“‘Who knows what the future holds? Only the One God,’ explained Aidan. ‘You live the little bit of life that you can see in front of you. You live it well. And that gets you ready for whatever unfolds next.’” The Bark of the Bog Owl
I’m having a hard time explaining, even to myself, why this review is challenging for me to write. I think it is because reviewing books by living authors is tricky business, especially if I love the book. In this case, I think that it has to do with being impressed with the writing of a living author and wanting to understand his story well enough to represent him well in a review.
Strangely, I haven’t heard this book described very well anywhere. Whenever I’ve heard anybody try to explain the story, the description seems to fall flat. I want to try to fix that if I can. This book was so much fun to read, not just because it is fun, but because it is so full of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is a relief and a joy to read modern fiction that is alive with goodness, and packed full of charm.
In several interviews I have heard Jonathan Rogers describe his Wilderking books as: “swampy adventure fiction,” “kind of a retelling of the David story,” and “a place that looks suspiciously like South Georgia.” The Wilderking Trilogy is swampy. It is full of adventure. It is a bit like King David. It might look a lot like South Georgia. But, this trilogy is a lot more than that as well.
While the the landscape may be South Georgia, I think it could just as easily be Sherwood Forest if not for the alligators. (In the next book, however, it is all South Georgia swamp.) Because of the elegance of the writing and the creativity of the story, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rogers’ holds a PhD in seventeenth-century literature from Vanderbilt University. It is clear to me that this living author knows his craft and respects the great writers who came before him. I think it is fair to say that Rogers has something meaningful to contribute to the great canon of children’s literature.
Even though there is nothing on the book cover to indicate it, this story is a medieval reimagining of David and Goliath. Once you know that, the already intriguing story becomes magical. Our minds get to play in two worlds: the real world of biblical history and a world of medieval fantasy that provokes wonder and awe. Most authors would not be able to convince me that this is both King David’s story and something else worthy at the same time, but Rogers is inspired. Our knowledge of David, his God, and his story allows us to know Aidan well before Aidan knows himself. When the story opens, Aidan “felt himself to be the person he had always hoped he was: not a shepherd boy who wished he were a soldier, but a soldier who happened to be playing the part of a shepherd boy.”
In this first book of three books, we meet twelve year old Aidan Errolson, the sixth son of a great and worthy noble of Corenwald. Aidan’s small island nation was founded on a dream of freedom, free worship of the one true God, and a love for wholesome living. Corenwald, a bit like early America, was settled by pilgrims, freedom fighters, and adventurers.
When fear of God left the land,
To be replaced by fear of man;
When Corenwalders free and true
Enslave themselves and others too,
When mercy and justice disappear,
When life is cheap and gold is dear,
When freedom’s flame has burned to ember
And Corenwalders can’t remember
What are truths and what are lies,
Then will the Wilderking arise.
Reminiscent of 1 Samuel 16:6-13, the second chapter of Bark of the Bog Owl introduces us to the Corenwald prophet Bayard The Truthspeaker. When Bayard arrives at Longleaf Manor, Errol greets the prophet with profound respect and offers him welcome. Bayard explains his task and asks to see Errol’s sons. As each of Aidan’s strong and capable brothers are rejected by Bayard, the brothers grow incredulous. When Bayard acknowledges Aidan as the prophesied Wilderking, Errol’s skepticism turns into anger. Despite his sincere respect for the Lord’s messenger, Errol is deeply loyal to King Darrow and will not allow any seeds of treachery to be planted in his home.
“Though he was a shepherd boy, Aidan’s was the heart of a warrior.”
Before Bayard leaves, he and Aidan have a private conversation in which Aidan confesses his anxiety about this prophecy. Bayard explains to Aidan that he should do as he has always done, “live the life that unfolds before you. Love goodness more than you fear evil.” Bayard encourages Aidan to remain loyal to the king. He insists that Aidan continue being a good shepherd. He admonishes Aidan to let life unfold naturally and, when called upon, to respond to all things with courage, faith, and love.
“You will fight one day for Corenwald – and sooner than you think. You will fight because you love Corenwald, because you love the freedom to live and worship as you see fit, because you love your family and your fellow soldiers. But you must never fight because you love the battle. You must never love the battle.”
When Corenwald was founded, it was a place of refuge. A new world. A land consecrated to the one true God. The first Corenwalders left their homeland of Pryth in defiance against evil rulers who worshipped gold instead of God. Unwilling to see their power and authority challenged, the Prythen armies attacked Corenwald many times in the hopes of conquering them and stomping out freedom everywhere.
“Our very existence is an act of defiance against the Prythen Empire. Four times they’ve invaded this island. And four times the stout men of Corenwald sent them home in disgrace… they’ve swallowed up a whole continent, but people who have a taste for freedom aren’t easily conquered.”
Errol, was one of the four and twenty nobles who supported King Darrow in battle and in court. Like Saul, however, Darrow is growing forgetful.
“We overcame because the One God fought on our behalf – the God who asks only that we act justly, love mercy, walk humbly… In our comfort, we have forgotten that virtue is hard. In our wealth, we have forgotten that freedom is expensive.”
When King Darrow remembers what it is to be a Corenwalder, he goes to war again with Pryth. But, his heart is not in it. The Prythens have a giant, and like Goliath, Greidawl is willing to fight one man in exchange for the freedom of an entire people. For weeks, no one is willing to meet the giant in the field. Like David, Aidan is sent by his father to check on his brothers at the front. When Aidan arrives at the camp, he is astonished at the dejected army and the cowardly king.
“‘But isn’t this a kind of death?’ Aidan’s terror at the sight of Greidawl had given way to indignation. He was ashamed at the cowardice of his brothers and countrymen. ‘You die every day you hear that beast insult our armies, mock our King, and blaspheme the One God. You die everyday you submit to a slavery that has been imposed on you without a fight.”
While we know how this situation resolves itself, I can assure you that Rogers makes the reading worthwhile. His description of the next twenty-four hours, Aidan’s conversations with key characters, and the actual battle scene are all very entertaining.
Before Aidan arrived at the camp, however, Rogers sent him deep into the swamp. What Aidan finds there, or rather who he discovers, is a sample of pretty fantastic storytelling. Drawing from what he knows, Rogers created a race of people who sound like Southerners, live in the swamps, and would probably make Flannery O’Connor belly laugh. The Feechies have a rich culture and tradition, and their race adds a deeply interesting layer to this story.
When Aidan defeats the giant, things do not resolve automatically. Prythens have no honor. And so, the defeat of Greidawl is just the first act in a 3 part symphony of war. The cunning Prythens have some military advantages that are a complete shock to the Corenwalders. The need to rethink their battle plan allows for another fascinating twist in this story.
Oh, the miners brave of Greasy Cave,
They did not think it odd
To make their way beneath the clay
Where human foot has never trod.
Fol de rol de rol de fol de rol de rol
De fol de rol de fiddely fol de rol.
Oh, the miners brave of Greasy Cave,
Come out the other side.
They braved the gloom, they challenged doom.
They made an end to Prythen pride.
Fol de rol de rol de fol de rol de rol
De fol de rol de fiddely fol de rol.
One of the things that I most appreciate about this series of stories is how vividly Rogers has drawn the landscape of Corenwald. This island is a place of astounding beauty. A little bit like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the medieval cities are familiar, the pastoral farms feel like the Shire, the lush swamp and river areas remind you of a hot and sticky August camping trip, the battlefield seems to be right out of Arthurian legend, and the underground mines had me looking for goblins and Curdie. While Rogers probably drew this landscape from the gorgeous examples he lives with in Georgia, the beauty and complexity of the land are palpable to all of us, thanks to his elegant descriptions.
As I was writing this review, I had a conversation with Doug McKelvey. I mentioned how hard it was to write this one because of how much I appreciate it. He wisely said that there is a law of inverse at work in this kind of writing. The closer we feel ourselves to something, the harder it is to capture what we most appreciate and then communicate that to others. I mention this because I want you to know that I think this modern book has true classic quality. I am buying the trilogy for everyone I know in the hopes that it will make their family libraries richer.
This story is high adventure, has complex heroes, is written beautifully, contains songs and poetry, and is steeped in biblical wisdom. We are reading this series aloud as a family. My children are 6, almost 8, and 10. There is nothing in this story that is inappropriate for young children. If being read independently, however, the language and sentence structure is sufficiently complex to make this most suitable for confident readers. Warning: you may end up with some good natured Feechie brawls and little boys who simply must learn how to tree-walk.
One other note: I hope to lead a middle school book club this summer at my local Christian book store. This book will be our July selection. There is no bible study or book club kit in existence as far as I or Mr. Rogers are aware of. God willing, I will create one in the next month and freely share it on our website and on our Facebook page.
The Bark of the Bog Owl is the first of a trilogy. All three are available from Rabbit Room Press. When reading books which are part of a series, time restrictions make it challenging to read and review every book in every series. This series, however, is so impressive that we will be reviewing the sequels, The Secret of the Swamp King and The Way of the Wilderking. If you buy the trilogy from Rabbit Room Press, there is a bundle option which saves 15%!
Additionally, Rogers wrote another related book. The Charlatan’s Boy is not part of the Aidan Errolson trilogy, but it is about a Feechie and set in Corenwald. I will be reading and reviewing that one too.
*NB: We are not affiliated with The Rabbit Room. We just love their books and believe in the work that they are doing. Read more here.