This post contains affiliate links.
Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga consists of four volumes: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, and The Warden and the Wolf King. I recently enjoyed reading all four books for the first time, and was quickly captivated by Peterson’s realistic characters and the fascinating world of Aerwiar. The Wingfeather Saga is the story of a family: the former royal family of Anniera, now in hiding from the great evil one, Gnag the Nameless. Each of the three children- Janner, Kalmer, and Leeli- has a special gift and role to play in saving their world from the great evil. Children and teens who love fantasy will certainly enjoy these novels with a subtle yet decidedly Christian world view.
In the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia, the Wingfeather Saga is not overtly pushing a Christian agenda, yet details throughout reflect the author’s Christian worldview. “The Maker” is referenced repeatedly throughout the series as the creator of the world of Aerwiar. In times of need, the children call on the Maker for aid, and sometimes receive it. There are many references to all things ultimately being in the Maker’s hands. There is even a major theme throughout of the Maker bringing good out of evil:
“Gnag bends things for breaking, and the Maker makes a flourish! Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well! That is his way.”
There are also many parallels to the Biblical story of Creation in the history of Aerwiar: a first couple created by the Maker, evil entering the world through misuse of free will, and so on.
SELF-SACRIFICE AND REDEMPTION
In line with the Christian worldview, major themes in The Wingfeather Saga are self-sacrifice and redemption. Janner is repeatedly placed in situations where he must choose between self-preservation and protecting his siblings. At first he resents this duty to sacrifice himself, but by the end of the series recognizes his selfishness and embraces the Biblical ideal of laying down one’s life for one’s brother.
There are several characters who undergo redemption of various sorts. For example, Kalmar is “fanged” (changed into an animal) when in a time of weakness he loses hope and succumbs to the desire for power. With Janner’s help, Kalmar repents of his sin and regains humanity in the end. Another notable redemption is of the villain in the series, Gnag the Nameless. Peterson accomplishes the difficult feat of portraying Gnag as utterly evil, yet by a strange concatenation of circumstances redeeming him in the last seconds of his life.
Another wonderful aspect of The Wingfeather Saga is its positive portrayal of family love and loyalty. The three siblings overcome jealousies and resentments to forge a close bond. The relationship between the brothers, Janner and Kalmar, is particularly noteworthy for its loyalty and sacrificial aspect. Their mother, Nia, is truly awesome: loving, supportive, protective, always willing the good for them. Their father, Esben, is believed to be dead, but eventually comes into the story and (here’s the self-sacrifice theme again) gives his life to save his children’s.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
Music as healing, music as an art form, music as a weapon. Music comes into the book over and over as a powerful force for good. Leeli is a skilled whisle-harpist, and her music saves lives, tames animals, and can carry messages. The pure of heart are roused to courage and imbued with energy when they hear her music. The evil cringe and cover their ears at the beauty of her music.
One of the trickiest parts of finding good fantasy novels is evaluating the “magic” factor. What does the author mean by magic? Does he equivocate about whether magic is good or evil? Does he encourage children to dabble in magic?
I found that Peterson had a unique approach to the magic question. In The Wingfeather Saga, there are no spells, potions, or witches’ hats. Instead, Peterson uses the term “magic” to be more synonymous with “mystery.” Nia explains the magic of Leeli’s music to her children:
“What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.” Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker- it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. … The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world.”
Portraying magic as synonymous with a mystery may be slightly confusing for younger readers, so I would discuss how Peterson portrays magic with my children when they read this book.
I ascribe to Michael O’Brien’s views on dragons (see my post Concerning Dragons), so I approached a series which I knew contained dragons with major misgivings. I found Peterson’s views on dragons slightly nebulous. He doesn’t try to make them good, portraying them as having done many dark deeds such as sinking the mountains and destroying the countryside. The primary dragon character, Yurgen, is vengeful, destructive, and lusts for power. But Peterson also doesn’t consider all dragons as inherently evil. Upon hearing Leeli’s music, a few dragons are even moved to contrition for their past evil deeds and end up helping in a final battle for Aerwiar.
Overall, the dragons come into the story fairly infrequently and are not major characters. The question is whether the “redemption” of a few dragons is a form of demythologizing? Does it contradict the centuries of western tradition which use the dragon as a symbol for evil? I think Peterson does unintentionally contradict tradition here a bit. But given how overwhelmingly Christian and wholesome these books are as a whole, this is another time where I would discuss the dragon question with my children when they read the books.
WHO SHOULD READ IT?
Overall, The Wingfeather Saga is refreshingly clean from any sexual content, adult humor, and language. There are, however, loads of violent battles. Note that the descriptions of the battles are not graphic like in “The Maze Runner” or “The Hunger Games”. But still, you have Janner and Kalmar killing many fangs in self-defense. A couple beloved characters such as Leeli’s dog and grandfather also die. Given the violence and the need for a nuanced discussion about magic and dragons, I would recommend this book for those over 12.
10 thoughts on “Review of “The Wingfeather Saga””
Pingback: Good Books for Catholic 12 to 13 Year Olds ~ Good Books for Catholic Kids
Pingback: Beyond Narnia: More Great Fantasy Series for Catholic Kids and Teens ~ Good Books for Catholic Kids
Pingback: 60 Classic Books For Middle Grade Boys ~ Good Books for Catholic Kids
Very interesting review! I read The Wingfeather Saga aloud to my kids and we all loved it. But, yes, some of the ambiguity about the dragons being good or evil does leave me a bit unsettled. The thing is, I love Andrew Peterson’s music and have been blessed immeasurably by it. I mostly trust his (nearly Catholic!) theology. So I really want to keep liking these books. I see he has a new hardback edition coming out right away with more illustrations and new maps! Do you think Dragons in the Waters is maybe a bit too rigid in its interpretation? I have this book on my shelf and haven’t read it yet. I do trust O’Brien’s theology more than Peterson’s though, if it comes down to that.
As you can see in my review, I found Peterson’s views on dragons somewhat unclear. A huge point in O’Brien’s Landscape with Dragons is the demythologizing of dragons and other traditionally evil symbols is dangerous. I don’t think Peterson is consciously demythologizing in the Wingfeather Saga, but at the same time his depiction of the dragons didn’t sit completely well with me. I would love to ask Michael O’Brien his opinion of the Wingfeather books!
Pingback: Review of "Adrastea" ~ Good Books for Catholic Kids
I don’t fully understand the point on demythologizing dragons, since Satan comes in many forms, as does evil. For example, Lucifer was an angel of light, and yet we usually associate angels with things that are good. Every single demon was also an angel and I believe that they can appear as such. Yet Christians see angels as positives aspects in our tradition and our culture. While it is true that the evil one will be a dragon who devours the church, Leviathans are mentioned in Job as symbols of God’s power (Job 42), and these seem to be very similar to the dragons mentioned in “The Wingfeather Saga” (a fire breathing scaled sea creature). If a book tries to make a dragon that represents evil (Gnag the nameless one) seem good, or its evil deeds to be worthy of praise, then that is where we lose our conscience and our sense of good and evil. But, dragons are creatures made by God, and I do not think that they are inherently good or evil, but instead, just like us, have been used and chained by evil. I would be willing to hear thoughts of the opposite opinion however, and I am by no means an expert on this subject.
This is a complex and controversial subject. I would highly recommend reading Michael O’Brien’s “A Landscape with Dragons” for a thorough examination of the symbolism and demythologization of dragons.
I love these books and am so excited for the TV series. I never really thought of the dragons much at all
Great review! In addition to a great story, this is also a well told one. Peterson’s writing is inspiring and pushes young readers minds. What I mean by pushes is inspirers. For example, one of my own son’s began writing poetry and prose not long after read this series.
My other son, who has autism and only reads non fiction books on animals, after I read it to him reread the entire series on his own!
So what can I say as a parent?
Thank you Wingfeather!