21 December 2016

'Mary had a little lamb' from "A Wrinkle in Time" to "Babylon 5"

When I was a little boy, my aunt Sally (sit terra tibi levis) gave me A Wrinkle in Time for my birthday. At the time I was too grown up for children's books, and so I smiled, thanked her, and put it on the shelf, where it has always been ever since.  Being younger than that now, and having run across a series of quotes by Madeleine L'Engle that I found interesting, I decided to read it.

This morning, as I lay in bed reading chapter 7, I arrived at the following passage, in which the three children encounter a menacing stranger with red eyes who can communicate telepathically and who has, it seems, dominated the minds of the men, women, and children on this world. As he attempts to control the children's minds, too, Charles Wallace, the youngest, a preternaturally clever and creepy five year old, whom for the life of me I can only hear speaking in the voice of Stewie Griffin, resists.

'...For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burden of thought and decision.' 
'We will make our own decisions, thank you,' Charles Wallace said. 
'But of course. And our decisions will be one, yours and mine. Don't you see how much better, how much easier for you that is? Let me show you. Let us say the multiplication table together.' 
'No,' Charles Wallace said. 
'Once one is one. Once two is two. Once three is three.' 
'Mary had a little lamb!' Charles Wallace shouted. 'Its fleece was white as snow!'
'Once for is four. Once five is five. Once six is six.'
'And everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.'

The instant I read this, I sat up in bed. I had seen it before. In J. Michael Straczynski's brilliant SF series Babylon 5, a group of human telepaths have run away from Psi Corps, which is about as evil as it sounds. ('The Corps is mother; the Corps is father.') Now in the episode, A Race through Dark Places, they find themselves hunted by a Psi Cop, Alfred Bester -- that's right, Alfred Bester, and played magnificently by Walter Koenig -- who is strong enough to read their minds whether they want him to or not. Since they refuse to go back, they fear he will kill them. And so they prepare to resist both physically and mentally. To keep him out of their minds, they, too, recite 'Mary had a little lamb' over and over. 

Alfred Bester,  SF Author
Given the context in each scene, as well as how allusive and literary Babylon 5 is, I have little doubt this allusion to Madeleine L'Engle is intentional.  Nicely done, JMS. Nicely done.

Allusions are one of the ways in which reading, or, in this case, reading and watching teach us that we are not all alone in the night. And A Wrinkle in Time and Babylon 5 are both rich in allusions to, and quotations from, literature and poetry. That's why I've worked several allusions of my own into this note: to a C. S. Lewis essay, to an apocryphal C. S. Lewis quote, to Bob Dylan, three times to Babylon 5. I didn't do so (merely) to be clever, or because, if you get them, then we'll both be clever, but because they will reveal a fellowship between us as reader and writer, between us as readers, and between us and the texts from which the allusions derive. Because it's this kind of connection that makes us human in a higher and better way that links us through past, present, and future.

Alfred Bester, SF Monster
The world's been looking pretty bleak in recent times. Whichever side of the issues that are dividing us each of us may be on, I don't think many of us are feeling too hopeful; and some of us are downright scared.  To compare small things with great, I just wrote a testimonial for Mythmoot, which aimed to convey just how wonderful it was to be with all those people who understood each other's allusions and got each other's jokes. Allusions let me in. They let us all in. That's why reading glitters with hope. For it tells me that the connections we need to make can be made. Not only that, but the irony of this allusion is so sweet: it connects two sets of people, a writer and readers, to two sets of characters who are using 'Mary had a little lamb' to prevent a connection from being made at all. Which in turn makes me laugh, a proof of intelligent life according to the Minbari. I think I like that. I think I like that a lot.


  1. Shawn E Marchese22 December, 2016 23:22

    Brilliant, Tom, and heartwarming as well. That sense of fellowship is remarkable, isn't it? I remember thinking once upon a time that the Internet would desensitize me to it, that the abundance of conversation with like-minded folks all around the world would make me forget how precious that fellowship is. It actually seems to do the opposite, and I'm amazed by it every day. I'm A-OK with that.

  2. Thanks, Shawn. The connections that we can form with each other through literature really are heartwarming. It's too easy to give the trolls and the panderers of fake news more attention than they deserve, which is any attention at all. I have "met" any number of good and intelligent people online through a shared interest in books. Most of these people I have never seen, and some I never will. I'll concentrate on them and ignore or block the rest.