[Note: This post is mostly about my experience of reading these books and what I took away from them personally, which means delving pretty deeply into the story and giving several things about the ending away, so read on at your own risk.]
The Wingfeather Saga. Well, that’s a cool name to begin with. Try On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hollows, The Warden and the Wolf King. Even if the recommendation of all your friends doesn’t convince you, maybe notice how exciting those titles are. By the way, the picture is of my sister’s collection, and book four had to be rebound (in leather, obviously—I mean, what else?) because it had begun to fall to pieces from the many readings of it.
Honestly, I was very skeptical when my kid sister got the first book for Christmas. Christian singer wrote a fantasy novel… it didn’t sound that great to me. I have sampled a number of “Christian” novels, fantasy and otherwise, over the years, and I have found them all to be extremely cheesy at best, and spiritually harmful at worst. Annie read the first book and told me about it before reading the others, and I was still skeptical, but the thought of a story about a bunch of kids whose grandfather is a retired pirate convinced me to give it a shot. After that it was Jill pulling Jack down the hill after her. Annie read the whole series and managed to get nearly every one of us sisters, plus my mother, to read them as well. (By the way, that makes a total of seven ladies in my family, not to mention all the husbands who were then roped into reading them as well.)
Well, to get on with this. When I first started this article I approached it as if it were every other book review I’ve read: I wanted to spell out the essentials of the plot without giving any spoilers and convince you that it’s worth your time. But that didn’t seem to do, because for me it was a reading experience unlike most, and I cannot imagine it necessarily affecting all its readers as it did me, though it might to a certain degree. The story, as I read it, boiled down to the main character’s journey on a very personal level. The point being, this is not like what you’d normally call a book review—it’s more like a story of experiencing a story.
Janner Igiby is just a boy, like so many others, discontent with his lot in life until it changes in ways he never imagined. When Janner discovers who his father is and where he is from, his journey home is fraught with peril and loss and sadness. By the end of it he feels he would give anything to have his life back the way it was (or almost: without the fangs of Dang would be nice). He wants rest. Just rest. He feels that his life is unfair from start to finish—he wants adventure instead of chores, then when he gets that, it comes with every kind of misfortune imaginable, and he wants rest instead of adventure, home instead of running, adventure instead of home—it goes on and on.
His whole life is spent looking after his ornery and unthinking little brother. Janner is Throne Warden of Anniera, and Tink his brother is High King of a lost kingdom, and they find themselves thrown out of hiding on their comfortable homestead, along with their sister, mother and grandfather, and running all over the land (and sea) of Aerwiar to escape the clutches of Gnag the Nameless, and later, to defeat him.
Janner goes through some pretty intense emotional and physical trauma throughout the story as he strives to fulfill his duty of looking after Tink, and he often despairs. He has to tell himself over and over that the Maker has brought him safely this far and will continue to carry him along, then he has to get up, dust himself off, strap his sword back on and keep on protecting. But inside Janner is coming to a boil. As Throne Warden Janner has to protect, has to obey, has to be put second to his younger brother, and while understanding that he ought to feel it as an honor, he feels weighed down by the task of his birthright. As danger follows hard upon danger in the war against the Nameless Evil, Janner finds himself more and more questioning the Maker’s love, wondering if he really cares.
At the time I read these books the Lord was doing a work in my heart of which I was long ignorant. I began to notice a similarity between myself and Janner. I understood his feelings, his doubts and fears, his desire to be good, and his frequent belief in his own goodness. And also his failures and inadequacies.
Toward the end of book four, The Warden and the Wolf King, (SPOILERS) Janner is finally brought to the end of himself. He encounters the Maker outside the Fane of Fire, the Maker’s holy dwelling into which his brother has gone. Janner is sitting with his sister, asleep on his shoulder, above the place where he believes the Maker to be, and he feels a sense of his own lack so completely that it begins to break his heart. He is brought to an understanding of himself, to a knowledge of his heart, by the Maker. In the words of Andrew Peterson in that very passage…
“Gradually Janner began to understand, deeper in his heart than any of these other thoughts or feelings, that what was happening inside of him was the Maker’s doing. Just being this close to the Fane of Fire stirred the muck in Janner’s soul so that every broken part of him floated to the surface and was drawn in sharp relief, just like those dust motes.
“After more than an hour, with Leeli asleep on his shoulder, Janner understood something about his own heart: he was deeply, blatantly selfish. In so many situations … whenever he had unleashed his frustration at the Maker, he had been thinking more of himself than anyone or anything else. Even in the performance of his duties, he thought mainly of his own dutifulness; in his courageous moments he thought of his courage. Only in his pain and despair did he turn his attention to the Maker, and then it was only to demand answers or outcomes.”
Reading this chapter, I felt more and more a connection to Janner, but more than that, I sensed that what was happening to him was happening to me. I felt that I was being laid bare, but it was good. As Eustace put it, “Then the lion said—but I don’t know if it spoke—’You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis)
These two stories—the story of Janner and the story of Eustace—resonate with me, and I quote them because they speak to an experience that I could never find the words to describe. While I read of the Maker working a change in Janner’s heart, I wept and wept all over the pages. I longed to feel such a change in myself. When the Maker convinced Janner of his need and told him Be still, I longed to feel my own Maker taking me up in the arms of His love. Before I ever knew it in my heart of hearts, that love was all around me. I awoke to it at last, after a long struggle, and knew that it was there even as it had always been.
To quote from Janner’s experience again, “A great love enveloped him, and he thought of his father’s bearlike embrace, only now he knew those arms were but a shadow of the bright love that beat the world’s heart and held him now, as they always had, with an inescapable, indescribable tenderness.”
These books hold a special place in my heart. I try to convince everybody who will listen to me to read them. They ring with truth and love. If I’m trying to tell somebody about the man who wrote them, I don’t think to call him a writer or an author. I don’t even think to call him a singer/songwriter. To my mind, Andrew Peterson is a storyteller.
And by the way… the stories are true.