‘The Ickabog’ Structure: Three Notes

If you are like me, the better part of your day during the work week is stopping by TheIckabog.com 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.

We know less than we want to know about the structure of the story in progress but we do have some important information. Rowling has written, most importantly, that ‘The Ickabog’ will end on Friday 10 July, seven weeks after its first chapter was published on Tuesday 26 May. That’s thirty-four chapter days because no chapters are posted on either Saturday or Sunday.

We know, too, that the chapters, too, are being released in a color coded sequence; every day a chapter or two or three appears in a specific color frame. There are only six colors and each appears before and after the same colors sequentially. Friday’s chapters, numbers forty-nine and fifty, for example, were both framed in orange-red, the fourth time this color, the sixth in the sequence, appeared.

Here are my three speculative conversation points about structure based on this sure-thing information:

(1) Seven Weeks! The first structure is the seven weeks of five day chapter releases. Given Rowling’s penchant for seven part stories and seven piece series (and the hint she believes seven is a most magical number found in a conversation between the young Tom Riddle and Professor Slughorn), this is no small thing. Because those seven part tales are all rings, either as stand-alone stories or as series.

Assuming Rowling is writing this as a ring, then, we can find the center — and the meaning is in the chiastic middle — on Wednesday of week four. Sure enough, we have a reverse echo of the start in chapter 36, ‘Cornucopia Hungry,’ the second chapter of that Wednesday. Chapter one, ‘King Fred the Fearless,’ was largely a survey of the delicious foods and happiness of Cornucopia and the mid-point not only features far and away the biggest time jump (five years) of the tale so far, it also reviews the survey to show how things have changed.

The center chapters in a ring will not only echo in some fashion the beginning of the tale, they also point to the finish. Rowling in her Cormoran Strike stories thus far, for example, has the murderer appear in each of those novels’ center chapter. We don’t know how ‘The Ickabog’ ends, of course, but we should include in any speculations we make — “The Beamish Boy slays the monster, sort of!” — anything in the center chapters that will probably be reversed. Besides the return of a happily gluttinous Cornucopia, then, I think we might reasonably expect the fairy tale finish to feature Lord Spittleworth’s humiliating downfall and Lady Eslanda’s marriage to Goodfellow (even their elevation to the throne of Cornucopia). Chapter thirty five, ‘Lord Spittleworth’s Proposal,’ in which he kidnaps and imprisons Lady Eslanda points to all that, believe it or not.

(2) A Turtle-Back? The five year gap in these two central chapters is a de facto story restart. Weeks three and five have several interesting parallels that suggest we may be in a turtleback structure in which weeks two and six as well as three and five include similar characters, dialogue, in events, in resolutions to the set-up or in reverse echo of the story start.

Weeks three and five, for example, that’s chapters twenty to twenty-nine and forty-one to fifty respectively, have both our first meeting with Ma Grunter and John the Basher at the orphanage in Jeroboam and then Daisy and Bert’s escape from same. Week three ends with Mrs Beamish beginning to doubt the public narrative of the Dovetails’ disappearance and week five begins with her plan to confront the King with her suspicions. Dan Dovetail is forced into the dungeons to make Ickabog feet in week three and in week five Mrs Beamish discovers him and helps bring him back to his lost sanity.

Next week will be the ‘tell’ for this structure; does week six echo the major events of week two? Tuesday’s chapters in week two, ‘The King’s Lost Sword’ and ‘The Accident,’ told the story of the Ickabog’s supposed attack on the King. If we have the real deal Ickabog moving south in week six and confronting the King and Lords Spittleworth and Flappon on Thursday, well, that would be fitting, right? I’d guess chapter fifty-seven or fifty-eight if I were not afraid you’d hold me to the prediction.

Regardless, note that week two begins with the King and Company heading north in great comfort and style to find the Ickabog (or make a show of it) and that week six starts off at the end of the heroic journey north in life sacrificing conditions to convince the King’s soldiers to revolt against him. The one journey resulted in the de facto overthrow of King Fred’s regime with a pretend Ickabog; we might look in the coming week for the real Ickabog to help the children overthrow the usurpers….

[Aside on Chapter Totals Per Week: Weeks one, three, and five have had ten chapters (week one in only four days), week two had nine chapters, and four had eleven. Wednesday of the fourth week has its split after chapter thirty-five, so, if we add the number of chapters from week two on the assumption that six will have the same and add eleven on the guess that four’s total will be the same as seven’s, then we get an ending in chapter seventy, which given seven’s importance would be, let’s say ‘predictable.’ Note, though, that chapter eleven, ‘The Journey North,’ was the story’s only stand-alone chapter thus far; if week six doesn’t have a twin, all bets are off on the ‘Fred Meets Icky’ chapter guess above.]

[Aside about the Weekends: The missing Saturday and Sunday posts are a thing we have to keep in mind. If nothing else, they oblige the story-teller to give us something of a cliffhanger on Friday to keep us going through Saturday and Sunday! Rowling has delivered a twist or a fresh start on each Friday to hold our interest until Monday’s release. This Friday’s shocking finish was certainly Rowling’s best yet. The Ickabog exists, and, though he might eat the children, he certainly saved them from a certain death in the blizzard…]

(3) The Chapter Colors: I think the color coding given to each chapter on the day it is posted online may be meaningful. Forgive me for guessing you think that is ridiculous and that you didn’t notice the color sequence. Let’s review what we know for sure about the colors.

  • There are six colors that appear in the same sequence: purple, maroon, golden rod, aqua marine, lime green, and orange-red.
  • There have been four cycles of colors thus far. Friday was orange-red and I think we can safely assume Monday’s color for the chapter title will be purple.
  • The first cycle took thirteen chapters, the second twelve, the third thirteen, and the fourth twelve.

Leaving the surety of numbers for the flighty adventuress of speculation, I think we should note that orange-red chapters, color cycle finishes, are big deals.

  • Chapter thirteen is ‘The Accident’ and Major Beamish’s death in it sets off the Spittleworth Insurrection and invention of a real Ickabog. [Nick Jeffery shared with me hpboy’s reflections on MuggleNet that chapter thirteen is always a big deal for Rowling, an interesting possibility that deserves a review of the Galbraith novels for confirmation or refutation.]
  • Chapter twenty-five, the next orange-red chapter set close, finds Spittleworth again having to come up with a way to deceive the populace about the Ickabog (Feet!).
  • Chapter thirty-eight has Spittleworth conferring with Ma Grunter and facing the saucy Daisy-Jane at the orphanage. The chapter closes with Daisy speaking with Martha about the Ickabog and wishing “that she too believed in a monster in the marsh, rather than in the human wickedness she’d seen staring out of Lord Spittleworth’s eyes.”
  • Chapter fifty revealed the Ickabog in the flesh after the fearless foursome’s doomed dash to the Marshlands.

Every orange-red chapter-color set, in other words, features the Ickabog, the evil of Lord Spittleworth, and the issue of the monster’s existence. I haven’t tracked all six colors this way so I cannot say with any confidence, even a feigned surety, that we have six parallels running within the chapter colors. The sets as a whole, however, plausibly come as a block?

[I confess to having hoped, after noting the twelve and thirteen chapter pattern for the color sequences that we would get two more, one thirteen and another twelve, for a total of seventy-five chapters. It’s just not possible, though, within the given deadline of 10 July; Rowling only has ten more days of story-telling and would need twelve to go through two more color cycles. She could, of course, reach seventy-five or eighty chapters by giving us more than than the usual two, sometimes three chapters a day. For reasons given above, I think we’ll get seventy. The best argument I’ve been able to come up with that the colors are meaningless is that we won’t be finishing with an even set of color cycles, purple to orange-red.]

Before you ask, no, I haven’t even started any kind of alchemical sequence breakdown to see if the seven weeks are in correspondence with the traditional seven stage transformation or if there is an identifiable nigredo, albedo and rubedo. For the budding literary alchemists out there, have at it. I look forward to your feedback about these three structural notes, especially if you can share them before Tuesday morning and my conversation with Lana Whited, Katy McDaniel, and John Patrick Pazdziora. Please save me from the humiliating gaffe that will live forever in the Podcast Ether!


  1. My thoughts on the structure matter are a bit more esoteric (in a technical sense). It has to do with questions of formatting, and what this means when a Chiasmus story gets transferred from one format to another. For instance, the Galbraith books are one of the few times Ms. Rowling has seen her writing transferred to the old reliable standby of the pocket book, or mass market paperback. How does her structure manage to survive being translated from the form of hardcover to pocket, or even from hard to softcover for that matter?

    I can see how the ordering of chapters isn’t effected much. No matter the reshuffling of page size, the chapters, in and of themselves, always have to be just what they are. In that, sense, I don’t see the thematic arrangement of narrative incidents in “The Ickabog” being much affected by a change in format. However, what about the thematics of pagination? If Galbraith chooses a specific clue to be discovered or revealed on a particular page of the hardback, how does the necessary shift from that page numbering system to a difference in either soft or pocket editions change things? Is the author’s thematic rhyme system thrown off?

    I ask all this out of curiosity of how a transition from digital screen to actual wood pulp will either help or hinder and understanding of the scheme Rowling had in mind for her book.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    This makes me think you’ll have nothing to worry about on Tuesday! An impressive approach, made the more exciting by being launched in the midst of things! Best wishes for it!

    Interesting questions, ChrisC! I wonder how the colo(u)r-scheme will feature in the format question… and, what do ‘we’ know about the (possible) inclusion of illustrations in the print edition, and so, their possible impact on it?

  3. I wrote above:

    “Note, though, that chapter eleven, ‘The Journey North,’ was the story’s only stand-alone chapter thus far; if week six doesn’t have a twin, all bets are off on the ‘Fred Meets Icky’ chapter guess above.”

    Week six began today with the second stand-alone chapter of the series, ‘The Cave.’

    It would be easy to make too much of that (go ahead!) but I’m obliged to note that we already have a week2 and week 6 structural parallel. Chapters 12 and 13 were especially meaningful parts of week 2; here’s hoping tomorrow’s revelations are equally momentous.

    Will Icky explain what he saw on the marsh that fateful night (or what the shepherd’s dog told him)? How will Bert Beamish respond to learning the facts about his father’s death?

    Did anyone else keep count of the references to Odysseus’ adventure in the Cyclops’ cave?

  4. Nick Jeffery says

    Fortunately I am fresh off reading the Odyssey so I think I’ve got some of the references, relieved to get to the end of the chapter without anyone actually getting eaten. Icky said ‘roar’.

  5. Mr. Granger,

    I’m don’t making much of a prophecy when I say that what we are getting with the story so far is a neat inversion of the Dragon slaying trope. When I read the first chapter for the first time, my immediate reaction was to be reminded of Grendel. From there, my thinking was that this story was going to go in two directions. Either the protagonist was going to follow the traditional Epic pattern and slay the monster, or else Ms. Rowling would take that most basic and ancient of tropes, and find a creative way to invert it. Today, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much when I say that what audiences can expect to find is what might be termed: The Reformation of Grendel.

    I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers. However, what I can say is that it is possible that Rowling might be echoing one of the Inklings in her choice of narrative direction. This is nothing set in stone, however, thinking over the latest plot development put me in mind of a little known non-Middle Earth fairy story written by Tolkien. It’s called “Farmer Giles of Ham”, and the best way to describe it is as a somewhat Swiftian satire on knight vs. dragon trope. Imagine, if you will, a version of the Golden Legend in which the dragon and St. George wind up having to team together in order to save the day. That, I’d argue, is where the Ickabog (both character and story) seem to be headed.

    I’m just left to wonder if the author hasn’t taken a leaf from the Minstrel of the Third Age.

  6. Thank you for this John! I’d read hpboy’s fascinating chapter 13 essay on mugglenet, but hadn’t really found a way ‘in’ to start thinking critically about the story structure myself. This post is my way in, so thank you!I

    I’ve been wondering about what mythological monsters/creatures might have influenced the ickabog. My first thought, based purely on the sound of the word, was that the gogmagog of Welsh & English mythology might be a ‘historical’ creature that inspired JK Rowling (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gogmagog_(giant)). The Wikipedia post focuses on the English folklore about the gogmagog, I’ll try and find a translation of the Welsh myths (mabinogion) involving Gogmagog. But as an initial thought, giants are pretty much always nasty in English mythology, whereas in the mabinogion, giants are just part of the population of wales, they’re often helpful, but in any case they have personalities and broader roles than marauding brutes.

    The description of the Ickabog as being “roughly shaped like a person” – but huge – and that it speaks human language, lead me to think that maybe Gogmagog is an influence.

    The second, and thus far only other, idea that occurred to me is the amorak of Inuit mythology. I think this is a pretty superficial link I my part, no doubt influenced by the fact that the landscape was frozen and snowy when the fearless foursome finally met the Ickabog. The amorak is solitary, and is said to stalk and devour any person foolish enough to go out alone at night (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amarok_(wolf)). That works for the Ickabog, but is hardly a unique job description for a mythical monster! The amorak is a gigantic shaggy wolf, so not so much like the Ickabog (apart from the hairiness).

    I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. My frame of reference is no doubt constrained by being British (and living most of my life in Wales) – and no doubt there are other potentially relevant monsters out there that I’ve never heard of.

    On a probably incidental/irrelevant note, Icky’s feeding his captives delicious food reminded me of the “Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf” story, in which the wolf succeeds (finally!) in capturing Polly and taking her home to eat, but then decides he needs to get her flattened up first. I’m not suggesting that fattening them for its consumption is Icky’s plan, or that Icky is stupid! It just leapt to my mind.

    P.S. Completely unrelated to the Ickabog (except that they’re also stories written for children primarily) – has anyone else read Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series and or her Wizards of Once books? Some interesting mythological points of reference in them I think.

  7. Louise Freeman says

    Another 3-5 reflection: In day 2 of week 3, Bert and Daisy try to repair their friendship at a birthday party, but wind up rupturing it further when the valuable pastries Daisy worked hard to get wind up smashed. In day 4 of week 5, “Bert and Daisy Find Each Other” at a birthday party for which she has once again worked hard to get a pair of valuable pastries. Their friendship is restored. Of course, since their original fight happened on day 3 of week one, can we expect a second reunion between them in the middle of week 7? Maybe a first kiss? Or becoming actual brother and sister (rather than “acting like brother and sister” ) when their widowed parents marry?

  8. Louise Freeman says

    So…. let’s talk alchemy. Week 5 is supposed to be the nigredo, right? Well, certainly everything is broken down for Bert and Roderick, with family members killed, imprisoned, etc; and Bert having to cover himself with mud to escape. Then, all four of the kids are broken down on the journey north, to the extent that they give up and resign themselves to death. Then, under the white moon, they sink down into the white snow, and let it cover their bodies. Is this the transition to albedo? Are they headed for purification in the Ickabog’s cave, just like Harry in the cave by the sea?

  9. Thank you, Louise!

    I am just off the podcast Skype call with Drs McDaniel, Whited, and Pazdziora and it is definitely a conversation you will want to listen to (the hope is that will go up sooner than later so it isn’t hopelessly out of date because of chapters having been released). I talked about structure and made predictions, all informed by the conversation here and especially Dr Freeman’s comments just before this one. Lana Whited identifies the core narrative of the story as Rowling’s retelling of The Emperor’s New Clothes and John Patrick Pazdziora discussed Rowling’s model in seventeenth century French Court fairy tales and their subversive feminist content. Both were important new directions for this reader of the story and I expect you’ll enjoy your own epiphanies in the back and forth. John Patrick’s predictions a la ‘The Big Friendly Giant’ and a dragon poet as well as Lana’s thoughts via Bruno Bettelheim will challenge you, believe me.

    Chapters 52 and 53 were posted just as our conversation was ending this morning, which is a shame, because we didn’t get to talk about them. As with yesterday’s stand-alone chapter in parallel with week 2’s opening, today’s chapter pair includes the narrator’s revelation of what really happened in chapters 12 and 13 on the marsh between King Fred, Patch, and the Ickabog. Week 6 so far then is running in clear parallel, answer and resolution style, to week 2, a big turtleback element. I wonder if the fairy tale’s albedo will be spent entirely in The Cave with the Ickabog and the revelations that he (she?) is a much maligned and misunderstood survivor.

    Thank you all for your help in getting ready for this podcast!

  10. Nick Jeffery says

    In terms of the quantity and colour coding of each days release, the Spanish translation although some days behind the English, it has kept the same coding and the same 1,2 or 3 chapter releases. At time of writing, the English version has released ch55 and ch56 while the Spanish is on ch47 and ch48.

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