Reviews of Two Fantasy Novels by Tui T. Sutherland
Scholastic’s Continuous Abuse of Fantasy Wings of Fire (Book I): The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland
(Scholastic Inc., New York: 2012)
Wings of Fire (Book II): The Lost Heir by Tui T. Sutherland
(Scholastic Inc., New York: 2012)
You may wonder why I’ve been reviewing so many fantasy novels, most of them marketed as Young Readers fiction.
I do it because it’s important.
Imagine an America inhabited by some 300 million individuals whose only thought is to commit crimes against others. How many policemen would it take to keep order? More, obviously, than could ever be hired. If all of the people were intent on violence, no number of policemen could prevent anarchy.
It’s not the police who keep us from indulging in a bloodbath. Police protect us from the few who really are determined criminals. The vast majority of us never get arrested. Most of us are habitually law abiding. Why?
Because that is our culture. We live in a culture in which Christianity is still the mainstream religion: in which families teach each new generation how to behave as decent human beings; because our community, our workplaces, our volunteer associations, expect it and reject troublemakers.
America enjoys a culture founded on God’s laws as given in the Bible. Even after generations of secularism, Christian morality provides most of us with an internal policeman who restrains us from violence.
But if our culture goes, everything goes. As the culture changes, everything else also changes—the laws, the economy, the degree to which we accept or reject certain kinds of behavior, and the character of the individuals whom we choose, or at least allow, to hold public office and exercise authority.
Who would be so obtuse to deny that all of this has changed visible over the last two generations or so?
Fantasy in the Culture
What has this to do with fantasy novels pitched to young readers?
These books are part of the culture that is pumped into our heads from a very early age. Because we have so much more leisure time than people had, say, a century ago, we’re able to consume huge quantities of “entertainment”—not just novels, but movies, television, video games, etc. It’s cultural input on a grand scale: for some, much more input than they get from their families or their churches, to say nothing of the Bible.
Because these novels are written for young people, they’re relatively easy for an adult (like me) to analyze. They allow us to see just what the culture is teaching our children.
And a large part of it is not good.
The Role of Scholastic Books
Which brings us, by the long way around, to yet another series of Young Readers fantasy published by Scholastic Books. Tui Sutherland has written seven books so far in this ongoing series, but I have only read the first two. Enough is enough.
Scholastic is an important publisher, not only because of its size and the great number of titles it publishes every year, but because it has an “in” with the public schools. I remember the grammar school book fairs sponsored by Scholastic: the tie-in with the schools goes back a long way. And now, for some of its books, Scholastic also publishes teachers’ lesson plans and student workbooks so that the books can be studied in the classroom.
We ought to pay attention to the lessons being presented in books like Wings of Fire. Our culture is being changed, and not for the better, with mass entertainment and public education as leading agents of this change.
A World of Dragons
The fantasy world of Wings of Fire is dominated by dragons, organized into seven dragon nations according to their seven different species. A civil war in one of the nations has drawn all the nations into a perpetual world war. This war, many believe, can only be stopped by the fulfillment of an obscure prophecy involving a group of juvenile dragons—the five “dragonets of destiny.”
How the dragonets are to do this is not explained in either of the first two books. The dragonets themselves have no idea. Although the fulfillment of the prophecy by the dragonets is supposedly the plot-line that unifies the series, I can’t bring myself to read any more of it.
But really the story itself is not all that important.
Why the Goofy Dialogue?
One of the features common to all these fantasies that I’ve reviewed so far, including those written for adults instead of children, is inane dialogue. It’s so prevalent in all these books that I must conclude that it’s either some kind of new, addlepated literary convention, or else, for some inscrutable reason, the various publishers demand it.
In Wings of Fire, all the juvenile dragons talk like eleven-year-old girls who watch too many cartoons, and all the adults talk like cartoon villains. Plain English is clearly out of bounds.
The dragonets are constantly saying things that make you wince. “Ew, how gross!” “Awwwwww, how cute!” Or “Hey, you guys!” For emphasis, Ms. Sutherland drops into text message mode: all caps. As in this monstrosity from The Lost Heir: “Would you like me to spell out ‘DRAGONETS WUZ HERE’ in giant rocks?” (p. 16) WUZ? As a dragonet of destiny would say (and inevitably does), “Oh, yuk!”
Why this dumbed-down, cliché-belabored dialogue? Are the writer and the editors simply assuming that the reader is too backward to understand anything else?
But I think what’s going on here is an affirmation of that timeless public school commandment, “Thou shalt in all things conform to thine age-group peers.” The popular culture imbibed by the reader’s fellow children reigns supreme—you can’t escape it even if you flee to an imaginary world in which dragons are the dominant form of life. This is how you ought to speak.
If our public schooling and our dumbed-down “entertainment” teach children nothing else, they teach conformity.
A Godless, Violent World
What are the characters in the books—and, by extension, the young readers—conforming to?
Like the vast majority of contemporary novels—all genres, not just fantasy—and movies, TV shows, and the rest of the entertainment kaleidoscope, Wings of Fire presents a world from which God is absent. In these two books, the dragons have no god, not even pagan idols—no religious beliefs, no religious practice. Not even false religion. Given the great amount of time which people today spend wrapped up in God-free entertainment, can they help getting the idea that a God-free world is the norm and religion the exception, if not a downright eccentricity?
Oh, it’s still socially acceptable to go to church on Sunday, if you must. But watch what happens if you do something really “religious,” like say grace over your meal at the school cafeteria, or get caught praying at work. Certainly you never see a character in a novel, a comic book, a movie, or a TV show do a way-out thing like that—not unless the character is one of those standard fictional “Christians” who is invariably a villain or a fool.
Some of the Customer Reviews of Wings of Fire on amazon.com express uneasiness over the many scenes of violence in these books. If we could accept the premise that dragons are dragons, and very different from human beings in their psychology, we might be able to live with dragon-on-dragon violence: they’re dragons, and that’s the way they are. But by making the dragons talk like Valley girls, and sing bar songs (even though there aren’t any bars!), Ms. Sutherland has not permitted us that option.
The most disturbing aspect of it all is what we might call intergenerational violence: dragonets vs. adults. The only way for a dragon tribe to get a new queen is for a daughter to kill her mother, which doesn’t make for a lot of family harmony. Even outside the royal families, dragon mothers don’t seem to care much for their children. And we have many examples of the most adventurous of the dragonets of destiny, Tsunami, fighting, overcoming, and even killing an adult dragon.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but conformity to that kind of cultural norm doesn’t strike me as a good idea.
You may not be able, in the dragons’ world, to trust any adult, not even your mother. But of course you can always trust your age-group peers.
Just like you learn to do in public school.
Fantasy has been with us for as long as human beings have told stories. To laugh it off as something that doesn’t matter is to misunderstand both fantasy and human nature.
Children are more impressionable than adults, and it matters what kind of impressions are made on them.
It may be that some children aren’t so sure that there’s no such thing as a dragon. They haven’t lived long enough to have it pounded into their heads that there are no dragons, giants, talking dogs, or elves. Then again, there are adults who believe in UFOs, socialized medicine, gender choice, and Global Warming. The difference between fantasy novels and utopian politics is that the novels are clearly labeled fantasy.
More so than other types of literature, fantasy, like poetry, can get under your skin. It can find its way into regions of the heart and mind not so easily accessible via a detective story or a soap opera about college professors committing adultery.
By speaking of things that are not, fantasy may move the reader to think of things that ought to be. This is powerful stuff, especially when brought to bear on an audience of children, and must be handled carefully. Too much of fantasy—Wings of Fire, in my opinion—is carelessly cobbled together out of easily-obtainable fragments of pop culture. The goofy dialogue suggests not so much a conscious intention to keep the reader locked into an eleven-year-old’s mental landscape, but rather a sheer inability to imagine anyone emerging from that landscape. It also suggests the writer’s inclination to just go with the flow, to do what everybody else is doing and getting paid for doing, and write what she thinks her audience wants to read. Or expects to read.
It all goes into the cultural mix, and the mixture grows increasingly toxic. People brought up on this cultural diet are hardly likely to be interested in a Christian reconstruction of the culture. They’ll be too busy conforming to the norms they’ve absorbed from “entertainment.” They won’t work for anything better because they can’t imagine something better.
The culture makers don’t have to preach to you. The material is absorbed passively, as in osmosis, without the consumer being consciously aware of it.
Our culture makes our country what it is today. It trains up morally deficient individuals to govern us, to run our businesses, to educate our children, to manage our churches and our seminaries—and, of course, to provide us with still more “entertainment.” It’s an ongoing process of decay.
Fantasy, like most things, can be put to the service of the Lord.
I think we ought to try to do that. Because if it will not go away, it must be taken captive, tamed, and put to work for our good.
Topics: Culture , Fiction, Media / Arts