Dragons are real. Every child knows this so deeply and truly that it is not even a question. Adults, as they grow older, develop a fantasy whose logic runs as follows: by keeping knowledge of the world’s evils a kind of secret, children will live carefree, in a happy bubble of untroubled innocence. But this is not true. The secrecy just makes the dragons bigger than they already are.
As a child I needed books to teach me the tricks to surviving the dragons. To tell me that they could be defeated. The author G.K. Chesterton said as much in his oft-used, and much garbled quote:
When I first read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, I was in the fifth grade. I was familiar with several dragons by then. I knew that the world could end at any moment because of Soviet bombs. We had driven into the Cascade mountains during the Cuban missile crisis. My parents had kept a camper van packed and ready since that time. I knew that girls weren’t supposed to be good at math; my teacher, who only called on the boys in class, had told me as much to my face. I knew that my mother and my grandmothers held their mouths set in a peculiar way. As I grew I realized that they were perpetually biting their tongues, silencing themselves in conversations with the men in our family.
In the character of Meg Murry I saw myself. A girl near my age, not beautiful, fearful of the possibility that what others have pointed out about her own stupidity and worthlessness are the sum of who she is. A girl at the center of a story set in a universe as vast and terrifying as our own. A girl, most importantly. Meg was the first female protagonist I had ever encountered in a story that resonated with my own experience. So intense and authentic was this recognition that for a time I was more deeply involved in Meg’s world than the reality of my own.
Meg’s experience was not the social expectation for girls in the ‘60s. L’Engle writes that the manuscript was rejected by 26 publishers before it found a home. It “was too different…deals overtly with the problem of evil…was too difficult for children, and was it a children’s book or an adult’s book, anyhow?” It was also a science fiction book with a female protagonist, no market for that. Nevertheless, Wrinkle has been in print continuously since its publication.
Reading A Wrinkle in Time probably didn’t help me any in navigating the social land mines of middle school. If anything, I became more of a nerd under its influence. But in this book, I had recognized the voice of another like myself. In this book, I had seen that there could be a girl who, St. George having failed, could face the dragon alone.
Cross-post from The Lighthouse Writer's Top Secret Blog of November 19