One of the main themes that I wrote about in this book was identity. Identity could be the watch word of modern day western society. Interestingly enough, it is often the invisible motivator for many fads, movements, and social revolutions. Being lesbian or gay is a way of affirming one's identity. Being transgender is yet another way. A climate change activist may, by defining themselves as such, find meaning and purpose in their life. What job we have and how successful we are is a further measure of identity (although it seems that nothing can trump sexuality, which to my mind remains the greatest factor by which western society appears to define themselves and their identities).
The child Rafen begins the book with no identity. He dreams of running for a phoenix feather, which he wants although he doesn't know why. He wakes to the grim reality of the branded number on his ankle which brands him as two-three-seven, a slave, "a little underground animal who did as he was told. Yet he itched. He shouldn’t have expected more, but he did". Rafen's dream leads him to the conclusion that "he didn't belong here", with here being Tarhia, the land in which he is enslaved and imprisoned.
The phoenix feather dream has given Rafen a sense of identity that he has never had. He was not the only contestant for a feather. Two other men ran with him, and he instinctively knew they were kings. Rafen, not long after this, rejects his identity as a slave. It is this rejection that leads him on a journey of pain, sorrow, struggle, and eventually to form of freedom in which he is still pursued by his previous captors. Throughout this journey, his tormentors work hard to force his previous identity onto him.
“I know what you think,” Talmon said in Tongue. “You think that Etana will somehow escape the hundreds of men I have after her. You think that she will call her father, and though she is heir to the Sianian throne, she will plead for a dirty Tarhian slave boy. You think the king of Siana will travel the three months’ journey in the week before your execution and then bring his ship into enemy territory to find you. You think you are important. You are not.
“Now come here, two-three-seven!”
“I have heard of two-three-seven,” the officer went on. “He was socializing with a princess yesterday. That probably made him decide he was above working in the mine.”
When Rafen arrives in Siana, the land of freedom that he has escaped to, he begins the difficult internal battle of figuring out who he actually is. Those around him tell him that because he bears a sacred name that his mother gave to him, he must worship the Phoenix God that it refers to. Rafen fears he will lose his identity through worship, by succumbing to another master. All this is the reason that the tagline of the book reads: "Your name will change your life forever". Rafen's name is a vital clue to his final identity.
Rafen resists the Sianian culture of worshipping the Phoenix, although he is still obsessed with the idea of receiving a phoenix feather. In the meantime, his enemies who had previously enslaved him because of the name he possessed have caught up with him. Roger, the old Tarhian general, throws Rafen out of his own chamber window late one night - but not before once again hoping to seal Rafen's identity forever in death.
"His Grace [Talmon] says you can never be free."
Then he releases Rafen's ankle and lets him to drop to his apparent death. Rafen is miraculously saved by catching onto a wide window ledge. The miracle itself leads him to cry out to Zion, the Phoenix, for help. Guided by a voice speaking to him, he flees the Sianian palace and heads into the neighbouring woods, where he at last is offered a feather by the Phoenix himself.
With an effort, Rafen pulled back. He wanted it, but he would die if he took it... he stared at the feather, tears in his eyes.
Rafen fears that if he accepts the feather, his identity will forever be defined as a hero ordained by the Sianian Phoenix, meaning he will always be hunted. At this point, he would rather die than have an identity. He would rather remain the ex-slave than someone truly freed by who he is.
The hesitation passes and he takes the feather. Just hours after receiving it, he returns to the Sianian palace, where his own enemies are actually attacking the king of Siana, seeking to kill him.
Rafen decided he wouldn’t be afraid. He raised his hand to the feather above his heart. He was the Fledgling.
Upon confronting Roger again - his would-be murderer, Rafen isn't afraid to introduce himself as the Fledgling of the Phoenix, the very translation of his name. His identity frees him to battle his enemies with new courage and send them fleeing.
What was I trying to do with this theme? A couple of things.
1. I believe personally that bearing a false identity or definition of yourself will enslave you, until at last you know who you really are. A false identity not only enslaves you... it effaces your true self.
2. I believe it's impossible to know who you really are on an individual basis. We are defined in relation to someone. I believe we are defined in relation to our Creator. True identity frees us from fear and enables us to overcome our personal battles. Until we find it, we are destined to be wandering in circles, confused.
All of this is - I hope - tastefully done throughout the book, as I desired to avoid a preachy style of writing and yet deliver a powerful message. Only my readers can tell me how successful I have been.
Further modern resources that address the symbolism behind phoenixes with reference to identity: