Follow TV Tropes


Literature / A Swiftly Tilting Planet

Go To

The third book in Madeleine L'Engle's Time Quintet series to be published, but chronologically the fourth. The Murry family, with Meg now married to Calvin and the twins in college, has reunited for Thanksgiving when Mr. Murry is informed by the President himself that they now have twenty-four hours to avert nuclear war.

Reciting a rune bestowed upon him by his in-law Mrs. O'Keefe, Charles Wallace summons the winged unicorn Gaudior, who takes him on a journey through time to seemingly random events, all connected by location and the name "Maddox". Their mission is to change several important "might-have-beens" to avert disaster in the present. The Echthroi, evil beings introduced in A Wind in the Door, beset them at every turn.

Preceded by A Wind in the Door. Followed by Many Waters

This novel provides examples of:

  • Act of True Love: Matthew Maddox gives the woman he and his brother Bran both love the means to travel to South America to be with Bran, then spends much of his strength through kything to help ensure Rich defeats Gedder and his negative influence on Vespugia will be permanently curtailed. These acts of perfect and selfless love end up saving humanity's future.
  • An Aesop:
    • About being careful whom you marry, as it will have a significant impact, for good or ill, on your family for the foreseeable future. Note that the central point of decision in the story — whether Branzillo is an Omnicidal Maniac who starts a nuclear war or a benevolent pacifist — hinges on whether Bran marries Zillie or Zilah, and whether Gwen marries Rich or Gedder.. More realistically, in Brandon's time the Higgins — formerly friends of the Llawcaes — are corrupted by intermarriage with the Mortmains and infected with the latter's bigoted worldview; and Beezie's mother's marriage to Duthbert Mortmain ruins her family (and results in a son who grows up to be a criminal).
    • More subtly, the novel criticizes nuclear proliferation at a time when a decent chunk of the world, including pariah states like South Africa and Israel had acquired nuclear weapons and a decent chunk of Latin America and the Middle East were trying to start programs to get them too. One of the Murrays even grouses about how Vespugia even got nukes in the first place, and is told that it has "powerful friends." Many theorists at the time suggested that the cold logic of political realism would ensure that proliferation would lead to peace, since war would be too costly for any rational actor to contemplate. The entire novel asks the important counter-question: when have human beings, especially despotic totalitarians, ever behaved like "rational actors?"
  • After the End: The Projections. Both were possible futures after a nuclear war on Earth encountered during interdimensional travel. One was an apocalyptic wasteland with hideously mutated barely-sentient "humans", another one had some semblance of civilization with a city of concrete bunkers and gas-mask-wearing soldiers.
  • Ambition is Evil: The major sin of Gwydyr's line. Gwydyr himself chose to set himself up as a king over the People Across the Lake and to conquer the People of the Wind, while his descendant Gedder's desire to dominate Vespugia is what ultimately created Madog Branzillo and destroyed the world.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: The events of Many Waters happen before A Swiftly Tilting Planet. After a time-traveling adventure to thousands of years before the birth of Christ, you'd think that Sandy and Dennys would not be so incredulous. This is explained by the fact that L'Engle wrote Many Waters after A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but for anyone reading the books in their chronological order this is just weird.
  • Arcadia: The area where the Murrys live, in the past, when the People of the Wind lived in simple pastoral harmony.
  • Arc Words: St. Patrick's Rune, invoked in each story arc in turn.
  • Artistic License – History: The author has Madoc sailing to America "before Lief Ericson", and refers to him as being polytheistic. However, according to The Other Wiki, the civil war following the death of Owain of Gwynedd, and the legend of Prince Madoc, took place ca. 1170, nearly two centuries after Leif Ericson. Moreover, at that time, Wales had been Christian for about half a millenium.
  • Artistic License – Physics: Even a full-scale nuclear war would not even blow up a planet. It would "merely" turn a good portion of the world (perhaps all of it) into an uninhabitable, or barely habitable, wasteland. While this is only one of many possibilities the characters entertain over the course of the novel, even that much should be too much for such a scientifically-literate family. That said, in the universe of the books there's more going on than simple physics.
  • Artistic License – Space:
    • The following exchange takes place when talking about nuclear war.
      Gaudior: "You know some of the possibilities if your planet is blown up."
      Charles Wallace: "It just might throw off the balance of things, so that the sun would burst into a supernova."
    • In this highly fantastical reality, stars are literally living, feeling, thinking entities that sing for joy. Where everything, from the tiniest smaller-than-cells organism to the greatest galaxy is a vitally important, interconnected part of creation! The loss of one of its planets might well cause the Time-verse Sun to go dark... or even sacrifice itself.
  • Babies Ever After: Mrs. O'Keefe is glad that Meg and Calvin's baby will be born after all. And damn it, after this night they earned it!
  • Bad Future: The "Projections" created by the Echthroi, in which they attempt to entrap Charles Wallace and Gaudior.
  • Badass Creed: The Rune.
    "At Tara in this fateful hour,
    I call on all Heaven with its power,
    And the sun with its brightness,
    And the snow with its whiteness,
    And the fire with all the strength it hath,
    And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
    And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
    And the sea with its deepness,
    And the rocks with their steepness,
    And the earth with its starkness,
    All these I place
    By God's almighty help and grace
    Between myself and the powers of darkness!"
  • Badass Pacifist: The Rune itself, and everyone who uses it. Violence crops up from time to time (always regretted), but when invoking the Rune, characters are claiming "I will not do harm, but I ask all heaven with its power etc. to stand between me and evil, to see that I am in the right."
  • Black-and-White Morality: Mostly simple, but not without a few nuances. If you're descended from Madoc you're probably a good guy, if you're descended from Gwydyr you're probably bad. The major exceptions are good old Calvin, descended from a man who used to kill puppies for fun and a domestic abuser, and Zillie, who is being manipulated by her cruel, ambitious brother and would rather be with someone else — but letting Gedder bully her into marrying Bran would still spell disaster, though this is more due to the undue influence it would allow him to exert rather than "just" being her tainted blood. The plot of the novel basically hinges on making sure that Madog Branzillo is born from Madoc's lineage rather than Gwydyr's, and that the fledgling nation of Vespugia is cleansed of Gwydyr's influence.
  • Body Surf: Charles Wallace surfing from person to person in various time periods makes up most of the narrative, in an unusual example of the hero employing this trope. Notably, however, he is not taking direct control of his hosts so much as submerging into their consciousnesses, observing events from their perspective and providing subconscious nudges toward certain actions. Meg, in turn, is basically doing the same with with Charles Wallace. Chuck, after his brain injury permanently changes his perspective, does it too, with Matthew in the past, while Matthew does it with his twin brother and, eventually, with the combined strength of the various other actors, they manage to prevent Gedder from taking over Vespugia.
  • Break the Cutie: Beezie had a wonderful, loving childhood - and a horrific adolescence.
  • Broken Bird: Mrs. O'Keefe, Calvin's bitter mother, was once Beezie, before her father died, her abusive stepfather broke her brother's brain, and she married an equally-abusive man to protect her from him.
  • Burn the Witch!: Averted. Zylle, accused of witchcraft, is sentenced to be hanged.
  • Cain and Abel: Madoc and Gwydyr, two exiled Welsh princes who came to the new world. One ends up Going Native, and seeking to spread teachings of peace. The other conquered a tribe and wants to conquer the one that rescued his brother, just because. Madoc tries reasoning with him, but is forced to drown his brother in Trial by Combat. It eventually turns into one of many recurring motifs.
  • Call-Back: The first chapter alludes to the tesseract and farandolae of the first two books.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: Sort of. Gaudior is generally right, but he admits that his pride and impatience aren't helping as the situation develops, and his lack of mortal perspective is generally held up as a bad thing.
  • Combat by Champion: Madoc vs. Gwydyr in the Madoc arc. Madoc wins, and exiles his brother from the land of the People of the Wind.
  • Cool Horse: Gaudior, a unicorn who drinks starlight, flies through time, and can literally ask the wind for directions.
  • Culture Clash: In Brandon's arc, between the People of the Wind and the more-liberal, original Welsh settlers on the one hand and the hardline Puritans on the other. This is partly what trips up Zylle during her interrogation by Mortmain.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: At least, according to Planet, that's the way things began. Now, there's something wrong with both dark and light.
  • Demoted to Extra: Calvin, who's away on a business trip for the entirety of the book.
  • Disney Villain Death: Played straight with Gedder, who dies from a deadly fall after scrabbling on the clifftop to retrieve his fallen knife.
  • Domestic Abuse: It is heavily implied that Beezie's mother was a victim of it at the hands of Duthbert Mortmain, then equally-heavily implied to be what turns her into Mrs. O'Keefe.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Discussed by Matthew and Bran, one with two useless legs and the other suffering from a permanently-injured leg and PTSD.
  • Elemental Powers: Played With: The Rune of Saint Patrick that calls on a surprising number of classic elemental powers, but generally only one or two powers actually get used at a time, e.g. lightning burning a church down and ending a Witch Hunt.
  • Evil Smells Bad: The Echthroi, as noted in A Wind in the Door. Also, Chuck Maddox can smell bad character or cruelty on a person the same way he can physical cancers.
  • Faking the Dead: Gwydyr initially fakes his own death so he can try to become the king by consolidating power behind his unsuspecting brother's back.
  • Foreshadowing: Mrs. O'Keefe often talks about something bad happening to "Chuck." She doesn't necessarily mean Charles Wallace.
  • Fictional Document: The Horn of Joy and Once More United, both novels by Matthew Maddox relating to time-travel.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Charles Wallace and Gaudior are attempting to avert the nuclear annihilation of the Earth by subtly nudging time around.
  • The Generalissimo: "Mad Dog" Branzillo rules the fictional South American country of Vespugia. The plot revolves around going back in time and changing events to prevent his sparking a nuclear war by causing Branzillo to become a benevolent ruler instead.
  • Generation Xerox: Certain patterns recur across the various periods in time that Charles Wallace visits, going all the way back to the conflict between Madoc and Gwydyr.
  • The Ghost: Despite being at the heart of the narrative, "Mad Dog" Branzillo never directly appears on page. The closest we come is seeing his face and thoughts through the POV of various "seers" looking into the future.
  • Going Native: Madoc, an ancient Welsh prince came to the new world before Columbus and ultimately joined the Wind People. His physical attributes recur among them for generations, most notably his wide-set blue eyes.
  • Good Is Impotent: Somewhat averted. The "good" people are proactive, strong, and willing to face evil, at least to give it a stern talking-to. But the wicked people are tolerated in the communities because they have special talents - one woman who is racist against Indians is the best midwife in the village, and Gedder the would-be future dictator is a powerful force in helping the Welsh settlers adapt to Vespugia. Played straightest in the Chuck arc; their father is so nice that he makes a poor businessman, lending out too much credit, while Duthbert Mortmain, in all his cruelty, is able to keep the failing store in the black.
  • Heat Wave: This combined with a drought put the townsfolk in a witch-hunting mood with Zylle as the victim.
  • Heroic Lineage: A big theme, mostly involving the line of Madoc and his brother Gwydyr.
  • Hidden Depths: From what you've barely heard about Mrs. O'Keefe in previous books, she sounds horrible. In this book, you find out how she got that way (and how she isn't so bad deep down).
  • Hidden Elf Village: The Unicorn's hatching grounds, which is safe from Ecthroi and has never been seen by human eyes before Charles Wallace.
  • Identical Grandson: Matthew and Bran for Madoc, Chuck for Brandon, etc.
  • Idiosyncratic Chapter Naming: Named after the verses of St. Patrick's Rune.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Tends to get invoked a lot with those of the Madoc line.
  • Indian Maiden/The Chief's Daughter: Zyll and Zylle both fit parts of the archetype.
  • Innocence Lost: A major theme is how evil corrupts joy and light. Charles Wallace manages to prevent this for Harcels.
  • In Spite of a Nail: Charles Wallace and Gaudior play around with numerous events in history, and the only one that seems to affect the present (or at least, THEIR present) is the one they want. Of course, since what they're doing is so subtle that even the characters involved don't usually realize what they've changed, they probably didn't adjust much.
  • In the Blood: See "Black-and-White Morality" above. This is all but stated in as many words in the text; Charles Wallace's ultimate goal is to adjust history so that the leader of a certain nation is descended from Madoc instead of from Gwydyr, changing him from a tyrant nicknamed "Mad Dog" to a benevolent ruler nicknamed "Zarco," "the Blue-Eyed."
    • The Mortmains follow this trope as well: anything they touch, they corrupt or otherwise ruin.
    • Subverted with Calvin, though, whose ancestors, the O'Keefes, include a guy who flings homeless puppies to death against walls, and Paddy, who is implied to be cut from the same cloth as Mortmain.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Matthew is deeply in love with his brother's fiancee, and ultimately spends most of his money to let her elope to South America to be with him. This act of love also helps save the world.
  • Kick the Dog: Jack O'Keefe literally kills homeless puppies by flinging them against the walls of barns to show off his muscles. Most of the evil characters are also some combination of racist, greedy, and abusive.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: Paddy's comment that Mortmain is "after" Beezie.
  • Love Makes You Evil: If the visions of various prescient characters are to be believed, "Mad Dog" Branzillo's love for his mother, and her teaching that he must be strong and impose his will upon it due to her own unhappy life in an unhappy family, drives his belief that the world is too cruel to be allowed to exist.
  • Meaningful Name: The names "Maddox", "Bran", "Zilla", and their variations. Also the various characters named "Mortmain", which means "dead hand" in French (something the characters actually notice in-universe).
  • Mental Fusion: Going "Within", where Charles Wallace "fuses" with several people to influence events.
  • Mighty Whitey: Played with. Madoc, a foreign prince, saves the People of the Wind from his brother, but he has completely abandoned his Welsh homeland and has no intention of ever returning. However, he is not generally held to be better than the People because of his race, and the only reason he has to be the one to beat his brother is because he doesn't want anyone to die, and because he views fighting Gwydyr as his responsibility, being his brother.
  • Neutral Female: Zyll while Madoc fights Gydwyr; Zillie, later on, when Gedder fights Richard.
  • Nightmare Face: The hideous mutant Charles Wallace and Gaudior briefly encounter in a Projection.
  • Noble Savage: The People of the Wind, who live in harmony with nature and with one another. However, as Gaudior bitterly notes, our world is not kind to lovers of peace.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with Mattie and Matthew, Richard, Ritchie, and Rich Llawcae, Brandon and his namesake nephew, David and Davey Higgins, and most impressively, Zyll, Zylle, Zillie, and Zillah. Then again, most of this has to do with history repeating itself.
  • Pegasus: Gaudior. However, when he takes flight, he hardly ever moves in space, but only through time. (The movement of the planet Earth itself throughout time is not accounted for.)
  • Pregnant Badass: Meg has to sit out on most of the physical activity because she's pregnant. With that said, she pulls a Big Damn Heroes moment several times due to her link with Charles Wallace.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Pastor Mortmain, and pretty much anyone who takes his side during the Brandon Llawcae plot, being racist and close-minded about the local Indians.
  • Pregnant Badass: Meg, who isn't quite an Action Mom, but lends Charles Wallace her emotional strength on his journey.
  • Pride: Charles Wallace's certainty in his own intellect and abilities almost causes disasters many times over, just as it did in A Wrinkle in Time. Ultimately, he accepts that he isn't perfect and doesn't necessarily have all the answers, just in time to escape a very subtle trap laid by the Ecthroi. Gaudior, too, eventually comes to understand and overcome his own disdain for "mortals" bound to time.
  • Public Domain Character: Madoc, whose legendary trip to America is discussed on The Other Wiki. See here
  • Put on a Bus: Calvin spends the whole novel off-page and trying to get home to his pregnant wife before nuclear war ends the human race. His mother ends up playing a critical role instead.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: So, Branzillo, a South American dictator, is distantly related to the Welsh? Actually... not all that far-fetched, look around Argentina.
  • Relationship Upgrade: As hinted at in the previous books, Calvin and Meg end up together—by this time, they are married and expecting their first child.
  • The Reveal: Eccentric, impoverished Mrs. O'Keefe is descended from royalty (Queen Branwen of Britain, Zyll) and through this line she is distantly related to "Mad Dog" Branzillo.
  • Seers: The people Charles Wallace merges with tend to have some sort of clairvoyance. Possibly justified due to Charles Wallace's presence in their psyches, the fact that they tend to be descendants of the same line, or perhaps that's why he can target them at all.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: The plot of the novel, in an effort to prevent a dictator from kicking off World War III.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Skinny, gawky, stringy-haired, bespectacled Meg became a beautiful young woman as she reached her twenties.
  • Sinister Minister: Pastor Mortmain in the Bran arc, a Holier Than Thou jerk who whips the settlers into a frenzied Witch Hunt. When the lightning rune is invoked at the end of the arc, it burns down his chapel, which the text notes was built more to his own vanity than to God's glory.
  • Spell My Name With An S: How do you even pronounce "Zylle" to make it distinct from "Zyll" and "Zillie"?
    • Zyll=Zill; Zylle=Zeel
  • Supporting Protagonist: On several levels: First, Charles Wallace is only going Within various people from the past, and only once is it explicit that he's even doing anything while being Within. Then, even when they finally reach 1863, Charles Wallace is Within Matthew, who is having a vision of Richard, who is all the way in Vespugia, having the big fight with Gedder that the entire book has actually been building up to. And, of course, there's Meg, the actual viewpoint character, who views the whole thing through a telepathic link with Charles Wallace.
  • Telepathy: "Kything," which is more like Sharing a Body. This is also Gaudior's main form of communication.
  • Theme Naming: In each of the time periods where Charles Wallace goes within, there is someone whose name is either a form of Charles (Chuck), or an anagram of Charles or Wallace (Harcels, Reschal, Llawcae). Also, note the various forms of Madoc, Zillah, or names that begin with Bran-, throughout each time period (excepting Harcels' time).
  • There Are No Coincidences: Invoked by Mrs. Murry at the end of the first chapter.
  • Time Skip: In the Harcels, Chuck, and Matthew storylines, lots of time passes quickly from Charles Wallace's point of view. Most abruptly, Chuck's brain-damage almost disconnects Charles Wallace from his mind, and only by overcoming the temptation to leave him offered by a disguised Ecthros is he able to return.
  • Trauma Conga Line:
    • This is ultimately why Beezie became the way that she was. Her father died, and her mother married a man for financial reasons, who ended up becoming abusive. When Duthbert tried beating up her mother, her little brother Chuck leaped and took a blow, which resulted in him receiving brain damage, and seeing other bits of time. Chuck hid it because he knew that to cover up the crime, Duthbert would commit him. Beezie reluctantly decided to help him hide it. Despite his best efforts, Duthbert did eventually commit Chuck, where he died in an asylum. No wonder Beezie grew up to be a bitter person after losing the person closest to her and being unable to do a damn thing about it.
    • Chuck's life is one tragedy after another ending with him dying in an institution. His sister was Forced to Watch it happen, and the experience taught her that you can't keep anything you love.
  • Twin Telepathy: Bran and Matthew Maddox are themselves kythers, able to tell what the other is thinking without direct communication.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Meg's back at the house, Charles Wallace is hopping around time.
  • Unicorn: Gaudior. It deserves noting that he's very different from the unicorns depicted in Many Waters in the same world — he's bigger, he's more reliably (albeit still not completely) real, and he's telepathic. And has magic.
  • Utopia: The tribe Harcels belongs to. Everyone in it has a purpose in life, which they never question. People rarely argue, and when they do, the Keeper of Harmony resolves the dispute and everyone accepts his judgement without further question. No one is considered better or more important than anyone else. The idea of one human killing another is literally incomprehensible to them. And despite the fact that they appear to have more or less a subsistence economy, Harcels has plenty of free time to wander in the woods, swim with his pet dolphin, or go flying on his pet eagle.
  • War Is Hell: Bran's time as a Union soldier. He came in expecting to go out and fight like Sir Galahad to make men free, and quickly found himself in a hellish war surrounded by much-less-clear motivations.
  • Wicked Stepfather: Duthbert Mortmain in the Chuck arc, ultimately responsible for Chuck suffering brain damage and coming unstuck in time, Beezie growing up into the hard, bitter Mrs. O'Keefe, and their grandmother dying of a heart attack.
  • Witch Hunt: A literal one targets Zylle during the Bran arc.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Charles Wallace spends days and weeks within his hosts, but it all takes place in real life within a few hours. Of note is that Meg, who is experiencing is everything via kything, but is seemingly not affected by the amount of time she experiences within Charles Wallace versus the real time for her. She can even talk with her family and go back to Charles Wallace at the same time she left him.