Note: The following contains numerous critical spoilers for Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. It also does not consider the arguments of “toothers,” so please don’t leave a comment about whether or not cow teeth can chip Holore.
There’s a problem in a lot of stories, particularly in science fiction and fantasy: the bad guys. Not necessarily the main villains — they’re often carefully drawn, compelling characters with complex motivations and backstories that evoke sympathy from the reader and challenge the hero’s goodness. It’s their goons — the endless armies of Imperial Stormtroopers or orcs that obstruct justice and get killed for it throughout the story. They’re mindless, wicked, and disposable, and they mostly exist just to advance the plot.
Some stories, particularly superhero tales, dodge the problem of whether or not the hero can kill these enemies by having the hero maim instead of kill. Others try to hedge this moral quandary by making the evil grunts robots, aliens, zombies, or some other dehumanized (but still humanoid) foe that can fall in great numbers without troubling the hero’s conscience.
This is how Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga seems to start. His world’s villains are sentient lizards called Fangs who spend their time oppressing citizens, kidnapping children, and engaging in other activities covered at the prototypical fantasy tale’s Dystopian Foot Soldier Community College. And, in what initially seems like a kid-friendly turn, the Fangs turn to dust when they die. (No corpses for our innocent young heroes to step over on their hero’s journey!)Stories like the Wingfeather Saga, however, help shape our imaginations so that we can put ourselves through the discipline of loving those who are not like us, even those have given themselves to wickedness.
In the first book, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, the standard tropes apply. The Fangs’ penchant for random cruelty is matched only by their laziness and lack of humanity. The Igiby children manage to avoid being thrown into the mysterious Black Carriage by the Fangs and learn that they are in fact Wingfeathers and heirs to the deposed King Esben of Anniera, a lost kingdom overthrown by the evil Gnag the Nameless who controls the Fang armies.
It’s a well-written book, full of lovingly drawn characters who evoke a bit of Roald Dahl in a J.R.R. Tolkien tale. Plot-wise, it does feel a bit paint-by-numbers as the children progress through various stages of their hero’s journey and learn at the story’s end that they must journey north to join the resistance movement against the wicked Fangs and reclaim their father’s throne. Peterson loves a good story and throws in enough twists and turns to make it an engaging read — not the least of which includes the children finding out that the town lunatic is actually their uncle Artham, who has been watching over and protecting them for years.
In book two, North! Or Be Eaten, things continue to get worse for the family, but not entirely in ways that the reader might expect. The Wingfeather children manage to escape the Fangs but become separated when Janner, the oldest child, is kidnapped and taken to the Fork! Factory! where children are used as slaves. His encounters with the older children who are used as foremen to keep the younger children laboring in the brutal factory helps us see how people can be traumatized and manipulated into oppressing others by the powers that be, even to the point of selling one another out for a few extra helpings of gruel. Janner recognizes that he, too, will have to make ugly compromises and ask others to sacrifice so that he can eventually escape.
Concurrently, his brother Kalmar finally learns what happens to the children who are stolen away by the Black Carriage: they are turned into Fangs by singing in the presence of a magical stone (and not just into lizards — multiple creatures are used, creating wolf and bat hybrids, too). Bitter at his family’s abandonment, Kal begins to follow in the footsteps of his countrymen and become a wolf Fang, but he’s saved by Artham (who himself suffered a similar fate years ago) before he completes the full transformation. He’s now a Cloven: half-human, half-fang, and able to sympathize with the evil goons that are still chasing them… because he almost became one himself.
Kalmar’s decision continues to haunt the family in book three, The Monster in the Hollows. The Wingfeathers all manage to escape to their mother’s ancestral home, Ban Rona, but Kalmar’s fur and fangs make him a target of prejudice among the people who have shed their blood to protect themselves from Fang domination and keep their children from slavery. As the story continues and the paranoia over Kalmar grows, the townspeople are blinded to a traitor in their midst and, in their xenophobic fear, murder another Cloven who turns out to be the long-lost King Esben. Kalmar’s no perfect victim — he struggles to contain his wolf instincts and his compassion for the creature he later learns is his father leads him to steal from the townspeople — but he is also, ultimately, not the dire threat that a man who looks like the rest of Ban Rona is.
The children and their allies still have to turn the Fangs to dust using swords, arrows, and battleaxes in the ensuing battle as Ban Rona is betrayed by the Wingfeathers’ old family friend — after all, the creatures are still trying to kidnap the heroes and kill anyone else in the way. But there’s a new poignancy to the battles once the children learn that the Fangs could have once been their neighbors. Evil is not simply a faceless Other to be dispatched with a blade; it’s people who have chosen to give themselves over to violence and destruction.
The Wingfeather Saga is by no means an allegory, but it couldn’t be any timelier for our frenzied debates about immigrants and refugees. The genuine desire to protect ourselves from those who really want to do us harm leads us to not only hurt people who look different, but also to empower shady opportunists with their own agendas. There’s no doubt that terrorism is a real threat and that millions of people around the world are in danger from violent extremists (with many of those millions trying to escape violence by fleeing to Western countries). But assuming that we’ll protect ourselves from violence and destruction merely by keeping out the wrong sort of people is not only foolhardy and arrogant; it’s dangerous.
The Fang menace remains in book four, The Warden and the Wolf King. The two Wingfeather boys strike out to confront Gnag himself in his castle, but are captured and, with their sister, are forced to give Gnag access to even greater power. Though Gnag is eventually defeated with fairly conventional warfare, his leaderless Fangs remain trapped in their transformed bodies. It’s up to Janner, the oldest child, to fulfill his role as Throne Warden and restore the people he was charged to protect — as well as his brother Kalmar — by sacrificing himself and reversing the Fang magic.
There are no magic stones that can somehow undo the years of cultural programming that foments hate. The risks and sacrifices that it takes to welcome the stranger require the sort of long, slow commitments to love that feel increasingly unpopular in our day and age. Stories like the Wingfeather Saga, however, help shape our imaginations so that we can put ourselves through the discipline of loving those who are not like us, even those who have given themselves to wickedness — just as immersing ourselves in the world of Middle-Earth helps us to take hope when it seems that the forces of evil will win the day. Our toxic political discourse has coarsened our capacity to consider our fellow humans as anything but threats and made rational policy discussion nearly impossible. Art may be able to help reach hearts where sensible arguments fall on deaf ears.
The wonder and mercy of the Gospel reaches to every living human; as long as someone is breathing, repentance is possible. More than that, the Holy Spirit’s power and the Church’s witness can transform individuals and cultures such that violent regimes come down and enemies become friends. The Wingfeather Saga does this by challenging the way we look at the people who hate us and want to hurt us. We might find ourselves more in sync with God’s global mission if we substitute clickbait articles about isolated incidents of foreign violence with great stories about facing down evil and restoring a nation.