A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle

A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in what is sometimes called L’Engle’s Time Quartet, is a bit like Cloud Atlas in how people and their actions are connected across large expanses of time.

Charles Wallace Murray, a precocious child who is saved by his older sister Meg in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, is a teenager in this book. Watched over telepathically by his sister, he rides the unicorn Gaudior to different eras and mentally inhabits a series of people. By influencing their decisions for good, and using an ancient Irish Christian prayer taught to him by his sister’s mother-in-law, he hopes to avert the nuclear apocalypse that is likely to be kicked off by an insane South American dictator whose Welsh ancestors migrated from the American town where the Murrays live.

I remember being confused by A Swiftly Tilting Planet when I was younger, but even as an adult I found the plot hard to follow. The bits I remembered best were about the unicorn (which is invariably shown on the cover).

See below for a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book as well as specific comments on what I liked and didn’t like about the book.

My summary of A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Chapter 1: The Murrays and Mrs. O’Keefe
“In this fateful hour”

L’Engle reminds us of all the things we know about the Murray Family and tells us what has happened in their lives in the years since we saw them in A Wind in the Door. In particular, Meg Murray is now married to Calvin O’Keefe, who is off in London but whose crotchety mother has been invited for Thanksgiving dinner with the Murrays.

After Mr. Murray gets a call from the President of the United States saying that a mad dictator is going to blow up the world in twenty-four hours, Mrs. O’Keefe surprises the Murrays by reciting a kind of prayer or poem, which she calls a rune, and which Charles Wallace Murray, Meg’s youngest brother, believes will help him change the fate of the world.

The lines of the rune, similar to part of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, correspond to the book’s chapters, like so:

Chapter 2: Gaudior the flying unicorn
“All Heaven with its power”

Charles Wallace goes out to the star-watching rock and calls on heaven using the rune, thus summoning a flying unicorn named Gaudior. The unicorn will carry Charles Wallace through time, but in every time they visit they will arrive in the same place where they started.

Chapter 3: Charles Wallace practices “going within”
“The sun with its brightness”

Gaudior takes Charles Wallace far back in time and explains that he will be “going within” to try to recognize alternate “might-have-beens”, different paths in history, and make some critical choice that will (hopefully) avert the nuclear apocalypse. The first host is a boy who belongs to a tribe called The People of the Wind. He lives an idyllic life. There’s a lot of stuff about creation and the earth and the sun.

Chapter 4: Charles Wallace sees a bad alternate future
“The snow with its whiteness”

Mystical beings called Echthroi who are so Evil their name uses a capital letter E are constantly trying to keep Gaudior and Charles Wallace from completing their mission. They send the unicorn and rider into a possible post-apocalyptic future where life as we know it is over. Charles Wallace uses the rune to call down snow and escape.

Chapter 5: Charles Wallace sees some sibling rivalry
“The fire with all the strength it hath”

Two royal brothers from Wales, the only passengers to survive a shipwreck in New England, have made their homes among the natives. The good brother is about to be married to his sweetheart in a ritual of the People of the Wind when the bad brother shows up with soldiers from another tribe and tries to steal the girl and start a war. The good brother chases the bad brother away by using the rune to call down fire.

Chapter 6: Charles Wallace visits a Pilgrim town
“The lightning with its rapid wrath”

Charles Wallace inhabits a host who has visions. The rune calls down lightning and stops the religious people of the town from executing a woman of the People of the Wind who married a settler and has just given birth to his baby.

Chapter 7: Interlude
“The winds with their swiftness”

The pieces are starting to come together, but because Charles Wallace tries to control the traveling process, he and his mount, tied together with a hammock, get blown into the ocean instead of somewhere useful. The rune calls wind to get them onto land again.

Chapter 8: A Baby Unicorn and the Recent Past
“The sea with its deepness”

Charles Wallace and Gaudior visit Gaudior’s home to be healed from wounds inflicted by the knotted hammock. Charles Wallace witnesses the birth of a unicorn from an egg, and Gaudior teaches it to drink moonlight and starlight. (Aww!) Charles Wallace’s next host is Mrs. O’Keefe’s brother Chuck, only one generation in the past. Chuck’s grandmother tells of a time an English princess used the rune to call her brother. He came “over the deep sea and landed where the rocks were steep and the earth was stark” to rescue her from a mean Irish king.

Chapter 9: Charles Wallace gets hit in the head
“The rocks with their steepness”

Trying to protect Mrs. O’Keefe, as a girl, from their nasty stepfather, Chuck is knocked down the stairs and suffers brain damage.

Chapter 10: Everything is a bit confused…
“The earth with its starkness”

This is the chapter where Chuck and Charles Wallace feel the planet tilt swiftly. The Echthroi try to trick Charles Wallace into leaving his brain-damaged host. Chuck can’t tell the present from the past, and is as worried about the future as the Murrays and the host who had visions. He connects all the pieces of the past together and realizes who has to marry who for the future to turn out well.

Chapter 11: Finally, it’s 1865!
“All these I place”

After a glimpse at another dire alternate future, Charles Wallace lands in 1865, where he influences the course of history by helping ensure that the right man and woman marry, and that the right man survives a fight on a clifftop.

Chapter 12: All is well
“Between myself and the powers of darkness”

The rune brings Charles Wallace back from his journey safely, just in time to avoid dying in his 1865 host. He finds that he and his sister Meg are the only ones who remember that there ever was a mad dictator who threatened to blow up the world. In the reality he helped create, that man, the descendant of the wrong people, never existed. Mrs. O’Keefe, her purpose having been served, asks to be taken home.

What I do not like about A Swiftly Tilting Planet

The unbearably awkward word “umbrellaing” was used to describe dust clouds in a vision of the nuclear apocalypse. Can we just not use “umbrella” as a verb, please? Great. Thanks. But that’s the least of the book’s problems.

There are too many characters.

Charles Wallace visits four times in the past, but each time has its own people, and we don’t really get to know them particularly well. Maybe if the book were four times as long, it could spend more time in each place, and might thus be easier to follow and more enjoyable. See my separate post on the character names in A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

The structure is awkward.

Maybe the story would be less confusing if we were only following Charles Wallace and not also following Meg, who is following Charles Wallace. Meg is looking back to 1865 and to her mother-in-law’s lifetime, whereas her brother is looking forward to those times. I feel like Meg was just shoehorned into the story because she was an important character in the first two Time Quartet books, not because the story needed her. Having her dig up clues to the past in the present just made the whole thing that much more complicated, and took up time that could have been used to get to know each time period better.

It’s built on genetic determinism.

The descendants of the younger Welsh prince are good; the descendants of the older Welsh prince are bad. I’m not comfortable with the idea that the sins of one ancestor taint an entire bloodline… forever.

It idealizes the far past.

Harcels and his whole Native American tribe apparently live a perfectly innocent, blissful life.

The People of the Wind were gentle and harmonious. On the rare occasions when there was a difference of opinion, it was mediated by the Harmonizer, and his judgment was always accepted. (62)

L’Engle could have put the People of the Wind in a hypothetical, mythical, or legendary Garden of Eden, but instead she put them in history where a time traveler could and did visit them. That decision harmed my suspension of disbelief more than any number of unicorns and convenient thunderbolts could. She does the same with Noah and his family and his ark in Many Waters, but that book is less awkward because it’s more thoroughly fantastical. Instead of the threat of nuclear war, the book is filled with fantasy creatures including manticores, unicorns and griffons.

It embodies fears of the recent past.

Although the antagonist in A Swiftly Tilting Planet is fictional, the novel was said to be inspired by Cold War fears—specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Since the Cold War ended before I was old enough to be particularly worried about geopolitical tensions, the novel’s premise strikes me as outdated.

What I like about A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I like the hyperrealistic fantasy cover illustration by Rowena Morill… It’s the best cover the book has ever had, and it’s had lots.

Should you read A Swiftly Tilting Planet?

Did you enjoy reading about Meg’s adventures protecting her little brother in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door? Just because Meg and Charles Wallace are in it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy A Swiftly Tilting Planet as much, or at all. Quit while you’re ahead.

Do you really, really love unicorns? How about time travel plots? Are you good at remembering the names of a large cast of characters? Have you read or are you planning to read other L’Engle books about Meg and Calvin’s descendants (The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters, A House Like a Lotus)? Okay, then go for it.

When and Why I Read A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I don’t really remember this one as well as the previous two. I just remember the cover of an old copy that shows Charles Wallace riding a terrified pegasus.

Genre: Fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished: 29-May-2018 / 30-May-2018
Length: 256
ISBN: 0440901588
Originally published in: 1978
Amazon link: A Swiftly Tilting Planet