Mastery of Morality and Wings of Fire
The thematic essay the world never needed but deserved. Learn about Tui T. Sutherland's acclaimed epic dragon fantasy series unlike ever before, through the mysterious Cole S. Sieben himself.
"Aha. There you are."
There are some exceptionally odd kinds of masterpieces which turn up only once in an era - works of art that can stand the test of time, out of objective merit and their ability to transcend time itself. Established as unmistakable classics, these certain pieces are - perhaps naturally - the kinds of things that enrich the joys of life and open countless opportunities for those who are lucky enough to discover them.
It's... rather remarkable, one must admit, that such works often strive to stand apart from the time in which they are produced. In other instances, however, it can be seen how the creator went to great lengths to cement his or her creation in the age from which it came, whether it be as a kind of lamentation or rejoicing. There's a legacy everyone leaves behind, and while few have any control on how they are received, it's impossible to deny that such monumental masterpieces can - and very possibly will - outlive their creators.
In the midst of a rather odd worldly skirmish where beauty is thought to be in the eye of the beholder alone and classics no longer seem to be made - let alone easy to find - one might even be led to wonder about the very nature of art as it stands. What could possibly measure up to this or that? Is it even worth trying to find, let alone create, something that hasn't been done before? Or are all the classics already made?
Questions spring forth new questions, as they naturally do. Thoughts spiral down to those of a greater age. And at the very core - the essence - of this search? Wonder.
There has been a paradoxically relentless attack on the nature of wonder in the world - on the dignity of the spirit, at the same time - and with it, the proliferation of profanities and desacralization, which has become a trademark of the cultural zeitgeist in recent times. Beauty, it would seem, could be rendered irrelevant - or, worse, dangerously unnecessary - to the eyes of many, and as an overwhelmingly pragmatic mentality proceeds to sweep across the creative spheres and dominate nearly all of the artistic landscapes known to us, the rightful place of pure curiosity and even innocence has become endangered. Yet hope has persisted all the while, and wonder itself isn't willing to give up so easily.
Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire series has captivated the hearts and minds of millions of readers, of all ages and from all walks of life. Celebrating its tenth anniversary on the day of this essay's publication, at its finest it has perhaps proven more misconceptions about wonder wrong than any other book series in recent years. As it soared onto shelves everywhere and climbed to unanticipated heights, an inexplicable phenomenon among its readers has evolved since its first spark of life; few can say just how far its flames have spread. What has been confirmed by critics and fans alike, however, is this: Tui's intensely imaginative epic dragon fantasy series, published by Scholastic Inc., is undoubtedly one of a kind.
But there's far more to it than meets the eye... far, far more.
Wings of Fire has been often written off - even by personal friends of Tui - as a subservient kind of "kid's books... about dragons" and failed to garner serious attention in some respects, in part out of preconceived notions about dragons, fantasy and children's books in general. On the other hand, with its intelligent writing, enormous fanbase across all ages and uniquely thoughtful worldview, the series begs for the chance to get the closer look it deserved in the first place.
Of course, literature and other artistic forms of expression have always been subjected to scrutiny. In ancient times stories were often ways to speak of highly philosophically complex concepts and situations with free, understandable situations. Sometimes it would be through parables; other instances, an illustrative dilemma which could be solved in multiple ways. "Making believe" has always turned up at the right time and place, just as - when it comes down to it - fantasy has always remained the best genre for wonder, the genre for exploring the furthest reaches of the universe's greatest questions - the means by which hopes, dreams and aspirations can be lived when all other options seem to fade away. A breath of fresh air, really, and a way to wrestle with real-world questions in a freer form. With potential for nearly anything, and only limited by the imagination of the author/reader, the opportunities are endless yet seldom explored in full.
I, Cole S. Sieben, hope to give you that closer look - with all the truths, themes, ideas and details brought to light unlike ever before; with the magnitude of such an introduction attempted here, I hope that the world of wonder created by Tui T. Sutherland becomes that little bit more comprehendible - or at the very least, approachable where it may not have been before. It's all here - and kept largely spoiler-free - as the most comprehensively useful compilation introductory guide you never would've asked for. And so I humbly invite you to sit back, relax... and enjoy this journey through the world of Wings of Fire.
You may be wondering, of course, who Tui even is to begin with. Does the framework of her ideas have anything to do with her? And what does her name even mean? Well, here's a bit about her:
Named after the bird of the same name native to New Zealand, Tui Tamara Sutherland was born on July 31, 1978 in Caracas, Venezuela. Having primarily grown up in Asuncion, Paraguay - where she attended a Baptist missionary school - Tui was a frequent world mover (and traveler later on) alongside her family in a multicultural flurry of experiences. With brief residences in Miami and Santo Domingo, her family then moved to New Jersey where she would finish high school. From an early age, both Tui (and her younger sister Kari) dreamt of becoming "famous author(s)" who nobody recognized yet everyone knew of - yet even with an assortment of classic literary influences "which shaped [her] character" growing up, Tui hadn't actually expected her internalized hope to become reality.
Obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with a dissertation on Hamlet's Ophelia at Williams College as well as a Master of Arts in Art History, Tui's lifelong love of reading was kindled once again as she partook in creative writing courses over six months in New Zealand - where her mother was from. Inspired to work within the publishing industry, she soon took up work in Brooklyn, New York as an editorial assistant. After achieving almost unprecedented success as a member of the Erin Hunter team responsible for the massively popular Warriors and Seekers series among others, the strong, reactively entertaining characterizations swiftly sparked creative ideas for future possible creations of her own. Writing in the middle of the night all the while - as someone with delayed sleep-phase disorder - after just under a decade of working as a high-profile children's book editor, Tui quit her job to write full-time.
Marrying the love of her life in October 2007, then moving to Watertown, Massachusetts, raising two sons seemed to strike Tui, at first, as a whirlwind of indefinite adjustment - a complicated balancing act which originated from the two main passions in life: her family, and her writing. Concurrent to these arrangements, and in addition to her writing career, Tui notoriously became a Jeopardy! champion in 2009, winning two games by a fine margin and narrowly losing her third, earning $46,200 during her time on the show - as well as a yawn from Alex Trebek himself... or so the story goes.
Having written and published over sixty titles to date, many under pseudonyms and encompassing a wide variety of genres, Tui's literary career nevertheless repetitively lent itself time and time again to one particular genre: fantasy. Mostly aiming at children and young adults, and citing those age groups as the ones which are especially open towards new ideas, she once uniquely referred to her writing as an effort to achieve a certain rare quality: "Listen, my books are about dragons and vampires and puppies and bad-tempered unicorns, because I like all those things and I want to write funny, happy books. But one of the biggest reasons I write at all is to get inside someone else's head. I think everyone is at the center of their own story, and I always wonder about how other people see the world... how two people might experience the same event in completely different ways. [...] [I]t shouldn't be surprising that I put a lot of faith in the power of storytelling to shape our own real-life character."
And you're wondering by now, I'm certain, what Tui's approach to writing might be?
Where the days and nights of toddlers, deadlines and puppies - especially her beloved Sunshine - were begging for attention, inspiration would appear in the most unexpected of places, but with a life filled with friends, family, work and life commitments on top of her writing, the "underground night owl" found quite a few effective - "but not perfect for everyone" - strategies that allowed her writing to flourish. A "big fan" of "[c]lassics where stuff happens", a great deal can be said about what drew Tui into works of literature in general... but what she's applied to her own books takes center stage in a far more active way than mere speculation can provide the answers to.
Tui finds children the most interesting and affectable audience - her own worldview was shaped most by the books she read at that age, and as someone under the impression that the power to tell stories should be used for good, she once remarked that "...I'm interested in joyful and hopeful stories. There's a lot of dark, crazy things that happen in the dragon books, but the kind of thing I'm always trying to head toward is that idea of hope and agency, that no matter who you are you can control your own destiny. I want kids to feel that coming out of these books."
Wings of Fire itself - with a well-suited name intentionally chosen to make readers think of dragons - interestingly began without a specific kind of reader in mind, partially as a testament to the timelessness and widespread appeal it hoped to evoke. And it was - and is - largely successful in this regard as well, with an almost 50-50 distribution of its fanbase among male and female readers; across this, the appeal of the series stretches to different ages at different levels. The amount of effort by Tui which is largely unmatched in the market integrates ideas in such a way that critical acclaim from fans have been widespread on nearly all factors, ranging from characters to the atmosphere of individual scenes and from the greater plot to the exploration of the series' themes along the way.
Regarding her writing style, Tui's personal approach to writing has remained largely unchanged over the years. On top of her countless hours of personal research - which, when it came to worldbuilding, was heavily inspired from nature documentaries such as Life in the Undergrowth and Planet Earth - a coherent balance of personal experience was woven in cleverly. Having provided a great deal of personal advice over the years to her readers, Tui has pointed out her pattern usually starts with organized, planned-out setting and characters set up first, whereas she does the plot last (and usually spontaneously within a very loose outline as she writes). With each component handled separately yet with respect to their place in the bigger picture, it goes without saying that her strategy is something very "tried and true to her".
The setting, for example, is thought about in relation to both how a place looks and what its history may have been; often inspired by the many places she's been, such as Waitomo Caves, the Taj Mahal and the Amber Palace, she's given real-life counterparts to many of her fictional locations. And as she's gone on to describe such places, despite admittedly being "not the most... visual person", she's put an increasing amount of effort over the years in incorporating just the right balance of visual articulation, "so that even I [Tui] could imagine myself there." At the very start of the development process of Wings of Fire, actually, Tui developed a very rough version of what would become the dragon map eventually illustrated professionally for the series by Mike Schley, and has mentioned from time to time that she constantly refers to the geographical setting as a cornerstone in her planning and orchestration of scenes. Where the continent of Pyrrhia is very geographically allocated to its segmented biome-dominant landscape, uniquely tailored to each specific tribe of dragons, the features themselves often take the real-life dimension to a whole new level. Queen Scarlet's gladiator arena, for example, inverts the expectations of a prisoner dungeon (as a cool, underground confined area) expertly, with open-air platforms elevated high above the dueling arena it surrounds; taking common tropes into careful, considerately creative new forms, the value of setting stands in contrast to most authors even with the most basic premises.
On the other hand (or talon, in the case of the dragons), the characters - which Tui has become synonymous with expertly developing - are what ultimately invite the readers to "stick around, since... you'll be [drawn] by other things but stay for the characters that capture you[r]... heart". To build characters, interestingly, Tui focuses heavily on histories and backstories, asking an intricate set of questions for every character, side characters included; getting to know what made them the way they are is what she considers one of the most crucial parts of designing a story. Uniquely original, getting to know every individual's background and memories, at least in the sense of developing something personally effective, is what Tui says "makes it feel more like a story than a snapshot". With recommendations that aspiring writers "get to know all their characters", figuring out what they need to change, how the way they grew up affected them, and so forth, the importance of keeping a writing journal for any and every idea is something she considers invaluable for anyone with a bustling brain. Done in hand with "giving each character 'something weird' (unique aspect) and 'something true' (relatable aspect), what she draws attention toward - and garners attention for at the same time - is how, with every character, she's based them on a major aspect of her personality or something significantly different from one of those traits.
Even the naming patterns happen to be tailored to every character's personality (ex. Tsunami, Fearless, Rattlesnake, Vigilance, Shark, etc.; sometimes played for irony as with characters such as Handsome and Prudence) within tribe-specific naming structures, showcasing the attention to detail from "startlingly long lists [of just] names" to match the personality perfectly. Noting a character's death should ideally open up as many narrative paths as it shuts down and that every character is at the center of their own story, the notion that Tui values the characters so much is something she's admitted can make the writing process all the harder. She likes to imagine how different characters will react to the same situation, sometimes putting them in situations and letting them play it out, and she advises writing scenes that won't happen in the story (to get the writer thinking about the story differently). For example, she's stated how good it can be to do everything in moderation, with an end goal in mind - to approach writing like a journey instead of just a laborious task: "Read a lot. Figure out what you love. Writing fanfiction, writing in other voices, is useful as an exercise. Anything that gets you writing is good practice. I like exploring questions about what motivates people."
Outside of the books themselves, many readers are astonished to discover how highly Tui thinks of conversations with her trusted readers - which naturally are more helpful to an author than critical reviews. Criticism, after all, doesn’t automatically inform writers how to take it; as an editor before she was a writer, Tui learned the importance of having an editor who is there to help the author tell a story the best way it can be told. Personality comes through with practice, and practice makes perfect, after all - and she's been known to say "[t]he more you write, the better you get at it!" Ultimately believing one should write what one enjoys, the biggest rule Tui has for herself as a writer is "...making sure to have fun, because when writers get bored with the story, that's when readers will get bored too - and if you get stuck, blow something up!"
So... what's it all about?
Depending on the arc and its core ideas, the scope of the Wings of Fire series as a whole presents itself as an overarching examination of a few big questions on a very personal scale. But at the heart of each and every book, the whole point of the series is to see the world through someone else's eyes - and along the way, by showing how everyone's story is interesting and worth telling, Tui's characters are fully-fledged personalities capable of being a hero in their own way. How this is done, however, has as vast a range as the books in each arc themselves are. Oh, and... insofar as it was possible, this is kept spoiler-free, only so much as it was possible... but read on at your own risk.
In the first arc (Arc I), the continent of Pyrrhia finds itself dragged into a twenty-year-long war. The seven distinctive tribes of dragons - SandWings, SeaWings, SkyWings, RainWings, MudWings, IceWings, and NightWings - are divided amid one kingdom's sociopolitical succession controversy, where a mysterious prophecy has predicted that five dragonets - younger dragons - will somehow end the War of SandWing Succession by choosing the next SandWing queen. The Dragonets of Destiny, as they are known - Clay, Tsunami, Glory, Starflight and Sunny - had all been stolen as eggs from their kingdoms by an organization known as the Talons of Peace, who raise them away from the world they are supposed to save. But in choosing freedom over fate, and in an attempt to settle the prophecy on their own terms peacefully, the Dragonets of Destiny go on to see the war-torn world for themselves and figure out if there really is a way to bring about peace when the world has turned hope to fear and joy into pain.
Across five sweeping, majestic fantasy books of which each could be considered a classic in its own right, the main themes, Tui has explained, across the first arc happen to be the many effects of different styles of parenting (Tui had been a new mother at the start of the series), the many aspects of expectations (ex. where they align with others; what it means to fail others' expectations), the question of free will versus fate, and the question of nature versus nurture. How might you react if you were told you had some destiny or another? This happened to be the first "big" world-shaping question Tui tackled head-on; in the case of Clay, Tsunami, Glory, Starflight and Sunny, this had to do with the cryptic prophecy where they absolutely had to save the world, and how this shaped them significantly growing up (with polarized, conflicting thoughts and feelings about such a destiny). These characters' upbringings are highlighted as a product of free will very distinctively; innate traits always shine through. Overall, a strong argument is made that we are more shaped by how we grow up than who we are born as - that we can define for ourselves how we wish to live. Even so, this idea is balanced cleverly among the various heroes and villains encountered by the young protagonists, philosophically showing both the good and bad it can bring to define life so boldly, and how detrimental it is to live without shaping one’s worldview to match reality.
In the second arc (Arc II), readers are given the opportunity to see the world of Pyrrhia in an entirely new light - from the viewpoint of five young dragons after the war has ended. Jade Mountain Academy, a school founded by the Dragonets of Destiny with the purpose of helping establish peace in the long run across the seven dragon tribes, is opening for the first time - and the books take off with a change of pace to match this new scenario. Learning alongside the experiences of Moonwatcher, Winter, Peril, Turtle, Qibli, and the countless other dragons introduced with eloquent intrigue, not everything is as good as it seems at the bustling new school. The whispers of change come in the form of a threatening, dangerous, very real prophecy which looms over the young heroes, just as very visible threats present themselves in the returning form of enemies both old and new… all of which are seemingly held in the balance by the unforeseen, enigmatic shadows cast by Moonwatcher's mystery friend. Throughout the passionate, sharp and grandiose series of adventures bravely undertaken by the unlikely group of heroes - unpredictable, well-matched and beyond the imagination of anyone - an iconic masterpiece of a quest begins and the darkness is brought into the light.
Five more open world fantasy stories - argued by many fans to be the pinnacle of the main series' arcs - that subvert the expectations from the start, Tui expertly uses the second arc to pull all the stops she could and pull it off better than anyone else could. While the themes from the first five books carry over under new guises, the formulaic structures are thrown out the window in favor of a more segmented, attuned storytelling style that perfectly fits Wings of Fire’s themes and its new leading characters. Flawless as it is intuitively, the main new themes of the arc are perplexingly all too simple on the surface while remaining filled to the brim with layers of complexity and carefully-woven threads tying together all the narratives. Among the greatest themes are the expanded question of free will versus magical control, the question of what it means to be gifted (ex. how to use said gifts; what the right way to use them might be), the nature of responsibility, and "what you can really know about someone until you've been inside their head". These questions are not only more expansive by nature, but purposefully explored in a more open-ended manner; the ability of these books to allow for highly complex fan interpretation allows for the richness to be carried over across both these and the preceding books with effortlessness. In addition to this, a certain character is introduced who takes all of these concepts and their surrounding ideas to the next metaphysical level - a character who can be explored separate from or concurrent to the arc's story at large. As the primary source of much of the series' critical acclaim, these five books definitely do their best to get at the heart of their themes, build on an enchantingly original, unpredictably captivating storyline of an adventure… and come to a close in a way no one ever expected.
In the third arc (Arc III), Tui went back to basics and delved into worldbuilding once again from scratch, just as she did when starting the series in the first place, forming an entirely new continent, Pantala, and three new tribes of dragons there with problems of their own. Whereas the overarching themes remain difficult to define - partially because of the nature of the arc - an oddly-presented "sliding scale of empathy versus resistance to evil" was created for these books. Across a tight political set of hierarchies and class-divided standards, this continent's standing order is thrown out of balance by the main characters - unwittingly by some, intentionally by others - and the fight for justice (the justness itself questionable, I might point out) brings out the worst in many dragons. While the third arc has been popular among a certain crowd of FanWings, it has received criticism from many fans for its chaotic plot and characters, lack of thematic and narrative depth, excessive fanservice and ambiguous, controversial political metaphors. Some - such as myself - have labelled it an unnecessary sequel which is not only capable of tainting one's view of the earlier books, but entirely unsuitable for children due to its inappropriate political pandering.
With a comprehensive series lore guide (currently upcoming at the time of writing this), official coloring book (completed with fan artist Brianna C. Walsh) and other companions, including graphic novel adaptations by Mike Holmes, Maarta Laiho and Barry Deutsch, Wings of Fire has - by this point - already developed into more of a franchise than a mere book series... one which may still be adapted to television or cinema, for worse or for better. Along the way, Tui also wrote and published several short stories (Winglets) examining side characters in the limelight; in late 2015, Tui even held a public vote to decide which character would star in the second one, between Coral, Dune and Deathbringer (the latter won by a fine margin, as naturally one of the most popular characters in the entire franchise) as one of to public "fan opportunities". (The other occurred in 2017, an auction opportunity to feature an original character in the next book.) Similarly, Tui delved into the series in a different way when she decided to launch Legends special editions - at first just one - to take a major look at significant events prior to the main books' present day stories take place - only these histories, having turned into legend and then into myth, are presented as they actually happen, from multiple perspectives and with the stakes not entirely clear until the very end. The first one of these - Wings of Fire: Legends ~ Darkstalker - happens to be on an entirely different level compared to the rest of Wings of Fire... but of course, as this is the mysterious Cole S. Sieben making the introductions, you'll get to hear about that one all on its own a little later on.
Though it is seldom remembered even when fans make a conscious effort to look at the bigger picture, the fact remains that the books ultimately attempt to highlight characters on a personal journey amid the trials and tribulations of life, specifically chronicling their unique attainment (or lack thereof in some cases) of what is identified as "the power of wings of fire" - a clever metaphor with a complicated meaning.
Tui has stated that she finds children the most interesting and impressionable audience in a number of ways - citing the books she grew up with as the most influential things which shaped her worldview. Put this in the context of the "war against wonder" challenging the minds of the young far before discernment even becomes adequately possible, along with the ever-increasing demands of life, and what does one find? An answer - through a world of fantasy - to cope with the struggles of the world, to learn in ways that previously seemed impossible, and to explore the mysteries of the universe with a heightened amount of belief in one's abilities to persist in the face of suffering.
And having the power to fulfill one's own destiny and choose one's fate is something worth believing in.
Knowing that we may not be able to control much save that what we do with our own hearts, instinctively, remains one of the most essential, humanizing notions one can learn; where dragons are a larger-than-life symbol of freedom, made accessible to readers who may often be weighed down by the cruelties of the world (but not shown as a form of escapism), the inspirational messages of encouragement, and, in turn, hope, are what Tui tries to work toward as best she can, and by using as many methods in storytelling to show her own hope wherever she can.
Thus it could be understood that the metaphor of a "power of wings of fire" represents something even greater than the metaphor it seems to solely stand in for. Of course, it should be mentioned that in order to obtain this one must "bow to a fate that is stronger and higher"... but considering the especially theological nature of this question, a more thorough treatment of this notion must be given - a discussion which will be unpacked in due time.
Now, how about the reader's reactions?
Well, I'm glad you asked, because - listen up - this is where things have gotten both a little tricky and a lot more interesting with respect to Wings of Fire. Tui's beloved epic dragon fantasy series has sold well over fifteen million copies, and reached hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of readers of all ages across the world (and has been translated into a few dozen languages). Tui’s FanWings couldn't be a more divisive, complicated and inherently massive and very different set of people, and where matters are most concerned there isn't a single generalization that could envelope the entirety of the fanbase, helpful as it might have been in some respects. As a result of the means by which fans have expressed their love (or disdain) for the series, however, the proliferation of particular trends sweeping across the grander scheme of things has become increasingly apparent... but also poorly chronicled.
It's known that since the very beginning, and long before Wings of Fire, Tui had been a big fan of attending live events with her readers and getting to interact with many of them on a personal level; the sheer magnitude of such a gradually-growing fanbase, however, has complicated things significantly when compared to the early years of Wings of Fire. (As someone who's more or less been with the series since its inception in 2012, and as an acclaimed expert on its history and internal complexities, I'll give a short version of what's known as best I can - but I do beg your pardon if a significant aspect of the history is omitted for length's sake.)
When The Dragonet Prophecy was released ten years ago today in 2012 to positive critical and commercial reception - the same reaction received by its successors - expectations were nevertheless low for the lasting legacy of the epic dragon fantasy series, even among the earliest batches of FanWings. Even though initial publicity was generated through Tui’s tenure with the Erin Hunter team (on the Warriors books, as previously mentioned), an initial influx of fans wouldn't arrive on the scene for nearly five years - the series' own Wiki was startlingly basic, and fan integration was enthusiastic yet spread out far and in between. With a Scholastic Forum that massively contributed to the serious discussion - and creative proliferation - of an abundance of fan-created works, both written and visual, the intensive rapidity of Wings of Fire as a kind of cult classic seemed inevitable in no time. And while discussions in a serious light were minimal amid the roleplaying, sketching and back-and-forth discussing, a serious emergence of orderly, attentive FanWings was characteristic, at least in the public's eye. Of course, as time went on seemingly natural scuffles would come and go, whereas the occasional long-term feuds would erupt (a few of which still persist to this day - especially the Moonbli versus Winterwatcher "shipping war". But as these came and went, things appeared stable, and an inviting, worthwhile endeavor for nearly all parties involved - helped through Scholastic-led prompt questions on the forums as well as integrated "ask Tui anything" sessions, things remained productive for the most part, and open to anyone interested.
It's hard to say when things may have changed, but a few key milestones signifying new patterns since came up, considered by many and influential in their own right. Fan works themselves became as iconic as the series itself; some "names" became synonymous with the series itself as time went on. Classical crossover pianist Gretchen Ratke (under the name Music Mommy) became well-known for her creative adaptations of the series' prophecies, characters and ability to emotionally resonate on a personal and spiritual level - with classics such as "The Dragonet Prophecy Song", "The Jade Mountain Prophecy Song", "Moonwatcher's Lullaby", "Darkstalker's Duet", "Fly Away" and dozens of other, the former track has almost become an anthem for Wings of Fire as a whole over the years. The artist Brianna C. Walsh, also known as Peregrinecella, was eventually commissioned years later by Scholastic Inc. to work on the series’ guides and companion titles due to her stylistic resemblance to series artist Joy Ang. The PPAU (Pyrrhia-Pantala Alliance-University) alternate universe fan group founded by artists Alaskanay and Biohazardia was recognized by Tui herself in the dedication of the fourteenth book. Quite a few members of said group became known for insightfully reporting on live events with Tui, publishing journals that answered hundreds of fan questions for the first time. Biohazardia herself even went on to host an interview event with Tui, with over three thousand fans in attendance on Crowdcast. Countless other distinctive animators, fanfiction authors, visual artists, screenplay writers, merchandizers, conspiracy theorists, mangaka, musicians and analysts seem to pop up every day... all creators on a journey to see where the creative love for Wings of Fire might lead, hundreds, if not thousands, have tried to make a name for themselves.
But even as all these fascinating endeavors took place, a strangely negative, counter-intuitive set of "movements" took the newly-renamed Fandom by storm, namely beginning just a few months after the Scholastic Forums shut down permanently in 2019. Extremely questionable - mostly because the very nature of fanbases are such a bizarre, difficult-to-pinpoint kind of phenomenon, things have, as a whole, seemed to publicly shift in a very strange way as the popularity of Wings of Fire's third arc amassed enormous waves of new fans. Now, while fans may personally be problematic to whatever extent they wish, the culture of Wings of Fire - something that has been steadily evolving in an almost spontaneous fashion - seemed to take the matter into something entirely different. Once-courteous fan discussions morphed into shouting wars. The quality of works in general shifted into appeals toward being trendy and mainstream, sacrificing the uniqueness of the series and its specialty just for the sake of relevance. Senseless critiques of anything and everything about the series have popped up time and time again. Shipping wars persist relentlessly (and regularly) into extreme, unnatural territories, partially thanks to the third arc’s influx of fans. And, perhaps worst of all, the political punditry of the outside culture's relativistic nihilism has filtered in, radicalizing, consuming, defining, redefining and stealing the zeitgeist for itself as a de facto postmodern left-wing extremist woke ideology. (Part of this is associated with the very nature of online discussions - an inevitable evil, perhaps.) In a world where everyone is talking and no one is listening, it's understandable that some things are naturally going to be left behind - and some people, too, who don't fit the demanding subcultures. Those who are a rock in an ocean of change, unyielding to the pressures imposed by others, hoping to persist in good for the sake of good, are hard to find in the "public square" of fan discussions.
All the while, personal readership and interpretations have nevertheless remained very well and alive, despite the peer pressures of conformity to the commonly-held progressivism. People have persisted in remaining true to the series as it is - true to loving the series as it was originally intended - past the confines of political alignment or consent to the mainstream way, moderate and legitimately neutral. These FanWings are even harder to find. But they're there, quietly trying to do their own things, bringing about good in their small, quiet, little ways.
One does not need to be relevant to be meaningful, and one certainly does not need to adhere to the cultural zeitgeist in order to leave a legacy behind.
It's crucial to distinguish the fact that fans themselves are neither inherently good nor bad for the sake of a series, nor on their own. And to distinguish the figments of imagination from reality when resisting falseness and fighting for what is right and good. The interpretations of fans of Wings of Fire are not Wings of Fire, nor can (or should) ultimately anyone decide it becomes except for Tui herself, oft-forgotten as this may be. But a work of art should never be measured in relation to the community of fans it has garnered in the end. And the culture surrounding something isn't everything. Has Tui herself tried to direct later entries of the series to a more mainstream audience, unintentionally inviting unforeseen consequences despite having the purest of intentions? Is there anything that can substantially be concluded on the matter of this history? It's hard to say. And at the end of the day, again, it's not for us to judge - only to be wary of.
(As someone who's become infamous for my attendance at live events as a "question answerer", it's frightening (yet fascinating) to witness the speed at which fan-fueled conspiracies can form. Such theories most often disappear with the morning mist, yet others have persisted due to sheer stubbornness. Fortunately, it is easy to avoid the mixed perceptions of fans when reading the books for oneself, I would note from experience.)
...Wait, what about the "mastery of morality" part?
Ah, you remembered.
I've refrained up until this point from discussing myself at any length, purely out of necessity of maintaining a helpful, straightforward and comprehensive introductory thematic overview of Tui T. Sutherland's epic dragon fantasy series. And I've held back from mentioning my own personal history, any spoilers that would otherwise have made this essay all the more effective (but would lessen the magnificence of reading the series for yourself - something you should get to do without the influence of others weighing down on you!), and so forth.
But at this point, this takes on a... well, let's just say Wings of Fire becomes something characteristically unmatched in a certain department: the mastery of morality and depths of subconscious perfection which constitute the series' finest contributions and undercurrents. It's somewhat impossible to discuss a few things without... I suppose, saying a few things.
Tui's own religious background stood for years as an untouched aspect at the back of countless readers' minds for years on end. Everyone who was aware of Tui's answers from live events got to know that she believes someone can change their fate, is all about free will and doesn't like stories where someone is stuck on a path they can never get off of, writing characters that grab destiny and shape it for themselves. And while the dragon tribes' different beliefs, myths and legends (which, as the series started, was contrasted through the Dragonets of Destiny who grew up away from those) are an in-series reflection of reality and its reflections imposed by Tui based on her own life, so little was actually confirmed (or denied) by her, up to a certain point.
The key word there: "was".
At a chance Wings of Fire "Books of Wonder" event, I, the mysterious Cole S. Sieben, happened to take the world by storm after nearly eight years of lurking in the darkness of obscurity (as someone who has zero online presence and still does), asking a certain question that captivated the minds of the hundreds in attendance: "Religion is very uniquely portrayed in Wings of Fire. Do you reflect faith systems metaphorically/philosophically (ex: Tolkien's LotR), do you write characters based on their set of beliefs, or do you do something different?"
Tui, pleasantly surprised by the question but also a bit intimidated, was careful in her reply: "...Yeah, that is a really good question. Umm... I mean it's... I feel like for the real answer, I'd have to go a lot into depth about my religious background and, umm... like, I went to a Baptist Missionary School in Paraguay and I also studied Buddhism in college and I'm married to a wonderful Jewish man and we're raising our children Jewish, so there's a lot of pieces that kind of come together and, um, in my brain as I'm thinking about this, but I think that for me what it really comes down to - especially with a fantasy world like this - is more of a moral grounding, and I do think a lot about the dragons choosing right and wrong and choosing to help other dragons over themselves is a lot of elements of different religious beliefs or philosophies that hopefully come together. I feel like, you know, if you want a really good answer to this you gotta find a grad student who could write a really good essay on all of the different things that I tried to weave into the books - I'm not sure I could explain it quite as well, but it's definitely a big part of what I'm thinking about is just the, um... not necessarily like putting it in the framework of a religion, but thinking about what we owe to each other; all the stuff you'd find in the good place that they talk about, like all those questions of how to take care of each other and what it means to be a good dragon... so I hope that answers it enough! That was a good question."
Of course, little had she known I was that "grad student" who'd been researching that subject all along. But with my hypothesis confirmed, and a more helpful framework to build upon, my findings hopefully paint enough of a picture to give a helpful sense, on top of all the things discussed. It's absolutely impressive to me, at the very least, to see how Tui, someone arguably more spiritual than religious (and seemingly raised without religion despite her cross-cultural experiences growing up), managed to integrate religious themes, ideas and components so seamlessly into Wings of Fire - so much so that the titular reference seems to greatly evoke the writings of mystics across many religious schools of thought.
And with respect to the moral grounding the series hopes to build, Wings of Fire is one of a kind in this regard as well... especially since most of the "clues" are tiny details which give far more insight than they were perhaps originally intended to toward discovering about the inner workings of Tui's mind.
Tui's intriguing abilities as a writer to emotionally "rip out [the reader's] heart and stomp on it" is something she naturally gathered as a technique (and tactic) from her love of the literary classics. Known for her love of Shakespeare (and ice cream), and as an extremely prolific reader who jokes about owning a whole library, Tui's subtle references to works by countless authors she adores, in some cases the inspirations are very clear on the surface. From Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy to countless plays, poems and prose texts she has known and loved - across space and time, spanning every genre - the similarities and comparisons are outright stellar in their magnitude on some occasions. Perhaps the best-known example is that of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which was utilized as a major inspiration for the character Albatross, multiple meanings intended all the while. Where Samuel Taylor Coleridge's conception of the bird's ethical burdensome weight, compared in the series to the burdens of animus magic, is treated in a psychological sense as very much like that of a curse, sometimes the dragon counterpart - a full realization of Colerdige's text in a completely different sense - also adds to the text in question (in this case, Darkstalker) the very style of the original. Of course, the mist and mystery of Albatross as a character is minimally shown in Wings of Fire in the sense of sweeping romanticism unrestrained by the limitations of the spirit, but at the same time that very effect is central to both the books' emotional qualities and their timeless fantasies.
On the other side of this, Tui has openly stated how much she enjoys seeing fans make the series their own and read all their different ideas and interpretations into it. Considerable headcanons have been handled with hesitant authority in most instances; in others, with a more firm answer. The popular character of Whiteout (known for her odd mannerisms and philosophical unconventionality), confirmed to have definite aspects of associative synesthesia and autistic savant conditions, has been compared to Pierre Teillhard de Chardin's concept of the Omega Point of mental consciousness. The antagonist Queen Scarlet has been acclaimed as a representation of extremism, bloodthirstiness and drunkenness with unrestrained power in the most sadistic sense. Numerous characters have highlights the ups and downs of extroversion, introversion, ambiversion and the expectations of each, from Queen Vigilance (the less one speaks, the more one is heard) to Squid (showing the limits of ridiculous whining and its consequences) as teaching points, no matter how desirable or undesirable a character may be in the end. The questions of manipulation and fabricated illusions have been brought up time and time again in the first ten books, especially concerning the prophecies each arc revolves around and the special powers of the NightWing tribe holistically. The endless manipulations of Peril as she grew up has been tied in with not only the first arc's theme of parenting but with the nature of gaining a solid foundation later on in life when there wasn't even the framework for one growing up. Character-wise, the list just goes on and on.
The cosmological worldviews of each tribe concerning holidays and festivals, such as full moon festivals - and many other things related to the dragon planet's three moons - have been considered essential to the astronomical and scientific components of the fantasy world. The biological role of each tribe's own natural weapons, defenses and features has been brought into conversation with interdisciplinary fields of entirely different kinds. The distinctive culture of each tribe, in all its factors, has been illustrative of reality in a very well-designed fantasy version of the real world without any real-life counterparts. Inter-religious dialogue has been an invaluable component of all these curious discussions; considerably speaking, the impact of the globalized world in which we live in today has allowed this to be imagined differently across the numerous cultures of our real-world counterparts in a similar way - allowing Wings of Fire to let these discussions continue in a branch of fan discussion, when possible. (Tui confirmed this one directly, once mentioning that in her daily life people don't talk about religion as freely, so she's careful what she includes in the books just to be safe.) The place of humanity is considered separately, with humans - mostly a tasty snack living in fear of dragons - portrayed very differently (and with nearly no visual references) in comparison to the real world. The dimensions of the notion of a "power of wings of fire", obtained once one is willing to "bow to a fate that is stronger and higher" reflects the mystical science and theology of St. John of the Cross' teachings on the dark night of the soul and the path toward union with God. And as far as realms of thought in other disciplines go, the list just goes on and on, with something always connecting to something else, and something new to discover under every nook and cranny.
Yet with some things, an answer can never truly suffice - some things are meant to be left open to interpretation. Mortality as a whole has been especially unusually handled in the discussion among fans and Tui; while personally very fascinated by the concept of reincarnation, however, she has been especially hesitant in either confirming or denying theories, thoughts and feelings on whether dragons go to heaven, hell or purgatory when they die, whether they'll be back on the planet for another round of life, or what the ultimate aspirations in life should be directed toward. (Feeling a bit nervous and not theologically authoritative on a few subject matters, Tui has stated she likes to open up dialogue in some respects, perhaps to this as well; maybe the ontological component of Wings of Fire is something she knows she doesn't have the final say about.)
Other things - such as the powers of the NightWings - are especially... beautifully handled, one could say. Believed to be bestowed on dragons from a divine source (the moon), the implications of how one might use any sort of power in the best possible way is freely explored. Fantastical scenarios which would have otherwise never been possible are made fresh, exciting, and ultimately new to many readers (and all readers in some respects).
There's mind readers, handled flawlessly and realistically; differentiated heavily from empaths (which are naturally occuring in reality, as the term was originally defined by Isabella Snow), the question of personal privacy and the individual sanctity of sanity are brought to the forefront. What it means in the end is fascinatingly interpretive to where it features; of course, sometimes the mere simplicity of the situation - and overdramatized fashion of the notion of mind-reading in general - has left it written off far to often, even though Tui gives it her own little spin for the better, as someone who's constantly wondered what it might be like to have the voices and opinions of others constantly inside our heads.
There's future seers, handled flawlessly and realistically; differentiated heavily from astrologers who seek the divine will by lending themselves freely to sin, only the ability to trace every possible outline of threads of the future - illustrated more perfectly through the character of Clearsight in Wings of Fire: Legends ~ Darkstalker than perhaps is possible within human thought anywhere else - is presented as a moral dilemma because the future is not meant for the eyes of most, nor can its fleetingness be truly trusted. Hence it ties in with the polarity of freedom versus fate Tui so commonly returns to.
And animus magic, used by animus dragons.
The concept, literally believed to be "soul" magic, is a concept completely original to Wings of Fire and handled unlike any of the other components of significance. With moral implications taken to a level of expertise, and with philosophical soundness logically standing alongside the framework of the series in which it is featured, animus magic is believed to both literally chip away at a soul and embed itself as a psychological effect (a la Albatross) - the soul is safe when the magic is used for entirely good things, and the destruction comes under the desire for bad, selfish things. Tui's genius has this paradox worked out perfectly, making absolute sense under deeper contemplation - the magic, used as a commanding action (and needing a legitimate moral choice for its status to take effect on the soul), is considered a substantial means by which an even greater amount of good - or evil - is possible. Whereas everywhere else in the series animus magic is ethically considered an unseen, ethereal effect on the souls of the dragons who are capable of it (except for how the enchantments themselves are visually brought about), in Darkstalker, the concept is explored in a different light with an animus-touched object that can measure the levels of good and evil in a soul - an hourglass. Philosophically and theologically imaginative to the highest degree, and fun beyond belief to contemplate, explore and wonder about, it's no surprise that with such a groundbreaking fictional construct of an idea it would seem remiss not to use it to the fullest extent possible.
...Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen. I've saved the best for last when it comes to this introductory thematic essay.
The magnus opus of Tui T. Sutherland, and arguably both among the finest characters ever written and the most outstanding creative works ever conceived.
Darkstalker (the dragon) happens to be one of the most iconic characters of Wings of Fire, and is rightfully considered by many to be one of the best written characters its readers have ever known. A whole character written to examine his moral status, who he is and the many perspectives he could be seen from, and a truly formidable dragon one can get to know and love over the course of the book he stars in. Charismatic, extremely emotionally and intellectually intelligent and with an introspective, enigmatically decisive personality and character, Darkstalker is far more than meets the eye... and remains one of the most complicated characters ever designed. Are there any ways to describe or compare Darkstalker to anything at all, or is his own moral status and unparalleled reflection of life and love, good and evil, truth and deception, and the battle between hope and despair?
I think not.
Darkstalker (the book) happens to be one of the most immersive, philosophically layered and theologically rich books ever written, not only for children but for anyone and everyone, and is rightfully considered by nearly all fans to be the best-written entry in Wings of Fire. (One could perhaps go even further, suggesting it to be one of the greatest books of all time, as I frequently have been known to.)
The book has everything. Stirring characters, vivid atmospheres, intricate plotting, intelligent themes. Questions, subplots, ideas, experiences, worldbuilding, romance, heartbreak, persistence. A sense that the reader really doesn't know what's going to happen next. And a spiritual tone to the entire work that's exceptionally different from anything that's ever been written - and is simply impossible to replicate. Fathom, Clearsight and Darkstalker, written in alternating perspectives, leave one wondering about the bigger picture endlessly as readers fall in love with all three exceptionally perfected protagonists, not quite defined by their inherent qualities or conditions in life, nor by the flaws of those around them but by their moral decisions. The narrative is perfectly designed as an experience for the soul, something readers will be unable to forget… something to remember as far as life extends, capable of stirring depths very few dare to approach.
It is driven by philosophy, guided by the heart’s innermost secrets, built upon the deepest of reflections upon the state of the soul, and embedded with the very spirit that causes life to flourish; it is lovely in its darkest depths yet never so dark as to cause readers to lose hope. As it weaves its thoughtful memories and heartfelt intricacies with the greatest questions that have always haunted our souls, Darkstalker serves as a moral story and a demonstration of the potential for good and evil we all possess, and it is a story about something else as well… something which is not so easily discussed with those unfamiliar with it.
Contained within the pages of Darkstalker, one can find reflections of an age long lost to us, secrets which remain unspoken except to those who still seek light even in the darkest of times - to those who freely choose to learn from the mists of time. To those who are not afraid to walk through the dark.
Darkstalker is one of the most unusually compelling masterpieces in storytelling in nearly every regard, and while I could go on endlessly about it as one of the greatest works of world literature, I think... it might be a better idea to stop while I'm ahead. I ask you, most humbly, to read Wings of Fire: Legends ~ Darkstalker (and do it first, as a standalone), to go into it completely blind, and to let yourself become immersed by the story as it stands. As one of the greatest contemplations of morality, philosophy, theology, personal choice, free will and the ultimate meaning of life, and as an ineffable experience that can "possess" a reader, just as Tui noted "the story possessed [her]" writing it, I assure you... you'd be infinitely grateful if you gave it a chance.
...In a very unusual way, it saved my life. Maybe it'll change yours.
Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire series has the potential to stand the bitter test of time. To stretch across the ages and touch the hearts of readers as only a classic could. It's not meant to be mainstream - it's weird, ingenious, and glad to be unlike anything else out there. Over the last ten years the books have led readers on a wild journey - a sweeping, larger-than-life, truly epic fantasy that ultimately hoped to inspire hope in its readers - in a world where uncertainty about the future, or even the proper place of reading fantasy itself, has been a pressing problem. Centuries from now, it might get the respect, love and attention it deserves - in all the right ways, and with the careful, considerately open hearts and minds of readers it deserves.
At the very least, I hope it might serve as a gateway to wonder.
And to hope.
"All the hurricanes and earthquakes and fires and storms cannot break you, if you remember a few things. We are here to love with our whole hearts. Lean into kindness and empathy in the face of evil - but do not let evil win. You can change the world with your joy and your hope." — Clearsight
Sieben, Cole S. "Mastery of Morality and Wings of Fire." Substack (1 July 2022).
This essay is published here with the exclusive permission of Cole S. Sieben. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any way or by any means without written permission of the author. All rights reserved.
About The Author
Cole S. Sieben (2002—Present) is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, introvert, retro gamer, empath, mystic, composer and aspiring executive librarian. Acclaimed among experts of Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire series, and often deemed "unlike anyone else his age", Cole happens to be an award-winning epic fantasy writer in his own right, with his forthcoming literary masterpiece Shards of Seven Mystic Dreams.
Copyright © 2022 Cole S. Sieben