In C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a girl named Lucy finds a book of spells. As she flips through it, she sees spells to cure warts and toothaches, spells to remember things and spells to forget, even a spell to learn what your friends really think of you. Eventually she comes to a spell “for the refreshment of the spirit” and, as she reads it, she discovers it’s nothing more or less than a story—“about a cup and a sword and tree and a green hill.” The story truly does refresh her spirit like magic. It’s a brief but tender reminder, I think, of how powerful good stories can be.
Andrew Peterson has made a career out of refreshing spirits through stories. His Dove Award–winning songwriting tends to be narrative and autobiographical. He created the Behold the Lamb of God tour, which tells the story of redemption and Christ’s birth through song. He also authored a series of fantasy novels, which are being re-released this year with new artwork and covers.
The Wingfeather Saga is a sweeping four-book story about children discovering their true identities and how to live them; monsters with fangs and monsters who look safe; mistakes and sins; acts of courage and self-sacrifice; dangerous toothy cows; and hope when everything seems lost. The last book was selected as World magazine’s 2014 Children’s Book of the Year. The final two novels, The Monster in the Hollows and The Warden and the Wolf King, re-release this week.
I corresponded with Peterson about why we need stories now, what’s next for the Wingfeathers, trusting the author when bad things happen, and ice cream.
The Warden and the Wolf King
All winter long, people in the Green Hollows have prepared for a final battle with Gnag the Nameless and the Fangs of Dang. Janner, Kalmar, and Leeli are ready and willing to fight alongside the Hollowsfolk. But when the Fangs make the first move and invade Ban Rona, the children are separated.
Janner is alone and lost in the hills; Leeli is fighting the Fangs from the rooftops of the city; and Kalmar, who carries a terrible secret, is on a course for the Deeps of Throg. Monsters and Fangs and villains lie between the children and their only hope of victory in the epic conclusion of The Wingfeather Saga.
Why should Christians care about fantasy fiction right now? Isn’t that just escapist in a rough year like ours?
Whether or not it’s specifically fantasy fiction, Christians should always care about stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and they can inspire, edify, and convict in ways that no other medium can. This is especially true for children.
As for escapism, I’ll go with Tolkien, who said, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?” The year 2020 seems to me like one of the best times to be reminded of the larger story.
You’ve said in other places that writing The Wingfeather Saga taught you about God. Can you share some of the things you learned about the Maker of the universe as you were creating your own worlds?
The first thing that springs to mind is how my understanding of suffering changed. The New Testament talks a lot about suffering, of course. Jesus called us to take up our crosses and follow him, to find our lives by losing them, to allow him to prune our branches that we might bear good fruit. Paul, too, has a lot to say about it.
But any Christian who’s experienced real pain has also experienced real questions—the same questions Job had. I know I’ve had moments when I asked God why or, if I’m honest, when I demanded to know why. Writing these books taught me so much about sanctification, because at no point did I, as the author of Janner’s story, stop loving him. I only intended his good. Nor did I ever lose sight of who I meant for him to become. And I knew that the only way for that little boy to grow into the hero he was meant to be was for him to struggle, to suffer.
I didn’t just learn that truth, I experienced it by moving through the story one page at a time, and it deepened my understanding of what Scripture tells us about our loving God.
On a first reading of The Monster in the Hollows, I was surprised at how much of it was about the everyday training the main characters receive to prepare them for the challenges they face in the story’s conclusion. I know you’ve shared about how your own children are moving into the adult world and their own creative endeavors now. Do you have any advice or encouragement for Christian parents with younger children just starting out on their own real-life adventure of training and preparing for whatever is ahead of them? Were there things you loved doing with your children? Could you share one thing you would change if you could?
In The Wingfeather Saga, the parents and the kids are on the same team. There are a few rocky moments, of course, but the kids never had to wonder if their parents were allies. There’s a tendency in a lot of young adult stories to have the parents be these clueless buffoons too busy to really hear what the kids are telling them. That’s because it’s a lot easier to write a story where the kids are on their own, without a grownup to rescue them at every turn.
I get it—this is why so many kids in these kinds of stories (from Harry Potter to Narnia) are orphans, or are separated from their parents. For example, when Janner and Kal split up in book two it felt like Janner’s story went into overdrive; he had to fight his way out of tight spots, which is when he began to grow up. But the whole time, he was trying to get back to his family.
Make sure your kids know that you know it’s tough to be a kid. Treat them like people. They probably already know you love them, but it’s just as important to make sure they know they’re liked.
In The Wingfeather Saga, I wanted to show that things really can work better when the family is united—when the parents are invested, not oblivious. If my kids came to my wife and me with a serious problem, of course we’d listen. If they had the burden the Wingfeathers carry, we’d be cheering them every step of the way—and we’d be grieving with them, too.
I guess that’s my answer. Make sure your kids know that you know it’s tough to be a kid. Treat them like people. They probably already know you love them, but it’s just as important to make sure they know they’re liked. As far as changing anything, that’s easy: more ice cream.
Near the end of The Warden and the Wolf King, Armulyn the Bard says,
The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide
And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue. . . .
Then the light of love is the flame of the spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.
Some parts of the saga are pretty dark. Bad things happen to the characters, through outside circumstances and their own choices. “And yet!” the overall feel of the series is hopeful. Can you share something the Lord has taught you about honestly acknowledging the darkness of a circumstance and still holding onto faith?
Like I said earlier, it all comes down to trusting that the author of your story is good. Not only that, the author of creation’s story is good. The whole thing ends in glory. Thinking of the darkness in terms of story, or as a minor movement in a greater symphony, gives me courage.
I think it won’t give away too much to say that one intriguing aspect of the second half of The Wingfeather Saga is that several of the characters’ stories end somewhat ambiguously, or with a mix of sadness and joy. It’s unusual—and honestly a bit jarring—in a series for kids. Why did you choose to approach it that way, and how have people responded?
The ending came as a surprise to me, too. For most of the writing process I imagined it going another way, but when I got to the second-to-last chapter of the final book I realized that the story wanted something else. I stopped writing, went back and re-read the whole of the draft of book four, and realized—with certainty—how it needed to end. Looking back at the earlier books, it felt so obvious, as if that was how it was always going to go, but I was standing too close to see. The point is, I tried hard to let the story become what it wanted to become. (This is a way of saying that I was trying to be attentive to the Holy Spirit.) I had the thrill of being surprised at times, and deeply saddened at times, too. To my great joy, kids have resonated with the ending. As for the few for whom it was jarring, I tell them that I bet they’ll understand when they’re reading the story to their kids someday. (And the parents usually agree.)
Some people know you primarily as a songwriter and the creator of the Behold the Lamb of God tour. Are there ways your musical career helped prepare you to write fantasy novels?
Songwriting and storytelling go hand-in-hand. There are certain principles that work, no matter the medium, kind of like the golden ratio. That’s one answer.
But I think the biggest help was that I had learned through music that art is work. By the time I started book one I had released a few records, which means I had moved past the honeymoon of “Golly, music is fun!” to the harrowing and holy work of fighting to make something. When I started on the first book that honeymoon part faded fast, but I had learned through music that the only way to get to the gratifying part (the finished product) is to muscle through the labor-intensive, often tedious parts.
You asked about my kids earlier—they’re all doing wonderful creative work now: Skye’s a singer-songwriter, Asher’s a record producer, Aedan’s a visual artist. They also started a sibling band called Wake Low. I’m proud of them, not just because their work is good, but because they think of their art as work. They grew up in a community of artists who are Christians, with a graceful integration of faith and work on full display. That’s the part it took me a while to learn—that the labor of running the race and the joy of finishing are of a piece.
What’s next for the Wingfeather story?
I’m excited to be reading books three and four aloud this fall. Back in March when the lockdown started, thanks to the wonder of the internet, I read books one and two for about 30 minutes a night to a whole bunch of families. I think we averaged about 22,000 views per night. It was crazy, and such a joy. So we’re kicking off the conclusion on October 19, on Facebook and YouTube. Next year Random House is releasing Wingfeather Tales and Creaturepedia. And we’re still working steadily toward an animated film or series. Twelve-year-old Andrew is geeking out.
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