J. K. Rowling — and Tropical Fish?

A lot of biographical detail that we have about Rowling is very helpful for grasping her work. See the Christmas Pig posts on how her ‘Good Mom, ‘Bad Dad,’ and ‘Peter John‘ tropes derive from The Presence’s reflections on and putting to brilliant use several of her personal psychological crises.

Quite a bit of Rowling Trivia, on the other hand, is, well, trivial, which is to say, of little to no value for the Serious Reader. I think of her not being able to drive a car as an excellent ‘for instance’ of this sort of information. Other than speculation that Robin is the kind of person Rowling wishes she had been — tall, for one, schooled in psychology, two, and a great driver to boot? — I don’t see how knowing that Rowling doesn’t drive adds to her understanding of her artistry and meaning.

Tropical fish, though, and Rowling’s love for them — that might be something a little more useful.

In an interview she gave in 2000 she explained that she was not very good at many things, but taking care of tropical fish was one of them:

Evan Solomon: Did you think you had talent?

JK: Well I hoped I had. It was a real relief to find…I suspected there was one thing that I could do ok, and it was write.

E: Are you good at anything else?

JK: No. No, I’m embarrassingly bad at most other things, I think. Very disorganized person. I was hell in offices. I was good at teaching English as a foreign language. I loved doing that. I think I was ok at that. I’m good at keeping tropical fish. Can’t think of much else, actually, I really can’t.

Then in a 2016 review of a 1983 music album, she shared this:

They could easily have been part of the informal seminars on alternative music I received from the muso I dated in my late teens. His parents were Dutch and we hung out mostly at his house, because we were allowed to smoke in his attic bedroom. I’ve got happy memories of sunlit wooden rafters and smoke rings and walls covered in black and white pictures he’d clipped out of NME, while the Dead Kennedys, Jah Wobble or the Birthday Party blasted out of the speakers. Setting aside the fact that I had a pair of very long-lived goldfish named after Guggi and Gavin of the Virgin Prunes, I never became a whole-hearted convert of his favourite bands. Much as I adored him, I didn’t share Muso Boyfriend’s attitude to music: his scorn for the accessible and tuneful, the baffling mixture of irony and obsession with which he regarded his favourites, and his conviction that if the herd hates something, it’s almost certainly brilliant.

So what? She told Eddie Redmayne a year later that her conception of the Occamy’s capacity to grow to the size of its container sprang from her belief that this was true of goldfish. Per Marc Snetiker of Entertainment Weekly in 2017:

Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious, Rowling explains how she was essentially backed into a corner to coin [the word ‘Choranaptyxic’] after creating the occamy, having hilariously based the animal’s trait of shrinking-‘til-satisfaction on an innocent piece of playground misinformation passed on to her in her youth. (I feel the need to stand up for Rowling here and admit that I frequently heard this goldfish legend, too, and am frankly shocked to learn it’s not true. I hate nature.)

Maybe that doesn’t answer your ‘So What?’ question about Rowling and tropical fish. Let me explain.

Rowling is anything but an Ockhamite, which is to say, a believer in nominalist reductionism, the foundation of the atheistic air we breathe today and the unexamined and omnipresent belief everywhere today that quantities of matter and energy that can be measured are what is most real and the foundation of reality and knowledge. [Ockham is most often remembered today for ‘Occam’s Razor,’ whence the spelling of Occamy.] Everything is Rowling’s “transformative and revelatory” idea of imagination (Harvard 2008) speaks to her having a relatively skeptical relation to this modern metanarrative and that she works in her stories to defamiliarize us from the stranglehold of the nominalist worldview.

Hence the central place of the Occamy and the Demiguise in the first and defining Fantastic Beasts film. The Occamy is not a creature that any nominalist could conceive or even comprehend. We’re as far as Occam’s razor and nominmalism as we can get with this Choranaptyxic creature and his Demiguise buddy whose invisibility is a function of his being a creature of probabilities rather than ‘solid quantities.’ As Rowling told Fry earlier this year, her fantastic beasts reflect her belief in the archetypal which in turn tell us much about what it means to be human — and that isn’t what nominalists hold. At all.

Rowling said in that same interview that her stories “fold” without the mythic and archetypal beasts with which she populates them. So… if knowing that Rowling has a thing for goldfish and that she believed them to be Choranaptyxic — from the Greek words for ‘space’ and ‘fold’ — well, that helps in understanding her work, no?

Even if it doesn’t, this trivial detail of Rowling’s skill set is much more practical than knowing she cannot drive. When you’re about to meet The Presence for the first time and stumped about what to give her as a present, go with a bizarro tropical fish, or, safer, a gift cerrtrificate to an online Pet Fish Emporium. You can’t go wrong there.

More anon about the Occamy and Demiguise; until then, please share your thoughts on Rowling the Fisherwoman!


  1. We know from the trailers/TV spots that Grindelwald can see into the future – and the Demiguise can sort of do this too. It can guess what will probably happen & in the Occamy scene in FB1 what it foresaw did indeed turn out to be true. I suspect FB3 won’t be pitting the Demiguise against Grindelwald – but a nice echo anyhow!

  2. The Demiguise is almost certainly in Newt’s suitcase menagerie — and Dougal may have been in the trailers. It’s our failing that we couldn’t make him out.

    I have to suspect, though, that you’re right and the Demiguise will be saved for the story latch, Fantastic Beasts 5, the finale.

    If a Legilimens can read the mind of a Demiguise, then Jacob, Dougal’s best buddy, and Queenie together would in fact be a formidable foe to Grindelwald and his minions. Every plan and change of plan they could make would be known to the Good Guys in short order.

    And that Occamy… I have to think she and the Swooping Evil will be making come-backs, too, as weapons against which most wizards and witches have little defense. They were the coolest and most mind-challenging (sucking?) beasts in the series opening; for the ring to work, of course, that means they are almost obliged to appear in film 3 if they’re going to play a role in movie 5. Maybe just a mention or cameo walk-through in ‘Secrets’?

    If tropical fish that grow or shrink to fit whatever room they’re in are Rowling’s base line magical beast, I’ll bet we have more Occamy coming in a big (or small) way. Put one in your vest pocket — and whip it out in the Great Hall for a spectacular distraction to facilitate escape! Etc.

  3. There are allegedly two cuts of FB3, one where Credence survives and one where he dies. Who knows which they’ll go with (they’ve supposedly screened both), but, uh, I would be pushing for cut #2 if I were WB.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    “I think of her not being able to drive a car as an excellent ‘for instance’ of this sort of information.” I have not been paying enough attention to the treatment of automobiles in FB, but I suspect a case could be made for the pre-19th-20th-turn-of the-century character of much of the Wizarding world as tying in with that feature of her experience.

    What – if anything – might the satisfaction of keeping fish have to do with the (Sea-?) Manticores of FB3? Authorial dimension? Authorial dismay at cinematic development?

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