“Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” John 12:24
The following contains potential spoilers for The Wingfeather Saga.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, opens with the above verse from John’s Gospel. In his preface, Dostoevsky notes that while Alyosha Karamazov is the story’s protagonist, he is, by the author’s own admission, “no great man.” Alyosha is eccentric, but if the reader can withhold certain judgements, then they’ll learn much from the monastic novice. In a dark world surrounded by troubled characters and circumstances, the humble Alyosha offers a small but powerful light.
Similarly, Andrew Peterson introduces The Wingfeather Saga’s Janner Igiby—the eldest child of the Igiby family in Glipwood—as another ordinary protagonist. Not until the end of the saga’s first volume does the reader learn of Janner’s true identity: he’s the son of the High King of Anniera, the Shining Isle. Janner’s family, however, has been broken by Gnag the Nameless, who is oppressing the world of Aerwiar with his Fang armies.
Janner’s father, uncle, and brother have all been taken by Gnag and transformed into monsters, with his younger brother Tink melded with a wolf. Now called Kalmar, Tink struggles to remember who he was before his change. Thus Janner follows the tradition of the Throne Warden; instead of reigning, Janner takes up the lonely call of serving and protecting Kalmar, who is Anniera’s rightful new king.
Like Alyosha, Janner is the seed described in John 12 that must remain in the earth alone to bear much fruit. And not just remain, but also die. Alyosha must die to himself in order to serve those who, while vile, are no worse than him. As The Brothers Karamazov progresses, that continual death allows for more and more fruit in the form of love and compassion. Likewise, Janner must learn to die to himself and take up the role of serving his younger brother for the sake of their kingdom. In the end, Janner will more than die to himself, though: he will have to actually lose his life.
Below are three examples from each character as they progress through their respective novels and ultimately die so that life may abound.
Alyosha’s sensitivity and gentleness stands in stark contrast to his family, and especially his harsh father, Fyodor. He alone bears the burdens and battles of those around him. One of the first glimpses of this servanthood is given by his own father when Alyosha announces that he’s joining the local monastery. The Karamazov men are not devout or pious Christians. Instead, we see cruelty from the Karamazov patriarch and the pursuit of worldly gratification by Alyosha’s other brothers. Thus, Fyodor remarks upon hearing Alyosha’s conviction to join the monastery:
It will have one advantage, though: you can pray for us sinners, for we may have gone too far in our sinning. Yes, sir, I’ve wondered for a long time whether anyone would ever pray for me, whether there was a man in the world who would want to.
Inverting Job’s story about a proper father praying and sacrificing on behalf of his children, Alyosha is the child who carries his family’s burdens. This self-denial becomes a constant; it is Alyosha’s lonesome struggle to serve and love his family that moves throughout the story. The change that eventually comes to Ivan and Dmitri finds its genesis in the small, humble words and actions of their loving brother.
Janner’s first big test comes at the end of The Wingfeather Saga’s second volume as he struggles with his decisions and failure to protect Kalmar. The Wingfeather family are safely aboard a ship to the Green Hollows after barely escaping Gnag’s armies. But despite being rescued, Kalmar still suffers from Gnag’s cruelty after being changed into a Grey Fang. Kalmar attacks his mother and then hurls himself into the sea, with Janner following:
That was the moment Janner truly became a Throne Warden. Without a thought, Janner tore off his coat and ran. His heart’s deepest instinct drove him forward and over the ship’s rail to save his brother… Claws raked his skin. He felt Tink’s teeth again and again, but he held his brother close. When every desperate gasp filled his lungs with water, he hugged the Fang to himself with all his strength. The sea turned red with Janner’s blood.
Total abandonment for his brother consumes Janner. His desire takes him over the edge and into certain death to save Kalmar, despite no one else following him; it’s his burden alone to protect Kalmar. After being safely brought back aboard the ship, Janner’s heart is filled with joy at the act. But it doesn’t end there. During their journey to the Green Hollows, Janner continually reminds Kalmar of his true name. He reminds him of who he is and was before his melding. Alone, the Throne Warden serves his brother in an effort that eventually bears much fruit, bringing Kalmar back.
Throughout The Brothers Karamazov, different characters are involved with the titular family, including Captain Snegiryov and his family. It is eventually revealed that Snegiryov had been hired by Fyodor Karamazov to interfere with Dmitri Karamazov and his lover, Grushenka. Instead, Snegiryov fails and is humiliated by Dmitri. Neither Fyodor nor Dmitri care about Snegiryov’s situation or his family’s struggles. Only Alyosha notices their plight and stands by them, though they reject him for being a Karamazov. His efforts to protect Snegiryov’s son Ilyusha results in Ilyusha attacking him. When he provides monetary aid, he’s rebuffed by Snegiryov, who seeks to hold onto what little honor and self-respect he has left.
Despite receiving injury and scorn for being a Karamazov, Alyosha continues to die to himself and serve Snegiryov’s family (Luke 9:23). Ilyusha dies at the novel’s end, but even there, Alyosha serves and loves as he has since the beginning. As the lone seed, his acts bring forth much fruit at Ilyusha’s funeral. Both Captain Snegiryov and Ilyusha’s classmates now love Alyosha and listen to his words of wisdom and comfort in the greater hope of bodily resurrection. Snegiryov’s family is ultimately impacted, not by Fyodor and Dmitri’s vile and wild actions, but rather, by Alyosha’s humble service.
Janner’s foundation continues in the saga’s third volume, which establishes the necessary growth for his tasks in the fourth and final volume. There, Janner and Kalmar attempt to find Gnag and end his ruthless war against the world of Aerwiar. As the brothers advance deeper into Gnag’s realm, Kalmar reverts to his Fang ways and attacks Janner. Even with death possible, Janner refuses to hurt his brother but instead, reminds himself to protect Kalmar. He ends up alone in enemy territory where, in the darkness, Janner wrestles with his job as Throne Warden. “The Throne Warden protects the king, but who protects the Throne Warden?” he asks.
Regardless, Janner presses on alone, dying to himself, and continues his task as Kalmar’s Throne Warden. Into the Deeps of Throg, alone but steady, goes the Throne Warden, where he brings forth a garden through his sacrifice, mirroring the seed of John 12. By throwing off his doubts and struggles, Janner will save not only Kalmar, but many others.
Our final view of Alyosha as the seed mentioned in John 12 can be seen in his healing of Grushenka. We learn that Grushenka has been entertaining Fyodor and Dmitri alike, making both father and son jealous while earning her a reputation around town as a scandalous woman. Alyosha arrives, broken and dejected, at Grushenka’s house along with the sinister character of Rakitin. Rakitin and Grushenka soon make a wager on whether she can break the young innocent monk or not.
But instead of bringing about Alyosha’s fall, this moment becomes a major turning point for Grushenka, who is changed through pity and love. Alyosha views her, not with sexual and carnal eyes like those of the other Karamazov men, but with honesty and care. She is neither condemned nor used by Alyosha, but is truly loved, and her healing begins in this tender moment.
In the end, Grushenka rebukes Rakitin—“So you must learn to love for nothing like Alyosha.”—and begins a new path. Through her encounter with Alyosha, Grushenka leaves her previous life behind and instead, chooses one where she will aid others rather than herself.
Janner, like Alysoha, will seek to bring healing to others. Janner’s healing as the dying seed is hinted at by Peterson in the epigraph of The Warden and the Wolf King, which quotes George MacDonald’s “A Dream Song”:
I dreamed of a song—I heard it sung;
In the ear of my soul its strange notes rung.
What were its words I could not tell,
Only the voice I heard right well…
A voice with a wild melodious cry
Reaching and longing afar and high.
Sorrowful triumph, and hopeful strife,
Gainful death, and new-born life
This healing will cost Janner his life, though. His brother Kalmar promised healing to the Fangs of Gnag’s defeated armies after the war, with many accepting his offer. Kalmar, however, is unsure how this healing will happen or what it will necessarily require; he only knows that the Maker of Aerwiar will guide him. The stone used to meld people into hideous creatures did so by using a host animal. To reverse the melding, Janner reckons that it will require a human. Surprising everyone, including his wolf brother, he gives himself over to the stone and heals every Fang who has come for restoration.
Peterson’s chapter containing Janner’s act is aptly titled “The Seed is Planted.” The seed has died, indeed, and brought forth new life. Although John 12 shines throughout the entire saga, it reaches its climax here. In his ultimate act as Throne Warden, Janner not only protects his brother but aids in healing him. Kalmar was never alone after that jump off the ship into the Dark Sea of Darkness; Janner was always there, watching and protecting the best he could. And in the end, he was there again, offering up his own life to bring forth much fruit.