We asked Dr. Matt Hunter to write a review of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga which he and his children enjoyed reading last year. Dr. Hunter teaches humanities in our Rhetoric school and is the father of two boys in our Grammar School. Be warned – you may find yourself wanting to immediately purchase or borrow these books!
The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson
Review by Dr. Matt Hunter
I read a lot of fiction to my children, and a lot of fantasy in particular; some of it quite decent, some rather shabby. Of course we are fans of the Narnia Chronicles and the Lord of the Rings, but what could compare to those? When Dr. Sonju recommended Andrew Peterson’s 4-Volume fantasy series Wingfeather Saga (and let us borrow his copies) last year, I assumed it would be of the decent variety; but frankly, I was not prepared. On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is the first book in the series (followed by North! Or Be Eaten; The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King, which won the 2014 World Magazine, Children’s Book of the Year award).
The Dark Sea of Darkness. The intentional redundancy struck me as pretty funny, but it’s really funny. It’s my kind of funny; a bit dry at times, but witty and clever. Within a few pages, I felt like Peterson, my children and I had a few inside jokes together. We are also introduced to the central characters, the Igiby family of the land of Skree, Glipwood Township: Grandpa Podo Helmer, an aging swashbuckler, rough around the edges, but adoring of his grandchildren; his daughter Nia Igiby, a beautiful widow; and her three children Janner, Tink and Leeli (and Leeli’s little dog Nugget). Though you might be tempted to see them as caricatures at the outset, each with their unique gifts and foibles, it’s only because you don’t know them well enough yet. Throughout the series, these characters unfold in believable complexity and we are introduced to a much larger cast of equally compelling characters, good and ill (and somewhere in between). We are also introduced to the villains of this series, Gnag the Nameless (Did you catch that? It’s funny.), who rules the greater part of Peterson’s fantasy-world (Aerwiar, another joke, you’ll understand when you read) and his reptilian servant-soldiers, the Fangs of Dang. And there are the dragons…
I want to speak to the value of these books as a Christian classical educator. The works of literature that we consider “classics,” and which we read at Covenant have some things in common. In no particular order of priority, I think they do three things. First, they stand the test of time. We don’t trust ourselves to be the arbiters of greatness. We count on some collective consensus that cannot be ruled by the whims and fashions of one time period or another. Obviously, time will tell whether The Wingfeather Saga endures, but I plan to do my part and have requested my local library to procure copies (I might donate if they do not, but my overdue fines should cover it at this point). Second, the “classics” demonstrate excellent use of the English language, in translation if not the original. The incredible range of styles that still demonstrate excellence (from Shakespeare to Shelley, Hawthorne to Hemingway) should encourage students that excellence doesn’t mean one single style. Peterson has his own style. Perhaps because he was a songwriter first, the series can be beautifully lyrical at times, but there are probably others who are better equipped to evaluate this and linguistic excellence in fiction can be somewhat subjective. Third, the “classics” speak about great universal human themes.
This third mark of the “classics” is perhaps the most important to me. I want the content to generate “discussion,” the verbal pursuit of questions and answers (however provisional) that are worthy of our time and energy. This is certainly the case with The Wingfeather Saga. A great mystery surrounds the entire series and many questions arise that are only really answered much later. I want to avoid giving anything away. If the books possess any weakness, it might be that there are stretches where the Igibys “wander in the wilderness” (literally and figuratively) and you really want them to arrive in the Promised Land, but it’s worth it. This too is a great human theme (and a biblical one, obviously). Suffice it to say that, in addition to humor, there is great adventure, skirmishes and battles, quest and exploration (like many of the recognized “classics”). There is much to hold one’s attention, but there is also much to talk about. There is terrifying evil and brilliant goodness, jealousy and generosity, betrayal and loyalty, cowardice and courage, incipient selfishness as well as self-sacrifice. Heroes and heroines in classic literature often have fatal flaws. In Peterson’s fantastical series, weak characters are found to possess incredible powers. Beloved characters are found to have monstrous secrets, evil characters are found to be heart-broken and sometimes monsters are found to possess heart-rending goodness. This is what I was least prepared for: the heart-rending, the occasional choking back of tears for the beauty and truth conveyed in these stories, the moments when I had to risk the catch in my throat and keep reading because I desperately want my children to know the truths these stories tell.
“Is this a “Christian” fantasy series then? Like Narnia?” I might argue that any work which tells the truth about humanity (an aspect of my third mark of the “classics”) must be “Christian” in some sense and Peterson is a Christian, but it’s not like Narnia. Besides the fact that Peterson’s writing style is entirely different from that of C.S. Lewis, his world does not overlap with ours. Aslan and Jesus both exist in some sense in the Chronicles of Narnia. Peterson’s series isn’t like that. “Well, there’s the whole good-versus-evil theme right?” Yes, but it’s so much more complex than that and I tend to think good-versus-evil is a weaker basis on which to call something Christian than “truth about humanity.” “But you said there’s self-sacrifice, so there’s a Christ-figure like Aslan and what-not?” Yes, there is both redemption and self-sacrifice, but while Lewis clearly tries to tell the story of the cross in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peterson’s story doesn’t get there as quickly, nor does it try to be an allegory of the Gospels in the same direct sense. I think if I had to explain why Christians should read these books, it’s because they are really good, and because they possess the emotional and relational content of the Gospel. In other words, these stories could only emerge from the imagination and heart of someone who understood the world through the Gospel. The “deep magic” that works in Narnia in some sense must also be working in the land of Aerwiar. I’m thrilled that he is coming to talk with our students (and my children are beside themselves). Prepare yourself; or maybe don’t. Tolle lege!