Book Review: ‘The Christmas Pig,’ by J.K. Rowling – The New York Times

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THE CHRISTMAS PIG
By J.K. Rowling
Illustrated by Jim Field
Neither words nor images, as the best storytellers have always known, can match the exuberant strength of a willing reader’s imagination.
J. K. Rowling gave a virtuoso demonstration of the truth of that premise in her most recent book. “The Ickabog,” a pandemic project, describes the mythical transformation of a harmless herbivore, the bashful Ickabog, into a man-eating monster, whose imagined powers are turned to evil use by his self-proclaimed adversaries, the cunning courtiers of a credulous and vain, but not incorrigible, king. Invited to add their own illustrations to Rowling’s vivid text, young readers excelled themselves when picturing the terrifying marsh-dweller. (“Huge it is, with eyes like lanterns and a mouth as wide as that there throne,” a frightened believer in the Ickabog’s murderous nature whispers to his attentive monarch.) As with her latest venture, the story’s ending is reassuringly cheery.
“The Christmas Pig,” sympathetically illustrated by the multi-award-winning Jim Field, performs the same trick on a more elaborate scale. It’s dreadful, of course, that 8-year-old Jack has lost not only his family (his beloved dad having walked out on him and his mum a couple of years earlier), but also his irreplaceable ally, a stuffed toy he calls Dur Pig, or DP, hurled out the car window by Holly, the angry daughter — from another broken home — of his mum’s new husband. Far more terrible adventures lie ahead, in the world of dreams, when Jack, accompanied by Holly’s despised gift of a replacement pig, sets out to rescue DP from the toy-crunching Loser, ruler of an underworld called the Land of the Lost.
A fancy reading of Jack’s Christmas Eve mission might see a nod to Dante’s Purgatory in the duo’s first stop, the limboland of Mislaid, and discover a perverted Paradise in Rowling’s finest invention, the glittering City of the Missed, a canal-strewn crossbreed of Venice with Las Vegas. More fancy still, a thesis-seeker might spot a resemblance between the Christian story and the unloved Christmas Pig’s heroic decision to sacrifice himself to the Loser so that Jack and DP can be reunited.
Spotting connections and influences isn’t the worst way to read a book that, while gratifying young children’s love of a cracking adventure story, reflects beliefs that are evidently close to its creator’s heart. Rowling tells us at its close that writing it has proved “a joyful and cathartic experience.” More lightheartedly, she declares any resemblance to her own family’s lost toys to be, “of course, entirely intentional.”
An environmental message sometimes pulls Rowling’s story down a bit. Can anybody get excited by the idea of an army of discarded plastic straws floating upward on a golden column to be recycled? Far more appealing is Rowling’s animation of Happiness (a glowing ball of light) and Hope, a Gustave Doré-like angel in Field’s lovely illustration of Jack and the Christmas Pig being safely carried away (in a tapestry hammock) from the sumptuous palace ruled by King Power and his chief courtier, Ambition.
“I may not shine as brightly as my friend Happiness,” Hope tells Jack, “but my flame is harder to extinguish.” (Hope also played an important role in “The Ickabog.”) Unashamedly encouraging in the tradition of the great 19th-century storytellers, Rowling has written a marvelously persuasive fantasy for our times, one that looks back to the past in its determination to enlighten and console. A few weak spots — a chirpily cockney Compass; the puzzling ease with which Jack vanquishes the Loser in his Lair; a celestial Island of the Beloved that sounds, and looks, like a bad ’50s travel ad — are unlikely to trouble young readers.
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