The Faerie Queene and The Christmas Pig

One of the most wonderful features of Troubled Blood, at least for those of us who are devoted to Edmund Spenser, is the Faerie Queene subtext woven throughout Robin Ellacott and Cormoran Strike’s year-and-a-bit-long investigation into the cold case of MargoBamborough. With the publication of The Christmas Pig, it’s clear that J.K. Rowling’s Faerie Queene theme was not a one-shot effort, but evidence of Spenser’s prominence in her compost pile of influences. In addition to the wonderful connections to Scripture, Dante, and my longtime favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Christmas Pig uses the Spenser template beautifully to weave an accessible, yet remarkably effective, allegory that is completely different from the latest Strike adventure while still drawing from the deep and powerful well of Spenser.

Duplicates and Replacements

Of course, it’s no secret that one of the core elements of The Christmas Pig is the idea of replacement, or Replacements, of people and things being replaced with other ones, with varying levels of acceptance. Jack is not interested in Brendan as a replacement for his father, a fact his mother wisely addresses by acknowledging that Jack should call his stepfather “Brendan,” while continuing to call his father “Dad” (even if he only contributes the occasional box of Lego blocks). Holly struggles with Judy as a perceived replacement for her mother while hoping to replace gymnastics with guitar. The Broken Angel is purchased (before being broken) as a replacement for the Toby-demolished Toilet Roll Angel, and, of course, The Christmas Pig himself is purchased as a Replacement for DP, lost along the motorway.

This is certainly not an idea exclusive to Spenser, but it is one that runs as a powerful thread through The Faerie Queene. As early as the first canto of the first book of The Faerie Queene, Spenser introduces the idea of duplicitous doppelgängers when the crafty enchanter, Archimago, creates a replica of the lady Una from one of “the falsest twoo” of the “Legions of Sprights” (I.i. 38) he summons while Unaand Redcrosse sleep, believing him to be a kindly hermit who has given them shelter. The false Una is then used by Archimago to seduce Redcrosse, and when her blandishments fail to have any effect on his moral resolve, the duplicate is placed in a compromising situation with the other sprite, whose appearance has been crafted to resemble a handsome young squire. When he sees what he believes to be his pure and constant lady “In wanton lust and leud embracement” (I.ii.5), Redcrosse abandons the real Una, spirit of truth, and experiences a host of trials and tribulations as a result.

Other doubles and imitators abound throughout The Faerie Queene. Duessa (a character used to great effect in Troubled Blood) replaces Una at Redcrosse’s side, but she is a deceiver, a liar whose very appearance is a deception and who leads men to their ruin. The always-pursued, always-running Florimell, whose image was used as an early sneak preview for Troubled Blood, is replaced by the false Florimell. Twins, doubles, and replacements appear throughout the six books and a bit of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem; in fact, the very concept of Faerie Land as a setting brings to mind the idea of replacements, with the folklore of changelings, substitutes left in place of human children who have been stolen away by the Faeries.

The Christmas Pig’s replacement figures are not always negative, of course, but they become truly positive only when they cease to be Replacements and become, instead, their own entities. Once Jack realizes CP’s true worth, the new pig becomes, not a substitute for DP, but his own pig, with his own value. When Broken Angel is found and repaired by Jack’s mother, she is no longer “too fancy for their tree” (29) as she was when first purchased, but “she looks kind” and “as if she’d been meant to be bandaged up all along” (270), and her patched-up appearance reflects the way Jack’s blended family is knitting together into something broken and beautiful. In similar fashion, Spenser’s characters only become who and what they should when they earn their identities. The Redcrosse Knight, himself a changeling brought from Britain, wearing armor that was not originally his, with dents earned by someone else, only comes into his own when he faces trials and combat himself, putting his own dents in the armor and truly becoming the knight of Holiness. Like CP, he must undergo trials and transformations in his process of finding his true identity.


Personifications of the Abstract, from Horrors to Habits

The Christmas Pig is a story peopled with the fantastic, from a shrinking boy to walking, talking objects and the monstrous Loser that hopes to consume them all. Many of the objects Jack encounters are the Land of the Lost versions of lost items in the Land of the Living, from spectacles to diamond earrings. Others, however, are embodiments of abstract concepts from the Land of the Living. After all, many of us know all too well how it is just as easy to lose a Knack as is to lose our keys, and those of us whose loved ones suffer from dementia know that lost diamond earrings are far less precious than lost Memory.

In some cases, Rowling uses an object to represent an abstract concept, like self-important Addie, or the Compass, who represents the way one can so easily lose. At other times, the concepts are fully personified into complete entities, and none of these is so terrifying as the Loser. With a cannibalized body made of the Things whose “Alivened parts” he has sucked out, the Loser is a monster that reflects the unique world of the Land of the Lost and elements of Spenser’s Faerie Land, upon which Rowling is undoubtedly drawing, both intentionally and unintentionally. In addition to his noble knights, who each represent a virtue, such as holiness, temperance, or chastity, Spenser presents an array of monsters who likewise embody abstractions, such as Errour and Despaire. Like the Loser, these awfulcreatures represent aberrations, but their bodies are horrific as well, representing both the terrible concepts they embody and presenting a grotesque form. The monstrous Errour is a snakelike creature who entangles her unwary victims in her “endless train” and who vomits up “errors” that include heretical books. Despaire is a figure of filth and misery, who nonetheless uses words to coerce his victims into committing suicide.

While Spenser’s knights must contend with a variety of monsters, the Land of the Lost has plenty of dangers, like Crusher, but thankfully, only the one truly horrible creature; there are, however, other embodied abstractions that present their own threats and benefits. These are anthropomorphized to varying degrees. Because of the story’s fanciful nature, it is not surprising to find Bad Habits, Pretense, Happiness, Hope, and Power among the cast of characters, but it is fascinating how Rowling depicts them. The Bad Habits each manifest as a different body part, from the mouths of smokers to the bloody fingers of nail-chewers, and while Bullyboss sounds alarmingly like Jack’s stepsister Holly, the Thing itself is only a fist, in its own way as monstrous as the threats that face Spenser’s knights.

The more complex embodiments of abstractions are fully anthropomorphized, and in featuring them, Rowling presents perhaps her most powerful Spenser hat-tip.


The House of Pride and the City of the Missed

Perhaps no feature of The Faerie Queene is so nicely mirrored in the Land of the Lost as is the House of Pride, along with the figures who inhabit its inverse, the House of Holiness. Both Spenser and Rowling include characters who represent virtues, or other positive elements. In the Land of the Lost, Jack encounters the bright and beautiful Happiness, and the less radiant but extremely helpful Hope. In manyways, they resemble the positive figures who aid the Redcrosse Knight after his nearly disastrous encounters with Duessa and Despaire. Una, once she has rescued him from Despaire’s clutches, takes Redcrosse to the House of Holiness, where he is healed and aided by sisters Fidelia, Speranza, and Charissa. In addition to the ministrations of these personifications of Faith, Hope, and Charity, the House is staffed by figures such as Humitila, Zele, Reverence, Remorse, and Repentance, all of whom assist Redcrosse on his spritual journey to true Holiness in preparation for his climactic fight with the dragon that threatens Una’s kingdom. Like Hope, who rescues Jack and CP and takes them to the Island of the Beloved, these figures facilitate the hero’s trip to his epic confrontation. Jack must leave the Island and face the Loser to save CP, just as Redcrosse must depart the House of Holiness to fight the dragon and save Una’s family and lands.

Earlier in their journeys, before they can grow into their heroic roles, both Jack and Redcrosse are nearly overcome at a house with dangerous inhabitants. For Redcrosse, this is the House of Pride, ruled by the beautiful but infernal Lucifera, while Jack is nearly defeated at the Palace in the City of the Missed, under the rule of Power. Redcrosse barely escapes the House of Pride, a building which “digests” those unwary enough to enter its wide gates, leaving them bereft at its egress. Only by the intervention of Una’s Dwarf is Redcrosse able to escape the “donghill” where the “wretched thralles” of the House of Pride are left. Jack is saved by Happiness and Hope, some of the more positive guests at the Palace, in contrast to the Royal Family, most of whose members are either morally ambiguous or less than positive.

One of the most iconic sequences in The Faerie Queene is the parade of the Deadly Sins at the House of Pride. In this spectacle, figuresrepresenting six of the Sins, mounted on appropriate beasts and carrying iconic implements, pull the coach of Lucifera, who represents the seventh sin, Pride. Jack and CP also have a questionable host, Power, who, like Lucifera, is a dangerous ruler consumed with pride. His “ambassador” Ambition may not seem to be quite as dangerous as Lucifera’s councilors, but her pointed teeth, like Beauty’s mirror, make both of them quite similar to Spenser’s personified Sins, and it is important to note that Power did not invite the Principles to dinner, only Beauty, Ambition, and Optimism, the Things that will allow him to get what he wants. Likewise, the Sins in Lucifera’s house are the ways by which the House’s victims come to ruin.

In the Land of the Lost, no building, city, or geographical feature is merely a setting for the action of the story. Rather, each location reflects its inhabitants and dangers. Like Spenser, Rowling does not give her characters ordinary settings, but instead crafts each to suit the allegorical purpose being conveyed. Spenser’s knights enter castles, ride upon plains, and travel through forests, each of which is created to mirror the circumstances, just as the Island of the Beloved, populated by the “souls” of treasured items, is a comfortable retirement spot, while the ghost town of Disposable reflects the low value placed upon its residents.

Rowling’s writing, as always, blends beautifully her own creative insights with the influences and inspirations she has encountered in her wide and diverse reading. It is a delight to see how her interest in Spenser, which manifests so nicely in Troubled Blood, continues here in The Christmas Pig, connecting a very adult novel with one clearly directed at children despite its appeal for readers of all ages.

Interestingly, one of the reasons Rowling created her Galbraith identity was to protect young Harry Potter readers who might see her name on a book spine and assume they were in for a journey appropriate for the 11-and-up crowd, rather than Strike’s decidedly adult adventures. Yet, Spenser binds those two identities;  in the author’s bio at the back of The Christmas Pig, Rowling’s dual identity as Galbraith is clearly mentioned, but Casual Vacancy, her “adult” novel under her own name, is notably absent from the bio. In addition, the author’s bio for The Ickabog does not mention Galbraith. Perhaps these bios indicate that, through Spenser, Rowling’s Strike novels and writing for children have a strong literary link.  It may be a link that only adult readers of both the Strike novels and The Christmas Pig can appreciate, but, like the connection between DP and CP, it is a very real one, and perhaps it will bring even more readers to Spenser’s Faerie Land.


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