During our family’s first time through Andrew Peterson’s four-book series The Wingfeather Saga, I found myself carefully paying attention to one person more than any other: Nia Wingfeather. By the time we were rereading the series for the third and fourth times, I had to resist the urge to take notes on this courageous and queenly (albeit imperfect) mother. Her womanly valor, her fearless sacrifices, and her ability to bring out the best in men have spurred me on in my own callings as wife and mother.
Bravery in the Kitchen
For the uninitiated, Peterson’s saga traces the unforgettable Wingfeather family, particularly the three children, as they run from the Fangs of Dang, from the Overseer of the Fork Factory, and worst of all, from Gnag the Nameless.
We get one early glimpse of Nia’s savvy courage when she is faced with the capture of her son by the wicked Fangs of Dang — cursed creatures, men who have willingly been transformed into wretched beasts. In their twisted existence, their appetites are insatiable, but not for good food, only for all that is rotting and putrid. Nia negotiates the release of her son: “I told him I could cook the finest maggotloaf in the four seas and that if he let you go, I’d cook it for him every third day of the week once the meat had plenty of time to fester” (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, 68).
Her quick thinking reminds me of women like Jael, who lures her enemy in, gives him milk, and covers him with a blanket before crushing him — or Abigail, who brings enough food for an army, accompanied by her own gracious words, to calm David and divert him from violence. Nia, though fictional, shows us a particularly feminine kind of think-on-your-feet bravery. She acts on behalf of her child, but she does not confront danger directly (for she would have surely lost); instead, she comes at the problem creatively. She proceeds to make the aforementioned maggotloaf to satiate the appetite and the anger of the Fangs.
This type of feminine bravery is quite different from the bossy, brash, beat-up-the-boys counterfeit we see in so many movies today. Nia is a brave woman — not a manly woman — and she solves problems accordingly.
Fearless in Sacrifice
Later in the saga, Nia’s second son has undergone the same sort of horrible transformation that the Fangs had. He is a beast, but still a boy. With her husband assumed dead, her life centers on helping her son become the man he should be, despite this irreversible change. When the people of the Hollows wish to cast her son out, she invokes Turalay, the law of pardon in the Green Hollows, and is warned, “You hold your life forfeit for his, and should he break the life laws of the Green Hollows, from this day forward, it is not only his blood that will be shed, but yours” (The Monster in the Hollows, 67–68)
“A mother’s willing release can put steel in the spine of young men.”
On the surface, we may think she is confident simply that her son will somehow overcome his beastly reality, that she knows all will be well. But Nia’s trust is deeper. She trusts her Maker, even if her son were to do the unthinkable and break the life laws of the Hollows. She binds her fate to her son because she trusts her Maker’s purposes and does not fear death. And in tying her life to his, she strengthens his weak frame and plants seeds of hope in his heart.
Multiplying the Courage of Men
If there is one visceral driving force in mothers, it is the desire to nurture and protect. This natural, God-given instinct, however, can give way to fear-soaked overprotection. “Safety first!” can undergird almost every decision mothers make. Nia, however, taps into a rare feminine virtue — the cheerful willingness to forsake safety now for the better hope of raising courageous future men.
As Nia’s oldest son nears his thirteenth birthday, he approaches a rite of passage for boys called the “blindplop.” After being stuffed full of food on his birthday, he is left alone, deep in the woods, in the middle of the night. His guild master leaves him his pack and a letter saying,
No one is watching over you, ready to rescue you as soon as things get difficult. . . . That means you’re on your own. Of course, if you don’t show up at Ban Rona for a week or so, we’ll send out a search party to bring you home, though there probably won’t be much of you left. Your mother grew up here; she knows how it works, and she’s given me her full permission. I expected to have to talk her into the blindplop, but she agreed without hesitation. That should make you feel some pride, boy. (The Warden and the Wolf King, 20)
A mother’s willing release can put steel in the spine of young men. When a mother confidently blesses her son’s launch into the world — whether in small matters, like persevering in hard work, or in large changes, like moving far away, independent of her — her blessing is like a current of wind that pushes his sails farther and faster and straighter than he would have otherwise gone. But when mothers coddle and hover, doing all they can to keep sons from any whiff of danger or failure or pain, they nurture vice rather than virtue.
Strong Men and Their Fearless Wives
Yet it isn’t just sons who are bolstered by the appropriate confidence of their mothers. Husbands, too, can be inspired by the trust and assurance of their wives. Nia’s husband, Esben, is mortally wounded after a heroic effort to stand between the Fangs and his family. Yet even as his blood pools around him, and he begins to sink to the ground, she issues an urgent but steadfast reminder not to give in to death — not yet. “Our children need you, my king” (The Monster in the Hollows, 332). And he rouses himself once more to do what seemed impossible, to do what she could not do — to rescue their children from the enemy at the cost of his life. Her words beckon his courage.
A woman’s respect multiplies the courage of men, not with manipulation or fear, but with loyalty, hope, and abiding trust. To be a woman of valor is to be a woman who is free — free from the chains of fear because her security is fixed in her Maker. And it is free, fearless women who are best equipped to call forth and inspire the masculine strength and courage of Christ in the godly men around them. The world desperately needs such men — and such women.