Come with me, if you will, to Belmont University in the year 2005. Belmont hosted a C. S. Lewis conference called Past Watchful Dragons, which I attended for a number of reasons, none of which yielded anything nearly as impacting as my chance introduction to the Good Doctor Rogers. I had just released my fifth album, The Far Country, and because of the Lewis/Tolkien influence on those songs, I thought the conference might be a good opportunity to sneak my CDs into the gift bags of the attendees. (That album was released independently, so any crazy marketing ideas were carried out by yours truly.)
Towards the end of the conference Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson) was signing autographs and I decided to wait in line and give him a copy of the record. After that extremely awkward interaction I saw another dude standing around. He leaned against the wall in a way that made me think he was much more smarter than I be. As I recall, he had under one arm a box of leftover Wilderking books which his publisher had also included in the gift bags; I was carrying a box of leftover CDs, expecting at any moment to be ejected from the premises. I remembered seeing The Bark of the Bog Owl on a display at the local Walmart, so when I saw his name tag I introduced myself and told him so. He was doubtful that the books had ever had such prestigious placement. What I didn’t tell Jonathan was that when I first saw his books I was a little jealous that he had beaten me to the punch. At the time I had been working on The Wingfeather Saga for a few years and had yet to find a publisher. Here was another Christian writing fantasy aimed at children. I decided to finagle my way into his inner circle in order to thwart him. (It hasn’t worked. He just keeps writing awesome books.)
We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet for lunch sometime. I went home with my copy of his book and started reading it to Aedan and Asher, with the added bonus that J. R.’s main character’s name was Aidan. I didn’t know at first that Bog Owl was loosely based on the biblical story of King David. Once I realized it I enjoyed not pointing out the similarities to my boys. I wanted them to experience the story without any preconceptions. They laughed at Dobro the Feechie. They listened closely whenever the prophet Bayard spoke. They wrung their hands when Aidan faced Greidawl, the boss bad guy. It was a load of fun to read the story to them at that age and let them discover the connection with King David. But it was the next books, when Jonathan broke away from the Davidic parallels (especially in The Way of the Wilderking), that the tale really found its legs. None of us had any idea where it was going, or how it would end, and the land of Corenwald and the Feechiefen Swamp began to take on a new life. It felt like this: he had painted a fantastic-but-familiar picture of the Bible story, then we tumbled into it like Eustace and Lucy in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and finally he led us into a brand new country.
Jonathan has described these books as “a fantasy told with an American accent.” That’s about as apt a description as I’ve ever heard. Yes, there are swords. Yes, there are battles and prophecies and betrayals and everything else you could want in a good fantasy, but the “American-ness” of them adds a nuance that’s both rare and welcome. When J.R. followed up this trilogy with The Charlatan’s Boy (set in the same world, and one of the sweetest, funniest books I’ve ever read), he aimed that accent directly at the South and the world got that much richer and that much more bizarre in the best way possible. Folks, there are hundreds of thousands of books in the world—hundreds of thousands of fantasy novels, for that matter—and I’m not sure any of them can boast this particular combination of Biblical literacy, Southern humor, intelligence, and adventure.
Jonathan has taught me to be thankful for my roots, and that’s one of the greatest gifts he’s given me. Early on, he helped me to see my youth in the Deep South as a great blessing, not just by texting me news stories about all the strangeness in Florida and Georgia (which he still does), but by his obvious pride in his Georgian upbringing, his saucy disdain for anglophilia (if that anglophilia produces a disdain for one’s own heritage, at least), not to mention his love for authors who share a similar affection for the South (like Flannery O’Connor and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings). The Bark of the Bog Owl helped me see the story of David with new eyes, but Jonathan has also helped me see the beauty in my own story a little better. A good writer is an eye doctor, too.
Jonathan Rogers is precocious, opinionated, and smart as a whip, and yet he’s also humble, teachable, and wise. He may hold a Ph.D. in 17th Century Literature from Vanderbilt. He may be a professor who can actually get away with wearing a seersucker suit. He may be a gifted writer. But Jonathan remains, at heart, a Georgia boy who delights in the beautiful and complex absurdities of the South, who sees glory in swamps, hears dignity in drawls, and unapologetically loves what he loves. If that’s not godly, I don’t know what is.
If you’ve never read The Wilderking Trilogy, get your tail over to the Rabbit Room Store and grab them while you can. Did I mention that he and his wife have six kids? Maybe go ahead and buy several. Books, I mean.