I know there are people who don’t believe in coincidences. I wouldn’t say that I’m one of them, but it was with no small measure of suspicion that I regarded the confluence of events this past October 6th. At a glance, it was just the first Tuesday in October, nothing special. Except two books were publishing that day: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, and the new edition of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, illustrated by Jim Kay.
Still with me?
Well, for those of you who aren’t, it’s not just that Rowling and Rowell have eerily similar-sounding names (although, come on). Carry On is a story about a boy, Simon Snow, in his eighth and last year at a magic school. Simon is an orphan and a magician . . . and Chosen, prophesied to defeat a mysterious evil being. Sound familiar? It should. Simon Snow isn’t Harry Potter, but you can bet he wouldn’t exist in the world without him.
It’s a Chosen One narrative in a post-Potter world,
smartly tackling many of the charges that have
been leveled at J. K. Rowling over the years.
Rowell’s last YA novel, Fangirl (2013), was hailed as a love letter to fandom, focusing on a college freshman who spends much of her spare time writing an epic, magical love story—fan fiction, that is—about her favorite book characters: Simon Snow, of course, and his roommate-turned-nemesis-turned-love-interest, Baz. In that story, Simon and Baz were more or less stand-in characters, representative of the Harry Potter phenomenon, never intended for anything greater. But Rowell, it seems, was unable to let them go, returning to flesh them out in their own novel that is partly a Harry Potter parody, partly another tribute to fandom, and partly a serious fantasy/romance. . . and in the end, it becomes something all its own.
In a 2011 article for Time called “How Harry Potter became the Boy Who Lived Forever,” author Lev Grossman writes:
“Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker . . . They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”
Which is not to say that fanfiction is anything new. After all, what are so many of our novels today, if not basically fanfics of fairy tales and a variety of literature that just now happen to be in the public domain? (Here’s looking at you, Shakespeare.) But if Carry On communicates with the culture of Harry Potter, as Grossman might say, it is not Harry Potter fanfiction, strictly speaking. Rather, it’s a cultural homage, a tip of the hat to a valued story and a deeply entrenched community. But it’s also a criticism of that genre—critical in a way that only a person who really loves the thing can be. It’s a Chosen One narrative in a post-Potter world, smartly tackling many of the charges that have been leveled at J. K. Rowling over the years: not enough diversity, not enough representation, too good-versus-evil. Rowell preserves many of the things that made Harry Potter so overwhelmingly beloved while pointedly taking a step in a more socially conscious direction.
Unlike Rowling, who had no idea the enormous levels of success Harry would achieve, Rowell is fully aware of the sensationalized world she’s entering. It works, first of all, because she herself is a fan of Harry Potter; critical as Carry On may be, it never mocks or belittles its parent text. And it also works because, though she may borrow feelings and tropes, Rowell is herself a master at characterization. Simon is a Chosen One, but he’s very much Simon, not Harry. He has a magical mentor in the Mage, who is also the head of his school, but in addition to being a father figure, the Mage is also ambitious, often heedless, and obsessed with the greater good, bringing into the foreground some of the biggest criticisms against Dumbledore.
And then there’s Agatha (I have glorious amounts of appreciation for Agatha as a character), the beautiful girl from a good family, who, when all is said and done, has little interest in magic or in fighting for a cause, and even less in being the girl who waits at home for the hero (“That’s not my happy anything”). And those are only the secondary characters. Of course, too, this is a Rainbow Rowell story, so the romance is to die for—sweet and earnest without being saccharine, desperate without being angsty, and just enough off to the side that it doesn’t overwhelm the story or the characters. And it’s notable, too, that Simon and Baz are both boys, and that this relationship succeeds in a high-fantasy novel, a genre that is, by and large, dominated by heterosexual romances.
Very slight spoilers ahead, for those of you who
haven’t read it six times yet, like I have.
There is something about this narrative—the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, the Hero’s Journey, this placement of exquisitely human feelings in a magical world—that speaks to us. That’s why, almost 10 years after the publication of the last Harry Potter book, the interest hasn’t died out: Harry still makes news headlines regularly, films in his universe are enthusiastically greenlit, fan fiction websites in every corner of the internet add new stories every day. And authors like Rowell, who have read it and loved it like the rest of us, now take to the page with their own iterations, ready to tackle a changing genre where Harry Potter, always more than just a passing fancy, has had a significant impact.
At the end of Carry On (very slight spoilers ahead, for those of you who haven’t read it six times yet, like I have), Simon laments that, if he’s not the Chosen One, he doesn’t know who he is, and, fiercely, Baz corrects him: “I choose you,” he says. Perhaps that’s the real magic of this story, and of Harry, and of hero narratives in general: that, whether writing or reading it, year after year, generation after generation, we continue to choose it. Whatever the logic behind that choice, if there even is any, surely it is no coincidence.