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.’


‘The Ickabog’ Structure: Three Notes

If you are like me, the better part of your day during the work week is stopping by to read the daily chapter of J. K. Rowling’s “political fairy tale.” Rowling’s twitter feed suggests a large proportion of the children in the world today are reading the story, too, and drawing Cornucopia maps and pictures of the various characters in their excitement about Bert and Daisy’s adventures (and hopes of winning a prize).

Katy McDaniel, host of MuggleNet’s ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcast invited me to join her this Tuesday morning along with special guests John Patrick Pazdziora and Lana Whited, experts not only on the Hogwarts Saga but also fairy tales and children’s literature, to talk ‘Ickabog.’ I have been scratching my head about what I will have to say in this company that isn’t obvious — “‘Beamish’! Oh, my! The boy who kills the Jabberwock! ‘My beamish boy’!” — or dull — “Note, please, the reference to Death of a Salesman in the chapter title ‘Death of a Seamstress’ and doesn’t ‘A Flaw in the Plan’ sound familiar somehow?”

I’ve decided to go all in on structure. For one thing, it’s unlikely the charting work has been done by somebody else already because story scaffolding and sequencing, not to say ‘chiasmus,’ isn’t something taught in most schools. And the slow drip of chapters method in which this story is being told doesn’t encourage an ‘overview’ perspective that pattern discovery requires. And it’s a story very much in progress, right? It’s hard to do more than guess the structure of a work when you don’t have the beginning and end latch to play with.

I’m going to begin with two reasonable guesses, namely, that Rowling will not tell this story in a way that is radically different than the way she has told all her other stories and that this means the story structure will have been carefully planned and will have features of what Mary Douglas called ‘ring composition.’ I’m not going to disregard, in other words, everything we’ve learned about how a Rowling story works structurally from the Hogwarts septology, the Casual Vacancy seven part novel, and the four Cormoran Strike novels in what seems to be despite Galbraith’s denials a seven book series.

Here, then, are my three introductory notes from the top of my head — and from too many hours charting the fifty chapters online at this writing. Let’s talk after the jump about the seven week structure, what it tells us about the story turn and likely ending, and the color coding of the chapters. [Read more…]

Rowling Blows Up Twitter Once Again; She Doubles Down on Sex and Gender

Read all about it here: J.K. Rowling slammed for defending concept of biological sex: ‘It isn’t hate to speak the truth.’

The short version: Rowling in a series of tweets has repeated and doubled-down on her #IStandWithMaya position from last December that it is not bigotry or hate-speech to insist that transgender women are not biological women.

The twitter-verse predictably has exploded with calls for her beheading mixed in with celebrations of her courage in speaking the truth.

I have three thoughts about what this means that I offer here in haste for your comment and correction:

(1) Another Rowling Vacation from Twitter? After the explosion in December about her insufficient woke-ness, Rowling disappeared for several months. She re-surfaced during the Covid-19 lockdown, it seems in retrospect in order to do what she could in the cause of “saving the NHS.” Her posts took the turn of hyper-political scolding with the Dominic Cummings controversy so perhaps it should be no surprise that the issue of transgender rights has resurfaced as well. Maybe this second doxxing and deep-dipping in the mercurial baths of social media will remind her why she left Twitter in the first place and why she should resume her silence.

(2) The End of the Goodwill Campaign? Rowling re-entered the social media world with a bang; she gave a million pounds sterling to two Covid-19 charities and created a website that is posting in daily chapters her political fairy tale, The Ickabog, all for free. Children everywhere have been reading it and creating drawings to accompany the eventual printed text. Rowling’s tweets the last two weeks have almost exclusively been in admiration of drawings sent to her by proud parents and excited children. If she leaves Twitter, of course, it will mean the end of that wonderful experience for author and illustrators alike.

(3) Goodbye, Fantastic Beasts? It’s hard to imagine Rowling being kept on in any front line capacity with her Newt Scamander film series. The Super Politically Correct actors involved, the ones playing Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) most obviously, however much they have revered Rowling in the past, will have a very hard time reconciling their public personae with Rowling’s statements about transgender women. Warner Brothers, frankly, might be just as pleased to have Rowling give them a novel to adapt rather than have her continue as screenwriter and executive producer.

If this situation leads to Rowling reverting to novelist and giving up the screen-writing, there will be no complaints from this corner.

What are your thoughts about what the latest twitter storm will mean for Rowling’s future as a writer? A gentle warning, in advance; I’m not interested in and will not approve any comments that discuss the transgender issue per se. Please share those opinions on the thousands of fan sites and twitter feeds devoted to that subject. 



Of Barred Owls, Poetry Projects, Postal Birds and Ickabogs: Pandemic Writing.

It’s been an eventful couple of months, to put it mildly. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted by semester, my summer travel plans (including my work with the Global Autism Project, now postponed to 2021) and may yet lead to other major changes in my life. But, as with every crisis, there are always silver linings. One, of course, is the online publication of J.K.Rowling’s fairy tale, The Ickabog. But, she’s not the only one using writing to make the pandemic a bit easier to bear. 

My university hosts an annual Doenges Scholar, who, this year, was Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera. Sadly, the pandemic cost the students the opportunity to work with Sr. Herrera in person, but, with the help of a Spanish and an English professor, the university held an online seminar during our three-week May Term. The major creative product of the class was a community poetry project, centered around what the class called CoVIDA, or “the life that emerges out of this COVID-19 moment.” The students did not limit the project to their own writing, but solicited poetry from the wider community, asking for writing about the themes of community, celebration, conocimiento (ancestral knowledge), resilience, and healing.  

I certainly encourage you to check out the full project at the link above.  However, since my contribution had a Harry Potter connection, I thought I would share it here. 

Who Cooks for You?
That wintry morning, the call we were expecting came. A barred owl stopped at my brother’s window, to ask Who cooks for you—and remind him of our father’s laughter, long silenced, now freed, to a place we couldn’t hear. So the owl passed the message along.   My father’s stories were of Reddy Fox and William Green Hill Jenny Wren and Polynesia, the birds of wisdom. The owls’ names were their calls: Too-too and Hooty. He never knew Hedwig, but he’d have liked her, Even though Mr. Lofting wrote of postal birds first. If he sent his son an owl, his daughter would understand, Oh, Sweet Bird.   Who cooks for you—a gift, as if someone is watching. Laughter and intellect, memory and magic linger in the woods, And continue in the stories.

More about the poem, and story connections, after the jump.

[Read more…]