Surely one more moment couldn’t break my heart
So there’s a thing which this series has obviously been heading towards for a while recently, and that thing is Harry Potter. JK Rowling’s novel series, itself uncannily similar to The Books of Magic, is a clear basis for Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s in-universe Tommy Taylor series, and I don’t think they could have predicted how that would change the way that The Unwritten comes across as the years went by.
In 2022, Rowling is most famous – to me – for being a particularly active bigot against the trans community. That bigotry was noticable for several years before she outright started stating some of her most extreme discriminatory views, in small slights, little digs she would make online. She chose the name of Robert Galbraith as her pseudonym, for example, which was the name of a prominent anti-LGBTQ+ gay conversion therapist. She then kept the name despite being told about the connection, at which point most people realised why she probably chose the name to begin with.
Nowadays, for me, she’s just a TERF. A trans-exclusive radical feminist, although the “RF” section of that term feels more and more suspect each day. She’s just TE. When I talk to other people and they mention Harry Potter, it’s the first thing which comes to my mind, and whenever I hear them talk about how important that children’s series remains to them, I think: “oh, so you’re basic”. And they are. For some people, the morality they learned as a child never formed into any kind of investigative reasoning as an adult, and they cling to the slave-owning world of wizards despite the critical analysis of how racist the books are; how ableist; the fat-phobia and queerphobia which wanders the halls of Hogwarts like a mid-range British actor who doesn’t want to do Doctor Who.
Readers who used to have a broad understanding of “right” and “wrong” have subsequently bent themselves over backwards to excuse Rowling’s bigotry, and in many cases joined in with her. If the person who created their entire moral structure (or the moral structure they handed to their children as bedtime stories every night) says trans people are bad, then they’ll have to assume she’s right, it seems.
In issue #8 of The Unwritten, the creative team spend their time in the minds of a prison warden and his family, all of whom are being imprinted-upon by the stories of Tommy Taylor. The warden, who is in charge of the prison Tom has been sent to, has two young children who are devoted to the Tommy Taylor novels to the point of it being referred to as a mild psychosis by a therapist brought in to speak with them. The daughter, in particular, sets her entire life around the novels, following not their moral instruction, but their actuality. She thinks the hexes are real, that it’s important to hold a wand in a particular way, and in the unfailing moral good of Tommy Taylor himself – to the extent that when another boy in school makes fun of him, she pokes him in the eye and draws blood.
Contrary to what her father thinks, she isn’t learning what’s “right and wrong” in the world, and using fiction to help draw up a navigational moral compass which will set her in good stead for the rest of her life. Instead, she’s learning how to draw up sides, and unquestioningly follow what’s presented to her as being “good” despite how that leads her to extremist thinking and violence in the real world. What’s most important in the issue, however, is not just how she is acting out according to her fevered belief system: it’s how her father has also assumed so much of this into his own personality whilst thinking he’s above it all.
Across the issue, her dad keeps saying how she is simply play-acting, having fun, using her imagination, and being a child. That she will eventually drop off all the anger and self-justification in favour of becoming a smart, moral person. He excuses all her worst excesses, and forgives her for leading her brother down the same path she’s also heading on. She gets suspended from school for violence and he forgives her almost immediately. The issue shows the generational drift in how morality gets skewed off in the worst direction, and it’s fascinating for it. At the same time, his actions in dealing with the real world – in the form of Tom Taylor, an prisoner in his care – show that he has drifted just as far away from his own moral compass because of a work of fiction.
The warden swears that he will be objective in his handling of Tom, who isn’t Tommy and is innocent until proven guilty – but his experiences with the Tommy novels proves that he’s utterly unable to be anything but subjective. After Tom is attacked by corrupt guards – guards it turns out the warden has been working with, he’s corrupt – the warden has an outburst where he claims “you don’t get to use the word innocent”. The objective nature of “good” and “evil” no longer suits the warden’s own purposes, so in a moment which mirrors his daughter, he decides it means “us” and ”them” instead. “Taylor’s word counts for nothing against theirs”, he tells his men.
And just as the daughter keeps breaking her promise to loosen her mental grip on the Tommy Taylor novels, so her father proves to be exactly the same. He keeps allowing her to return to her warped morals, leaving both daughter and father in the same belief that they are the ones who are in the right and everybody else is trying to corrupt their innocence. Meanwhile she’s blinding her classmates and he’s working with a private militia who want to storm his prison and kidnap Tom Taylor. All in the name of being “good”.
At the time of publication, this was simply a story where readers witnessed the power of fiction to corrupt the minds of regular people. Carey and Gross couldn’t possibly have predicted how Rowling would tank her own legacy and recreate it as something hateful and bitter – but what they could do was predict that something like this might eventually happen. The very first panel of the issue has a post-it note with a message from Wilson Taylor, which simply says:
“When a book is read, an irrevocable thing happens – a murder followed by an imposture. The story in the mind murders the story on the page, and takes its place”
The Tommy Taylor novels replace themselves into the mind of those who read them, but with a simulacrum of the original intent. I think there’s a very strong case to be made that the people still reading Harry Potter novels in 2022 are doing much the same thing. They’re taking on a book which is supposedly about good vs evil, and evil losing, and inadvertently thrusting the hateful politics of JK Rowling into their families’ future. If Harry Potter is a good person, but JK Rowling does bad things, then how will they wrap the narrative to ensure that both Potter and Rowling are in the right? As we’ll see in the next few issues of The Unwritten, nothing but bad things will come of it.
The Unwritten #8 “Inside Man: Interlude”
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.
This post was made possible thanks to Shelfdust’s Patreon backers! To find out more, head to our Patreon page here!