Alivening “Harry Potter” Through “The Christmas Pig”
SPOILERS FOR THE CHRISTMAS PIG AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
It is, perhaps, inevitable that everything Jo publishes we will always read with an eye towards finding a deeper understanding of Harry Potter. Some of her works are even meant to be consumed as such – it’s fairly obvious that the Cormoran Strike books are written in parallel to the Harry Potter series. But even those that are not, such as Jo’s new children’s tales The Ickabog and The Christmas Pig, offer up insight into concepts brought forth in Harry Potter. Perhaps this is because Jo devoted 17 years of her life to writing her magnum opus and included (even in passing) most of the concepts that interest her as a writer. Or perhaps it’s because we, as fans, have devoted so much mental energy to Harry Potter that we can tie just about anything back to it.
In some ways, Jo does this too. In her release event for The Christmas Pig, she sets out an unprompted contrast between her latest effort and Harry Potter: “I wrote seven books about The Chosen One, and now I’m writing about someone who wasn’t really chosen.” And while that subject won’t be what I’m writing about, Jo did a great job building a character who’s not The Chosen One – it made me yearn even more fervently for a Jo-penned version of Neville’s time leading Dumbledore’s Army in his seventh year!
To recap the prior Potter connection, The Casual Vacancy, despite being the only complete misfire of the novels Jo has published, expanded the scathing commentary on small-town viciousness that Jo included in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’s “The Riddle House.” The Ickabog, among other possible parallels, serves as a satisfying AU of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’s “The Lightning-Struck Tower.” So when I opened The Christmas Pig, aside from being incredibly excited to be whisked away by Jo’s imagination, I was curious what Potter-related insights I could glean.
Of Jo’s standalone works, The Christmas Pig is by far the most satisfying. It’s an exquisitely told tale about a young boy (Jack) who seeks solace from his parents’ divorce in his favorite stuffed toy and the depth of the love between boy and toy. Of course, this is all done through a travelogue through “The Land of the Lost” that’s a showcase for Jo’s world-building. It’s essentially Toy Story as written by J.K. Rowling! Best of all is the subtle character work Jo does on the Christmas Pig and his relationship with Jack. No spoilers, but this was the first non-Potter work of Jo’s that had me bawling at the end.
There were two main concepts that really harkened back to Harry Potter as I was reading The Christmas Pig. Both of which are, in some ways, the central magical conceit of the book – and are related to each other. And I’ll stop here for a spoiler alert – if you haven’t already, go grab a box of tissues and read The Christmas Pig, then come back here!
How Much You’re Worth
Upon entering the Land of the Lost, the reader (along with a snooty pair of earrings) is very quickly disabused of the notion that an object’s inherent value is what matters: “Diamonds or plastic, it’s all the same down here. We’ll soon know how much you’re worth Up There” (CP 61). It’s not about how valuable something is; it’s about how much it’s needed in the world.
This explains why The Island of the Beloved only contains “other old toys—there didn’t seem to be any other kind of Thing here” (CP 231). Not jewelry, nor treasure. It’s the items with a sentimental value that are given the highest prestige in the Land of the Lost. And in this, The Christmas Pig perfectly fits with the ethos of Harry Potter.
We are given a stark contrast between Harry and Lord Voldemort in the kind of items they most value. In the case of Voldemort, it’s because he chose five items in which to store his soul in a quest for immortality.
‘Lord Voldemort liked to collect trophies, and he preferred objects with a powerful magical history. His pride, his belief in his own superiority, his determination to carve for himself a startling place in magical history; these things suggest to me that Voldemort would have chosen his Horcruxes with some care, favoring objects worthy of the honor.’
[…] ‘Lord Voldemort would prefer objects that, in themselves, have a certain grandeur.’” (HBP 504-505)
Other than the Diarycrux, which Voldemort considered proof that he was the Heir of Slytherin, all the remaining Horcruxes are immensely valuable historical artifacts. Three are the iconic artifacts of a Hogwarts Founder – Slytherin’s locket, Hufflepuff’s cup, and Ravenclaw’s diadem. The fourth has nearly as illustrious a pedigree as the inheritance of a Peverell brother. Per Caractacus Burke, these items are “near enough priceless” (HBP 261). Hepzibah Smith makes comments to the same effect: “I had to pay an arm and a leg for it, but I couldn’t let it pass, not a real treasure like that” (HBP 437).
The items Voldemort turns into Horcruxes are worth princely sums and are of great importance, but they would not have made it to the Island of the Beloved. They certainly would have ended up in the City of the Missed, but (as Jack and the Christmas Pig find out) that’s quite different from being beloved. They display how materialistic Voldemort is in choosing the receptacles for his soul.
Though an interesting addendum to this: perhaps the locket and the ring would have made it somewhat close to the Island of the Beloved due to Marvolo Gaunt. According to Dumbledore, they were “a couple of family heirlooms that he treasured just as much as his son, and rather more than his daughter” (HBP 212).
On the other side of the coin, of course, we have Harry. Much like Voldemort, Harry is given an opportunity to designate those items that he considers most precious.
To begin with, Harry packs up all of his possessions when he leaves the Dursleys for the last time.
In a front pocket were the Marauder’s Map and the locket with the note signed R.A.B. inside it. The locket was accorded this place of honor not because it was valuable – in all usual senses it was worthless – but because of what it had cost to attain it. (DH 15)
Shortly afterward, Harry is given an even more explicit way of designating his prized possessions. For his seventeenth birthday, Hagrid gifts Harry with:
a small, slightly furry drawstring pouch with a long string, evidently intended to be worn around the neck. ‘Mokeskin. Hide anythin’ in there an’ no one but the owner can get it out.’ (DH 120)
Harry filled Hagrid’s Mokeskin purse, not with gold, but with those items he most prized, apparently worthless though some of them were: the Marauder’s Map, the shard of Sirius’s enchanted mirror, and R.A.B.’s locket (DH 132).
Those items are shortly joined by the Snitch that Dumbledore bequeaths him – “Harry’s hand brushed the old Snitch through the mokeskin” (DH 351). And midway through the book, Harry completes the set: five items, just like Voldemort.
He pulled the pieces of the broken wand out of his pocket and, without looking at them, tucked them away in Hagrid’s pouch around his neck. The pouch was now too full of broken and useless objects to take any more.” (DH 351)
The difference from Voldemort is complete. When Harry has to choose the items worth most to him, he goes wholly for those with sentimental value. Three items were given to him by people he loved, one that his mentor died to procure and one that he used every day and grew with as a wizard. They all represent Harry’s human connections – as opposed to Voldemort, who has no human connections and therefore no sentimental objects reflecting them.
The narration even points out, no less than three times, that the items Harry prizes are inherently “worthless,” “broken and useless.” Yet these are the items he most prizes – just like Jack prizes DP more than anything in the world, despite (or perhaps, because) of how ratty and worn he is. In this, Harry stands in opposition to materialism and first brings forth the point that’s given center stage in The Christmas Pig: how much items are worth has nothing to do with how valuable they are.
The key fantastical concept of The Christmas Pig is that the lost objects are alive – all of Jack’s adventures stem from that. When Jack first tries to wrap his head around the concept of things Alivening, we get some helpful explanations from the Christmas Pig:
‘And it happens when human feelings rub off on Things?’
‘It’s not really rubbing off,’ said the Christmas Pig. ‘The feelings come inside us. Alivening is what changes us from fabric and beans and fluff, or metal and wood and plastic, into . . . something more. It can take a Thing years to be fully Alivened – but sometimes it comes all at once.'” (CP 96)
The idea that human feelings flowing into objects allow those objects to come alive is a beautiful thought. Certainly, we all have objects in our lives that are much more than the sum of their parts. Those precious items we discussed previously, like the Marauder’s Map and Harry’s broken wand, would doubtless be Alivened in the world of The Christmas Pig.
However, this idea of objects coming alive when imbued with the feelings of their owners is also present directly in the wizarding world. In fact, it has somewhat sinister echoes in the Potter series, which immediately came to mind as I was reading The Christmas Pig. I am referring, of course, to Horcruxes.
[T]he bit of soul inside it can flit in and out of someone if they get too close to the object. I don’t mean holding it for too long, it’s nothing to do with touching it. […] I mean close emotionally. Ginny poured her heart out into that diary, she made herself incredibly vulnerable. You’re in trouble if you get too fond of or dependent on the Horcrux.” (DH 105)
This facsimile of Alivening is part of the very magic of Horcruxes, according to Hermione. And this is a much scarier version. It’s almost like Horcruxes are a perversion of the Alivening magic. When people grow emotionally close to items in the ordinary course of things, those objects become benign residents of the Island of the Beloved. Yet when the same happens to Horcruxes, the Horcruxes wield that intimacy as a weapon and turn on the person.
We see this when Hermione’s dire warning comes to pass: Ron does, indeed, get too close to the Locketcrux. He stews in his jealousies and insecurities while wearing the locket and eventually is driven to abandon the Horcrux hunt. When he comes back later, the Locketcrux makes a final stand against Ron by wielding all of that against him:
I have seen your heart, and it is mine. […] I have seen your dreams, Ronald Weasley, and I have seen your fears.” (DH 375)
And that isn’t even the worst of it. The Locketcrux was powerful, and Ron’s raging inferiority complex made him an easy target. But the situation was much worse with the Diarycrux and Ginny. Ginny was an eleven-year-old girl full of insecurities and much more emotionally available – especially to something like a diary. And the diary had twice as much Voldy-soul as the locket, so we see it weaponized the Alivening process much more effectively.
So Ginny poured out her soul to me, and her soul happened to be exactly what I wanted. . . . I grew stronger and stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful, far more powerful than little Miss Weasley. Powerful enough to start feeding Miss Weasley a few of my secrets, to start pouring a little of my soul back into her . . .” (CS 310)
“She put too much [life] into the diary, into me. Enough to let me leave its pages at last. . . .” (CS 313)
This is essentially the nightmare version of the Alivening we see in The Christmas Pig. And its presence in the spotlight of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, way back in the beginning of the Harry Potter series, illustrates how long Jo has had this concept in mind: that human feelings rubbing off on things is very powerful magic. I’m just really happy that Jo finally decided to explore the concept further and gave us The Christmas Pig as a result!