We enter The Unwritten (2009–) through a secondary text: the first page of the comic is a scene from a fictional novel. Text overlays image as though the page behind the words has faded away, leaving only the scene envisaged in the (implied) reader’s mind. When we reach the diegetic world—the real world as depicted in the comic—we are confronted with a palimpsest of fiction as fictional worlds overlay fictional worlds, and characters overwrite both their fictional predecessors and extra-diegetic counterparts.
Series protagonist Tom Taylor is named for the main character in his father’s popular fantasy novels; for his part, the boy wizard Tommy Taylor is identified within the series as an analogue for Harry Potter. Even at the production level, Tommy is a palimpsest—artist Peter Gross had previously inked the bespectacled wizard Timothy Hunter in issues #1–3 of The Books of Magic, and pencilled issues #4–75. In drawing Tommy, Gross is thus redrawing his archetype:
Compounding this sense of being several layers removed from reality, we watch Tom navigate London solely by reference to popular books. Walking through London’s Bloomsbury district, he offhandedly gestures towards both the Senate House Library, where Orwell set 1984’s Room 101, and Coram’s Fields, the location of the foundling hospital from Dickens’s No Thoroughfare. Tom’s is a mediated reality: if he believes that his world exists, it is only because he can recognise it through the fictional world of a story. Any single location in the diegetic world is only a signifier for one or more anchoring fictional referents.
Brian Boyd (2009) writes of narrative that it “requires our unique capacity for meta-representations: not only to make and understand representations, but also to understand them as representations” (129). Fiction, for writer Mike Carey and Boyd both, is cognitive play with information-rich patterns of representation, in order to teach what Carey calls “life skills.” These patterns manifest as stories, and pattern recognition manifests as allusion. Thus, Tom’s capacity for geographical meta-representation allows him to feign familiarity with the diegetic world, even in the absence of an index or map. A note “from the desk of [Tom’s father] Wilson Taylor” reads “We’re all living in Plato’s cave, and we’ve papered the walls with fictions” (The Unwritten #5).
Tom’s method of navigating and negotiating his reality, then, is mediated by his identification of these papered fictions and their relative placement. Wilson Taylor understands stories as representation, but his apparent intention is to turn representation towards a teleological end-goal. He concludes that “[T]o use [stories] you have to stand outside them. [...] If I want a Messiah, I’ll have to make one myself” (The Unwritten #5).
The narrative of The Unwritten relies upon locus points in the diegetic world that intersect with fictional locations in popular texts. The series, however, is no mere exercise in quantifying literary geography and traversing various texts; its narrative relates a continually deferred quest for those loci where multiple stories interconnect with each other and the diegetic world—those places where, Carey suggests, a dialogue between these texts may commence.
This sought-after confabulation would surpass the one–to–one ratio of text–to–location offered by literary geography, instead focusing the imaginative power of multiple texts onto a single node. The series’ even-handed treatment of horizontal intertextuality enacts this conceit—that stories are porous and interpenetrating, that the so-called “seals” between separate fictions are necessarily imperfect, and that an inevitable textual convergence centred around a single location or personage will engender abstract knowledge and authorial power.
Applying a diluted Platonic idealism to scientific typologies of the world, Jacques Monod (1970) proposes that an “abstract kingdom” of ideas exists above the biosphere, just as the biosphere stands above nonliving matter. He writes, “[i]deas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas[….] [T]hey also interact with the external surroundings” and have “spreading power” (166). Monod concludes his precursor to memetics by stating that “the ideas having the highest invading potential are those that explain man by assigning him his place in an immanent destiny, a safe harbour where his anxiety dissolves” (166). Carey’s anxious protagonist Tom Taylor initially lacks such a destiny: he claims his only familial legacy is his knowledge of literary geography.
Together, Tom’s single skill and the in-text acknowledgement of his father’s sources for the Tommy Taylor novels—both the Harry Potter and The Books of Magic series, as well as Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, all presented to the reader as common knowledge in an overheard aside—foreground Carey’s preoccupation with allusion and the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the ideal. The latter confusion is ameliorated when Tom comes into possession of a copy of the Waldseemüller map, described as “a vision of the world that actually changed the world” (The Unwritten #20).
Created in 1507, the map is an imperfect palimpsest of ideas, reconciling several historical and contemporary views of the world. Tom’s copy purports to correlate common locations of fictional settings—locus points in the diegetic world where the boundaries between fictions and reality merge. A diary entry provokes further questions of abstraction and metarepresentation: “If the story becomes reality, does the map become the place?” (The Unwritten#5).
If it does not become the place, this palimpsest-map certainly functions both as a guide to the abstract realm of ideas and a teleonomic marker for Tom. A cryptic note placed on the map near Stuttgart reads “Jud Süss. Too late to save” (The Unwritten #10).
The Jud Süss episode is Carey’s first confirmation that ideas in The Unwritten have an existence independent of their representation within the series. Carey and Gross portray the Platonic representation of Jud Süss as a concatenation of both Wilhelm Hauff’s 1827 novella and its 1940 adaptation as a Nazi propaganda film; it is an unstable “canker” hanging in the white void of the abstract realm, devoid of colour and life. The realm of ideas itself is portrayed as a desaturated void outside of time, space, and the constraints of panel borders. Any lingering images or phrases from the novella are disfigured by swirling images from the film; an unfaithful adaptation has turned the ideal source into a maelstrom. Later in the series, Carey is more explicit about the power of an idea: we are made aware that “For-real-true is only true now. Story-true is true forever” (The Unwritten #20).
Monod argues that pure chance determined the origin of biological life and precludes its final causality. The Waldseemüller map guides Tom towards what Monod would call his immanent destiny in the fluid setting of the fictional ocean, and Tom’s discovery of “the source”—the power of the masses symbolized in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan as a whale—implies that this power collects for a purpose. In sequential panels, Tom realises that “You need leverage to move worlds” and that “I exist in the suspension of your disbelief” (The Unwritten #23). Tom becomes a vector lacking direction, having achieved what Monod terms teleonomy: programmatic capacity or purpose without recourse to telos.
As opposed to the land-bound loci Tom recognises, where literary history is static, if proximate, at sea, the boundary between fictions and the diegetic world is thinner and more permeable. Sea narratives are commonly set in the midst of an ocean that could be anywhere in the world. While the ocean functions as a place of change, it remains a setting without recognisable borders, and without language save that which is applied to it at the moment of a story’s creation. By virtue of the story becoming reality, the new work is linked with the diegetic world and with all preceding works. Thus, texts set in the ocean—linked in what T. S. Eliot (1920) calls “an ideal order” (41) by their homologous setting—are more likely to converge than their land-bound counterparts.
Pulled into the narrative of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Tom finds himself playing the role of Bulkington, the “demigod” seeker of a “mortally intolerable truth” (97-8). Tom’s failure to conform to the narrative results in the story pausing at an equilibrium point, just as Ishmael looks up towards Bulkington/Tom. Bulkington’s apotheosis does not yet eventuate for Tom, but the fiction’s porous border is ruptured, along with the borders of other stories whose fictional geographies place them ‘close’ to Moby Dick.
Intertextuality in The Unwritten is a process subject to collapse or compression, as fictional worlds or characters leak into the diegetic world. However, it is only upon such a collapse, or the potentially corrupting effects of adaptation, that the realm of ideas is physically accessible. Such accession suggests a troublingly literal interpretation of Platonic idealism—the world of forms is no longer abstracted, but may be open to manipulation in the form of unfaithful adaptation or a popular misreading of a text. For Carey, a misreading is any (re)interpretation of a text that does not align with the text’s original popular reception.
As Rudyard Kipling discovers to his horror, authorial intent counts for little, particularly if it contradicts a national or imperial narrative (The Unwritten #5). Wilson Taylor’s relative success in establishing Tom as a messianic figure was only possible because of the worldwide popularity of the Tommy Taylor series, not to mention his readers’ capacity for metarepresentation in conflating Tommy and Tom.
The series remains determinedly unclear, however, as to whether the first instance of a text’s creation results in the instantiation of its source in the abstract realm, or whether, true to Plato, such a ideal form exists independent to the text’s creation, and may only be accessed upon the text’s appearance in the diegetic world. Further, Carey offers no explanation of the precise mechanism by which Tom accesses the abstract realm, beyond his use of a synecdochal crystal door knob.
Nevertheless, antagonistic misreadings such as that of Hauff’s Jud Süss threaten the abstract realm standing above the real. If a new work draws upon the same Platonic source as another, but significantly alters the manner in which the source engages with the world, the resulting conflict disrupts Eliot’s ideal order and corrupts the abstract realm. A more recent issue shows this corruption spreading beyond the abstract realm and infecting the diegetic world: Tom Taylor’s newly acquired magical abilities—accessed through the collective unconsciousness’ belief in the Tommy Taylor series—are impaired by cacophonous misreadings of the books from which his power is drawn (The Unwritten #32).
As Carey draws upon and overwrites established texts in The Unwritten, it appears to be a conscious decision that his treatment is in keeping with the spirit of the source texts, if not their authors’ intent. In The Unwritten, a created textual world is revitalised and its truth reaffirmed upon every reading, every retelling, and every adaptation—so long as it is faithful to the scriptio inferior. “Story-true”, as we are told, “is true forever” (The Unwritten #20).
Boyd, B. (2009) On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press)
Carey, M. (w), Gross, P. (p). (2010) The Unwritten Volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity (New York: Vertigo) [Collects issues 1–5.]
Carey and Gross (2010) The Unwritten Volume 2: Inside Man (New York: Vertigo) [Collects issues 6–12.]
Carey and Gross (2011) The Unwritten Volume 4: Leviathan (New York: Vertigo) [Collects issues 19–24.]
Carey and Gross (2011) The Unwritten #32 (New York: Vertigo)
Gross, P. (2005) Sketch of Timothy Hunter, Accessed from http://thehappysorceress.tumblr.com/post/29852341258/tim-hunter-by-peter-gross-magic-monday, 29 November 2012. [Original source unknown.]
Eliot, T. S. (1920, 1997: 39–49) “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Faber & Faber)
Melville, Herman (1851, 1967) Moby Dick (New York: W. W. Norton & Company)
Monod, Jacques (1970, 1971) Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Vintage)