A Swiftly Tilting Planet

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A Swiftly Tilting Planet
First edition cover
Author Madeleine L'Engle
Cover artist Leo and Diane Dillon (first ed.)
Country United States
Language English
Series Time Quintet
Genre Young adult, Science fiction novel
Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
July 1, 1978
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
Pages 304 pp
ISBN 0-374-37362-0
OCLC 167766231
Preceded by The Arm of the Starfish
Followed by Many Waters

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) is a science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engle, the third book in the Time Quintet.

The book's title is an allusion to the poem "Morning Song of Senlin" by Conrad Aiken.[1]

Charles Wallace Murry, an advanced and perceptive child in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, has grown into adolescence. His intelligence and remarkable goodness carry him through an adventure in time to attempt to save the world from nuclear disaster threatened by Mad Dog Branzillo, the dictator of the fictional South American country of Vespugia. To change the outcome of the present, Charles Wallace must change the past, in a series of "might-have-beens", events which are turning points fought over by the powers of good and evil.

Plot summary[edit]

The book opens on Thanksgiving evening, about 10 years after the events of A Wind in the Door. Meg is now married to Calvin and is expecting their first child. Calvin has become a scientist and is in Britain at a conference. The Murry family is joined for Thanksgiving dinner by an unusual guest—Meg's very antisocial mother-in-law, Mrs. O'Keefe. When they receive the news of impending nuclear war caused by the dictator "Mad Dog Branzillo", Mrs. O'Keefe lays a charge on Charles Wallace — to prevent the disaster. She teaches him "Patrick's Rune", a rhyming prayer of protection that has been passed down to her from her Irish grandmother.

Charles Wallace goes for a walk to the star-watching rock, a family haunt, and begins to recite Patrick's Rune. His recitation summons a flying unicorn from the heavens who introduces himself as Gaudior. The winged unicorn explains to Charles Wallace that he must prevent nuclear war by traveling through time and telepathically merging with people who lived in the locale of the star-watching rock at points in the past. By doing so he may change pivotal situations, "might-have-beens", in which things might have turned out better than they did. Though unsure how events in the distant past near his home can affect a South American dictator, Charles Wallace agrees.

They are threatened along the way by the Echthroi, the antagonists introduced in A Wind in the Door. The Echthroi are evil beings whose goal is the total destruction of the universe. As Charles Wallace tries to make the might-have-beens turn out for good, the Echthroi fight to turn them for evil.

Gaudior and Charles Wallace's travels bring them to: Harcels, a Native American boy at least 1,000 years in the past; Madoc Gywnedd of Wales, a pre-Columbian trans-oceanic traveler; Brandon Llawcae, a Welsh settler in puritan times; Mrs. O'Keefe's brother Chuck Maddox, during their childhood, and Matthew Maddox, a writer during the American Civil War who wrote a novel about the legend of Madoc Gwynedd. Meg connects with Charles Wallace from home through "kything", the telepathic communication she learned in A Wind in the Door.

Eventually, a connection arises between the star-watching rock and Mad Dog Branzillo. In the 12th century, two Welsh princes named Madoc and Gwydyr travelled to North America to escape the in-fighting for their father's throne. But once there, Gwydyr turned against Madoc and tried to conquer their new home. Madoc defeated Gwydyr in combat, and Gwydyr left to South America. Both men married into the local Native American populations and became part of the local folklore. Many generations later in the 1860s, a descendant of Madoc marries a descendant of Gwydyr, and Mad Dog Branzillo is their descendant. However, thanks to Charles Wallace's changing of "might-have-beens" in the history of Branzillo's ancestors, things turn out differently. Distant descendants of Madoc marry, reuniting Madoc's line and resulting in a peaceful man being born instead, and the threat of nuclear war is dissolved.

St. Patrick's Rune[edit]

A Swiftly Tilting Planet also includes an ancient rune, which is supposed to ward off evil and save the world from the threat of nuclear war. The poem features in several parts of the book, each with slightly different wording or different punctuation; the poem's definite composition is unsure.

At Tara in this fateful hour,

I place 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 wind with its swiftness along its 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


The background story of Madoc and his brother, who along with their descendants are central to Charles Wallace's mission, derive from a legend about a pair of 12th century Welsh explorer-princes. According to the legend, Madoc arrived in North America centuries before Leif Ericson and settled with the people there, eventually giving rise to a Welsh-speaking native tribe with some Caucasian features.[2] Although the legend is generally centered on Georgia, along the Ohio River and elsewhere, L'Engle places Madoc and his genetic line in Connecticut, near the Murry home. As she tried to find a link between Wales and South America to bring her story threads together, L'Engle was given a book that mentioned an actual 1865 expedition from Wales to settle in "exactly that part of Patagonia where I had placed Vespugia." [3]

The verse given as Patrick's Rune is L'Engle's adaptation of an authentic medieval prayer, "Saint Patrick's Breastplate", which in turn is a variation on the Lorica of Saint Patrick.[4] L'Engle's rune invokes the same natural phenomena (sun, moon, lightning, rocks, etc.) as the fourth verse of the hymn "Saint Patrick's Breastplate", attributed to St. Patrick, translated by Cecil Frances Alexander, according to the hymnal used by the Episcopal Church,[5] of which L'Engle was a member.[6]

The Horn of Joy[edit]

Matthew Maddox's second novel, The Horn of Joy (1868), serves as a MacGuffin in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Charles Wallace spends a significant portion of the book trying to remember or discover what Maddox wrote in it, or to reach Maddox himself as a way of learning how to fix the right might-have-been. Readers sometimes wonder [7] whether The Horn of Joy ever existed; but it is a fictional book, created by L'Engle. Polly O'Keefe finds a copy of The Horn of Joy in her room (formerly Charles Wallace's room) when she visits her grandparents in An Acceptable Time. Maddox's equally fictional first novel, Once More United, is said to have been published in 1865.


Vespugia is the same fictional country that L'Engle's character Vicky Austin later visits in Troubling a Star. L'Engle explains in Walking on Water that Vespugia is "set in the middle of what used to be called Patagonia, a sizeable area along what are now the boundaries of Chile and Argentina." L'Engle's husband, Hugh Franklin, is credited with having named Vespugia.[3]


This is the third book of the Time Quintet, preceded by, in publication order, A Wrinkle in Time (1962) and A Wind in the Door (1973). However, this was not the chronological order. Though Many Waters was written and published later than A Swiftly Tilting Planet, it takes place earlier with respect to the characters. The last book in the Quintet, An Acceptable Time takes place a generation after A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and is part of the Polly O'Keefe series of books. The larger "Murry-O'Keefe" series (the Time Quintet plus the books with Poly/Polly O'Keefe in them) contains three novels between A Swiftly Tilting Planet and An Acceptable Time in terms of character chronology. These are The Arm of the Starfish, Dragons in the Waters and A House Like a Lotus.

Audio adaptation[edit]

In January 2012, an audio cd version narrated by actress Jennifer Ehle was released.

Awards and honors[edit]

In its first paperback edition, A Swiftly Tilting Planet won a National Book Award in category Children's Books (paperback).[8][9][a]


  1. ^ From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual awards for hardcover and paperback books in many categories. Almost all of the paperback award-winners were reprints.


  1. ^ "Morning Song of Senlin" at the Poets' Corner
  2. ^ The North Carolina Ghosts and Legends: The Moon Eyed People
  3. ^ a b L'Engle, Madeleine (1980). Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Harold Shaw, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 173–174. ISBN 0-86547-487-7. 
  4. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Patrick
  5. ^ The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 370. New York: The Church Hymnal corporation, 1982. ISBN 0-89869-120-6
  6. ^ Staino, Rocco (2007-12-11). "Madeleine L'Engle Remembered at New York Cathedral". School Library Journal (Reed Business Information,). Retrieved 2008-02-26. 
  7. ^ The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos. Retrieved 2008-02-26.
  8. ^ Chase, Carole F. (1998). Suncatcher: A Study of Madeleine L'Engle and Her Writing. Innisfree Press, Inc. p. 171. ISBN 1-880913-31-3. 
  9. ^ "National Book Awards – 1980". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-21.

External links[edit]