CSFF Blog Tour: A Superstition Transformed

Outstanding among those beliefs that are universally characteristic of the religion of superstition is the conviction that “a man’s name is the essence of his being” (one Hebrew text says “a man’s name is his person” and another, “his name is his soul”). Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition


There’s an old superstition that names are powerful. Many cultures have believed that to know a person’s name is to have power over him, or to be freed from his power. The principle has been extended to the supernatural, with people seeking to conjure up the power of gods, angels, and demons by invoking their names.

Like all superstitions, this one shows both fear and a desire to control. Magic, real magic, has made great use of it; sorcerers, too, believed in the power of names. From the eleventh century come reports of witnesses – “learned and trustworthy men” – who claimed “that they had themselves seen magicians write names upon reeds and olive-leaves, which they cast before robbers and thus prevented their passage, or, having written such names upon new sherds, threw them into a raging sea and mollified it, or threw them before a man to bring about his sudden death.”

This idea has endured in folk tales – most famously in Rumpelstiltskin – and is now an established trope in modern fantasy and even, on occasion, sci-fi. Despite its various disreputable associations, it has a presence in Christian fantasy.

So how is a superstition transformed into a staple of fiction? It begins when people stop believing. If you genuinely believe in the mystic power of names, you will take it seriously – hiding your real name like people hide their PIN number, or worrying that you’ll curse your child by giving him an unlucky name. When you stop believing, the fun begins. What in our world would be bad science, or mere superstition, is the operating laws of different worlds. Everyone who reads speculative fiction knows this.

In Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, names and their power are at the heart of the story. The villains transform human beings into monsters by melding them with other creatures and then giving them new names. Their old selves are submerged and they become willing pawns for the villains. But unless and until the new name is given, the transformation remains incomplete. The victim’s old self is much closer to the surface and it’s easier for him to come back.

For these people, to hear their true names is painful. But it is also, if they don’t rebel, healing – and not for any magical, other-world reason. Their true names hurt and heal because the hearing reminds them who they were and what they lost; it brings them back to themselves.

The power-of-names theme is echoed throughout the saga. A lesser villain calls his enslaved workers ‘tools’ and tells them they have no names; the revolution begins when the workers start to share their names and band together. “What is a real name?” asks one character early on, hinting at hidden names and the truths hidden with them. And through it all the admonition and reminder comes again and again, Remember who you are.

Names, a character within the books says, have power. But it would be more true, even in his own world, to say that names have meaning. A person’s name is representative of his self, and to forget your name is to forget who you are. Unlike the old folk tales, there is no danger in telling others your true name, only in forgetting it yourself; there’s no power in knowing the names of others, only in making them forget their names.

Such subtle alteration is another way to revive and change old myths into new stories. Most legends and fairy tales, along with the fairy tale-worthy superstitions, are open for this sort of reconstruction, pagan origins or no. Have you ever been struck by a story’s transformation of a myth or superstition? Is there a myth or superstition you think ripe for such transformation?


Note: This article has been cross-posted to SpeculativeFaith.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Warden and the Wolf King

The Jewels of Anniera are preparing for war. All the long winter they have been rallying the people of the Green Hollows to go up against Gnag the Nameless, to end his destruction by destroying him.

The Skreeans are preparing for war. All winter Gammon has been leading them in the work, making ready to attack.

And then Gnag beats them to it.

The Warden and the Wolf King is the fourth and final book of the Wingfeather Saga, written by Andrew Peterson. This book, more than any of the others, belongs to the Wingfeather children, Janner and Kalmar and Leeli. Artham and Podo had their most pivotal moments in the first and second books, Nia had hers in the third. Here, in the fourth book, the adults retreat and the children take over.

This novel is the most intense of the series, in action and in darkness. What strikes me about the sadness of this book is that it leaps at you from unexpected places: characters left lost even after a great triumph, the boys and the cloven in the Blackwood. (You who have read the book, you know what I’m talking about. “Anniera. My home.” Really, I think I teared up.)

A lot of characters – not heard and hardly thought of since the second or even first book – come back. We even make it back to Glipwood, with reflection on how it all began. It was gratifying to revisit so many earlier elements of the story. The major storylines are brought to complete and satisfying conclusions, and such elements as the cloven and Gnag himself are thoroughly explored.

The one storyline left unresolved is Artham’s. The Warden and the Wolf King underscores his brokenness; his nightmare of ghouls in a dark chamber is the worst moment of his madness in the entire saga. And there’s no resolution. The story ends on a hopeful note for Artham, but he never truly finds healing or a lasting peace.

At first blush, it’s a little curious that Peterson finishes the stories of characters we thought we’d never see again and leaves Artham without resolution. But it makes sense. Artham’s story cannot be quickly or easily finished. That ship sailed when Artham snapped at the beginning of Monster in the Hollows. Andrew Peterson established then that even Artham’s glorious transformation wasn’t enough for healing, and now he needs to come up with something even better. Which won’t be easy, because that transformation scene was tremendous. (Authors do these things to themselves.)

Now I’m going to turn on the SPOILER ALERT for a few criticisms. I think the decision to bring back Bonifer Squoon was a mistake. It didn’t add much to the book, and it placed an unfortunate asterisk on the ending of Monster in the Hollows.

Additionally, Artham’s decision to retire to his treehouse when he knew there was a fleet of Fangs heading in the direction of his niece and nephews struck me as inconsistent with his character. I know he was, as he said, lost. But any more lost than when he first stumbled from the Blackwood and resolved to protect his brother’s children?

Finally, the book had continuity errors. Characters knew things they had not known in the last book and had no apparent opportunity to learn. If you read the conversation between Janner and Artham in the first chapters of Monster in the Hollows – the last conversation they have in the entire series – it’s clear Janner has no idea why Artham is so disturbed by the Blackwood. But in The Warden and the Wolf King, he knows his uncle’s history with the forest. The whole character of Arundelle is a kind of continuity error. (Anybody remember Alma Rainwater?)

All right, SPOILER ALERT OFF.

I regard the flaws of this novel as ultimately minor, especially in a 519-page conclusion of an epic. The Warden and the Wolf King is a fascinating book; I would even call it a great book. It is spiritually strong – very aware of the Maker, searching after His presence and His goodness. A phrase appears multiple times in the story – the Maker’s good pleasure. There’s both comfort and courage in it.

The Wingfeather Saga is one of the best series I have ever read, and The Warden and the Wolf King is an excellent denouement – heartfelt, imaginative, full of meaning, with hope and sorrow and glory.


In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: Randomness

This summer Rabbit Room Press released The Warden and the Wolf King, book four of the Wingfeather Saga, written by Andrew Peterson. Book three, Monster in the Hollows, was published three years ago.

Three. Many authors would be in breach of contract well before they took so long to produce their next book. But writing is not Andrew Peterson’s day job, and Rabbit Room Press is an unconventional press anyway. Last fall they ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of The Warden and the Wolf King and broke all expectations by raising more than a hundred thousand dollars.

So with lots of time, and that kind of money, Andrew Peterson had the opportunity to make the last book of his series what he wanted it to be. And it ended up 519 pages long, hard cover, and peppered with illustrations. (Also black. It looks good, but I was surprised when I first learned that they had chosen black for the cover art. How many colors do you have to go through before you end up with black?)

As a matter of mere appearance, The Warden and the Wolf King is an impressive book. And for the infinitely more important matter of the story itself – I’ll get into that tomorrow.

Two more notes of randomness. One, I wrote an essay about the evolution of the Wingfeather Saga over at SpeculativeFaith. You might be interested in checking it out.

Second note of randomness: Artham Wingfeather reminds me a bit of the song Matthew, and a little more of The Dutchman. A lot of differences, but it just feels similar to me. See what you think.

And now, fellow readers, we have the links:

The Warden and the Wolf King on Amazon;

Andrew Peterson’s author website;

and – last but not least – the blog tour:

Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham

Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Nissa

Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

Character Profiles: The Too-Powerful Sidekick

She wanted to scream. There were so many blasted ships and no way to stop one little boat from escaping. Though she was terrified of the sea dragons, she prayed that they would rise from the water. She prayed for another of Artham’s sudden, dashing arrivals, but she knew he was on the other side of the Dark Sea.

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

There are people who are both unshakably good and preternaturally strong. They are the ones who step forward, who always know what to do in the moment of crisis, who incur risk boldly and selflessly. If we’re lucky, we end up on their side. If we’re especially lucky, they end up our special protectors.

And then, before our names can be written in greatness in truly heroic adventures, they have to go away.

From King Arthur on down, the heroes of fantasy tales have often had a stronger, wiser personality behind or beside them. Then, before the danger gets truly epic, the strong one vanishes. This is the Too-Powerful Sidekick, the mentor or guardian or counselor who has to leave before the hero can come into his own.

Gandalf is a classic example. Tolkien found it necessary to separate him from Bilbo and the Dwarves before things got really dark in Mirkwood – and before they met Smaug. He had more important business to tend to, like driving out the Necromancer. So it was Bilbo’s turn to be the hero.

In Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf had no more important business, Tolkien had to devise other ways to keep the wizard away. First it was Saruman – or Frodo would have made it to Rivendell on time, far ahead of the Ringwraiths. Then it was the Balrog.

Then, a few chapters later, it was Aragorn’s turn. He had vowed to save Frodo “whether by life or death,” so Tolkien had to get rid of him, too. He is another Too-Powerful Sidekick. Even the other Hobbits, Merry and Pippin, had to broken off from Aragorn before they could have their moment. With him around, what would have been left for them to do?

And then there is Artham Wingfeather, Throne of Warden of Anniera, Peet the Sock Man. In every book Andrew Peterson had to detach him from the Wingfeather children in a new way.

In On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, it was Nia and Podo’s shunning that created the distance. They drove him away even after he saved the family, permitting them to fall again into troubles that, had the Sock Man been at hand, he would have fought away.

For North! Or Be Eaten something else was needed, so a Troll dragged Peet away and the Fangs locked him up in a cage. At the end of the book, he was reunited with his charges again. So, at the beginning of Monster in the Hollows, they had to separated again. This time, rather than have others pull or drive Artham away, Peterson finally gave him a reason to leave of his own accord. Though it could be contended that the decision was made, as they say, under duress.

If Artham had been allowed to hang around a few more chapters, he would have spared the Wingfeathers all sorts of troubles. That was the problem with him, as with all Too-Powerful Sidekicks: They save the heroes out of tight spots. But it’s only in tight spots that you can ever be heroic.

Character Profiles: The Masked Hero

We’ve come to save you. This man in the ridiculous black costume – ”

“It art not ridiculous, thou pigeony person!”

” – is the Florid Sword. Or you can call him Gammon, like I do.”

– Andrew Peterson, The Monster in the Hollows

The Florid Sword was a dashing hero in black, jumping down from rooftops to skewer Fangs and foil Stranders. As a rule, Stranders need foiling and Fangs need skewering. That so few volunteer for the job is a pity, though not a wonder. This is especially true in the case of the Fangs. Fangs may be stupider than Stranders, but they are also crueler, and they have armies behind them – and the fist of the Nameless One. People usually submitted.

The Florid Sword rebelled. Under the blackness of night and his own clothes, with a quick blade and cat-like grace, he gave a sliver of justice to an oppressed people. Mysterious and anonymous behind his mask, rumors about him ran far.

He was a Masked Hero. Unquestionably, a man has reason to disguise himself in his double life as an outlaw – even when, like Gammon, he is an outlaw in his primary life, too. It’s a wonderfully solid excuse for a grown man to run around in a costume and say things like, “The Florid Sword hath run you through like unto a bolt of iron lightning piercing the watery depths of the Mighty Blapp, may she run wide and muddy all the days of mine own life!”

It’s also a good excuse for an author to have a character exclaim: “I seest only children in the sights I see with mine seeing eyes!” But it must be said that Andrew Peterson is unique in making such dialogue an advantage of the Masked Hero.

Other advantages he finds in the Masked Hero are typical – stock, even. First among them is all the romance and swashbuckling glory of the hero whose face no one knows. Second is playing the mystery of who is behind the mask. Zorro, the perfection of the Masked Hero, began as that sort of drama. The climax of The Curse of Capistrano was when Zorro was revealed to the readers to be Don Diego. A few of them had probably guessed it already, but until then no one knew.

Now everybody knows. Now the drama of Zorro is in watching him try to keep his secret while enemies and friends alike try to uncover it. This is the second way of mining story gold from a Masked Hero. I think it is also the more common one, and probably the more popular.

The Masked Hero is never too far from a cliche, but it’s a good cliche. Something in him makes the imagination leap. Human beings love a secret, after all, and the face behind the mask is a delicious one. Who doesn’t like to see the Masked Hero finally unmasked? And who, knowing the secret, doesn’t like to watch characters try to discover it?

Who wouldn’t like to step out of their ordinary lives, put on a dashing costume, and run into the night to perform daring and heroic deeds?

Review: North! Or Be Eaten

So the Igiby family is on their way to Kimera, to join the colony of rebels hidden on the vast Ice Prairies.  The Nameless One still grasps for them, stretching long fingers across the Dark Sea. His trolls, his armies of Fangs are on the hunt for the Jewels of Anniera. If the Igibys manage to evade the forces of Gnag, plus various malcontents and hungry animals, they can then attempt the cold, cold trek to the hidden colony.

What could go wrong? More than they would even guess. Through over three hundred pages, North! Or Be Eaten details the pitfalls. Climb out of one, fall into another. It’s fun to live in a fantasy book.

North! Or Be Eaten is the second book in the Wingfeather Saga. The silliness is lessened here, but it by no means disappears. Andrew Peterson continues to prove, along with Jonathan Rogers, that fantasy can be very funny. Yet the book has a more serious tone than its predecessor. The dangers are more frequent, and often of a darker nature.

This is one of the ways in which North! Or Be Eaten broadens and deepens the saga. Another is one of simple geography. On the Edge* takes place almost entirely within the Glipwood Township and the land surrounding it. North! Or Be Eaten leaves Glipwood behind, traveling to the mighty, dangerous falls, the Strand with its outlaws, Dugtown, Kimera, the Ice Prairies, the Fork Factory, the Sea.

The characters, too, are deepened. This book focuses more narrowly on Janner than the other did, cementing his status as the lead character. But other characters are developed even more than he. Podo – who had a great deal of color in On the Edge and not much complexity – gains some. The Fangs, surprisingly, progress from decent, cookie-cutter hobgoblins to something more terrible and more tragic.

And if you like Peet the Sock Man – and if you don’t, I wonder about you – you have even more reason to be happy. Peet’s role is, unfortunately, smaller in this book, but it is gold.

North! Or Be Eaten is a worthy continuation, a sequel that not only lengthens the story but deepens it. On the Edge was a good book; this one is even better. Exciting and at times intense, with humor and high emotion, it’s a happy experience for the fantasy reader. At least it was for this one.


* The full title is On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, but this takes too long to type. Also, it makes writing reviews harder. By the time I put in that title, the sentence I’m trying to write is already too long.

The third book in the Wingfeather Saga, Monster in the Hollows, will be toured later this month by the CSFF. Now for the links: North! Or Be Eaten on Amazon – and look, it’s a bargain price, $5.60; and Andrew Peterson’s website. He is also a songwriter, interestingly enough.