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Definitive Texts: 1984 as PC’s self-stupifying how-to manual

I get the question, in another form, from teachers, who suggest I should write about ‘real’ things like racism and unemployment. Sometimes the teachers claim that fantasy is too difficult, or ‘beyond the average child’, but a lot of them complain that it doesn’t give them opportunities enough for class discussions of important modern issues.  (‘Why don’t you write real books?’, Diana Wynne Jones)

In Orwell’s 1984, one of the many acts of the IngSoc (English Socialist) party is to write garbled versions (called ‘Definitive Texts’) of books whose message undermines the totalitarian ethos but whose titles are too well known just to repress. A review (h/t instapundit) shows that the recent film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ has given it this treatment. Meg and her mother are now black, and the child actor chosen to play Charles Wallace adds so considerably to the rainbow effect that the film makes him adopted, lest even the most woke viewer notice the impossibility of his being the offspring of Meg’s mixed-race parents. The twins are missing entirely

which may be a blessing, considering that political correctness probably would have dictated they be played by a Native American dwarf and a disabled transsexual

etc. And all this merely serves as a distraction from the ruthless gutting of the Christian resonances that are as much a part of L’Engle’s books as of the Narnia stories. (The numerous other incoherent plot changes may reflect the scriptwriter’s wokeness or their poor memory or both.)

The review presents all this well enough. I’m not writing here to repeat it, but to reflect on how it hurts the PC themselves, not just us. To explain, I have to provide a worked example (so this post is longer than mine usually are).

Sadly, I missed the chance Natalie once had to meet the late Diana Wynne Jones, so I never asked her the questions I had. One of the more trivial was about her third reason why her early books all had male leading characters. (Her first reason is by far the more worth discussing – but that is another story.) Her third reason was she wanted to write a book that her children (all boys) would read and “in those days, boys would not read books with a girl as lead character.”

Obviously, Diana knew that was not literally true. Swallows and Amazons (written long before “those days”) stars twice as many girls as boys, and a later book in the series has thrice as many girls as boys. However she could have replied that none of those girls ever think a thought that would bring a blush to the cheeks of a young boy. When Nancy and Peggy are obliged by their great-aunt to dress in party frocks rather than the sailing gear they prefer, their reaction is almost as horrified as a boy’s might be. Susan’s femininity is strictly practical – boys know that when children camp or sail, someone has to manage the cooking. Perhaps Dorothea, with her dreams of Dutchmen bringing her tulips across the north sea and her yearning to be a writer, gets closest to thinking girlish thoughts: one can just about imagine her writing “The Tale of the Twin Princesses” if there were the slightest chance any of her friends would read it – but since she knows they wouldn’t, she writes “The Outlaw of the Broads”, which is clearly a swashbuckler.

So what I would have asked Diana was, “Did you ever try ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ on your sons?” (It was published in 1963 – their ages suit). I read it at age seven or eight and could not put it down, so I think she could have got her sons to read it – despite the fact that Meg, for all her mathematical genius, is not at all like the Amazon girls. Page one of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ finds Meg angsting away in her bedroom. The next day she meets a boy and, after a shamefully brief period of caution, goes gooey over him. She’s embarrassed when her mother accidentally reveals she still plays with dolls – but that’s nothing to what a small boy identifying with her would feel.

Now part of why that boy keeps reading is because if small boy reader gets as far as page 2, he may think for a bit that the book will be about Charles Wallace. Adoring elder sister Meg knows Charles is a genius, despite the neighbours thinking he’s an idiot. Every small boy relates to this. Every small boy knows he’s a genius but, for some strange reason, the people around him treat him as if he were an idiot. Maybe this book is really about the amazing deeds of superboy Charles Wallace, as chronicled by Lois-Lane-like sister Meg?

If this brief mistake were in any way contrived, it would be a huge turn-off to re-reading. “The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler” was praised by all the usual suspects. Aided by deceptive cover art, its writer works hard to persuade you that first-person-narrator Tyke is a boy. Then she reveals Tyke is a girl. It’s as easy as ringing a doorbell and running off. “Yes comrade, this proves you too still suffer unconscious gender micro-stereotyping. Report to your assigned gender deconstruction re-educator immediately.” I assume some boys with feminist mothers read it once. I’d guess fewer read it twice. (Of course, these days, the making of those fixed binary assumptions about Tyke’s she-it-he gender identity would be the verboten thing. It is so hard for the woke to stay ‘relevant’.)

In a ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ however, this initial impression is wholly natural and innocent. It is close to how Madeleine L’Engle really does see Meg’s and Charles’ later relationship. (In the later books of the series, more-grown-up Charles is usually pointman, with Meg in a supportive role.) In the first third of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, Charles takes the initiative in trying to rescue their lost father. Meg is the observer of the action but also the weakest: the slowest to recover from multi-dimensional travel, the slowest to learn the lessons their guides teach, the least patient (though the value of this is slightly more ambiguous). In a character-displaying scene the children confront the wall that sucks in the forms which define everyone on the totalitarian planet of Camazotz. The two boys each reach out a hand to touch it – “Ugh!” says Charles, “It’s like ice”, says Calvin – while Meg, between them, is intensely conscious she has no desire whatever to let go of their other hands to touch this vile wall herself. The boys can explore the wall; her job is to give (and receive) moral support. Already however, we’ve had hints that Charles is too young, too confident, more at risk than he realises. When he first attempts a dangerously overconfident move, Meg, terrified, temporarily saves him by almost knocking him out but when he recovers the two resume their relation of Charles taking the lead. Assuring her he can handle it, he advances open-eyed to his doom. The first third of the book ends with Meg, her rescued father and her boyfriend fleeing in the nick of time from Camazotz, where Charles is now far more enslaved than his father was.

In the middle part of the book, Meg is desperate to rescue her beloved baby brother – and her plan for doing so is that her father and boyfriend should come up with a plan for doing so and carry it out. Her job is to motivate them, so she gets angrier and angrier as, despite their best efforts, they make little progress at the impossible task before them. Finally, they manage to contact the guardians who have guided them, only to be told that both father’s plan and boyfriend’s plan are pure suicide. In the awful silence that follows, the unbelieveable idea occurs to Meg (for the first time) that she is expected to do something. Her immediate reaction is to shout, “I can’t go”, and when the cuttingly dismissive response shows her that in fact that is the idea, she has a tantrum. Only after that can she face the facts. It is Charles mind that is enslaved. Her boyfriend has known him for less than a day. Her father has been a prisoner since before Charles could speak. Only Meg knows him well enough to have any chance of freeing him. An impossible task for them, it is only almost impossible for her. Father and boyfriend protest vigorously against sending her – and it is clear both Meg and Madeleine L’Engle would be immensely unimpressed with them if they didn’t – but there is no escaping the logic to which the plot has naturally led her (and the small boy reader). If anything defines Meg, it is that she loves her brother, and to this, everything else she thinks about herself must give way.

Thus we reach the final part of the book, and it is Meg who must “do the hero bit”, as Dianna Wynne Jones puts it. She is the one who must walk, alone and terrified, towards the dark tower (which in this book is a low building pulsing with an insane light), armed only with the usual cryptic clue – that only a single weapon can save her “but you must find it for yourself”. I won’t spoil it for you by telling whether she wins through or not – but I suspect you can guess.

So (for those who have managed to endure reading this far) not only could ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ be made the subject of “classroom discussions” but I have (I hope) demonstrated that a lefty teacher with at least two brain cells to rub together – and, much more important, the ability to set their inner PC censor temporarily to a low enough setting while reading it that they can think about it – could make remarks about roles and expectations and all that stuff they like to go on about. But “you can’t say that” silences their ability to think more than our ability to speak. Gross crude effects – make Meg black, replace the Christian themes – plastered onto the tale like Pollock-style paint blobbed onto a Rembrandt, provide the ‘definitive text’ for a socially-aware classroom discussion, a woke review, an idiocy of political correctness – but nothing that relates the actual work to their actual (supposedly) concerns.

18 comments to Definitive Texts: 1984 as PC’s self-stupifying how-to manual

  • Deep Lurker

    I didn’t much like A Wrinkle In Time back when I was a sprout, but it wasn’t because Meg was a “guurrl” or acted in girlish ways. I only came to understand why, later, but it’s because it was a fraud. It presented itself as a secular science fiction story, but was neither secular nor science fiction.

    But my biggest criticism of children’s and “young adult” stories is not that they avoid making boys read about girl-characters – or try to force them to do so. Or that they make girls read about boy-characters – or try to avoid having them do so. It’s the mistaken idea that children want to read about characters of their own age.

    As best as I can tell, children want to read about older children, or 20-something adults, or (best yet) Cool Old Guys of about 50, who smoke pipes, live by themselves, and are independently wealthy. (Cool Old Women are great too, albeit without smoking pipes.)

    But parents, teachers, authors, and editors keep inflicting “age appropriate” characters on children, believing that that’s what children want, and children are not confident and self-aware enough to properly protest against this. Instead children grumble and hunker down and do what they can, leading, for example, to the common practice of children “reading up” – 11 year olds reading books intended for 14-15 year olds and the like.

    It also contributes to how teens are taught to hate Shakespeare. Too often they have Romeo and Juliet inflicted on them “Because they want to read about characters their own age!” when in fact almost any of Shakespeare’s other comedies would be better received: Much Ado About Nothing, or The Comedy of Errors, or even The Merchant of Venice.

  • bobby b

    It’s been fifty years. Now I have to read it again. Darn you, Niall Kilmartin.

    (At that time in my life, I was torn between A Wrinkle or The Phantom Tollbooth as my favorite book. Then LOTR swept them both away. Guess I’ll have to re-read both and see if I can settle the issue between the two.)

  • George Atkisson

    Niall, thank you. That was indeed an insightful overview and analysis. I read A Wrinkle in Time many years ago (in my 40’s), but remember well the impact of its original style and story.

    It was painfully obvious from seeing the trailer, that the director and screen writers had gleefully glanced at the book and thought how much better it would be if it were “improved into a tool for teaching social justice”. For the children, of course, who could now be taught to draw the correct PC lessons from discussing it under the proper ‘woke’ guidance. May they rot in hell for such effrontery.

  • Paul Marks

    Do the teachers who denounce “racism” and wish to turn people away from “fantasy” denounce the film “Black Panther”? After all it is a racist film (a Black Nationalist ethno state) and fantasy from start to finish.

    No they do not denounce “Black Panther” – the teachers (and the rest of the education system and media) support the film. This shows that their supposed opposition to both racism and fantasy is a LIE.

  • Runcie Balspune

    They changed Starbuck’s gender and that worked out fine.

  • JadedLibertarian

    I saw that thing about actors demanding “equality riders” in their contact before they’d deign to work on a movie and I thought to myself “so this is the moment in history that Hollywood disappears entirely up its own arse”.

    The market for a compelling, well made movie which doesn’t genuflect before this ridiculous religion must be tremendous. The almost guaranteed boycotts and protest marches would reduce your publicity needs considerably.

  • It presented itself as a secular science fiction story … (Deep Lurker March 12, 2018 at 12:51 am)

    Unfair as phrased. I think the book did anything but deceptively present itself so. Back in the early 60s, SF fans, perhaps especially young ones who read juvenile SF, undersood perfectly the difference between ‘hard’ SF and SF-like books that allowed magic, religion, psi-powers and all that jazz, but to the outer culture, SF itself was not mainstream – it was also ‘all that jazz’. The last book in C.S.Lewis SF trilogy starts with political maneouverings in a university town, so he prefaces it with

    I have called this a fairytale in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled by the first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment.

    but he never bothered to put warnings on the first two because they were obviously SF from the start, although the Christian theme in ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ is less advertised in its early chapters than in L’Engle’s. In those days, it was

    “SF’s no good!” they bellow till we’re deaf.
    “But this looks good.” “Well then, it’s not SF.”

    In the later 60s and 70s, the literati ban on respecting SF gradually collapsed, but in the process it erased the distinction between hard SF and the rest (including the L’Engle kind), to the annoyance of some SF fans. Conquest mocks alike the older 60s intellectuals who wrote

    Space exploration is not yet emotionally permissible. To find the onset of the space age alien and repulsive is the proper reaction for an intellectual.

    and the younger ones who

    could pronounce ‘audio-visual’ but had difficulty with ‘Heinlein’.

    I was enough into SF when young to get Deep Lurker’s distinction, but ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ was an (unexpected) success in the wider world where that distinction was always so unregarded that it is absurd to say the book ‘presented itself’.

  • Matthew Asnip

    To be fair, bad film adaptations of popular books are much more common than good ones. The cluelessness of Hollywood screenwriters is legendary and has been commonplace for a very long time. By way of example, there is a version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that has Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a good person. One of the jokes in “The Producers” comes from that.

  • SCWillson

    Deep Lurker, I was just observing to my girlfriend the other day that children despise being talked down to, and thus hate the “age appropriate” characters that are almost inevitable inserted in children’s books and shows/movies.

    Children don’t dream of being the sidekick; they want to be the hero. Kids don’t want be Robin or Superboy, they want to be Batman or Superman. Pre-teens don’t fantasize about being teens, they want to be adults. Has any 8 year old child in history ever said “I want to be in high school when I grow up”? No, they want to be a fireman or a cowboy or an astronaut.

  • They changed Starbuck’s gender and that worked out fine.

    Very true, but then the reboot of BSG was transcendentally superior to the original in every way, and the character was well written, well acted and made sense. I think gender swaps can be fun, but only if they are done for the right reason. Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck was just better than the original.

  • “It’s been fifty years. Now I have to read it again. Darn you, Niall Kilmartin.” bobby b (March 12, 2018 at 1:01 am)

    Look on the bright side: you now have an excuse to reread ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ as well (and LotR while you’re at it). Alternatively, you can assume my summary is sufficient for the minor point I was making and pretend this forum consists of thinkers and philosophers who (except for the frivolous Niall Kilmartin) never (re)read children’s books. 🙂

    (If you do reread, and find yourself liking L’Engle’s style well enough, you could try “The Young Unicorns”. If books that are not like other books are your thing, you could try her strange take on the Noah’s flood tale, “Many Waters”, which stars the twins – the ones omitted from the film – noting it is not a book for all tastes. Her later books with Charles and Meg were not so successful, perhaps because their plots, though clever enough, were more typical of such tales than the first. And of course she has also written some books that are indeed ‘girls books’.)

  • Roué le Jour

    I think the young adult genre was invented because modern children can’t cope with The Time Machine, The Lost World or The Three Musketeers. Too many big words.

  • Alisa

    Thank you for writing this Niall. I hope that it wouldn’t too presumptuous of me to say that I could feel your pain.

  • Alisa

    Deep Lurker, I agree with the age point, but only to an extent. As an avid reader when a kid, I liked any good book, and it didn’t matter whether it was about other kids or grownups, as long as it managed to engage me in some way. I remember fondly examples of both.

  • CaptDMO

    “Once we own your children….”
    (Too many to link, Google it, better yet Duck Duck Go, or Infogalactic.)

    “Every small boy knows he’s a genius but, for some strange reason, the people around him treat him as if he were an idiot.”
    And how old does “small boy” extend to?
    Pajama Boy? (Here’s a bullet point list of what to say at the Thanks Giving table!)
    Adult children up to age 26? (U.S.-forced “student” medical insurance care payment assurance discounts)
    Comi-con efforts banning Hetero-caucasian-males.

  • Paul Marks

    Perry – have you forgotten that the new “Battlestar Galactica” had serial episodes of a Cylon occupation of a human community “modelled on the American occupation of Iraq” (shades of “Black Panther” – where “Killmonger” is supposed to have been morally corrupted by his time in the BOO-HISS American military), and that the message ending of the series was that all technology should be rejected, and that we should live in Africa scratching our backsides?

    Still yes, the new “Starbuck” did work (till she died and was brought back from the dead – without being a Cylon) – and the actress also does well in “Longmire”, managing to be totally believable as a tough law enforcement officer and a sensitive human being at-the-same-time.

  • Thailover

    Roué le Jour, The three musketeers = four people foregoing muskets and using swords. Things that make you go, hhmmmm….

  • I read this book a couple of years ago, and funnily enough was just thinking about it a couple of days ago — I was thinking of how it wouldn’t be popular these days because it’s clearly an attack on the conformist thinking of the left, and the way the left likes society to be organised so that ordinary people have to follow the ways of thinking set by the rulers.

    But I had forgotten that the left still think of themselves as the heroic non-conformists.