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In ‘A Christmas Pig,’ J.K. Rowling Tucks Morality Into Fantasy

illustration of pig and boy in novel

J.K. Rowling’s story of virtues and vices, paired with her knack for creating deep fantasy, is a salve to a broken world.

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J.K. Rowling is out with a new book aptly named “The Christmas Pig.” With illustrator Jim Field, she creates a new world, as she does so well.

In this world, though, wizards need not apply. Rather, this is the fantasyland of a sad little boy. The boy is sad because his parents divorced. To make a bad situation worse, his bratty older stepsister (likely acting out because her mom got divorced and married the sad boy’s father) threw his favorite stuffed toy, a threadbare old pig, out a moving car window on a snowy day.

With “The Christmas Pig,” Rowling’s knack for creating deep fantasy is a salve to a broken world.

My family first became acquainted with Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series during our eight-hour drives to Sacramento. For six years, I served in the California State Assembly. We started homeschooling our two daughters during my second year in office. The four of us, the dog, and the chinchilla (we still have the chinchilla, a.k.a. Gandalf the Grey — he’s 17), would frequently pile into the SUV and my wife would read Harry Potter until her voice grew hoarse.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” made it to America in late 1998 with the first film released three years later, two months after Sept. 11, 2001. By then, there was a fair amount of criticism directed at the franchise from some evangelicals who feared it glorified witchcraft. This criticism — ironic, given the direction of attacks leveled on Rowling today — was misguided. Rowling’s tales no more exalted the occult than did J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ring” series or C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia.”

Editor’s note: Light spoilers ahead.

In “The Christmas Pig,” we follow Jack, a boy who confides in his worn plushy toy pig, called “DP” for “Dur Pig.” “Dur” because when Jack learned to talk, “the” came out as “dur.” It stuck. When Jack’s constant companion lost his eyes, his Mum (British, remember?) who was a nurse, sewed buttons on and then wrapped Mr. Dur Pig in a woolen scarf so little Jack, on his return from the nursery, could take the surgical wrappings off himself.

Soon Jack’s world begins to show hints of coming trauma: he awakes to the sounds of an argument between his mum and dad. Shouting sounding like Dad. A crash. Then a scream, sounding like Mum. More yelling. Jack crept out to the landing and saw his dad stalk out the front door, slam it, and then heard the car drive away. By the time Jack is five, his parents tell him separately that they don’t want to be married anymore.

Some context is in order. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) most recent data on marriage and divorce shows that there were about 2 million marriages and almost 750,000 divorces in the 45 states and D.C. reporting, so, a little more than one divorce for every three marriages. In the UK, about 31 percent of marriages ended in divorce over 15 years of marriage in 1992, dropping to 22 percent by 2017, the most significant drop in divorce in Europe over the period. 

Rowling married a Portuguese television journalist in 1992 after spending 18 months in Portugal teaching English, had a daughter, and separated just over a year later amidst alleged domestic abuse. Taking her daughter, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to be near her sister.

Thus, the opening of “The Christmas Pig” could easily be drawn from first-hand experience. Since my parents divorced when I was three, I too can attest to the unspoken pain of parental separation.

When Jack’s dad suggests it will be fun to fly to see him, Rowling notes, “Jack didn’t think it sounded nearly as much fun as having a dad around to play with, but he didn’t say that. Jack was getting used to not saying things.”

Jack moves, as often happens in the wake of a divorce. In his new school, Jack gets partnered with Holly, an older, much-admired student who helps him improve in reading. But, as fate would have it, Holly too gets shattered by her parents’ divorce. Worse still, Holly’s father ends up dating and marrying Jack’s mother and his relationship with Holly as a trusted classmate immediately turns sour as she turns into a wicked stepsister (no doubt because she too is devastated and acting out as a result).

Things start to go wrong for Jack in his new mixed family. It isn’t long before Holly and Jack have a spat in the back seat of a car. In revenge, Holly throws DP out the car window in a snowstorm. Grandpa tries to find DP but can’t. So an utterly miserable Jack, on Christmas eve, spent his first night in memory without DP.

On Christmas day, a contrite Holly gives Jack a new pig. Grandpa christens him Christmas Pig. Jack would have none of it and stomps on the new toy. After his worst Christmas ever, Jack resolves to wake up when everyone is asleep and go out and find DP himself.

Then, on page 41, commences “The Night For Miracles And Lost Causes.” In the following 230 pages of the fantasy of a child’s dreams, the reader is treated to a powerful allegory where characters in the form of lost toys and discarded items represent the old virtues, vices, and even the deceitful Enemy himself, the Loser.

The Loser lives in a smoking crater, has claw-like hands, searchlight eyes, and “breath that swept over Jack like a hot, foul wind. It smelled as though every rubbish heap in the world was lying in his stomach, of dust, decay, and rotting cloth, of battery acid and burning rubber, of the end of all man-made Things.” You see, the Loser reigns over The Land of the Lost and looks for discarded and lost items to eat as he sucks the soul out of them.

As he travels the Land of the Lost, Jack meets a lost thing called Happiness — lost through carelessness, laziness, and selfishness as its former owner looking for it in all the wrong places. He meets lost Ambition too — who used to belong to a politician who suffered a modest setback. Lost Beauty. Lost Memory (caring for a 97-year-old with dementia for the past 11 years in my house, that one hit home). And even Lost Principles, described as six blue men whose owner, a businessman, lost them one-by-one until he became a crook.

Jack meets Hope, too. Her owner lost Hope in prison. She protested against a ruler and was sentenced to prison for 20 years when the judge was too scared to rule against the president. But Hope knows her owner will find her and she’ll leave the Land of the Lost on a shaft of light as friends and family work hard to free her. Hope observes that her flame doesn’t burn as bright as Happiness, but it’s harder to extinguish.

Jack finally finds his beloved DP, but Dur Pig is so tattered that he can no longer exist in the real world. But Jack now knows that to save his friends, and the other things in the Land of the Lost, he must confront the Loser. Santa shows up to help. And Jack defeats the Loser.

The book closes on Jack waking up under the Christmas tree, clutching the Christmas Pig whom, due to DP’s urging, Jack now treats with the same love as he did old DP.

The Christmas Pig is a morality tale disguised as a children’s fantasy book — and it’s sorely needed for our time.