JK Rowling fans are, at this point, rather exhausted of the constant Harry Potter material she seems to keep providing – for instance, a gay Dumbledore added as an afterthought to a dubiously scripted stage play. Since then, even the most devoted enthusiasts have been wishing that she would just accept that the series has ended.
But if one were to put aside her Twitter ravings about the magical community’s bathroom habits, Rowling has been quite successful. Her novels for adults have been well-received, and the screenplays for the Fantastic Beasts series are remarkably conceptualised.
Never before, however, has she come up with a project as exciting as The Ickabog. What was written as a bedtime story for Rowling’s children is now being released in a form that is almost blasphemously underrated: the serialised story. Rowling has used her position as a household name to do something that is truly miraculous. In a situation where nobody knows what the next day will bring, where motivation even to wake up is hard to find, she has managed to make people all over the world – believers and non-believers of magic alike – look forward to reading a new episode of fairytale every day.
There is something breathlessly pleasurable about reaching the end of a chapter and having to wait to find out what happens next. For those few hours, characters and incidents swim around your mind with dizzying possibilities, while also being frozen in time and space, waiting for a story to bring them to life again.
Serialised stories involve their readers, and Rowling has taken this a step ahead with an illustration contest that accompanies The Ickabog. Now, children are not just reading this story chapter-by-chapter but also drawing it, getting more and more immersed as they wait expectantly for the next installment.
Knowing the audience
It is difficult to create a narrative that lives up to expectations like those, but Rowling seems to be doing it well. What works best for The Ickabog is how intimately it knows its audience. The lockdown has been hard for children, Rowling notes in her introduction to the story, and this is a dedication to them.
The Ickabog was written to be read to children, repurposed for publication based on teenagers’ nostalgia, and it shows. In just the first couple of chapters one finds all the elements of a classic fairytale – a king named Fred the Fearless, a town called Cornucopia, two unlikeable lords, and a monster who eats children, sheep, and even people. While on the subject of eating, a trusted eight-year-old source once told me that stories are better when they sound delicious. Rowling seems to agree.
So, aside from the capital city of Chouxville, there are piles of pastries with names like Maidens’ Dreams and Fairies’ Cradles, cheeses in white and orange and blue, chocolate fondue, honey roast ham, melting beefsteaks – not a chapter goes by when reading The Ickabog does not make one’s mouth water. I daresay children listening to these stories at bedtime would find themselves not only entertained but also rather peckish.
For all times
As for adults, a fairytale like this one comes alive in new and wonderful ways when ordinary life has started to feel like dystopic fiction anyway. In a world where readers do not know whether to avoid harsh realities using escapist fantasy or to face them with more politically conscious writing, The Ickabog could not have come at a better time.
The warmth of fantasy is often at odds with the biting discomfort of satire, but this story occupies the in-betweens almost perfectly, sitting in a deftly carved space at the intersection of fact and fancy. It does, however, carry a disclaimer of sorts: Rowling’s introduction reads:
“The Ickabog is a story about truth and the abuse of power. To forestall one obvious question: the idea came to me well over a decade ago, so it isn’t intended to be read as a response to anything that’s happening in the world right now. The themes are timeless and could apply to any era or any country.”
She is right. Truth and the abuse of power are not unique to the current situation. But even if the story was conceptualised over ten years ago, that does not take away from its relevance, which is already apparent. There is social critique delicately woven into nearly every character – from weak leadership and sycophancy to suppression of dissent, The Ickabog gestures towards several issues, even when it does not deal with them directly.
That is in fact what makes the story so special. It is written for children, but carries the potential to be a lifesaver for adults. The Ickabog says a lot, but it does it softly, with subtle flourishes that do not take up too much space. Its profundity is well-hidden, almost so unassuming that the story could be easily perceived as being a tad too childish.
Of course, for a children’s fairytale, that is hardly valid criticism anyway, but even for older audiences, The Ickabog is worth reading precisely because it is comforting before it is ruminative, and isn’t comfort just what so many of us are looking for in literature now?