Groves: The Rowling-Norton Interview

Oxford University’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, listened to the J. K. Rowling-Graham Norton interview today (you can listen to it here, courtesy of The Rowling Library). She sent this report for our ‘Day Of Event’ understanding of what The Presence revealed about The Ickabog and about herself. Enjoy!

J.K. Rowling was interviewed by Graham Norton again on BBC Radio 2 this morning (14 Nov 2020) to mark the release of The Ickabog.This is the first time she’s been on Norton’s show since her 2018 Lethal White interview (for my write-up see Beatrice Groves on Galbraith Meets Norton) as she marked the publication of Troubled Blood with a different Radio 2 event – Tracks of My Years  rather than an interview.

This interview was in two halves – with the first half being about The Ickabog and the second a session of ‘True or False’ about her life. We didn’t learn much new about The Ickabog although she did define what she means by a ‘fairy tale’ and what its difference from a fantasy tale might be:

I think a fairy tale takes place out of time… it’s a timeless story that probably takes place in an entirely imaginary kingdom, and I think we pleasurably leave reality. I think we all understand ‘Once upon a time’ – you’re going to a different space and the themes I think are often very timeless, and I certainly feel that about the Ickabog.

I was likewise pleased to hear that her collection of Jane Austen first editions is coming on apace, missing just Northanger Abbey and Emma. These first editions have been mentioned in passing by a previous interviewer, but this is the first time Rowling has spoken of them. Austen’s first editions reach eye-watering prices partly because of her passionate fanbase and Rowling’s collection is one mark of her deep love of Austen’s writing (something I wrote a chapter on in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter).

But the real discovery from this interview was about her ‘Solve et Coagula’ tattoo. This tattoo was spotted and deciphered by Nick Jeffery on 13 Dec 2019 (well done Nick!) and John Granger – the father of the study of Rowling’s alchemical artistry – immediately wrote up Nick Jeffery’s find:Solve et Coagula: What It Means.’ So we’ve known about this tattoo for a long time, but this is first time Rowling has spoken of it (other than to confirm that she did get a tattoo). Norton merely asked her if it is true or false that she has a tattoo on her right wrist, and what it might say, but Rowling chose to answer in some detail:

It says ‘Solve et Coagula’ and it’s in my own handwriting. I always wanted this and then I thought ‘no, you’re ridiculously too old to go and get a tattoo’ and then last year my sister said to me ‘what am I going to get you for Christmas? You’re so hard to buy for!’ (which I think is a fair point) and I said to her ‘get me a tattoo’ so we both went to a tattoo parlour and she paid for me to have my tattoo!… and it means ‘dissolve and coagulate’ and it’s really a link between my first and thirteenth books because it was the maxim of the alchemists, and the phrase actually appears in Troubled Blood and it has a couple of other more personal associations for me.

Earlier this year I wrote up this tattoo in three posts about Solve et Coagula (here, here, and here). These posts argue that Rowling’s choice to inscribe this alchemical motto on her writing wrist, in her own handwriting, shows how she links the idea of ‘Solve et Coagula’ with her own creativity. I was delighted, therefore, that she provided some further evidence of this idea today. Firstly, in the revelation that this tattoo was not a spur of the moment decision, nor the immediate result of research for Troubled Blood, but rather something she has ‘always wanted.’ Secondly in her statement that ‘it’s really a link between my first and thirteenth books.’ I love this loop – partly because it is a link between a Strike and a Harry Potter book, and partly for her sense of a circle in her writing that centres on alchemy.

It is noticeable that she calls Troubled Blood her thirteenth book. She used the same numbering when she spoke as a launch event for The Ickabog on 10th Nov (hat tip to The Rowling Library for putting this on youtube!) of that as her ‘fourteenth book’. It is clear, therefore, she uses ‘book’ in her own mind to mean ‘novel.’ Her fourteen books by this reckoning are the seven Harry Potter and five Strike novels, The Casual Vacancy and The Ickabog. In her own mind she is not including her three smaller Harry Potter spin-off works (Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Tales of Beedle the Bard) nor her two Fantastic Beast screenplays, nor the book-version of her speech (Very Good Lives) nor the co-authored script Cursed Child. One of the things that this means is that she thinks of Troubled Blood as her thirteenth book – which makes it a fitting choice for her most occult work.

In terms of the ‘personal associations’ Rowling mentions for ‘Solve et Coagula’ Norton, politely, does not delve. But it has an interesting link with what Rowling has said about suffering and healing in her own life and in the lives of her current heroes, Strike and Robin:

My honest answer is I think they’re both quite damaged people. Robin’s damage is very obvious. It’s been explicit since I think the third book. She’s been through something very traumatic. His trauma is also very obvious – he’s lost a leg – but he’s damaged emotionally, and you see in this book what his childhood was. It was a very odd and disrupted one. So my feeling is that they need to do a degree of healing before they – or he – is able to have a relationship of the kind I know a lot of readers would like them to have. [from the Billingham-Galbraith interview transcript and commentary at HogwartsProfessor]

Rowling is interested in ‘Solve et Coagula’ in personal terms, as well creative ones, and John has made a brilliant link between this alchemical idea and Strike’s life, and the healing that he undergoes in Troubled Blood.

‘Solve et Coagula’ appears for the first time in Rowling’s writing on one of the occult pages of Bill Talbot’s ‘True Book’ on which he has written ‘Solve et Coagula No resolution without BREAKING DOWN’ (Troubled Blood, 537). As with the alchemical original of the Snitch (which John mentions here and I wrote about here) the appearance of ‘Solve et Coagula’ in Troubled Blood is a nod to the alchemical context in which Rowling has always written [Listen to the Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcast on Alchemical Weddings for a review of that]. I think that Rowling’s choice to make her alchemical interests explicit – in her tattoo, on Pottermore, in Troubled Blood and in this interview – is a sign of the way in which she wishes her readers to notice the alchemical grounding of her creativity.

Reading, Writing, Rowling 44: Ickabog! John Granger’s Last MuggleNet Podcast

 

From Laurie Beckoff’s write-up at MuggleNet:

In this month’s episode, Katy and John talk with Harry Potter scholars John Pazdziora (University of Tokyo-Komaba) and Lana Whited (Ferrum College) about our first analyses of The Ickabog, which was released in installments from June to July 2020. The slow release has allowed fans of Harry Potter once again the delights of speculating about what will happen next, and we have captured that spirit in our conversation recorded after Chapter 51 was posted.

Lana Whited points out the connections with “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” while John Pazdziora shows how they fit within the French conte tradition that combined fairy tales with social criticism. Following both those traditions, The Ickabog lures the reader into a politically sharp and often violent tale. We discuss what the fairy tale theories of Bruno Bettelheim tell us about how children process gruesome stories. The third-person omniscient, even parental, voice of the narrator serves a purpose in talking readers through the difficult experiences of the Cornucopians.

And a whole lot more! This was one of my favorite conversations in my entire run as a LeakyMug podcaster, from the original ‘Potter Pundits’ segments at Leaky Cauldron with James Thomas and Travis Prinzi to the fifty plus MuggleNet Academia shows with Keith Hawk to being the guest-in-residence at Katherine McDaniel’s ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling,’ also at MuggleNet.

One of my favorite conversations — and it is also my last podcast at MuggleNet. I am leaving and will not be working with the “#1 Wizarding World Resource” until they retract both their in-house and public assertion that J. K. Rowling is a transphobe (and that as such The Presence represents a danger or is “committing harm” to fandom members) and their attempts to ‘cancel’ her. I left on good terms both with Professor McDaniel and Kat Miller, the MNet Creative and Marketing Director, no bridges burned, but it was time for us to acknowledge we disagree on essential matters and our relationship needed to change to reflect that disagreement.

The good news? Well, watch this space for an announcement of something new and exciting at HogwartsProfessor! Until then, enjoy this fascinating discussion about The Ickabog with John Patrrick Pazdziora and Lana Whited — yes, it’s dated (we didn’t know the ending!), but, believe me, this show will long be a reference point in Ickabog scholarship (and there are quite a few laughs wedged in with the “A ha!” moments).

Monuments in The Ickabog: Commentary on Today’s Headlines?

The fountain we destroyed tonight told a lie. We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and we are now reaping our reward.

-Albus Dumbledore, Order of the Phoenix, Ch 37.

The US concern with the removal of Confederate monuments has jumped across the pond, with statues of Edward Colston. Robert Baden-Powell, Robert Milligan and even Churchill destroyed, vandalized or targeted for removal in the United Kingdom. As a resident of Charlottesville, VA, a city still reeling over the violence of the Unite the Right rally three years ago, I have a particular interest in the campaigns to remove these statues, most of which were erected as acts of aggression against the Black community during the height of Jim Crow, not as efforts to preserve heritage or teach history. Whether the motivation behind the original erection of the British statues was similarly tainted, I can’t say, but J.K. Rowling is undoubtedly aware of the controversy.

I managed two correct predictions in The Ickabog, first that Bert and Daisy, described as like-siblings early on, would become true step-siblings when their widowed parents marry, and the second, that the statue of the fictional hero Nobby Buttons would be replaced with one of the genuinely heroic Ickabog, who dared to make peace with his enemies.  Rowling made masterful use of both good (the Potter Family Monument, which touched and encouraged Harry in one of his darkest moments) and bad (The Fountain of Magical Brethren, see above) monuments in Harry Potter.

Interestingly, Rowling chose to destroy the Fountain of Magical Brethren, but Nobby’s statue, arguably a worse example– an outright lie that helped deceive the nation of Cornucopia into complying with the unfair tax, and inspired more lies–including a fake girlfriend for the non-existent young hero, was instead relegated to a museum, along with other artifacts of the Dark Age of Spittleworth, so that citizens can remember and learn from their history. Granted, she had particular reasons for the Brethren’s demise: the decapitated wizard saved Harry, (and its head portkeyed him back to Hogwarts) the witch restrained Bellatrix, the centaur took a Killing Curse and the elf and goblin summoned help.  But, in the midst of her other recent Twitter controversies, Rowling found time to tweet out some special praise for young Ali, the artist who created this lovely illustration of the Nobby statue. Could the statue’s relegation to a museum–where the truth can be told, not to honor  person depicted (who, in this case, doesn’t actually exist) , but to explain why the deceptive statue was erected in the first place–be Rowling’s way of commenting about what she thinks should be done with controversial monuments today? If so, I’d like to hear more of that from her on social media, and less of other topics.

Of course, sometimes a little graffiti, whether on the Berlin Wall or a Confederate memorial, can add to the meaning.  I would be remiss, as an MBU prof, not to plug this children’s book written by one of our alums and her daughter, whose dancing at the Lee Monument in Richmond has been on of the iconic images of the current movement.

 

 

Week Seven of the Ickabog! Hurrah!

It’s a very exciting time here at HogwartsProfessor because the finale of Rowling’s so-called “political fairy tale,” The Ickabog, is bornded Monday to Friday this week. Here are links to the relevant sites and posts if you need to catch-up. I hope we can confine our discussion this week to the comment thread on this Week Seven post so nothing gets lost in the excitement and flood of twists and revelations we’ll be reading.

Where to Read the Story: If you haven’t read the chapters yet, you can find the first chapter here. If you’re up to speed, the latest chapters can be found here. Rowling’s introduction to the series and illustration contest? Click here.

The Ickabog Structure: The fairy tale turns out to be structured much like any other Rowling novel or series, which is to say it is a seven part ring composition. Read about that and Louise Freeman’s alchemical insights in the comment thread here.

The Ickabog Hermaphrodite: What a shock to learn that the ‘monster’ was not a monster — and not a he or a she but both! I speculate here that Rowling has deceived us about the genesis of this story release both because of its relevance to her current struggles with fandom and because of her signature theme of narrator as Silkworm.

Notes and Predictions: David Martin on Sunday gave us his menu of predictions with his notes about what certain things seem to mean in the story so far. The comment thread is a fun one not to be missed.

I hope it goes without saying that all the comments below, predictions and discussion, assume the reader either has read the chapters currently available or does not mind story spoilers. Please jump right into the conversation which begins with my thoughts about Monday’s chapters!

Guest Post: Ickabog Notes & Predictions

Written by David Martin on Sunday, July 5th, 2020, five days before the end of The Ickabog will be published.

A few comments about the Ickabog story so far:

When contemplating the venality and cruelty of the Cornucopian government, it may be well to remember that Rowling worked as a translator in the London office of Amnesty International for a while. She spoke of the nightmares that work gave her in her Very Good Lives address at Harvard.

Cornucopia seems to have the same level of technology as England in about 1800. The clock Bert watches while waiting for his mother to return has a minute hand. Cooking is done on stoves rather than in fireplaces. There is (or was at the start of the story) regular postal service in the kingdom. On the other hand, they are still using quills and all lighting is by candles and flaming torches. They don’t even have gas lights yet. Only Basher John has keys at the orphanage. Apparently Ma Gunther does not have duplicates. (Basher John, like Hagrid, is a “keeper of the keys.”) This suggests that metal working was not yet advanced enough to make duplicate keys common for locks.

The absence of newspapers strikes me as odd. There is also no mention of a town crier. How do people get the news?

One of JKR’s tricks is to not mention something, such as the name of Barty Crouch’s son. We are not told why Lady Eslanda is living in the castle. What is her backstory?

As in Harry Potter, the good guys read books (especially Lady Eslanda) and write letters. The bad guys seem to avoid reading and writing. Lord Spittleworth has a library, but it is dusty. Further, Lord Spittleworth seems to be in several ways at war with letters. He reads (censors) all the King’s mail and blocks the mail from outside Chouxville. Spittleworth and Flapoon rely a lot on messengers and face-to-face conversations, just as the Death Eaters did.

A lot of this story revolves around food. The towns are described in terms of what food they create. The names of the towns seem to link to food:

  • Chouxville: “Choux” is the French word for cabbage. (It is also used in the phrase “mon petit choux” as a term of endearment.)
  • Kurdsburg: Curds are the “soft, white substance formed when milk sours, used as the basis for cheese.” (Wikipedia)
  • Baronstown. I have no idea about what Baron has to do with meat. Any ideas?
  • Jeroboam. A “jeroboam” refers to either a 3-liter bottle of Champagne or Burgundy or a 4.5-liter bottle of Bordeaux. Biblically, Jeroboam was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel who ruled somewhere around 920 to 901 B.C. (Taken from https://www.winespectator.com/articles/how-did-jeroboam-wine-bottle-get-its-name-56204)
  • And of course, the name of the country itself – Cornucopia – suggests an abundance of food.

Ma Gunther’s orphanage is terrible in part because of the food. The children are half-starved when rescued by the Ickabog. Maybe expressing wealth and poverty as having or lacking food is just a way of making those two conditions more understandable to young children.

On the other hand, the name of the river – Fluma – is very close to the Portuguese word “fleuma” which means phlegm. Recalling chapter five of Prince, this would not be the first time Rowling has played with that word.

Thinking about possible fictional antecedents for the Ickabog’s situation of guarding its many offspring, two creatures come to mind:

Now some rash predictions or guesses about how the story will end:

  1. There will be a final battle in which Captain Goodfellow slays Lord Spittleworth.
  2. Lord Flapoon will not be killed. He, the Dark Footers, and Ma Gunther will be sent to the dungeons where they will have to live on cabbage soup.
  3. The money stolen by Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon will be recovered and used to rebuild the country.
  4. King Fred will be dethroned.
  5. Lady Eslanda will discover something important in the library – something old. Her discovery may show that King Fred is not the rightful king and/or that Cornucopia should have a different relationship with the Ickabog. Perhaps there was an ancient treaty?
  6. Several couples will live happily ever after:
  • Lady Eslanda and Captain Goodfellow.
  • Bertha Beamish and Dan Dovetail.
  • Daisy Dovetail and Bert Beamish.
  • Martha (whose last name we’ve never been told) and Roderick Roach. (Maybe)
  1. The Ickabog will be given the right to live in peace in the Marshlands, to collect or cultivate mushrooms.

I look forward to seeing in just a few days how Rowling will, in all likelihood, surprise all of us again with an unforeseen revelation at the end of the story.

  • David Martin of Hufflepuff

Please Share Your Predictions for the Coming Week in the Comment Boxes!