J. K. Rowling’s Stories – a New Website Launched part 3

This is the third and final part of my survey of the new J. K. Rowling’s Stories website and today we will be looking at the subpages beyond the main desktop. There are five navigation tabs at the top of the homepage: Book News; My Story; Harry Potter; The Ickabog and The Christmas Pig. Join me after the break to take a look at all these areas.

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J. K. Rowling’s Stories – a New Website Launched part 2

Yesterday I shared my observations from the Stories website noticeboard, today we will look at the rest of the desk and shelf area. So lets switch the desk lamp on (with a satisfying audible click) and join me after the break to take a look around.

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J. K. Rowling’s Stories – a New Website Launched part 1

 

J.K. Rowling has just released her first new website since the current one launched on 20th December 2016. The new site is aimed at children so doesn’t cover any of the Robert Galbraith novels or A Casual Vacancy and can be found at https://stories.jkrowling.com/.  The new location holds a few secrets (with possibly more to come). So join me after the jump to take a look at a few of them.

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Nick Jeffery: Beginning at the Beginning A History of ‘Ickabog’ and Christmas Pig

Rowling’s interview comments through the years about her work on a new children’s story just did not add up. She was working on it, finished it, wore it as a dress, had it hidden in the attic, working on it “the last six years,” and then the Covid Cinderella story about bringing it down from the attic… Cynical me, my response was a Cormoranian “Bullocks.” The Ickabog and it’s “all for charity” rollout were the perfect cure, from my view, of Rowling, Inc.’s nightmare of negative publicity consequent to her feminist resistance to transgender over reach.

Nick Jeffery, though, in private correspondence last year suggested to me that the seeming contradictions in Rowling’s Ickabog comments through the years all made sense if there was another children’s story in the works. I dismissed that possibility as stretching charity to fantasy. It turns out, of course, that ‘The Christmas Pig’ may be the story that Nick thought the evidence of Rowling’s testimony suggested had to be out there. In my post Tuesday about ‘The Christmas Pig’ I asked if he would write up his notes on the subject as a Guest Post and he has obliged me with this Guest Post review of the evidence. Enjoy!

Beginning at the Beginning

Origin stories are important. Hardly a newspaper article appeared about Harry Potter in the early years without mention of the penniless single mother writing in cafes. Once adopted, this hook so beloved of copywriters evolved beyond the reality and into writing on napkins and penniless morphed into homelessness.

The genesis of Harry, or at least proto-Harry has also passed into folklore with the boy wizard popping ‘fully formed’ into her head on a train between Manchester and London.

Casual Vacancy didn’t have a wonderful tale behind it. The idea for a vacancy on a parish council happened on an aircraft during a Harry Potter tour, but although the idea of rural local government gives the stories inside shape and purpose it can hardly be called the defining theme of the book. To my mind the vivid characters and charged situations point to personal experience long before Potter.

Robert Galbraith’s origin wrote itself, with anonymous submissions and secret meetings with editors and lawyers sworn to (unsuccessful) secrecy. The unmasking of Rowling by journalistic sleuthing, linguistic analysis and indiscreet lawyers only added to the drama.

In May 2020 J.K Rowling posted on her website an introduction to her new work “The Ickabog”. We don’t know when this introduction was written but it was posted on 26th May 2020. It gave a timeline of when the Ickabog was conceived, and when and how she finally decided to publish. This is the JKR official Ickabog origin story:

  • Read to own children when they were little.
  • Most of first draft completed between Potter Books, intending to publish after Deathly Hallows.
  • Break from publishing after Deathly Hallows.
  • Wrote Casual Vacancy and Cuckoo’s Calling. (5 years 2007 – 2012)
  • Dithering and Ickabog Trademarked, decided not to publish.
  • First Draft moved to attic for nearly a decade.
  • A few weeks ago (March – April 2020?) tentative idea to publish mooted to family.

The earliest mention I could find of the “Political Fairy Tale” is at 44:48 in the “A Year in the Life ” documentary filmed 2006-07 where it is described as currently being written and probably the next thing to publish.

But Beatrice Groves (see ‘The Names of the Ickabog’) and Patricio Tarantino at The Rowling Library both found this earlier reference in the January 2006 issue of the Tattler:

A new children’s book is also complete. It is about a monster and is what Rowling calls a ‘political fairy story’. It is aimed at children younger than those who read Harry Potter: ‘I haven’t even told my publisher about this.’”

Not long after this, during the US Deathly Hallows tour she said she had the first idea for Casual Vacancy.

What is known, then, or be safely assumed about The Ickabog’s origins?

  • If she read the Ickabog to her own children (and it is suitable to 7-9 year olds) then she read it to them from 2010 to 2014.
  • The story appeared on the “Lost Manuscript Dress” at her 50th birthday party in 2015.
  • 19th March 2016 Tweets “I didn’t like it enough to publish it. It’s in a drawer!” 
  • 10th July 2017 CNN interview, the Political Fairy-tale is now on a dress, she doesn’t know if she will publish.
  • 26th January 2020 Troubled Blood completed.
  • 13th May 2020 Tweets she is editing two things with two different editors. 
  • 22nd May 2020 first posts the “Dusty Box” as her twitter header.
  • 26th May 2020 announces Ickabog.

So far this (more or less) fits a coherent narrative.

  • 2007 Story narrative and structure complete
  • 2007 – 2012 first draft completed and committed to paper (perhaps minus the ending) read to own children.
  • 2012 in wake of Vacancy, Strike and Lumos pushed to back burner (the attic).
  • 2015 Pulled down from attic to make design for party dress.
  • 2017 Interviewer finally asks about the Fairy-tale, admits to dress.
  • 2020 COVID!

It was then, only last year, that we were presented with another wonderful story origin for the Ickabog – A tale told to her own children as they were growing up. A decision not to publish, but keep it only for her family, made into a dress and then stored in the attic. After suffering herself from COVID, and seeing families struggle with lockdown and home schooling, she decides to finish the tale, and serialise on-line for free.

The pages are retrieved from the attic, and lovingly illustrated by children from around the world. Another beautiful story to fit with the others.

The one piece that doesn’t fit this is a Q&A post from 30th May 2018 on her website:

I’ve just finished the fourth Galbraith novel, Lethal White, and I’m now writing the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts 3. After that I’ll be writing another book for children. I’ve been playing with the (non-Harry Potter/wizarding world) story for about six years, so it’s about time I get it down on paper.”

This story has been in development from 2012 – 2018, the very period when Rowling was abandoning the Ickabog. She has not (as of 2018) got this story on to paper, but we know in 2015 there was at least enough of the Ickabog to create a dress.

The Q&A post is still live on her website, and if wrong is an unforced error i.e. not in answer to an interviewer. 

If the above refers to the Ickabog then it calls into question, not just the timeline, but also calls into question her motives for releasing it when she did. 

My tentative conclusion last year was that this referred to another story, since delayed or abandoned due to difficulties in the Fantastic Beasts 3 script and Troubled Blood taking creative priority.

On the 13th April 2021 she finally announced ‘The Christmas Pig.’ We don’t know (yet) if this was the book she was developing between 2012-2018, but if it was then the origin story of ‘The Ickabog’ stands a little more secure.

 

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.