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Reading Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Carry On’ as a ‘Harry Potter’ fan
‘Carry On’ is a gorgeous original novel. But it’s also Harry/Draco slash fanfic. And that’s important.
Those were my fifth-year fantasies: kisses and blood and Snow ridding the world of me.
A couple of years ago, I exchanged emails with Rainbow Rowell, the author of the recently released Young Adult novel Carry On. I desperately wanted to interview her because I was a fandom reporter, and her book, Fangirl, was quietly revolutionizing the publishing world’s view of fandom. It had spoken to everyone I knew; my new roommate and I had bonded over it when we moved in together. But, as I told Rowell then, I’d had serious trouble getting through it because it was almost too much; I cared too much about its subject, because in many ways I was its subject.
Fangirl was about a young, introverted female writer who writes fanfiction—not just fanfiction, slash. Other fictional treatments of fandom in the past, especially in YA literature, have tended to portray fannish obsession as a hindrance to real life rather than an aid. And slash tends to appear in the media and mainstream to accompanying derision, eyerolls, and incorrect assumptions. Often the media uses “slash” interchangeably to mean “all that awful fanfic porn” instead of what it actually is: queer fanfic written about two male characters who are, in their original texts, presented as straight men.
Queering “straight” characters remains a controversial practice—slash fans have been doing it with various degrees of internalized secrecy in shame for decades. And though the past decade has seen the gradual mainstreaming of fandom and the reclaiming of words like “fangirl” and “fanfiction” as the empowering terms they are, slash is still a taboo, still largely misunderstood and derided.
But Fangirl reflected the experiences of millions of girls and women who have found that writing slash is an important and subversive way of exploring personal identity (particularly queer identity) and critiquing our favorite stories. Moreover, engaging in fandom is a revolutionary, empowering act that teaches us many of the skills for success—career networking, using and building all kinds of technology, working on deadlines, editing, to name just a few—that we would never be able to find elsewhere, least of all in such a similarly supportive environment. Fangirl acknowledged all of these things, and in the process presented writing fanfiction and writing slash as a totally legitimate hobby.
More than just being about fandom, though, Fangirl was about my fandom: the Harry Potter fandom. The fictional fantasy series her heroine Cath wrote about wasn’t even really a veiled stand-in for Harry Potter. The in-jokes were our fandom in-jokes. The Internet communities were our Internet communities. And the main ship that Cath shipped, her OTP Simon Snow and his probably-evil nemesis Baz, was my ship: Harry/Draco.
I spent four years intensely shipping Harry/Draco: I threw myself into writing and reading H/D fanfics, organizing fandom communities, projects, and fic challenges, befriending other fans and discussing canon with a passionate intensity. I wasn’t alone: 14 years after I read my first H/D fanfic, Harry/Draco is still one of the most popular pairings in slash-centric fandom.
But I wasn’t there just for the ship. Like many, many fans, I used my understanding of the pairing I wrote about to deepen my understanding of the series. What would it mean if the Chosen One of the wizarding world fell in love with one of his biggest enemies? What would it say about the themes of the series, about Harry and Draco’s misconceptions about themselves, if they were able to find common ground and even affection? What would it say about the wizarding world itself?
Once, in 2003, I was part of a letter-writing project that a friend organized where fans sent letters in a beautiful package directly to JKR. I went to a local restaurant and sat for hours, tearfully crafting a six-page handwritten letter to tell Jo how much I loved Draco Malfoy, and to beg her not to simply shoehorn him into the role of unidimensional villain: She had to give him a choice. Even if he ultimately chose the wrong path, the Draco Malfoy she’d written in canon wasn’t evil. He was still just a kid, and still worthy of saving, even if he’d been placed in what seemed to be the default “evil” house in Hogwarts. I wrote about Sorting Hats and Nazi allegories and the book’s deepening moral ambiguities. I wrote about love and redemption.
In the end, Rowling got the letters and wrote us all a nice thank you note in response. I never got a direct answer to my letter, but it didn’t matter, because fandom was already full of people giving Draco those choices; in Book 6 of the series, Rowling finally caught up to the rest of us.
To say that the Harry/Draco fandom impacted me profoundly would be an understatement: It arguably changed my life and put me on the path that led me to this moment where, once again, I’m writing about Harry/Draco fanfiction—Rainbow Rowell’s, to be specific.
Somewhere along the line, Rowell joined the Harry/Draco fandom and became one of those passionate, obsessed shippers, just like me. Now, years later, she’s given us Carry On.
Carry On is a single-novel version of the fictional series about Simon Snow that Rainbow first wrote about in Fangirl—that is, it’s a standalone fantasy novel about a powerful magician, a prophesied “chosen one” named Simon Snow, and his relationship with his roommate Baz (whom Simon is convinced is evil) at their magical British boarding school. It’s basically an amalgam of the fictional fantasy series Cath wrote fanfiction about, and the fanfic she wrote about it.
In other words, it’s a wholly original fantasy novel. It’s also entirely a work of Harry/Draco slash. I can’t extricate my reading of Carry On from my awareness of Harry/Draco fanfic any more than I can extract my identity from my history as a Harry Potter fan.
Fortunately, I don’t think Rowell wants me to.
Carry On isn’t just fanfiction; rather, fanfiction itself is never just fanfiction. This is the thing that we who write fanfiction have so much trouble getting across to people unfamiliar with the medium. Carry On contain’s Rowell’s own original work, her own branching-off into something new—new characterizations, character dynamics, ways of thinking about the tropes that started with Rowling, and takes on magic and worldbuilding. It’s absolutely fanfiction, but it’s also something entirely her own. This is what we mean when we call fanfiction transformative work.
Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.
And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.
All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.
But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).
In Rowell’s universe, magical spells are cast through appropriating common phrases, including words in all languages. Here’s Carry On‘s description of the way language fuels magic.
Magic words are tricky. Sometimes to reveal something hidden, you have to use the language of the time it was stashed away. And sometimes an old phrase stops working when the rest of the world is sick of saying it…
Words are very powerful…and they become more powerful the more that they’re said and read and written, in specific, consistent combinations.
This isn’t just a response to Harry Potter’s code-filled Latin-based wizard language. It’s a direct rebuttal of it. Rowling’s magical system enforces a rigid, humorously anachronistic society where almost nothing technological exists and culture has basically stayed unchanged for centuries. Magic seems to derive from classical and medieval societies and expand outward from the patriarchal European heart of the world.
Rowell’s magical system, by contrast, leaves dead languages to die and celebrates new language, multiculturalism, evolving technology, and evolving understandings of what it means to be human. Penelope, her amalgamated version of Ron and Hermione, has a long-distance American boyfriend who teaches her how to cast spells in Spanish. This school’s headmaster, the Mage, still has protective wards around his office—but he also has a cellphone and a Range Rover. When they need to do research, Simon and Penelope go to the library, but they also use Google.
This magical system underlies everything that Carry On is. It’s not just a response to Rowling but an attempt to write the “wizarding boarding school chosen one” narrative of our era. Simon’s world is broken and dysfunctional, faced with the possibility of losing all its magic thanks to the appearance over the last two decades of great “holes” in the power resources that magicians tap into. As the situation grows grimmer, reactionary families find themselves subject to government spying and harassment.
If that sounds like an allegory for environmental depletion, oil dependency, and government privacy invasions, it should: Bas and Simon were born in 1997, the same year the first Harry Potter book was published. They’re millennials, with all the same anxieties of the current generation and all the pop-culture savvy of kids who grew up with Pokémon and YouTube.
These are not Rowling’s wizards. They’re not the same teens who will inevitably go on to form tidy heteronormative nuclear families and replicate the same divisive patterns of behavior as previous generations of their families before them. These teens drop out before graduation. These teens visit other parts of the world. These teens struggle with their sexuality, with racism, with unhealthy relationships, with climate change, with their career choices, with the choices their parents made.
Carry On is the 21st century, post-9/11, post-climate change, post-NSA millennial-era social justice warrior response to Harry Potter and the centuries of fantasy tropes that informed it. It restores visibility and agency to characters (and absent characters) whose voices these tropes erased. It examines the ideas Rowling and her predecessors put in place, then knocks them over like a kid examining an old, faulty structure of building blocks. Like Lev Grossman’s celebrated book The Magicians, another thinly veiled Harry Potter fic, it reveals its reverence for the original material by constructing something completely new over the rubble of what was.
The rubble in this case is the bones of Harry Potter; but what Rowell builds from that is something intricately lovely and almost painfully aware: a narrative in which the developing queer relationship between two male characters may actually be the thing that saves the world.
Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.
In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.
But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.
In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?
As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.
It’s also a dictum from Rowell to all of us who push for more complex, realistic narratives in the stories we tell and consume:
Photo via rainbowrowell/Twitter
Aja Romano is a geek culture reporter and fandom expert. Their reporting at the Daily Dot covered everything from Harry Potter and anime to Tumblr and Gamergate. Romano joined Vox as a staff reporter in 2016.