The Hidden Error L’Engle Left in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter helps explain how a strange error had gone uncorrected over innumerable printings since 1962.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Re-reading A Wrinkle in Time the other day for the first time since childhood, I came on a bit of garbled ancient Greek.

Audiences for the new Disney adaptation of the book will remember a character, Mrs Who, who speaks almost entirely in quotations. While Mindy Kaling, who plays Mrs Who in the new movie, quotes only in English, the character in the book quotes in many languages and then gives the English for what she’s just said, before identifying the author. She quotes Pascal in French, Dante in Italian, Cervantes in Spanish, Goethe in German, and Seneca and Horace in Latin.

And on page 59 of the new Square Fish edition—the one with the Disney cover that Macmillan put out in time to coordinate with the movie’s release—Mrs Who quotes some words in Greek that she attributes to Euripides and then translates.

I’m no classics scholar, but even I could see that the Greek was messed up, with words that don’t exist and one that looked like it couldn’t.

It takes a real nerd to notice flawed ancient Greek in the Disney tie-in reissue of a decades-old children’s book. But nerdiness is, after all, one of the human traits that A Wrinkle in Time set out to celebrate or even to elicit in its readers. Meg is a math-science nerd, something she perceives as a flaw in the beginning, like her belligerence, impatience, and anger—all things that were viewed as unhealthy or rude in the context of mid-20th-century childhood. Children were supposed to be polite and well-rounded. But Meg is allowed—instructed, in fact—to use her “faults” to save herself and her family.

I’d remembered this aspect of the book. What I’d forgotten about A Wrinkle in Time was how important language and literature are—and not just in the figure of the ever-quoting Mrs Who. L’Engle was a genius at making knowledge and erudition seem attractive by making them witty and playful. She had a gift for pitching a text just above the head of a child-reader straining to get a glimpse of the world. Mrs Who intones a line from Macbeth that even a child might recognize—“When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain…”—and she and Mrs Whatsit fall about laughing. It made you want to read the play.

A whole section of the plot hinges on lines from The Tempest. Meg’s toddler-savant brother is funny rather than cloying because he talks like a pre-adolescent almost as often as he talks like an adult, and it’s because he begins speaking differently—using phony-baloney diction—that she realizes he’s been taken over by “It,” the dastardly mind-controlling force threatening to engulf the universe. I’d forgotten all of that.

Now, re-reading the book for the first time in 50 years, I realized that much of the person I’d eventually become might have been due to A Wrinkle in Time. Perhaps it had been my first on-the-page exposure to Shakespeare and foreign languages, perhaps even made me want to learn Greek and Latin after encountering those mysterious letters.

I felt grateful to Madeleine L’Engle and wanted to fix her Greek for her. I also, in a spirit of nerdiness, wanted to know how the garbling had happened.

According to MaryJo Cally, a music teacher in the Chicago area who regarded L’Engle as a friend and mentor, the garbled Greek in A Wrinkle in Time is no movie edition mess-up; it’s been there since the very beginning. How does she know? Because she’s the person who first noticed and pointed it out to L’Engle in the early 1990s. How do I know? Because in 2008, a man in Romania—a writer of fantasy literature named J.S. Bangs—wrote about the mangled Greek in A Wrinkle in Time on his blog, and eight years later, Cally saw his post and replied to it.

In 1993 she and her partner, Sheldon Elias of Elias Music, Lake Shore Productions, had persuaded L’Engle to make a recording of A Wrinkle in Time, with L’Engle reading it herself. She wrote:

In my preparation, I noticed the inaccuracy of the Greek quote. My heritage is Greek and the words didn’t make sense. I asked Madeleine about the source at which point she took a book from her shelf and said ALL of Mrs. Who’s quotes came from this volume.

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Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations Edited by H.P. Jones Edinburgh 1910

… Sure enough, the Euripides quote had fallen victim to two sets of inaccuracies. When Madeleine copied the quote on to her original manuscript by hand, a letter was omitted. When the typesetter chose Greek characters from the manuscript, more mistakes were made. To date, after several requests, the Greek quote has not been corrected with millions of copies of Wrinkle sold.

Like Cally, I found it unfathomable that so egregious an error had existed for 56 years in an award-winning children’s classic that had gone through countless printings.

Mrs Who’s mangled snippet is from a lost Euripides play, Hypsipyle, according to the 1889 edition of Johann August Nauck’s Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, where it appears on page 596 as Fragment 761.

A Wrinkle in Time has always been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, though back in 1962, when the book first came out, it would have been Farrar, Straus & Company. Now FSG is a subsidiary of Macmillan. (Square Fish is their mass-market children’s paperback imprint.) The first Square Fish edition came out in 2007. That predated Bangs’s blog post. But even so, had no one checked the proofs for that edition? More to the point, how had it been allowed to happen in the first place? FSG published T.S. Eliot. Presumably someone checked the Greek and Latin epigraph to “The Waste Land.” So why hadn’t anyone checked the foreign-language quotations in A Wrinkle in Time? (By now I’d noticed that the quotation from Horace higher up on page 59 was missing a line, and further on a word in the Goethe looked hinky.)

On Bangs’s blog, Cally had written: “Currently a new film of Wrinkle is in the works by Ava DuVernay. The timing has prompted me to let the appropriate parties know that the quote must be corrected.”

I wrote to Cally and asked her who those “appropriate parties” were. She referred me to L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, who had recently been on book tour in the Chicago area with her sister, Léna Roy, talking about their new middle-grade biography of their grandmother, Becoming Madeleine. (Cally sent me a photograph of the three of them, with Léna smiling on the left , MaryJo holding the book in the middle, and Charlotte rolling her eyes and mugging a bit for the camera. Collectively they look—what with the shadows behind them—a little like Mrs Which, Mrs Whatsit, and Mrs Who.)

On a snowy day last week, Voiklis chatted with me on the phone about her grandmother and the Greek glitch in A Wrinkle in Time. She is aware of the maimed line of Euripides. She also cares about it: Her husband is, like Cally, of Greek descent. Last summer, in Greece, they pointed it out to the publishers of an upcoming Greek-language edition of A Wrinkle in Time. (The publisher assured her they were all over it.) Voiklis also confirmed that the matter has, over the years, been brought to the attention of various people at FSG.

So why has the Euripides quotation in A Wrinkle in Time never been corrected?

One reason, Voiklis says, is triage. There were always other things to fix. At the time of the 1993 reprint, there were other problems her grandmother was more focused on: getting certain terms rationalized and made consistent—jacket vs. blazer, grade school vs. grammar school. Getting rid of the periods in Mrs Who’s, Mrs Which’s, and Mrs Whatsit’s names had been very important to L’Engle. “And even that took a while for her to ask for the change and get it done,” Voiklis said. Cally too, I remembered, had told me about L’Engle losing that battle with the copy editor for the first edition.

I asked why L’Engle had wanted it that way. Among other things, Voiklis said, “she thought it would create more of a mystery about them.” (There it was again: the romance of the unfamiliar.) We talked a bit, as writers, about how hard it can be to ask people to fix your stuff: If it’s your fault, you feel guilty; if it’s someone else’s you don’t want to seem to be reproaching anyone.

What would it take to fix the Euripides quotation in A Wrinkle in Time? Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, insists that it wouldn’t be onerous or expensive, just a matter of sending the publisher a link to or scan of the correct version of the Greek. It would then take “ten minutes tops for someone to prepare a reprint correction, a day or two to process it, and at most a few months before a reprint would pop up and the text could be fixed.” The cost? Minimal.

Dreyer told me a story from his own days as a freelance proofreader for Random House: Working on a new edition of a 50-year-old translation of Madame Bovary, he’d found that a line of dialogue had been inadvertently dropped decades before, and no one had noticed in all those years. Happily, the translator, Francis Steegmuller, was still around to fill in the blank, and was both impressed and delighted to be able to set it right.

Voiklis is more circumspect about the Euripides. “It’s not an easy fix,” she points out. “It’s not clear and explainable, like ‘Hey, it should be who’s and not whose,’ or something like that.” Then too, things are so “siloed” nowadays. “There’s editorial and production, but then books are printed by third parties, and it gets hard to make sure the message gets passed through the departments by people who have the authority to make the change.”

In other words, a bunch of people in different buildings would all have to enter the same thing into their Google calendars before the next printing: “FIX GREEK; DON’T FORGET!”

Joel P. Christensen of Brandeis University, co-editor of Sententiae Antiquae, a repository of classical wisdom and scholarship that daily tweets out snippets of ancient thought and literature in Greek and Latin both, says that checking the corrected Greek would involve one person looking at one proof. He adds that he’d do it for free or even pay a bit for the chance to help out, he so loved the book in third grade.

The 1994 recording of L’Engle herself reading A Wrinkle in Time, rarely heard now after a newer recording by the actress Hope Davis, is the only extant English-language version of A Wrinkle in Time that gets the Greek right.

Will the Euripides quotation in the FSG edition of A Wrinkle in Time ever get fixed? Voiklis is holding out for the second printing of the Disney tie-in.

Macmillan’s Mary Van Akin emailed me recently to say the error in the Greek had been submitted for correction. But one evening last week, I got an email from Voiklis with a photo of the new, “corrected” version. She said she thought one of the letters looked a little strange, and would I take a gander? I did, and it did indeed look strange. I pointed out one or two other things they could get a bit righter and ran the “corrected” version of the Greek by professor Christensen, just to check my own checking. Voiklis said she’d pass the information along. She didn’t sound very optimistic, though.

Will the fragment of ancient Greek from Euripides’ lost play ever be just right in FSG editions of A Wrinkle in Time? If not, it will certainly be better, and as Euripides says (according to Mrs Who): “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

Meanwhile, Cally, who loves that quotation, intends to have the original of it engraved on her tombstone. She says she plans to copy edit the Greek herself.