If only I could get through this
Framed for a crime he still doesn’t completely understand, let alone have the capacity to commit, Tom Taylor returns in issue #6 of The Unwritten as a captive bound for prison. Not only has the Pullman arranged to make it look as though Tom has killed everybody who was present at the Villa Diodati that weekend – he’s convinced seemingly the entire world that his guilt is totally assured. Only a few issues ago he was possibly a new messiah, left unhurt by a nail bomb which exploded right in front of him: now he’s public enemy number one, and nobody wants much to do with him anymore.
And that’s a pretty major thing, because the Tommy Taylor books are so overwhelming amongst the general public that it takes active work for everyone to collectively attempt to overlook the fact that Tom is accused of mass-murder. As he’s taken into prison in France, the warden is quick to tell him that there’s no celebrity status for Tom: he won’t be given any kind of leniency. It feels like an overstatement as the warden says it, but towards the end of the issue we then follow the warden as he heads home and find out why this mattered so much to him: his kids are megafans.
It turns out that every night the warden heads home, shrugs off everything horrible from his day job, and works off the stress by sitting with his kids and reading to them from the Tommy Taylor comics. It’s a coping mechanism which has clearly been going on for a very long time, as the kids not only adore the stories – but live vicariously inside them. When they start to bicker between each other, the warden assumes the characteristics of the wizard school’s headmaster, warning them that they’ll be expelled if they pick fights with each other. There’s nothing to be expelled from, obviously – they’re two children sitting in their bedroom – but obviously the warden has been training his kids to act as though they were characters from fiction.
A fairly dangerous approach to parenting, that. He’s actively encouraging his children to believe they are fictional characters and that the world around them contains all the magic (and safety implied with that) of a children’s novel. You always have to keep an eye out when Mike Carey brings kids into a comic. He’s got a track record, that’s all I’m saying.
So the kids not only idolise Tommy, but have been brought up to believe that they are contemporaries of him. If they were to find out that the real-life man based on the character has participated in horrible crimes, it’d be emotionally devastating for them and, in turn, for their beleaguered dad. That’s the power of these books. Not only is it responsible for the real-world conditioning of these two children, but also tied innately to the mental health of the parents. Now take that burden placed on a work of fiction and multiply it across all the households in the world who are also taking on that similar emotional connection to a character who isn’t real, and the actual creators behind them.
Which is to say: I’ll try to be very careful about how I write this, but The Unwritten’s creative team couldn’t have predicted how this storyline would now mirror in some respects the public perception of J.K Rowling in 2022. Pages of issue #6 show forums and blogs (remember those?) covering the Tom Taylor news from every angle imaginable, but all united in the sheer disappointment which the public have in their former hero. Although Tom is merely the mirror of Tommy Taylor, the magical wizard and Harry Potter stand-in whom the public loves, his fall from grace does somewhat match the way Rowling’s anti-trans rhetoric has shaken up huge numbers of fans from their rose-tinted fandom, and left a tainted impression on the books they grew up with.
There’s a difference here at this point in the series, of course, which is: Tom Taylor is being framed, whereas Rowling is very much actively participating in the hateful acts which have brought disillusionment to so many people. That’s important to note. As this arc continues, however, there is probably some value in seeing if and how any parallels between a fictional narrative and a real-world narrative are each built, and how prophetic The Unwritten’s understanding of storytelling in modern society proves to be.
For all the modern elements which are involved here, Carey and Gross have chosen much older texts as the foundation for this issue’s literary allusions. The very old, epic French poem The Song of Roland replaces the Tommy Taylor book extracts which had been dotted around the previous issues of the series, for whatever reason. Before we had the direct comparison between Tom and Tommy, to show the valiant nature of the hero against the most chaotic reality of Tom’s life as a washed-up celebrity. Here, it’s harder to see immediately what the plan is. The titular Roland is a soldier in Charlemagne’s army, surrounded by all sides and facing defeat. He refuses to blow the horn by his side, however, which would summon help and save his lives. It’d be shameful to ask for help, apparently.
Is there any argument that Tom’s life in prison could similarly be attributed to his pride, and refusal to ask for help? Possibly. But then that doesn’t explain the very last page of the issue, in which the literal fictional character of Frankenstein’s Monster walks over to have a chat with Tom. If Roland refused to blow the horn and call for aid, then in turn how come the Monster has somehow heard Tom’s call? It’s a strange one, and the creators of this story have no interest in giving up their mysteries quite yet.
I neither speak French nor have any interest in typing extracts into google translate – so please let me know anything I’ve missed here!
The issue begins with an apparent extract from The Song of Roland, the oldest recorded text in French History. It’s an epic poem or “Chanson de Geste” which forms a part of the Charlemagne legends. These poems would start off with a true event and then embellish it to the point of complete fiction, acting as sung tales of propaganda. The Song of Roland takes the Battle of Roncesvalles, which was a fairly minor clash between Charlemagne and the Basque forces, and elevates it into a grandstanding epic which hinges around Roland, who refuses to blow his horn and summon reinforcements despite being overwhelmed by enemy forces. More to come on this.
A second Roland gets referenced by the “Inside Man” blog, this one being “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, which was a poem by English writer Robert Browning. Just like with The Song of Roland, this poem features a Roland who carries with him a horn. He walks through a deserted wildness as he heads towards the Dark Tower, which somewhat mirrors the desolate journey which Tom takes towards the prison.
Lizzie picks up a few books as she seeks advice. The first is Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal. Its protagonist Julien Sorel tries to advance from his impoverished background, but is trapped in the politicking of those around him and is ultimately beheaded. People don’t mind spoilers for 1830’s French literature, right?
The second book she picks up is Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal. Wikipedia tells me that the collection was controversial on publication and was banned for a century in France!
Finally, she picks up Voltaire’s most notable work, Candide. Again, a book which was widely banned for being subversive, but is now something she can pick up at any bookshop she wanders into. A look at how the powerful ideas present in literature were treated with deadly seriousness back then, and perhaps at how modern society have forgotten that power.
We find out that Tom also knows about “The Song of Roland”, and starts to recount it here. He focuses on the fact that the actual event has been replaced in history by the retelling of the event, which was far more popular and thus more widely believed by the public.
And then finally we see the mysterious figure following Tom isn’t Count Ambrosio, but is instead Frankenstein’s Monster. Oh great – what does he want?
The Unwritten #6 “Inside Man”
Story by Mike Carey and Peter Gross,
Colourists: Chris Chuckry and Jeanne McGee
Letterer: Todd Klein
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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