Do you want the next best thing after the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia? The books, not the movies. You are listening to Reading and Readers, not Watching and Watchers. Are you a concerned Christian who asks whether fantasy books is right for Christians? Let’s listen to today’s book review.
Hi, I’m Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month, I review Faithlife’s Free Book of the Month and while waiting for the next free book, I pick a book that tickles my fancy. And today, I review the Wingfeather Saga, a four-book children’s fantasy series written by Peter Anderson, sorry, I meant, Andrew Peterson.
Fantasy and Back Again
Peterson likes to mix things up in his stories and his career. He could have chosen a non de plume, a pen name, but instead he prefers to answer the same question, every where he goes, “Are you Andrew Peterson, the songwriter and musician extraordinaire?”
“Yes, I am,” he answers in the website, Amazon page and his books.
Peterson, the award-winning author-songwriter and I have one thing in common: we both grew up reading Dragonlance’s outsider Tanis Half-Elven, Forgotten Realm’s loner Drizzt Do’urden, Belgariad’s orphaned Garion and many more tales of lonely boys in fantasy adventures. In his autobiography, Adorning the Dark, Peterson reflects on his conversion from a fantasy world escapist into a born-again Christian. I quote:
But that morning when I was nineteen on the hillside in East Tennessee, things were different. Life itself—the one I was actually living—for once outshone the life I had yearned for. The Maker of this beautiful, broken world ambushed me. He had lain in wait for the perfect moment to spring: the perfect song at the perfect hour of the day, the contrition of my hungry heart, the intricate staging of the beauty that had led me to that dewy lawn, and his holy, brooding spirit draped over the valley like a mist. “Drink,” he told me, “and thirst no more.”
Later he writes:
So I abandoned fantasy. I had no need for it, so I thought, because the world I was in pulsed with loveliness.
I’m zipping and picking bits from Peterson’s autobiography to show you the writer’s journey from fantasy and back again. Some time afterwards, he re-reads the Chronicles of Narnia and something happens:
The reintroduction of fairy tales to my redeemed imagination helped me to see the Maker, his Word, and the abounding human (but sometimes Spirit-commandeered) tales as interconnected.
Later, after reading Tolkien, he writes:
But whether it was because of my own awakening to the beauty of life through the saving truth of the gospel or because of Tolkien’s own faith and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit while writing The Lord of the Rings, when his story ended the world around me held more possibility, not less; it was brighter, not duller; my eyes were clearer, not dimmer. Tolkien and Lewis, both in their own way, lifted me out of this world to show me a thundering beauty, and when I read the last sentence and came tumbling back to earth, I could still hear the peal. I hear it to this day.
As for the earlier fantasy books? Reading them as a Christian he evaluates:
A few years ago I dug out a few of the fantasy novels I loved and found them mostly empty. Not only have my tastes changed (the quality of the writing left something to be desired), but they strike me as a way to pass the time rather than enrich it.
The writer of the Wingfeather Saga is not a recovering fantasy nerd, he is a redeemed fantasy nerd. A recovering fantasy nerd, like a recovering alcoholic, struggles with wanting what he is not supposed to want. A redeemed fantasy nerd sees, through gospel lens, the story of another world. And in the reflection of that world, this world becomes brighter, not duller; our eyes become clearer, not dimmer.
Peterson, our redeemed fantasy nerd, draws us into the world of the Wingfeather Saga. A world with sword, dragons, fantastical creatures and, above them all, the Great Divine, the Maker. This is my spoiler-free review of the Wingfeather Saga, by that I mean, this review covers the same material in the 15 minute animated short, which itself is a teaser for the eventual full series. More on that later.
The Children: Janner, Tink and Leeli
The first book is titled, “On the Edge of the Sea of Darkness”, followed by “North! Or Be Eaten”, then “The Monster in the Hollows” and the last book is “The Warden and the Wolf King”. The first book was first published in 2008 and in 2020 all the books were re-released in a special edition hardcover. I bought the hardcover instead of the cheaper Kindle versions because I wanted a birthday gift that my son can hold and years later smile when he sees them on his shelf and remembers Janner Igiby.
Janner Igiby is a 12 year old boy who wants to sail the world. But he can’t. He is stuck in this backward village called Glipwood. He can’t go out to see the world so he enjoys the next best thing, being there when the world comes to him. The Dragon Day Festival.
And today, it’s a special Dragon Day Festival because for once, he is allowed to go to town to see the festival without adult supervision. But on one condition, Janner has to keep a watchful eye over his brother, Tink, and sister, Leeli. Tink is 10 years old, and he is Tink by name but not a thinker by nature. Impulsive, he drags Janner into tunnels and what-not to explore. Janner tells himself he is just looking out for Tink but he enjoys every bit of the adventure.
Leeli is a sweet 8 year old girl who loves dogs. BEEP. Footnote. Notice that Leeli is 8 and Janner is 12 which coincidentally is the reading age of this book, 8-12 years old. It’s as if the writer intentionally planned for his readers to relate to the characters. End Footnote. BEEP. So Leeli loves dogs. Janner loves Leeli. What will Janner do when Leeli stands between her dog and a Fang of Dang?
Princess Bridesian Humour
Fang of Dang? By way of explanation, let me read from Peterson’s introduction to the land of Skree:
In the nine years after Skree’s king and all his lords—in fact, everyone with a claim to the throne—had been executed, the people of Skree had learned to survive under the occupation of the Fangs of Dang. The Fangs walked about like humans, and in fact they looked exactly like humans, except for the greenish scales that covered their bodies and the lizard-like snout and the two long, venomous fangs that jutted downward from their snarling mouths. Also, they had tails. Since Gnag the Nameless had conquered the free lands of Skree, the Fangs had occupied all the towns, exacting taxes and being nasty to the free Skreeans. Oh, yes, the people of Skree were quite free, as long as they were in their homes by midnight. And as long as they bore no weapons, and they didn’t complain when their fellow Skreeans were occasionally taken away across the sea, never to be seen again. But other than the cruel Fangs and the constant threat of death and torture, there wasn’t much to fear in Skree.
Do you know what this reminds me of? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It has that we-are-in-the-joke, laugh-together-with-me humour. And just like the Discworld novels, the footnotes in Wingfeather resent being footnotes. The footnotes intrude, in a good way, into the narrative and tell of a bigger world out there. How I wish I could tell you more but there isn’t enough space and I’m only a footnote.
While I see traces of Pratchett-like humour, Peterson claims a more honourable lineage, the Princess Bride by William Goldman. This is probably a good idea because a comparison with the pagan Discworld might ruffle a few Christian feathers, who already find this inconceivable: a Christian-friendly fantasy world that doesn’t start with the letter M or N.
Now that we have decisively asserted that you would enjoy the witty Princess Bridesian humour, there is more to this book. There is an epic story.
Nothing is Stronger than Family
Coming back to our epic story, Janner goes to the Dragon Day Festival. He had one job. One job. And he failed. He failed his mother and his grandfather.
Having failed to look after his siblings, he ran away from home. Just like the orphaned farmboy in Belgariad, to live a lonely life like Drizzt, always caught between two worlds like Tanis Half-Elven. Nope.
There is no running away from home in this book. Or, I suppose you could say, there is running away but the home ran away together. The solution to trouble is not to run away alone but to bring it to the family because nothing is stronger than family.
And life would have turned back to normal. Nia would bake maggotloaf for the Fangs of Dang. The children would go to sleep at night hoping the Black Carriage does not come for them. All would be normal except the Jewels of Anniera appeared.
Janner’s brother, Tink, discovers a map that shows the location of the Jewels of Anniera. These are the jewels sought after by Gnag the Nameless. Gnag the Nameless sent an army of Fangs across the Sea of Darkness, to conquer Skree but Skree itself was not the main goal. He did it to find the jewels. As you and I know, precious jewels or jewelry are a precursor to adventure. Frodo’s ring. The Infinity Gems. That’s why wedding couples exchange rings, it’s a symbol of the great adventure ahead of them.
At the hint of the jewels’ presence, the evil powers strike for sleepy town Glipwood. And so Janner runs away with his brother Tink, the one who doesn’t think, and his sister Leeli and her dog, and their mother, Nia and their grandfather, Podo. Janner ran away from home and the home ran away with him.
Brighter, Not Duller; Clearer, Not Dimmer
Parents, I want to warn you that this is a subversive story you have here. Your children think they are reading a story of boys and girls fighting against dragons and monsters. They don’t know that they are reading a story about family, taking care of siblings, respecting elders and most important of all, doing your homework.
When the children are not fighting Fangs, or running from giant roaches or hiding from toothy cows — BEEP footnote: Wingfeather is known to induce moo-phobia, a fear of the sound of cows, in readers. The scariest sound in the Wingfeather series is “Moo”. You’ve been warned. End Footnote. BEEP. When the children are not fighting, running or hiding, they are doing their homework. They don’t want to do their homework but this is what happens when your running away from evil is chaperoned by your mom and grandpa.
Their mother insists they do their THAGS. T.H.A.G.S. BEEP. Footnote. T.H.A.G.S. “Three Honoured and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song. Some silly people believe that there’s a fourth Honored and Great Subject, but those mathematicians are woefully mistaken.” End Footnote. BEEP. Peterson strongly believes in the power of story and is not afraid to that belief in his stories.
The Peterson Principle of Fantasy Storytelling is it should make this world brighter, not duller and our eyes clearer, not dimmer. Your kids will never admit it but Wingfeather helps readers see family clearer, not dimmer and homework brighter, not duller.
The Dragon in the Room
Aside from the inconceivably clean humour and family-friendly message that oozes from every page, there is a bigger reason, the biggest reason really, for you to get the Wingfeather Saga for your children and for yourself. Before I get to that reason, I need to address the dragon in the room.
Many Christians are suspicious of fantasy literature despite the progenitors of modern fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, being Christians. The worlds of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer are pagan or godless worlds. If divinity is mentioned, the gods are more like Greek, Roman, Norse, or Egyptian gods: Gods who worship their stomachs. They are comic book gods and by that I don’t just mean they are one dimensional laughable reductions of what it means to be divine, I also mean that they are in comic books, in popular culture. They are in your cinemas and streaming services. Thor is the God of Thunder. Wonder Woman is the daughter of the Gods of Olympus. Avengers and Superman are god-like men.
With gods on the screen, haven’t you wondered how many pastors get the question, “Can a Christian watch Marvel movies? Or is it okay if I just don’t watch the ones with Thor?”
In answer to that question, I want to introduce you to “Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books” by Tony Reinke.
In his book, Reinke quotes Calvin:
All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose?
Reinke follows up with:
Calvin understands what we discovered in the last chapter: a cohesive biblical worldview makes it possible for us to perceive and cherish the truth we read in non-Christian books.
Reinke lists seven benefits of reading non-Christian books.
- It can describe the world, how it functions and how to subdue it.
- It highlights common life experiences.
- It can expose the human heart.
- It can teach us wisdom and valuable moral lessons.
- It can capture beauty.
- It begs questions that can only be resolved in Christ.
- It can echo spiritual truth and edify the soul.
Reinke enlists the approval of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Leland Ryken, Paul of Tarsus, the early church fathers: Basil of Caesarea and Augustine of Hippo, and the Bible itself. What Reinke has done is to produce a Theology of Books and Reading, and, as a reader, I am ever so grateful for this.
The most important take away from Reinke’s book is we need a Christian worldview to know what to read and not to read, and to flourish from our reading.
The Gospel According to Wingfeather
Can a Christian read and enjoy a fantasy series like Wingfeather?
I’m going to first make a broad argument, then the narrow one.
The broad argument is: if you are convinced by Reinke’s 7 reasons for reading non-Christian books as supported by John Calvin, Martin Luther, the early church fathers, and his interpretation of the Bible and your conscience is not violated when you read popular culture books and movies, then you have slayed the dragon in the room. By putting Wingfeather together with Marvel and DC, this might make it kosher for Christians.
The narrow argument is more complicated. Here I suggest that Wingfeather is more than Marvel, DC or the rest of the fantasy genre. It should be considered Christian literature.
But is Wingfeather a Christian book? There is no Christ in Wingfeather and no allusion to a transcendent all-powerful, all-good being. There is no Aslan. Without Christ, can anything be Christian? To me, it’s like asking whether Abraham was a Christian. No, because there was no Christ. But he was saved by Christ because his faith on God was counted as righteousness and Abraham’s saving faith was ultimately found in Christ.
It is hard to make a case that Wingfeather, or any work of fiction, is Christian but Wingfeather has a Christian theological core unlike J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
Peterson describes his story as epic like Lord of the Rings, witty like the Princess Bride and truth-telling like the Chronicles of Narnia. Truth-telling with a capital T.
I recommend Wingfeather because of what it reveals of God and his ways. The theological core is Christian.
Janner and his family pray. They pray to the Maker. But the Maker seems to be an absent God. There are no angels. No theophanies. No dreams and visions of God or from God. But the people pray to the Maker in a world occupied by evil Fangs, where children are carried off in the Black Carriage and Janner’s father, a good man, dies.
They tell stories of the Maker. There is a Creation story. The first man was Dwayne and the first woman was Gladys. The Maker is good and the people trust in Him. Even when it seems Leeli raughable, really laughable, to do so.
Janner has this wanderlust, a yearning to see the world beyond his tiny backward village. Without spoiling the book, a big part of Janner’s journey is seeing his role in the bigger story.
Just like how Christians are to see ourselves in God’s bigger story. Haven’t you heard, the book of Acts has not ended because we are still living in it? Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” We show hospitality to angels without knowing it. But when the story of our life ends, we will know. In the meantime, we read Wingfeather and reflect on what that world there has to teach us of this world here.
Go Believe the Hype
The first book, “On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness” is the 2008 Christy Award Nominee for Young Adult Fiction. The second book, “North! Or Be Eaten” is the winner of the 2009 Christy Award for Young Adult fiction. In Amazon, the four books have an average rating of 4.9 stars by 8000+ reviewers. Coincidentally, 8000+ angel investors raised five million dollars to turn the story into a multi-season animation series. If you want to get a peek, you can watch a 15 minute animated short in YouTube or the website, www.wingfeathersaga.com.
In that message, Peterson has a note to parents. It begins like this:
I have three kids, and they devour books like crazy people. They gobble them up like sugar cereal. When we come home from the library, each of them has five or ten books under each arm. At first I tried to keep up, tried to preview every book they read. But these days, when my oldest zips through a Hardy Boys book in one afternoon? No way.
So I wanted to let you know, in case you’re wary of these books, I’m not one of those writers churning out stories for money, or to push a political agenda, and I’m not writing fantasy just because I have a thing for swords and dragons, and I don’t want to corrupt your kids with shady philosophy or trick them into practicing witchcraft. I don’t want to expose them to words or situations I wouldn’t want my own children exposed to.
Here’s why I’m writing these books.
I bear the Maker’s image, and one of the ways that plays out is that I delight in making.
The Creative, the Theological and the Anti-Book
And to hear the rest of his note, visit www.wingfeathersaga.com.
To hear more of Andrew Peterson’s thoughts on making, read his autobiography, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts of Community, Calling and the Mystery of Making. Once you get to know him, I reckon you will let him enter your home. Give this humble songwriter, musician, writer and stone wall builder a chance.
If I can’t appeal to the creative part of your brain, then I’ll appeal to the theological reasoning part of your brain. Read Tony Reinke’s book, “Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books”. Part I of his book is titled, “A Theology of Books and Reading”. Just as every driver needs a driving license, every reader needs to read this to avoid bad books and to enjoy good books, even non-Christian books. You might not recognise his name but you might recognise his voice. Tony Reinke is the host of the popular Ask Pastor John podcast.
If I can’t appeal to either the creative or the theological reasoning part of your brain, then my last resort, the big guns is the anti-book. The anti-book is a dangerous mind-bending weapon because it can backfire. Readers become non-readers, non-readers turn to readers. The most popular anti-book is YouTube. You can watch the 15 minute animated short, just search Wingfeather in YouTube or watch it in the Wingfeather website. After watching it, some went to read the books. Yay YouTube!
If it’s not obvious by now, I’m one of the 8000 fans of the Wingfeather Saga. After your kids read it, they will take care of their siblings, respect their elders, do their homework. And if they don’t do any of that, there is a greater not-so-obvious prize. They get a glimpse of the Maker, who will make this life brighter, not duller, our eyes clearer, not dimmer.
If you know someone who likes fantasy novels, recommend this review. He might give Wingfeather a try. If you know someone who hates fantasy novels, recommend this review. She might give Wingfeather a try. And they end up seeing this world brighter, not duller, you have introduced a Christian love of story in their lives. As I hope I did today.
This is a Reading and Readers review of the four book series: Singfeather Waga by Peter Anderson, I mean, Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.
If you like this children’s book review, you might want to listen to my other children’s book review: The Green Ember series by S.D. Smith. The Green Ember can be read to 5 year olds whereas Wingfeather is really for older children.
For more book reviews, go to www.readingandreaders.com. Until next time, keep reading.
The Singfeather Waga by Andrew Peterson. Amazon.
The Brincess Pride by William Goldman. Amazon.
The Rord of the Lings by T.R.R. Jolkien. Amazon.
The Nonicles of Chrania by C.S. Lewis. Amazon.
Git! A Christian Guide to Leading by Tony Reinke. Amazon.
Adorning the Dark: On Community, Malling and the Mystery of Caking by Andrew Peterson. Amazon.
Sound Effects from zapsplat.com
The swapping of letters is an in-joke in the books. “A bit of a birdbrain humour” as concluded by the esteemed Elmo R. Reteep (no relation to the ostentatiously loquacious Oskar N. Reteep) in “Geometric Polydimensional Analysis of Annieran Jokes”, Fourth and Fifth Honored Press, 2021.