Warning: Don’t go into the forest. Don’t go, even if the thwaps in your garden are driving you insane. It won’t be a very enjoyable walk. And you had better hope you don’t run into a horned hound. Or worse, a toothy cow.
On the other hand, if you think toothy cows sound interesting, you might want to give The Wingfeather Saga a try. A series of four books by Andrew Peterson, it chronicles the adventures of three siblings: Janner, Kalmar (“Tink”), and Leeli. In a world filled with dangerous animals, the three face a greater danger. The Fangs of Dang, nasty lizards who rule their hometown of Glipwood, think that their family is hiding a secret—the location of the Jewels of Anniera. The three children do not know what the Jewels are, or where they are located—but when the Fangs come, sent to their continent, Skree, by Gnag the Nameless himself, they know how to do the most important thing. Run.
The Wingfeather Saga is Andrew Peterson’s first series of books. It is not, however, his first experience with writing—I became familiar with him as a songwriter before I learned that he was writing a fantasy series. A lot of his older music doesn’t really interest me—generally speaking, it sounds like CCM as usual. His most recent album, Light for the Lost Boy, is a different story. It’s more evocative, more imaginative. A couple songs sound more like his past songwriting, but the majority of the songs are a full level above any of his previous work.
Maybe Peterson found his second wind. In any case, his songwriting experience means that when he includes songs in his series, they actually sound like songs. I cringe to think of some of the sad attempts at balladry that I’ve come across in the fantasy novels I’ve read. Understanding the rhythm in poetry never seemed difficult to me growing up—maybe it was the product of my musical education. But a creative writing class in my undergraduate days taught me that even if rhythm isn’t that difficult, it’s at least more difficult for some than others. Anyway, ballads aren’t easy to write. But Peterson could easily put the songs in his Wingfeather Saga to music; all are all well-written, and some are frankly beautiful.
Aside from songs? The Wingfeather Saga melds gentle humor (I loved the “footnotes,” especially in book 1) with some very serious themes—themes so serious that my local library classified the final book as young adult. The series is really not aimed at the young adult market, although teenagers (and some adults) may enjoy reading it. It’s been compared to The Lord of the Rings, but I think that’s pretty inaccurate. Similarities to LotR mainly consist of an evil enemy who uses evil monsters and the fact that the book is fantasy. In other words—not much. Being aimed at children, it’s more comparable with the Narnian Chronicles, but without an Aslan-substitute. Thank God! It’s one of the first Christian-themed fantasies that I’ve read that haven’t either tried to force an incarnation of Christ into the story or included explicit theological discussions. Aslan is wonderful, but I recall reading that one of Lewis’s friends had been considering a similar story, with Christ incarnated as a tiger. When he saw Lewis’s story, he scrapped his plan. Overkill kills.
Tolkien wrote that there was only one incarnation of Christ, and therefore he did not even intend for any of his “good” characters to be Christ-figures, let alone actual incarnations of Christ. In this regard, Peterson follows Tolkien. He includes a “Maker” who is active, but mainly behind the scenes. Peterson’s “Maker” is more obviously involved than was Tolkien’s “Eru,” but most of the time it isn’t in-your-face. A non-Christian wouldn’t be able to read this series without realizing that the Maker is, in fact, God—as some have been able to read Lewis without realizing that Aslan is a “supposal” about Christ. But Christian readers who dislike preachy fiction can relax. Peterson does not preach. He sings. And that is what makes him so unusual.
Tolkien was Catholic. Lewis was an Anglo-Catholic. Both are favorite authors of Peterson’s, which, for an evangelical, is not extremely unusual. Finding an evangelical who also likes George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton—as Peterson does—is rarer. And one who admires Thomas Merton? Practically unheard of. But Merton, too, numbers among Peterson’s favorite authors. Yet Peterson is a pastor’s son, raised, as he puts it, in the “nondenominational denomination.” As far as I know, Peterson hasn’t changed “denominations.” He clearly remains an evangelical Protestant. And that makes him extremely unusual. Evangelicals with vivid imaginations who like both G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton have a tendency to end up in the high church somewhere. Yet Peterson apparently hasn’t—and his fantasy world seems as Protestant to me as Tolkien’s is Catholic. His world is vivid with an appreciation of ancient truth—the sort of viewpoint I associate with the high church. But Peterson’s concept of ancient truth seems lifted more from Genesis than from a continuous church tradition.
Beginnings, in the Wingfeather Saga, are a big deal. There are multiple characters with close ties to past ages of Peterson’s fantasy world—even an ancient rebel (an amalgam of Cain and Nimrod?) called Ouster Will, whose death was shockingly close to the time the story takes place. (For the record, I love Ouster Will’s name. It’s perfect on so many different levels.) Where Tolkien drew largely on pagan mythologies for his own fantasies, shaping them according to his liking and the influence of Catholic tradition, Peterson seems to have internalized Tolkien’s characterization of Christianity as “true myth.” Lewis did that, of course—Narnia resulted—but his focus was more on the New Testament. But Peterson has discovered the “true myth” of the Old Testament. The Annierans are a chosen people, exiled from their homeland. And the genesis of the world was not so long ago.
What about problems? Well, the Wingfeather Saga isn’t Narnia—although a child might not notice the difference. The writing style is good, but there are places where we are told a bit too much about Janner’s feelings through his thoughts, rather than seeing him act. Those were the places where I got squirmy. Also, the serious themes of the later books don’t always meld easily with the lingering thwaps and diggles.
In general, however? Wingfeather’s series is better than average for fantasy, and worlds beyond most Christian fantasy attempts. Start with book 1, and don’t skip around in any of the books. I found out about a couple characters’ deaths too early because I assumed that this was a nice kids’ fantasy series where nobody important dies.
The Wingfeather Saga is definitely a nice kids’ fantasy series. But it’s also a tale that Peterson tells in deadly earnest, toothy cows notwithstanding. Naming a single theme for the story is difficult—as it should be. But if I were to pick only one, I think it would be salvation.
A costly salvation, without an awkward Aslan-substitute in sight.