|Synopsis||Five bears go on a journey of self-discovery and spirituality in this Shakespeare-inspired saga.|
|Author||The Dragon Common Room, ed. Rachel Fulton Brown|
|Release Date||November 30, 2021|
Aurora Bearialis is a children’s epic from the group Dragon Common Room, a collection of Christian word nerds under the advisement of Professor Rachel Fulton Brown. The group wishes to create fantastical fiction pointing to Christ, in the vein of their hero Tolkien. This is their first book, and it chronicles the journey of a polar bear searching for the Southern Lights, and possibly something more spiritual.
Violence/Scary Images: Seals attack the main characters.
Language: One use of “hellish.”
Drug/Alcohol References: A metaphorical mention of eau de vie, a type of alcohol.
Sexual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: The main characters do not save others who had bullied them in the past, and they themselves do some bullying which is never addressed. The only female characters have sexist and stereotypical depictions.
Spiritual Content: A griffin is worshiped by penguins who sing “Holy, holy, holy” to it. This griffin makes claims about itself, such as, “I am the Light who is, / was and ever shall be….” In the same village, an idol of an orca is prayed to as “Lady of the Whales,” and villagers also sing “Holy, holy, holy” to her.
Positive Content: The main characters help one another in times of crisis.
The reviewer received a copy of this title from the editor.
A polar bear who enjoys watching the Northern Lights learns about the Southern Lights from an albatross friend. This starts the bear’s quest across the world to discover the Southern Lights for himself. Along the way, he meets four other bears (three unidentified brown bears and a panda), a village of penguins, and some potential deities.
Meter and Milestones
This book is intended for children, yet it is written in iambic pentameter, making it feel more like Shakespeare than Seuss. Kids tend to enjoy rhyming books because they have a singsong quality that makes them easy to remember. However, because of the limits of meter, the authors of Aurora Bearialis add vocabulary that makes the text difficult to decipher, even with context clues. The rhymes will help children sound out unknown words, but this text has so many new terms in it that it will likely have them spending more time decoding than enjoying the story (I say this as someone with an English-related master’s degree; there was at least one word I did not know on every page, sometimes multiple per stanza).
Despite utilizing a plethora of archaic language, the dialogue and narration mix in slang, like “bros” and “brats,” when it fits the meter and rhyme scheme. These tonal changes pulled me out of the narrative like a literary whiplash. The slang makes the rhyme schemes feel forced, instead of utilizing the natural lilt of language found in many picture books. Though the vocabulary and iambic pentameter feel too mature for the target demographic, the rhymes are childish and simple.
At one point, the text switches to French with the line, “Can eau de vie become just like a stone?” The inclusion of various languages in a book can pull readers into another culture. However, this does not seem to be the case here, as none of the anthropomorphic animals mention their cultures or even other languages. Only the mention of a panda far from home hints at any cultural differences in their world; in fact, all the animals speak the same language, even though they originate in various parts of the globe. This would not be significant if the entire text was rendered in English. However, the inclusion of American slang and the untranslated, unidentified French term for alcohol (literally, “water of life”) may be jarring to readers who are already struggling to understand the dense text.
Pictures do adorn most of the book and help with decoding the story. They are not sequential, like a comic, but the frequency should bring to light confusing parts of the text. Each page has a border depicting the events in that particular section of the story. Two page spreads highlight important scenes, and close-ups give visual details to characters. The illustrations and plot make this feel like a book for children, but the verbiage and language shifts make it difficult to read for any age group.
Hey! Who Turned Off the Lights?
Within this world, the Northern Lights are a beautiful spectacle seen on a page of black-and-white illustrations. They are assumed to be caused by the same scientific abnormalities as the ones in our own world. The Southern Lights, on the other hand, are treated as spiritual and sacred. In order to see them, the protagonists must pass a series of deadly tests and unsolvable riddles put before them by a religious group oddly similar to a cult.
There is no explanation for the difference between these Lights, and if the Northern ones are also sacred, the reader is kept in the dark. Ernest Hemingway argued for the “iceberg theory” of writing, but in some texts, this does not work. For one thing, Hemingway was writing realistic fiction set in a world with which every human being should be familiar. Aurora Bearialis is set in a totally different realm with no humans to be seen. We are not privy to its rules of nature, its laws, or its etiquette. Thus, the iceberg theory cannot work here.
The authors’ motto is “training poets in the arts of Christian imagination,” and the book has Scripture inside the front cover. If the writers are trying to infuse Christian values and morality into their texts as their motto states, they must have a story cohesive enough to instill those values. It does not need to be preachy, by any means. However, it must be understandable enough for readers to apply to their lives. In the case of the Southern Lights, this means being able to recognize that sacred things (prayer, the Bible, etc.) are set apart from worldly things. This idea does not come across because the Northern and Southern Lights look and seem identical.
The Matter of Religion
Speaking of being set apart, Aurora Bearialis explicitly mentions religion in a few sections. It is not Christianity on display; this is a fictional world, after all. What transpires is even more confusing than the show of lights. When the bears reach the village, they are greeted by a penguin cult who cry, “Holy, holy, holy.” This line is reminiscent of Revelation 4:8, “… Day after day and night after night they kept on saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty – the one who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” The exact phrasing of the cult matching the verse in Revelation is intentional. Unlike C.S. Lewis or Ted Dekker’s imaginary worlds, though, God does not seem to exist here. One character cries “Thank God” at one point, but other than this, God Himself is never mentioned.
This affection is showered, instead, on a griffin, whose image is inscribed on the temple walls and who holds the Southern Lights. It even says of itself, “… ‘I am the Light who is, / was and ever shall be; Aurora, same / in North and South, Borea and Australis.’” If God is a character in this story, the griffin fits the bill. However, there are problems with that theory.
The first time we see the griffin, he is kidnapping one of the bears, dragging him into the sky without explanation. Everyone fears holy vengeance, for this character was eating the temple food. When the others chase him down, the bear is fine. The holy griffin bestows sacred gifts to each character for their bravery and other moralities. Then the bears worship him without a word of explanation given to either side.
Jesus tells the disciples, “I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me” (John 15:5). God does not require obedience out of fear. This griffin may not have intended to terrify those bears, but he did. If he is the equivalent of God in this universe, he should have worked to build a relationship and entrusted them with the secrets of using their new gifts for good.
The biggest problem, though, is there are actually two deities in this book. While the griffin claims to be the creator, the first deity we see worshiped is an orca. The picture shows an orca idol, which is clearly called an idol in the text, paraded down the street. The penguins refer to this idol as “O Lady of the Whales” and impart unto her the cries of “Holy, holy, holy.” There is never an explanation as to why it is appropriate, or inappropriate, for the villagers to worship both the orca and griffin simultaneously. When the bears leave the griffin, they meet the orca and have another spiritual experience with her. Because of these factors, I do not believe this book in intended as an allegory, which makes the use of the Revelation language uncomfortable and, I would argue, borderline blasphemous.
Meet the Characters
The bears in this story have little personality, and any development feels hampered by the strict adherence to meter. All the characters, especially the bears, have identical in-book voices. Most dialogue sounds the same as the narration. The ones with the most personality are also the worst portrayals in the text.
Aurora Bearialis is a tale about a pilgrimage and has one group of villains – the seals. Aside from the orca goddess, these seals are the only female characters in the narrative. They are vengeful, horrific bullies who kidnap and lie to a stranger so they can torture him. Their dialogue is sassy, biting, and sounds like anti-feminist propaganda. For example, “It’s just like men to think they can roar / when all the ladies fail to serve them lunch.”
These seals had the potential to be strong villains, but when defeated they whined and skulked away. “The sealstress gasped as she she’d just been slapped / and, pouting, whined: ‘Boys ruin everything.'” The entire pack of seals is called “The Harem” in the Act II chapter title, which is an appropriate term for a pack of seals. However, there are other terms, and this one was chosen with the intent of making readers remember these are female seals doing horrible things. That might (big emphasis on might) be appropriate if one were parodying feminism, but that should be balanced by well-crafted female representation on the side of the heroes. As is, the major female representation in this book is stereotypical and, frankly, offensive to any girl who reads it.
The Matters of Representation & Double Standards
Despite a boatload of bears, an entire village of penguins, and an albatross, the only female characters are the seals (and an orca goddess who shows up for one page). As a woman, I like to see myself represented in literature, though I am becoming accustomed to the fact this is not an author’s first priority. Representation is vital, and it should be a top priority no matter what you are writing. I was willing to put that aside for the sake of the story, except for the treatment of these female seal characters.
During the torture, the seals fat-shame and insult their hostage. They are shown as villainous, as they should be! However, the heroes resort to the same tactics. “‘Spicy punch?’ laughed Ulfie. ‘Nah. You’re too fat! / At best you’d get your blubber quivering.'” At this point, the seal whines the line seen above and skulks away, presumably to cry. Fat-shaming is shown as appropriate in this instance because the bears use it to rescue their friend. This sends mixed messages to readers.
Firstly, that the end can justify the means. It is perfectly fine to act like a villain if you manage to become the hero by the end. An idea like this can lead to horrific consequences if taken too far. For example, the concept of “history is written by the victors,” which has led to the censoring of terrible acts never taught in schools. This entire book makes the bears look righteous, no matter what they do.
Secondly, these double standards may reflect our society, but do not reflect God’s preferences. Throughout history, men (specifically white men) have been able to get away with a lot because of their societal status. Meanwhile, women were not considered capable or intelligent enough to do the same. This book reinforces those stereotypes. A male bear fat-shames a woman, and he is a hero. A woman fat-shames the male bear, and she is villainous. While the book makes that distinction, God would not. All humans are created in His image, male and female. Christians are taught not to stoop to the levels of sin to combat sin. Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, even though the soldiers came armed with their own (John 18:11 & Matt. 26:52). Battling sin with sin should never be held up as a standard.
Later in the story, the bears see the seals about to be eaten. The women beg for mercy, and the bears refuse. At this point, they have met a deity and been given gifts for their service. They are counted as righteous. Yet they refuse to help those in trouble. Jesus told us to love our enemies because, in His words, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt. 5:46). When the seals were in danger, the bears could have helped them, but they refused.
If they were given some kind of penalty, even just a lecture from the deities, about any of these decisions, I would have different thoughts. However, their behavior is never addressed as anything less than perfect. The all-powerful griffin gives them gifts and congratulates them. Once they leave his presence, there is no indication of how he feels about their actions, since he never gave them any instructions.
Another example of awkward representation comes in the form of a nickname. The panda is constantly referred to as “pied,” which means spotted. However, he is the only Asian character in the book, and this nickname is close to an offensive term formerly used for Asians. Though they are not the same, children’s books should not be espousing anything similar to offensive terminology. If a child who reads this misspeaks without being corrected, they may wind up adding a racial slur to their vocabulary.
If this is a book for children, we must be careful with what we are trying to teach them.
Aurora Bearialis is a confusing journey that seems to be neither for adults nor children. Its characters are shallow, if not downright offensive, and they indirectly teach double standards and gray morality. The story tries to make spiritual allegories but gets bogged down in its own strict style and meter. The occasional rhymes and simple plot sound childish, but the complications with representation and multiple gods make it a difficult and sometimes indecipherable read.
+ Unique art style
+ First of its kind
- Mix of modern and antique language hard to follow
- Only negative depictions of female characters
- Good guys committing bad deeds with impunity
- Confusing depiction of deities who are supposed to represent God
The Bottom Line
Aurora Bearialis is an ambitious project that did not live up to its potential.