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
  • 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!

‘The Song of the Ickabog’ — Three Notes

My, oh my! What a chapter!

(1) It’s a Stand-Alone: I made a big deal in the post about the structure of the story about there being only one stand-alone chapter in the fairy tale, week 2’s ‘The Journey North,’ and that, if the tale is a ring we should see another stand-alone in week 6 for the turtle-back echoing. We got that on Monday morning with chapter 51, ‘Inside the Cave.’ And now we have another, ‘The Ickabog’s Song,’ chapter 54. That could mean the stand-alone chapter link between week’s 2 and 6 is especially important or not important at all, i.e., that there is nothing intentional or meaningful in the number of chapters released each day. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

(2) The Heart of the Albedo: Louise Freeman suggested in the structure post comment thread that if this story was built on the alchemical model we see in Harry Potter‘s seven step transformation, then week 5 would correspond with Order of the Phoenix and be the story’s nigredo or Black stage. This would make week 6’s chapters the albedo or White stage, the step of ablution, revelation, and preparation for the rubedo or Red stage. Certainly the experiences in the Cave thus far have been revelations to the four teenagers, none as great as learning as they do in the song that the Ickabog is a survivor of a primordial race that was hunted to near extinction by human beings who were born (Bornded) from them.

There is an important echo of a previous chapter, though, that really nails down the albedo quality of this scene. Daisy recalls the events of chapter 37, immediately after the story turn in chapter 36 in week 4, ‘Daisy and the Moon.’ She tells the Ickabog:

‘I think people need hope nearly as much as Ickabogs do. But,’ she said, placing her hand over her heart, ‘my mother and father are both still in here, and they always will be. So when you eat me, Ickabog, eat my heart last. I’d like to keep my parents alive as long as I can.’

The heart is traditionally a symbol of the human spiritual aspect, their transpersonal faculty continuous with the fabric of reality, call it ‘conscience,’ that is, our ‘shared knowing,’ or ‘love,’ our union without elision in another. Post Coleridge it is the point of English High Fantasy; in this tale the contrast is between King Fred who has an atrophied conscience that his conceit overwhelms and silences and Daisy who has put all of herself and her self-understanding into her heart. She does not begrudge the Ickabog’s ‘right’ to kill and eat her; she only asks that the monster treat that which is most precious, her heart, differently than the rest of her. Which, of course, touches the Ickabog’s heart, hence the “sniff.”

The Ickabog has told Daisy the founding myth or great metanarrative of all Ickabogs. She has revealed to the Ickabog the point of all story and narrative, the elevation and preservation of the heart. Rowling, as is her wont, is telling stories within her story about the telling of story and why story is so meaningful. ‘The Ickabog’ is a “political fairy tale” certainly with a, forgive me, fairly predictable set of good guys and bad guys out of the stock players portfolio for Fractured Fairy Tales. I suspect, as with Harry Potter, its more important message is less the “truth to power” cliches of the postmodern political allegory, even the Carnival message we are sure to see when the children overthrow Spittleworth and Flapoon, than it is the alchemical and spiritual experience, the anagogical story about story within the story, embedded beneath the obvious. We read with our hearts rather than our individual rational capacities and the message for the attentive heart is the take-away.

(3) Hermaphrodite: The Ickabog reveals to Daisy that its kind do not reproduce sexually but within themselves and that when they give birth, the Bornding, they expire. The ‘monster,’ in other words is not ‘he’ or ‘she’ but both, a resolution of contraries in Plato’s Cave suggestive of Plato’s Symposium. There’s a lot to unpack here but the first point I want to suggest is that Rowling has perhaps been lying to us about the story’s genesis. What we’ve been told is that she told this story to her then very young children in her second marriage and that she pulled it out of the drawer as a gift to the children of the world during the coronavirus panic of 2020.

Color me skeptical.

First, there is the involved artistry of the seven weeks of chapters with its ring structure and alchemical sequences. I admire Rowling’s creative genius no end. Forgive me for doubting she put so much into this while writing the final Harry Potter novel and did so just to create an entertaining story for her kids at bedtime — and then left it in a drawer for more than a decade a la Newton’s discovery of the calculus during his retreat from the plague in London.

Last, the context of the story’s release is obviously not just the covid-19 hysteria that whelmed western democracies this year. Children weren’t crying out for consolation from J. K. Rowling, however much fun thousands have had drawing pictures for the eventual print edition (and to get a “I love it!” shout-out from the Presence on twitter). The much more obvious and personal context of ‘The Ickabog’s publication is Rowling’s transgender nightmare. That the central and title figure of the story is a misunderstood hermaphrodite monster-not-a-monster suggests that Rowling is writing again, as she has more than once in the Cormoran Strike mysteries, about the nature of transgender identity in human beings per se, a metaphor if you will for self-transcendence, living beyond the world of polarities in the heart.

I suggest for your consideration that this “political fairy tale” is not primarily a political allegory describing the abuse of power by those in government but a spiritual alembic for the fostering of our ego-transcending life in the heart. And that Rowling has written and published this as she has when she has as her subtle but profound defense of her positions on the protection of women from the over-reach of transgender activists.

The genesis of all the world’s troubles according to the Ickabog’s song is hatred born of bitterness and the exclusion of the ‘other’ from community (the exile of the Bitterness Ickabog). Our hope for a better world is not more hate and bitterness but hope and understanding born in our hearts. If only we can, as Rowling said at Harvard, “imagine better”! Spurred by Daisy’s request, I think the Ickabog is already re-examining his metanarrative of bitterness and death and beginning to listen to its heart; if there is a take-away moral to this fairy tale, it is much more likely to be this than the postmodern political messaging in parallel with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’