Loose Thoughts on Silver Wings
by Jillian Caulfield, posted January 25, 2023
At the end of Silverwing, Kenneth Oppel says of the bat characters that populate the animal fantasy's pages that "I also liked the challenge of taking animals that many might consider 'ugly' or 'scary' and fashioning them into interesting, appealing characters. Many animals had already been written about, and most of these were reasonably cuddly: horses, mice, rabbits, pigs, even spiders. But would kids be able to identify with bats?"
I was. As I entered a preteen dorkdom, years marked by awkwardness and uncertainty and general out-of-placedness, I became fascinated with these misunderstood, ugly, weird, beautiful little creatures. I watched from them out the window of our mildewy little two-bedroom house, and I read Silverwing, and I hung up glow-in-the-dark bats from the dollar store with ribbon. I don't remember any of the miserable parts of those years, the poverty or the shouting matches or the alienation at school, when I think on those feelings.
I was part of the Warriors craze, tearing through all the books my middle school library had in 2009 and 2010, but I actually read Silverwing first. I found it at a St. Vinnie's for something like fifty cents, and I got it because it had a bat on the cover.
Silverwing came out in 1997, about six years before Into the Wild, the first Warriors book, hit shelves (which was 20 years ago this week). It shares a lot of DNA with its younger feline cousin: both situate their animal characters in a world of political tension, alliances and betrayal, spiritualism and mysticism, where tradition and youth, nature and man, push against each other uneasily. Prophecies, war, faith and fear and fanaticism, love and hate, evil and good – it's all there.
I think my fascination with bats and animal fantasy came from the same place as a lot of other Warriors kids' love for the series: a feeling of not belonging to the human world we were born into, of not being able to talk and act the way everyone else did and being misunderstood by the children around us no matter what we did, of being drawn to adventure and mysticism and emotionality, that realm of life not quite aligned with normal, everyday reality. I was autistic, I was gay, I was trans, even if I didn't know yet. I needed there to be a place for the odd ones.
The Warriors clans were a place where those of us deemed strange by our kittypet peers could thrive and be celebrated for breaking the mold. The misunderstood, the runts, the cast-asides were given worth in Silverwing's bats. In both worlds, the unwanted found family through bravery and embracing who they were and wanted to be. Even if we hadn't made it there yet ourselves, the characters of those worlds would be our friends – and certainly it gave many of us a jumping-off point for making and nurturing real-life friendships. Outcasts found family through these worlds, not just within them.
But at the same time, Warriors and Silverwing recognized the struggles bubbling within us, between us and our peers. The non-human characters and realities made their worlds different enough from our own that we could escape to them, yet were close enough to ours that we held them even tighter. We dreamed of being emo cats, emo bats, instead of being emo children.
Animal fantasy has always had its own special appeal – I have a whole other essay's worth of raw feelings about Watership Down to spill and shape into something coherent someday soon – but I suspect that shifting approaches to prose-writing have made it an entirely different beast these days, with new draws. The prose of much older fiction reads to me a little stiffer, a little more formally, and a bit more omnipresent than prose from the 90s on. The text in older fiction hovers a bit outside and around characters, even when we can hear their thoughts, and it feels like it knows (and tells us) more than the characters know themselves, whereas contemporary fiction prose often feels situated more directly in characters' heads, with more limits. For instance, we don't often hear multiple characters' unspoken thoughts and feelings in the same scene in (read) fiction these days, but you'll certainly encounter it in older fiction. The resurgence and explosion of YA fiction that started in the 90s and the decade's general artistic focus on disaffected youth can also be felt when tracing the lineage of animal fantasy – it feels more teen angst, even if subtly.
I reread Silverwing recently, now in my 20s, and I kept thinking, why didn't this take off instead of Warriors? This isn't to say that I think Silverwing should've been more popular than Warriors, but rather that, in a different world, it could've. It's got a similar timbre, a similar flavor.
I know there are people other there that held, and maybe even still hold, deep worlds in their hearts for Guardians of Ga Hoole or Wings of Fire (actually, I knew and know a few), or Seekers (the bear one) or Survivors (the dog one), or any of the other contemporary animal fantasy books out there. When you grow up and stop reading fantasy voraciously like it's all you've got in the world because you have shit to take care of, it's easy to forget how private and deliciously deep our relationships with books could get as kids – how fully enveloped in their worlds you could be without anyone knowing or being able to intrude, as they might with something on a screen. They were our own blissful secrets. Warriors was just one of those rare cases where we got to actually see into those worlds hiding in kids' minds, in the collective world they created from it together.
And so, I can't help but wonder about a world in which Silverwing took off the way Warriors did, a world where dark-winged creatures fluttered across Flipnotes and DeviantArt pages and YouTube animations set to "Animal I've Become" the way that warrior cats leapt into them, where we drew angst art about the fallout of the godly promises hiding in the wings of blind albino bats and printed on silver bands the way we did the prophecies that drifted in the mist of Starclan's forests.