The Warden and the Wolf King concludes Andrew Peterson’s 4-part Wingfeather Saga. I finished the books more than two weeks ago, but have been trying to gather my thoughts before putting pen to paper – or fingertips to keys – in the form of a review and reflection. I’ve been trying to sort out where this series fits within the world of fantasy fiction by Christians.
That the books are eminently readable, accessible, and enjoyable is beyond doubt. They make for great reading at any age, and I wholeheartedly recommend them. But not many books are truly great books. Not all enjoyable series deserve to be classified with the ‘classics’. So where does this one land? I will tell you soon, but first: let’s think about the books themselves for a bit.
Peterson describes the genesis of the Wingfeather Saga as a story he wrote for his own children. One can sense the playfulness of that first book, with its silly names and laugh-out-loud moments punctuated by serious themes. The careful reader can tell that the author is not quite sure where it is all going to go quite yet, but that the very act of imagining and incarnating the characters seems to propel him forward. Peterson’s insights into the human heart are part of what makes the series so special. In particular, he delves deeply into the personalities and relationships of the two brothers: Tink (or later, Kalmar), and Janner.
The second book and third books have a surer step as the plot is developed, the writing improves, other characters and relationships are explored, and themes of evil, friendship, loss, suffering, failure, forgiveness, and family are deepened. The humor is still present but less prominent. The fourth book, by far the longest, reveals Peterson at his creative best. The tensions are ratcheted up and up until a final resolution is reached. The defeat of evil is not the end, however. A great symbolic act of healing actually serves as the thematic climax of the series. (I am being quite guarded in my descriptions to avoid having to warn you about spoilers).
The well-read Christian will recognize the major influences immediately. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis loom large. Behind them, present but distant, would be George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton. It seems to me that Peterson adapts elements from both Tolkien and Lewis. The world of Aerwear is more like Tolkiens’ Middle-Earth than Narnia. There is a long history that is referred to at many points along the way, and hints at a long future as well. While nowhere near the complexity or comprehensiveness of Tolkien’s (frankly unsurpassed) world, Peterson manages to make the reader feel he is really in another place, a place that makes sense and functions according to its own nature, a place with a real history and a real future, with real characters making real choices. This alone is no small achievement.
The nature of divine involvement in The Wingfeather Saga charts a middle path between LOTR and Narnia. Unlike LOTR, there is a ‘Maker’ that the characters interact with, but unlike Narnia, that Maker makes no appearance and all interactions with him happen ‘off-stage’. The presence and use of humor was more prominent in Peterson’s work than either of these two major influences, although if I had to choose I would say it was closer to Lewis’ style than Tolkien’s. The structure of the ending seems to be a classic case of what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe, a concept he coins and explores in his famous essay “On Fairy Stories.” And it works.
The role and power of music and arts in The Wingfeather Saga was a special contribution as well. Leeli turns the tide of many battles with the power of song, which seems appropriate coming from an author who is best known for his songwriting and music. Clearly we are glimpsing here some of the ways in which Peterson sees the arts functioning in the world. I look forward to reading his more recent book, Adorning the Dark, which seems to be a set of reflections on these matters.
Despite all my admiration, I’m left with the question: does Peterson rise to the level of his esteemed masters? Is the Wingfeather Saga worthy to be classed with the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia Chronicles? My answer is: No. I believe that The Wingfeather Saga is a momentous achievement and a perfect homage to the genius of those works and authors. But, in my view, it is not groundbreaking in the same way as those were. It will not (sadly) have the reach and popular appeal that those works did (partly because of its merits, but also partly because of the cultural climate we live in compared to 70 years ago). That being said, it is a significant part of the small renaissance of fiction by Christians that we are enjoying in our day.
The Wingfeather Saga is a great gift to the church, and one that we should treasure and enjoy with our children. I can think of no better way to immerse the imaginations of our children with the truths and themes of the great redemption story than to hand them these books, or better yet, sit with them and read together.