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    Wingfeather Saga book 1 cover showing the main character standing his ground with a fierce expression on his face

    The Gospel in Wingfeather

    Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga is no Lord of the Rings, but children’s literature hasn’t achieved such theological depth since the Chronicles of Narnia.

    By Thomas M. Ward

    November 18, 2022
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    • Tanya Dixon

      I must read these books!

    Originally published between 2009 and 2014, Andrew Peterson’s four-book Wingfeather Saga was already popular within the evangelical world when it was re-released in 2020 by Penguin Random House. Since then, its popularity has surged, and it is now poised to break into the mainstream – thanks in part to a successful Angel Studios crowdfunding campaign which will put the books on screen as an animated TV series. Somehow, I hadn’t heard of the series until last year, when it started circulating among my kids’ circles of friends. Then a strangely enthusiastic recommendation from a friend and fellow dad (and professor of literature) finally prompted me to read the books. I didn’t know what I was in for. I was prepared to enjoy a good yarn and have something to talk to the kids about; I was not prepared to find such a believable depiction of love for one’s enemies and such heartbreaking reflection on the cost of redemption. I don’t say this lightly: I don’t think children’s literature has achieved the theological depth of Wingfeather since the Chronicles of Narnia.

    The Wingfeather Saga follows the three Igiby children, Janner (boy, twelve), Tink (boy, eleven), and Leeli (girl, eight), as they are forced to leave the only home they can remember, learn about their true identities as royal children of the conquered island kingdom of Anniera, and, for all their youth and weakness, play decisive roles in that land’s great conflict against its archvillain, Gnag the Nameless, and his army, the Fangs of Dang, man-beast hybrids created by magically melding willing human victims with wild animals. The action spans two continents, two cultures, an ocean called the Dark Sea of Darkness (here be dragons), a forest filled with chimerical monsters, and a journey through the heart of the mountains into Gnag’s own castle. Amid all the adventure, dollops of humor, often silly, punctuate the suspense frequently enough to soothe the nerves of young readers and their sensitive parents. The books are great fun and the storytelling top-notch. They do, however, lack the literary polish and mythopoeic power of the books they’re most often compared to: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.

    But my focus here is theological depth. The Christian theme of the series is so tightly interwoven with the plot, so believably told and yet so astonishing when all finally unfolds, that it really is a window into the gospel itself. The gospel, Tolkien tells us in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories,” is the greatest story of all, the ultimate “eucatastrophe” in which great goodness is brought forth through, not in spite of, catastrophic loss. For Christians, Tolkien’s assertion certainly has a ring of truth. Yet there is also something confusing about it: the great hero of the gospel story doesn’t deal with the bad guys in the viscerally satisfying way that heroes are supposed to.

    In a good story, the villains at some point must stop being villainous. An easy way to put an end to their villainy is to put an end to them; it’s hard to think of a clearer way to drive home the good guys’ victory than to kill the bad guys. Poised as any reader is between an irascible appetite to destroy all obstacles to flourishing and an equally intense appetite for justice, the stories that kill off the villains offer a deep sense of satisfaction. If the villain instead simply loses the power to do evil, we sense that something is missing. We don’t only want the good guys to be able to live in peace and prosperity; we want the bad guys to pay. And when the bad guys are very bad, the price, we feel, ought to be death.

    The biblical conception of eternal hellfire satisfies this craving in an especially intense way, making the bad guys suffer torments worse than death. But the gospel interjects a much more creative way of dealing with the villains: the good guy does not kill his enemies but dies for them, suffering their fate for them.

    As a literary device, the Christ-figure is everywhere, but rarely suffering for his enemies. More often, he suffers at the hands of his enemies, for his friends. In this sense, a story could have Christ-figures galore but still miss the core of the Christian story: while we were enemies of God, we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10).

    Peterson has told a good story in which the enemies are reconciled to the good guys. Anyone could write this sort of story, but what makes Peterson’s a good one is that it is not trite or sentimental or morosely moralizing. It earns the ability to deliver its denouement over hundreds of pages of careful but not too-serious storytelling, and the redemption of the bad guys is sufficiently, overwhelmingly, costly.

    Peterson’s fictional world of Aerwiar (“here we are”) includes at least four types of conscious creatures: humans, a diminutive people called ridgerunners, sea dragons, and trolls. Neither the ridgerunners nor the sea dragons nor – in rejection of fairytale tradition – the trolls, are intrinsically evil, though they can do evil things. Among the humans are some good guys, and some very bad guys. Though not every one of these bad guys undergoes a physical transformation, one of the pervasive devices of the books is the representation of human wretchedness through literal transformations of the human form into the forms of beasts and monsters. A Fang, for example, can only be created when the human victim sincerely wills to be on the side of the bad guys, lusting for power.

    Like Fangs, the cloven are former humans melded with one or another kind of beast. The cloven have not willed their transformation as the Fangs have, and are not entirely bent on evil as the Fangs are, yet their forms are even more hideous and chaotic. The first we meet has the appearance of a mutilated bear with internal organs stuck on its hide like saddlebags. Later, when we meet many cloven in their forest dwelling, there is no mode of pitiful weirdness unrepresented. Some have been made cloven against their wills, but others should have been Fangs but willed their transformations only half-heartedly or came to regret their willing while the melding was still in progress.

    I was not prepared to find such a believable depiction of love for one’s enemies and such heartbreaking reflection on the cost of redemption.

    The point of this inventory is that there is nothing in Aerwiar that is bad by its very nature. A Fang, once a Fang, cannot help but be bad, but every Fang was once a human who willed to be bad. In this respect, The Wingfeather Saga is similar to that great work of twentieth-century fantasy literature, The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s trilogy, Sauron has no true creative power and can only corrupt what is originally good. But in Middle Earth the corruption of elves into orcs happened so many generations ago, and in so opaque a manner, that it is unthinkable that an orc might develop a conscience or defect to the side of good. In Aerwiar, however, the Fangs and cloven are recent phenomena; their transformations have taken place within the last few years. Bad as the Fangs are, wretched as the cloven are, the evil they represent has not yet become deeply woven into the fabric of the world. This lends some plausibility to their opportunity, when it arises in the story, to be redeemed.

    Prior to Peterson, I would have turned first to George MacDonald to craft an answer to the question about what it would take, in a good story, for a villain to be redeemed rather than merely defeated. Indeed, Peterson’s epigraph for the fourth book of the saga is a few lines from one of MacDonald’s early poems. Lilith, a novel of MacDonald’s old age, gives readers glimpses of the very beginning of its titular character’s long redemptive process. Lilith, queen of the underworld, will be redeemed; God, through his ministers Adam, Eve, and Mara, is so patient, so creative, and so persistent in his love that he will eventually get through to her. We are told that eventually even the Shadow himself will be successfully subjected to this great love, along with everyone else. Though Lilith is controversial for implying universal salvation, it offers nothing like a doctrine of cheap grace.

    While Peterson never matches the psychological depth of MacDonald’s portrayal of Lilith’s conversion, he does capture something theologically important that MacDonald never does: he ensures that the bad guys are redeemed vicariously. The Fangs and cloven are so broken, so incapable of willing to live a good human life, that they could not realistically undergo the spiritual therapy which MacDonald has Lilith undergo with Mara. The only two conditions the Fangs and cloven must meet to take advantage of their redemptive opportunity are to not want to be broken anymore, and to be willing to be given new names (though even this proves too much for many Fangs). For those who are willing, all the excruciating work is performed for their sakes by someone else.

    If Peterson represents human wretchedness in The Wingfeather Saga through physical transformations that break the human form and the human psyche, one might expect conversion, or redemption, to be represented as a return to physical wholeness. And this is more or less what we find. But there is something simplistic – even sinister – about any uniform representation of evil by deformity and ugliness, and goodness by wholeness and beauty. Thankfully, while Peterson retains human wholeness, body and soul, as an ideal or norm, he also celebrates the way in which disabilities have their own creative potential for goodness. His world – and ours – is better thanks to these exceptions to the norm.

    Three characters in the series suffer from nonmagical disabilities: Leeli has a twisted foot caused by a Fang attack when she was a baby; her grandfather, Podo, lost half his leg in his younger days as a pirate; Gnag the Nameless was born “a pale, ugly, misshapen thing.” But Podo has had his pirate’s wooden leg for so long that it’s about as good for him as a natural leg. And each year Podo carves a new crutch for his growing granddaughter; she’s so mobile that she can nearly keep up with her brothers, even when they run. What could be a handicap, then, is hardly one at all. More than anything, what assistance she does need simply provides her family one more way to show their love to her. Gnag’s handicap, needless to say, is far more severe and consequential than a twisted foot or missing leg.

    His story does not have a wholly happy ending, and yet it is hard not to think that things are better for his not being fully restored. 

    The other misshapen characters in the series, and there are many, are so due to the horrific misuse of the Ancient Stones by which all Fangs and cloven are made. But redemption does not necessarily require full restoration of their human form. Artham P. Wingfeather begins the act of will by which he could become a full-fledged Fang, but recoils and flees in shame and terror. His moment of weakness wrecks his mind and partially transforms his body. He experiences a partial healing which restores some of his mental capacity but simultaneously exacerbates the nonhuman characteristics of his body. And yet were it not for the superhuman fighting power these give him, all would be lost. His story does not have a wholly happy ending, and yet it is hard not to think that things are better for his not being fully restored.

    Similarly, the first cloven we meet turns out not to be the horror we see at first. Through the boys’ eyes, he couldn’t be anything but a monster. Later, we see him from the perspective of one who shares his condition, and we can begin to pity him. Later still, he performs physical feats of heroism unmatched in the saga except by Artham himself, feats of which he would be incapable as an ordinary human.

    As in any real eucatastrophe, in Peterson’s saga redemption definitely does not involve everything returning to how it was before the bad stuff happened. By comparison, consider Tolkien’s Frodo, wrecked by his experiences bearing and helping to destroy the ring. While he cannot hope for happiness in Middle Earth, he does become very wise, and is eventually invited to sail with the elves to the Undying Lands of Valinor. That wisdom and honor would not have come about were it not for the wreckage. So, too, with some of the characters in The Wingfeather Saga. Peterson, who is also an acclaimed Christian songwriter, puts it well in one of his songs: “Maybe it’s a better thing / A better thing / To be more than merely innocent / But to be broken then redeemed by love.”

    Still, the dominant sign of redemption in the saga is indeed a restoration of form: an integrity not just of mind but of body, and of bodies as they are meant to be. Queen Arundelle, cloven in the form of a tree, dreams of marrying her human beloved. How will a tree marry a man? (Again, Peterson harks to MacDonald, who in Phantastes writes about a beech tree who pines for Anodos.) For the promise of peace and prosperity in Anniera to be fulfilled, its subjects must first be restored to more complementary physiologies.

    What stands out in the saga, though, is not any sort of explanation of why the redemption of Fangs and cloven involves physical restoration, but – far more importantly – the fact that such a wide range of bad guys is eligible for redemption. The wickedest Fang, the most mutilated cloven, is not out of the range of the Maker’s saving power channeled through those who, themselves imperfect, work for the redemption of the world. This breadth of the redeemed, or redeemable, could easily have felt trite, but Peterson pulls it off because he makes that broad redemption incredibly costly. There is no cheap grace.

    Thus, the saddest scene of the saga also powerfully depicts the joyful suffering which is the shape our redemption takes here and now, a suffering in which the one who suffers “sensed the Maker’s presence and pleasure like a roll of thunder, a crashing wave, a cool rain, a newborn’s breath, all unfolding like the joy of spring from the earth’s wintry grave,” and “his bones burned with a terrible and ecstatic love.”

    The gospel tells us that our restoration and glorification are brought about by Christ’s suffering and death. He is broken for us and rises again. Yet until we too rise again, Christ’s brokenness is not just the means of our redemption but also our model; like Christ, we are broken for love’s sake and continue to suffer brokenness, leading others to the same redemption to which we are being led.

    But it would be no gospel at all if any of God’s creatures had to pay the final price of healing. In this sense, Peterson’s gospel is not like the Gospels, which tell the story all the way to the resurrection and beyond, whereas Peterson’s ends, in an epilogue, with but the hope of resurrection. To quote the concluding lines of another Peterson song: “The sun went down, the Sabbath faded / The holy day was done and all creation waited.”

    Contributed By

    Thomas M. Ward is a philosophy professor at Baylor University.

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