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]

Plot summary[edit]

The book opens on Thanksgiving evening, 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; and Meg's family is joined for Thanksgiving dinner by Calvin's mother, Branwen Maddox 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 by means of "Patrick's Rune": a rhyming prayer of protection inherited from her Irish grandmother.

Charles Wallace goes to the star-watching rock, a family haunt, where his recitation summons a winged unicorn named Gaudior, who 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. They are threatened along the way by the Echthroi, the antagonists introduced in A Wind in the Door, who now seek to alter history in their favor. Gaudior and Charles Wallace's travels bring them to Harcels, a Native American boy at least 1,000 years in the past; Madoc 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. Throughout their journey, Meg connects with Charles Wallace from home through "kything", the telepathic communication she learned in A Wind in the Door. Gradually, it is revealed that Branzillo is a descendant of Madoc through all Charles' other alter-egos, and of Madoc's treacherous brother Gwydir; and ultimately, Charles' manipulation of Branzillo's various ancestors, results in the re-union of Madoc's line, and the transformation of the present Branzillo into an advocate of peace, to prevent the war.

St. Patrick's Rune[edit]

Throughout the story, this poem is invoked by Charles Wallace through the personalities he inhabits, to ensure the victory of good. 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 Gwydir derive from a legend by which 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, and places his descendants among a historical Welsh colony in Patagonia. [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. 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 of Poly/Polly O'Keefe) 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. ^ Stains, 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]