life-or-death battle ensues. Charles assists Madoc by inspiring him to chant the rune. Invoking the rune’s lines will be Charles’ weapon against evil throughout the novel. When Gwydyr loses, he leaves for Vespugia in South America. Madoc weds Zill.

Time-traveling again, they skirmish with the Echthroi before landing in colonial America. Charles goes within a boy named Brandon Llawcae, whose brother is married to Zylle, a descendent of Zill. Soon, she gives birth. Because of Zylle’s Native American heritage, the superstitious village pastor accuses her of using witchcraft to cause the recent deaths of several babies. Just as Zylle is about to hang, Brandon, under Charles’s influence, calls out the rune, and lightning strikes the church. Zylle is released. She, her husband, and baby leave for Wales. Their descendants will eventually join the Welsh colony in Vespugia.

After another, more fearsome attack by the Echthroi, which Meg, kything, helps them escape, Charles and Gaudior arrive in a relatively recent past. Two children play near the star-watching rock, and Charles enters the boy’s mind. His name is Chuck; his sister is Branwen Zillah Maddox, or Beezie. They are also descendants of the Madoc-Zill union. Charles realizes that Beezie is Mrs. O’Keefe as a girl. Their father suddenly dies, and their mother re-marries. Retreating from their abusive stepfather, the children discover the journals of Zillah Llawcae in the attic. They read about Zillah’s love for Bran Maddox and about a successful writer named Mathew Maddox.

In a moment of violence, the stepfather fractures Chuck’s skull, causing brain damage. Afterwards, Chuck believes he’s communicating with the long-dead Matthew Maddox, and Charles, within Chuck, experiences Chuck’s disorientation. Charles exits Chuck, who will be institutionalized and die shortly thereafter.

Charles flies to 1865 and enters Matthew Maddox, which is “agonizing,” because Matthew has been an invalid since a childhood accident. His twin brother, Bran, has recently returned wounded from the Civil War. Bran’s beloved and author of the attic journals, Zillah, lives next door. To recover from his wartime trauma, Bran plans to move to Vespugia, but Zillah’s father forbids her to wed and accompany him. Bran and his sister, Gwen, emigrate to Vespugia. Charles realizes this a critical, Might-Have-Been: If Zillah doesn’t join Bran, he will marry Gwydyr’s descendant in Vespugia, Zillie. Gwen will wed Zillie’s brother, Gedder, and Mad Dog Branzillo will come from their line. Matthew Maddox, in failing health, tries to complete another book. Money from the book sales could fund Zillah’s trip to Vespugia, despite her father. With the help of Charles within him, Matthew succeeds. Zillah and Bran marry, and their descendant will be the benevolent leader of Vespugia. Mad Dog will not be born because Gedder dies.

With difficulty, Charles returns to the present. Only he and Meg have a shadowy memory of Mad Dog, who now never existed.

L’Engle’s novel draws on folklore and history. Owain was an actual king of Gwynedd (Wales) during the twelfth century. The tale of his sons traveling to America is a legend popularized by Welsh and English writers during the sixteenth century. The powerful rune recited throughout the book derives from St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a fifth century prayer of protection which became a Christian hymn in the nineteenth century.