‘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.’



  1. A fourth note as follow-up!

    Friday’s chapter, ‘Daisy’s Plan,’ has two sets of conversations, those between the Ickabog and Daisy and those between the three teens apart from them. The week ending surprise to keep us excited about coming back Monday for the fairy tale conclusion is that Daisy succeeds in convincing Icky via a clever interpretation of The Song of the Ickabog not to eat the four teens but to Bornd its Ickaboggles among hundreds of men and women in Cornucopia.

    Which is the happy ending we all want, right? Icky’s metanarrative of hatred and bitterness has been overturned to one of hope and love, the Cornucopians’ misconceptions that Ickabog’s are dangerous or non-existent will change in light of the truth, and we all live happily ever after…

    Unfortunately, in the other conversations we learn that Bert Beamish is more convinced than ever that the Ickabog killed his father. He is named for the “Beamish Boy” in Carroll’s ‘The Jabberwock” who slays the Ickabog. I have to think odds are just about even at present that Bert kills the Ickabog in the cave as it sleeps (or via a poisoned mushroom?) a la Odysseus and the Cyclops and is celebrated by the power holders in Cornucopia for his valor. “Oh, frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

    Regardless, today’s chapter confirms pretty much everything I suggested in ‘The Song of the Ickabog’ post above. I look forward to Monday’s chapters!

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Wow – exciting!

    I don’t get around enough – has there been interesting speculation up to now about the name ‘Ikabog’? A quick browse of three of the five Wikipedia articles on the Biblical name ‘Ichabod’ – spelt ‘Ikabod’ in the German and ‘I-kavod’ in the Swedish – shows a wealth of uncertainty and speculation surrounding it. And before turning to that, what of ‘bog’ – how playfully multi-referential might it be? The folkloric – ‘bug’, ‘bugbear’, ‘bogy’, ‘boggle’? – the geographical ? – the British slang related to that? – Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat word blasphemously playing with that and a transcription of Russian, ‘Bog’ (‘God’)? And is there androgynous play via the Chabod of Ichabod with Shekinah? (i.e., the Presence!)

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