[Editor's Note: Minor spoilers ahead.]
North! Or Be Eaten carries forward Andrew Peterson’s epic tale of the Igiby family, now on the run from venomous “Fangs of Dang” (giant, foul-smelling lizards) who oppress the free peoples of Aerwiar in the service of the evil lord Gnag the Nameless. The three poor and seemingly normal children—Janner, Tink, and Leeli—find that they’re far more precious than they thought, and Gnag is willing to do anything to capture them. In the previous post, I discussed the characters, creativity, and mystery as key components of The Wingfeather Saga. I’ll be developing those topics further in this post.
Characters in fiction are powerful when we can easily either identify with them or distance ourselves from them.
Evil characters such as the Fangs of Dang or Gnag the Nameless are easy to distance ourselves from. They seem purely evil, just as orcs and goblins do in Tolkien’s work. We unite with the protagonists and take up arms against dark and ugly forces.
But it’s more difficult when evil characters are three-dimensional. Later in this book, Peterson pushes that question to the foreground. How do we think about dark characters who could still be saved? That’s an important question, since at one time or another we all were at enmity with the God of light (Eph. 2:3). It does little good to think of evil divorced from redemption, not because pure evil doesn’t exist but because by focusing on it we’ll miss a thousand gracious interactions that could turn someone towards the light. Put differently, we’d all condemn the alleged “fangs” in our lives. But what if one of them was our brother? Now we have to approach evil in light of possible redemption, in light of longed-for reconciliation, in light of prayers for restoration. Isn’t that what God’s people do in real life? I was very happy to see Peterson bring this out in North! Or Be Eaten, and much more in The Monster in The Hollows (Book 3) and The Warden and the Wolf King (Book 4). Redemption is a major theme in the book, and I think that’s a requirement in Christian fiction.
Now, in terms of characters we can easily identify with, there’s plenty to choose from in North! Or Be Eaten. Janner and Tink’s developing relationship brings out Tink’s immaturity and his desire to flee from responsibility. And who could blame him? Few boys would embrace the demands of kingship. Tink’s inner battle brings out Janner’s frustration with self-centeredness, and he’ll have his own inner journey with that brought to a head in The Warden and the Wolf King (Book 4). Podo, the ex-pirate grandfather, has to start dealing with his troubled past, and Nia begins to let more light into the family background she’d shielded her children from for so many years. There’s also the conflicted uncle, Artham Wingfeather, whose insanity becomes a burden other family members decide to bear. Each of these characters offers us something with which we can identify. And once we identify with a character, we start to care. And that’s the key to getting drawn deeply into a story.
Peterson’s creativity comes out again in the creatures we encounter: horned dogs, club-wielding trolls, quill diggles, giant spindly-legged roaches, speaking sea dragons, bumpy digtoads. But I found his portrayal of the nature of evil equally creative and intriguing, especially in the Fork! Factory—a child labor enterprise that provides weapons for the growing army of fangs. This is where Janner ends up a prisoner, and he learns much about suffering and the cost of courage.
What does evil do? It depersonalizes. It treats people as things, souls as stuff. It replaces names with functions, which is why Janner is immediately told at the factory that his name is “tool.” Janner chooses to fight back against this depersonalizing evil, leaving a legacy behind him in the other children. This whole episode brings out the deep importance of names, uniqueness, and human value.
More could be said about creativity, but I don’t want to spoil anything for readers. But I’ll invite you to ponder the implications of singing a song that changes your name and that changes who you are. You’ll hit that towards the end of North! Or Be Eaten.
Much mystery remains in North! Or Be Eaten though we take some steps towards potential answers. Who is this Gnag the Nameless? Why does he want Janner and his siblings so badly? What will become of Tink, after his rebellion against responsibility brings dire consequences? How will Janner play a role in Tink’s newfound identity?
Amidst the questions, there’s some beautiful passages that describe the “magic” each of the Wingfeather children possesses. When asked about the “magical” nature of Leeli’s song—which enables her to connect to her siblings and communicate with dragons—Nia replies,
What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, “How does a bumblebee fly?” the answer would probably be “Magic.” Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. It is a gift from the Maker—it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. . . . The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when he knit the world. If it seems as though we have uncovered some secret, it is only because the wars of the ages concealed what was once as common as grass.
Oskar N. Reteep follows this up with his own observation: “It is only when we have grown too old that we fail to see that the Maker’s world is swollen with magic—it hides in plain sight in music and water and even bumblebees.”
The magic of the Maker: it’s not just in the unexplainable; it’s in the seemingly explainable, in water and bumblebees. The trouble isn’t that Aerwiar lacks magic, nor that our own world does. The trouble is we lose the ability to see it. Perhaps learning to see with new eyes is the apex of Peterson’s theme of redemption throughout the series.
North! Or Be Eaten is an excellent follow-up to the first book, packed full of adventure, character development, and biblical allusions for those with eyes to see.