Talking Shop: Five Reasons Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘YA Books’ Succeeded

Those with even a cursory knowledge of my literary preferences will recall my fondness for the late Madeleine L’Engle

My first brush with L’Engle came when I picked up a beat-up paperback copy of A Wrinkle in Time in fourth grade. At that time, L’Engle’s books expanded my consciousness, creating in me a yearning for more–spiritually, creatively, and academically.

C.S. Lewis once credited the acclaimed Scottish author George MacDonald with “baptizing his imagination.” Throughout my childhood, L’Engle had a similar effect on me. I felt so indebted to Madeleine L’Engle for her numinous, soul-searching prose, that I named my only daughter “Madeleine.”

A week or so ago, I decided to pick up a book by L’Engle which I haven’t previously read. The book is titled The Arm of the Starfish. I was hesitant, because the book is filed squarely in the “Young Adult” section of the library. 

I’ll admit my bias. I tend to dislike most books that can be categorized as “YA.” for reasons that will soon be apparent. In short, I find most books in the genre lacking–both in substance and in any modicum of literary merit.
It’s an established fact that L’Engle hated when critics panned her work as “juvenile.” She famously quipped, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Still, I approached the book with a little trepidation. I didn’t want to return to an author that I cherished so deeply for so many years and become ultimately disappointed that I’d outgrown her. I feared being disillusioned.

Ultimately, out of respect for L’Engle’s perspective, and her phenomenal track-record in my reading history, I decided to give this YA-novel a chance. 
What I found, to my relief, was a tightly-knit, cosmopolitan spy-novel that did anything but disappoint me. 

As I set the book down, I reflected a little on why L’Engle’s YA worked where so many others have failed. How is it that her books stood up, not only to the test of time, but also to the test of the audience aging?

I came up with the following five reasons:

1.She never shied away from “grown-up” topics.

In The Arm of the Starfish alone, L’Engle deftly navigates topics as complex as nationalism, the thalidomide disaster of the late 50s and early 60s, the Spanish Inquisition, and deep-seated theological issues. 

In the hands of a less capable writer, such a diverse survey of topics would quickly turn glib and disingenuous. L’Engle manages to explore these topics with aplomb, always rejecting an easy explanation.

2.Conversely, she didn’t resort to shock tactics. 

Without slinging mud at any particular authors, “YA lit” (writ large) often acts as a taxonomy on “edgy” or “controversial” subjects, such as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, etc. 

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with addressing any of these topics for a younger audience, it’s often handled in a clumsy way, detracting from any real message and instead promoting controversial content for the sake of controversy. 

L’Engle’s doesn’t shy away from pushing the envelope, but it never feels contentious for the sheer purpose of bolstering sales.

3. She whetted the appetite of her readers.

Madeliene L’Engle was a walking, talking Liberal Arts education. Her works are replete with allusions to science, medicine, history, philosophy, mythology, linguistics, literature, theology, art, and music. 

In The Arm of the Starfish, L’Engle alludes (among other things) to the Tallis Canon, Jackson Pollack, and the Greek myth of Diana and the Golden Apples. She utilizes Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” as both a secret-code and a theme interwoven throughout the book. The subject-matter of the book delves into the topic of marine-biology: both real and speculative.

In every instance mentioned above, regardless of the topic, L’Engle instills in her readers the desire to learn more. Inspiring your audience to dig deeper into the humanities is a hallmark of great literature.

4. She never condescended to her readers. 

L’Engle had an impressive command of language, and she didn’t let the fact that she was writing for a young audience dissuade her from putting it to use. In The Arm of the Starfish alone, she writes in four languages: English, conversational Spanish, tidbits of Portuguese, and Koine Greek. 

Most of the words and sentences she employed can be understood through context clues, but in some examples (such as the “Phos Hilaron” hymn in the original Greek,) she requires her readers to do a little research outside of the pages of her own work to uncover the meaning and origins of the text. 

L’Engle never felt the need to “dumb down” her vocabulary on account of her younger audience, either. She used words like “echinoderms,” “anagogical,” “desultorily,” and “porcine.” 

She gave her younger readers the benefit of the doubt: if they didn’t know a word, they could look it up in a dictionary.

5. She weaves all of the above nimbly into a well-told story.  

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of the above points are wrapped up into a well-plotted, breezy narrative. The net effect of reading one of her novels is that you ruminate deeply while simultaneously enjoying a great-read. Or, as she puts it while alluding to Frost, “your avocation and vocation become one.”

In so doing, L’Engle crafts dense, imaginative, sprawling concepts into tightly-packed, well-resolved stories. Regardless, even, if her books include the “YA” moniker. 

The Numinous in Lovecraft: A Christ-follower’s Thoughts on Horror

Jewelers refer to the brilliance of well-cut diamonds as their “fire.” There are a variety of factors that allow a diamond to sparkle: the quality of the cut, the clarity of the diamond’s surface, the carat size.

The same can be said, I think, of literature. A writer’s brilliance can be determined by a number of things: the quality of craftsmanship, the clarity of the message, the sheer enormity of the story.

But ultimately, the written work, like the diamond’s fire, is only as good as the light pouring through it. Often, I’ve marveled at the multifaceted worlds of some luminous writer, and thought to myself, “What beautiful intricacy, but what a dingy light.”

I regret to say this was my reaction to much of H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

As I’ve culled through the mainstays of his work, I must admit, I’ve been blown away by the cohesive universe he built around the Cthulu mythos. Previously, I’d read “The Dunwitch Horrors” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” Recently, I’ve delved into “The Call of Cthulu” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” Most of Lovecraft’s corpus of work weaves seamlessly into the fabric of the Cthulu universe–populated by “Old Ones,” multidimensional beings, and non-Euclidean geometry.

But the aspect of Lovecraft’s work that most interests me most is his particular attentiveness to the numinous.

I’ve written in depth about the concept of the numinous in the past, which can be broadly defined as the “uncanny” or “wholly other” impression left upon human beings by the supernatural. In spiritual terms, the numinous is the aspect of holiness beyond the grasp of human’s rational mind. But in Lovecraft’s pulpy, weird tales, the numinous takes on a much more ominous connotation. His works are replete with beings and knowledge that exceed humanity’s reach. These alien beings overwhelm and mystify Lovecraft’s protagonists, driving them to madness, homicide, or suicide.

What makes Lovecraft’s stories so chilling is that they have a basis in reality: the numinous devoid of benevolence is unsettling.

It’s one thing to think of God in terms of the numinous. As we read scripture, many of us have grappled with the thought of “fearing God.” We may wonder if the Hebrew or Greek word for “fear” connotes the same feelings of trepidation as the English one. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that when we experience the numinous aspect of God, we “feel wonder and a certain shrinking.”

But no matter how you define the “fear of God,” we as believers in Christ can ultimately put our trust in Him because we know that his intentions toward us are good, and that He is loving.

Not so with Lovecraft’s creatures. The numinous divorced from holiness becomes something utterly profane. They’re not supernatural, but instead become something preternatural, and eventually even subnatural.

In Lovecraft’s works, he imagines entities from other realms beyond humanity’s understanding–aliens as malevolent as they are beyond us, and that is what makes his work truly horrifying.

A Case for the ‘Numinous’ in Literature

At nine-years-old, I started to fear going to church.

I didn’t mind going to Sunday School or Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather, I was very specifically afraid of entering the sanctuary each Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m., as I’d done countless times before as the son of a preacher.

The feeling was new to me. Being a pastor’s son, I didn’t dare tell a soul. It was an incongruous emotion—why, now, after nine years of worship services, was I feeling trepidation as I sat beside my mother (a Sunday School teacher, herself,) in a hardwood pew?

I knew my locale had something to do with it. A year previous, my dad had accepted his new role as senior pastor at First Missionary Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the change of scenery presented me with some elements of worship that I was previously unfamiliar with.

Though this new house of worship was within the same denomination as our previous church, there were still remarkably stark differences. Rather than singing “Shine, Jesus, Shine,” from slide projectors, we turned in our hymnals to “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” The worship leader might have mentioned the hymn number, but he didn’t need to; the congregants had already committed it to memory. Dark-stained pews and stained-glass windows lent a sense of reverence to the ambience of the sanctuary.

But over the last year, I’d noticed something deeper, somehow more surreptitious stirring below the surface each Sunday morning.

Why was it that I developed goosebumps on my forearms when the pianist thundered on the keys during “O, Holy Night?” How did the entire congregation know to rise to their feet at the exact moment the last verse of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Händel’s Messiah began?

It seemed instantaneous and involuntary, like when each of the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention on their own accord when you are confronted by the presence of something utterly terrifying.

I continued on with my predicament, unable to talk to anyone about this mysterious fear that plagued me on a weekly basis. I hadn’t a clue what caused it. All I knew was that I could feel the presence of something or someone during the crescendos of certain worship songs, Sunday after Sunday, and it petrified me.

I tried to steel myself against this overwhelming, awe-inspiring emotion, lest my cheeks flush with blood and my knees buckle. I tried my level-best, at nine-years-old to not succumb to the odd, preternatural combination of terror and mystery.

What would happen if I gave in, and allowed myself to ascend over the pinnacle of this rush of emotion? Surely, the air at that peak was too thin and rarified for the lungs of a quavering, scrawny 9-year-old boy. Doubtless, the breath in my lungs would be sucked out and I’d be undone.

 

One Sunday, in what felt like an even split between voluntary and instinctive, I let go, and in my spirit embraced this mysterium tremendum et fascinans, that is, the “fearful and fascinating mystery.” I surrendered to a sense of the presence of God in worship, and felt a sense of ecstasy unlike any other emotion I can describe.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling I felt at nine-years-old, the terror and mystery and finally, sublime joy of the moment, was defined almost one hundred years prior by a German theologian named Rudolf Otto.

In Otto’s book, which, in English, is titled, The Idea of the Holy, Otto describes an insidious change that came about over the years in relation to the word “holy.” He posits that prior to the idea of the “holy” being defined only in the moral, good vs. evil sense, it also encompassed a feeling of uncanny wonder at something wholly beyond ourselves. What’s more, the earliest people to encounter God in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, knew very little of what God deemed right or wrong because so little of the Law had been given at that time. As such, their understanding of holy perhaps depended more heavily on this sense of ethereal reverence than anything else.

It is good and natural that our definition of “holy” evolved as the progressive revelation of God’s plan became apparent. However, Otto wanted to reclaim this other side of holiness. In order to do so, he needed to coin a new term. He created the word “numinous.”

Otto summarizes his new term in this way: “…it will be useful, at least for the temporary purpose of the investigation, to invent a special term to stand for ‘the holy’ minus its moral factor or ‘moment’, and, as we can now add, minus its ‘rational’ aspect altogether” (Otto 6). In his book, he goes on to describe the feeling of the Wholly Other, in which we as humans experience a sublime emotion that surpasses comprehension and fills us with a sense of wonder.

Throughout the Twentieth Century, a good deal of ink has been spilled on behalf of the numinous—and it has come from the pens of some of our greatest thinkers. C.S. Lewis, the renowned novelist and Christian apologist, wrote about the subject at length in The Problem of Pain. Conversely, referring to his experiences while under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline, Aldous Huxley wrote about a crude approximation of the feeling in The Doors of Perception. Carl Jung applied the same concept to his studies of the role religion plays in psychology.

During the course of my life, I, too, became enamored with the idea of the numinous, even if I hadn’t, at first, known there was a word for it. I delved into literature and found my favorite writers have always toyed with this concept. Scattered across their pages, this all-encompassing, nebulous sense of wonder was nearly ubiquitous.

Curiously, this is true regardless of genre. It can be found in Sci-Fi: among the pages of the novel Childhood’s End or in the short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s present in the Fantasy Novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It can be found in the mystical poetry of Rumi, or even “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.

Whatever the form or genre, authors have taken a long, hard look at the intersection between the Divine and the human for centuries. Sometimes, this comes through a scene depicting literal confrontations with God. In other instances, it happens in a more oblique way: through encountering nature, or marveling at the vast infinitude of space. In either case, the concept of the numinous has had a profound effect on human thinking since the start of recorded history.

It is my earnest belief that in terms of emotions, there is no feeling more noble or exultant than the numinous. In Scripture, before Samson, the judge, was born, the Angel of the Lord visited his parents to give them specific instructions regarding the boy’s life. Manoah, Samson’s father, asks the name of the Angel of the Lord. His response is a question in and of itself: “‘Why do you ask my name,’ the Angel of the LORD asked him, ‘since it is wonderful,’” (Holman Christian Standard Bible, Judges 13:18). The Hebrew word for “wonderful” here is transliterated as “pili,” which is also rendered as “incomprehensible.” It’s nearly always used with the connotation of a perception that is too lofty for humanity’s grasp.

I believe that this statement by the Angel of the Lord alludes to (among other things) this sense of the numinous—the grandiosity of God which can’t be measured or condensed into a mortal’s understanding. Similarly, it’s mentioned in Solomon’s writings that God “has also put eternity in their hearts,” (Ecc. 3:11). This hints at the sense of yearning for the infinite that humankind is endlessly fixated upon.

And so, I’ve found, that since my first brush with the numinous as a nine-year-old in the pews of the burgundy, brick church, I’ve been preoccupied with the numinous—not just as part of a worship service, but also as a means of approaching God through writing. As I sit down to write, I’m constantly trying to scratch away at a paper-thin wall between myself and my Creator.

What you’ll read in my work is the culmination of that pursuit of God. My hope is that those who read these poems, stories, and essays will encounter a sense of the numinous, just as I, the writer did, while writing them. This feeling is not the destination in and of itself, but rather it serves to point us to a paradoxically intimate and transcendent God.

My hope is that through the written word, you will find yourself grappling with ruminations on what it means to be human, with your relationship with God, and with your interactions with those around you. And perhaps, somewhere along the line, you, too, will glimpse the numinous.