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Rereading A Wrinkle in Time: what’s up with that giant evil brain?

A Wrinkle in Time Square Fish
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Bless A Wrinkle in Time, the book that taught generations of English majors basic geometry and some mildly inaccurate physics. One of Madeleine L'Engle’s best-known works, it’s a warm and beautiful sci-fi fantasy about Meg Murry — a sullen, stubborn, bespectacled high school math nerd who treks through the universe to save her father from the machinations of an evil, mind-controlling disembodied brain. She’s accompanied on her journey by her vaguely psychic neighbor, Calvin; her definitely psychic, Christ-like little brother, Charles Wallace; and a trio of witchy guardian angels, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.

The book travels between the Murry family’s idyllically cozy country farmhouse — where Mrs. Murry, a scientist whose beauty and brilliance fills Meg with wholly reasonable levels of resentment, always has a stew bubbling over a Bunsen burner in her lab — and faraway planets of varying degrees of beauty or menace.

The most sinister of those planets is Camazotz, the Soviet analogue where everything is so regimented that children bounce their balls in perfect unison. The planet is shadowed by the Dark Thing, an amorphous force of evil that fills spectators with existential dread; it’s also where Meg’s father is held prisoner by the planet’s villainous ruler, an entity known as IT.

It was IT that threw me the last time I read A Wrinkle in Time. IT is an odd, odd villain for a book that is so in love with the human mind. Because IT is a brain.

Why does a book that loves knowledge make its villain a brain?

As a disembodied brain, IT is a symbol of pure rationality, of the idea that all questions and problems can be solved with logic. It’s certainly not unusual for children’s books to reject cold-blooded empiricism in favor of quasi-mysticism — children’s lit tends toward the romantic — but A Wrinkle in Time is very much in favor of rationality and Enlightenment virtues.

Meg is her best and purest self when she’s working on math problems. The long list of Earth’s greatest warriors in the fight against the Dark Thing includes Jesus, of course (L’Engle was a vocal Christian), but also da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Curie, Einstein, Euclid, and Copernicus.

And so when Meg fights against the insidious influence of IT — which tries to control her mind so that she will be as regimented as the ball-bouncing children of Camazotz — she turns to her education. She recites the Declaration of Independence, then the periodic table of elements. She calculates irrational square roots. "Rack your brains yourself, Meg," she instructs herself. "Don’t let IT rack them."

Brains are great in A Wrinkle in Time. Brains are one of our most valuable tools in the fight against evil. But a brain is also the incarnation of evil itself.

A Wrinkle in Time believes intellectualism is one of the best ways to fight evil … and also that evil is best represented by a giant brain. It believes in the power of language and poetry — and also that what is most important and sacred in life exists beyond words.

The language in A Wrinkle in Time is powerful, but it has its limits

In A Wrinkle in Time, the ability to communicate effectively through language is enormously important, but it’s also a limited power. Mrs. Whatsit, the youngest and least powerful of the guardian angels, is best with words. Mrs. Who, the middle angel, speaks almost exclusively in quotes, because "she finds it so difficult to verbalize … it helps her if she can quote instead of working out words of her own." Mrs. Which, the oldest and most powerful angel, speaks only in stutters but understands complicated situations and concepts at a level beyond words.

Preternaturally articulate, Meg’s psychic brother Charles can talk his way into and out of anything — and that includes convincing himself of the hubristic and near-fatal idea that he is strong enough to face IT on his own. Calvin, who is given to quoting "like Mrs. Who," is told by the angel trio that his greatest strength is his ability to communicate, to be the medium between Charles’s verbal brilliance and Meg’s brashness. But in the end, this is purely a defensive ability; Calvin can protect himself from IT’s insidious influence, but he can’t protect anyone else.

And Meg, our beloved heroine, is the one who’s able to save the day — but not through words. She can’t speak on the level that Charles and Calvin can. While they quote poetry to fight off IT, she screams, "Father!" But the force of her emotion, of her love for her father and for Charles, is what ultimately keeps them safe, language be damned.

In the world of A Wrinkle in Time, love is one of the two forces that must govern and drive intellectualism for it to reach its full power. The other is individuality.

Automated education is one of IT's favorite weapons

Meg is brilliant, yet she is thought to be stupid at school, albeit only because, she explains, the teachers want her to do her coursework "the long way around." Meg understands math in intuitive leaps, but her teachers want her to plod her way through dull, rote memorization — to show her work.

"We have to do it their way," she complains to Calvin as she tutors him in math. "Don’t you see how much easier it would be if you did it this way?" As she shows him what she means, "her pencil flew over the paper."

Mindless, automated learning is a tool IT uses, trying to hypnotize Meg and company by reciting the multiplication tables in a flat, mind-numbing drone that’s familiar to anyone who ever sat through a second-grade math class. The children are only able to fight IT off by drowning out IT’s voice. Charles recites nursery rhymes, Calvin shouts the Declaration of Independence, and Meg screams for her father.

Most of the children’s fights with IT are, essentially, battles of education: IT offers them education as machine, repetitive and boring, that will turn their minds blank, and to fight him off the children must, as Meg says, "rack their own brains." They turn to poetry and speeches and logic problems that expand their minds; instead of memorizing, they think.

It’s a condemnation of an educational system that is, as L’Engle sees it, more interested in getting children to sit quietly and do as they’re told than in teaching them how to exercise their brains. But all of this, ultimately, is subordinate to love. Thinking pushes IT back. Love defeats IT.

A Wrinkle in Time celebrates the kind of mind that can think for itself

What A Wrinkle in Time is championing is a kind of intellectualism that is rooted in individuality and tempered with love. Intellectualism that offers only a tedious, unquestioning accumulation of data, a submission to the facts as decided by someone else’s mind, and an indifference for those around you is more than useless: It is IT, the personification of evil itself.

And that’s why this book that is so in love with the human mind chose a giant brain for its villain. IT represents cold, soulless intellectualism.

It’s only an intellectualism that respects and loves individuality that is able to both use words at their highest level and grapple with concepts beyond words. That’s the kind of intellect that can think for itself.

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