Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
There once was a kingdom divided into two very unequal parts. Cornucopia was its name, and it consisted mostly of regions brimming with resources like cheese, wine, meat, and pastries. All the people were always happy, never wanting for anything at all. But on the northernmost tip of Cornucopia was the Marshlands, in which nothing grew but scraggly plants and barely edible mushrooms and nobody lived except for thin, sallow, unhappy people and the sickly sheep they tended. The rest of Cornucopia mocked the Marshlanders, and it was widely considered that the most remarkable thing about the Marshlands was that it was the home of a terrible monster called the Ickabog.
Such begins the tale of The Ickabog, a new story by famed author of the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling. Rowling, it turns out, had a secret in her attic—a secret she’s kept for a long time. Although she took an undoubtedly much-needed break from children’s publishing after wrapping Harry Potter, Rowling never stopped telling stories to her own children. And in the years after Harry Potter, she invented the story of The Ickabog for her kids—a story she wrote down, never published, and put away in her attic. But since the coronavirus struck and the world went into lockdown, she decided to dust it off and publish it chapter by chapter on the internet for children to read and enjoy. (When The Ickabog is published in book form in November, she will be donating all her royalties to those affected by the coronavirus.)I feel a searing of my own conscience as I read The Ickabog, especially in the context of events unfolding across America with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.
The Ickabog is Rowling’s first foray back into children’s publishing since Harry Potter, and it is a far different tale from that of the famous boy wizard. For one thing, it is written for a younger audience. For another, it is a fairy tale. And like most fairy tales, is also a morality tale. Thus, although the language makes it enjoyable for your youngest readers, the themes are not only overt, but they make The Ickabog a nuanced and thoughtful read for adults, as well. Fairy tales are simple, fantastical stories that manage to be complex at the same time. In other words, they say big, often “adult” things while appearing to be written for children. Rowling’s fairy tale, although written many years ago, is setting a thematic course that is eerily prescient for the events of the year 2020. As I read the posted chapters this past weekend, I couldn’t help thinking that it is the sort of story we all need right now.
In a clever flip of the “Emperor Has No Clothes” narrative, Rowling’s “emperor” in The Ickabog has a lot of clothes, and it’s his obsession with his appearance—and his subjects’ indulgence of his vanity—that causes everything to start falling apart in the kingdom of Cornucopia.
King Fred the Fearless is the king of that land, and he is all flair and no substance. We’re told that he gave himself the title “the fearless” for one day killing a wasp (with the help of six people), and the people of Cornucopia seem to like that he is as vacuous as he is good-looking. He hunts five days a week (for sport), lets the kingdom run itself, and revels in not only the accolades of his people, but also in the flattery of his sycophantic advisers.
Life is good for King Fred until one day when he demands that a new outfit be made for him so that he can impress a neighboring king who is visiting. Fred will only allow the head seamstress, Mrs. Dovetail, to sew the special outfit for him, ignoring the news that she is unwell. Of course she will sew it for him—she loves him! (Everyone loves him.) Mrs. Dovetail has to stay up three nights in a row to finish the elaborate stitching on his outfit and is found, on the morning the outfit is due, dead on the floor with the last button clutched in her hand.
True to form for many fairy tales, death enters the story early and as a prominent theme. And as, so far, the main character of The Ickabog, King Fred has to grapple with it. He is faced with feelings he doesn’t like to feel, primarily discomfort from a sense of guilt and shame. Did he cause Mrs. Dovetail’s death? Surely not. His advisor’s work to alleviate his unease, assuring him Mrs. Dovetail herself was to blame for her own death, and Fred moves on with life as normal as quickly as he can.
But Mrs. Dovetail left behind a husband and daughter, Daisy, and they live in a house close to Fred’s palace, which means he has to pass by the house every day when he goes hunting—and he has to see the black draperies they’ve hung in their windows as a sign of mourning. Undesirous of seeing the black draperies in the windows of the Dovetail house, King Fred orders that the Dovetails be moved across town. Rather than seeking the family out or asking them for forgiveness, King Fred moves the Dovetails from their home, against their will into a smaller, unfamiliar house overshadowed by yew trees, which symbolize death. The only break in the yew trees is at Daisy Dovetail’s window, through which she can see her mother’s grave. So Fred doesn’t have to meditate on death, he sends a grieving family literally into the shadow of it.
King Fred thinks the way to ease guilt is to move it out of sight. He makes no effort to face it, to address his culpability, to make amends or offer reparations. Whenever anyone even tries to bring up Mrs. Dovetail’s name in his presence, he interrupts them quickly so he won’t have to be reminded of her. His personal shame is so great that he won’t look at it or hear of it or acknowledge it in any way, and by that, he thinks he can—he thinks he has—made it cease to exist. His personal comfort is paramount.
But the death of Mrs. Dovetail starts a rift in Cornucopia that simmers beneath the surface of the “perfect kingdom.” It’s not a violent rift (at first). It’s just a rift of opinion. Everyone knows how Mrs. Dovetail died—it’s quite obvious she worked herself to death while sewing the king’s new garment—but people are quite divided over what level of culpability King Fred had in her death. Those loyal to him believe he would never have made her work if he’d known she was sick. He cares very much for his servants! Another group believes he was fully to blame for her death, as he had indeed known she was sick when he gave her the task of sewing his garment, allowing no one else to complete it.
Time passes until one day when Daisy Dovetail gets into a fight in the king’s courtyard with her best friend, Bert Beamish. She calls King Fred “selfish, vain, and cruel,” but Bert defends King Fred’s honor. When the incident comes to King Fred’s attention, he feels physically sick. “Selfish, vain, and cruel”? He cannot imagine any of his subjects viewing him that way! The king cannot alleviate the sickness of his discomfort, and Daisy Dovetail’s words refuse to leave his head.
They rattle around in his mind until what’s known as the Day of Petition arrives in Cornucopia—a day when a careful selection of Fred’s subjects can come before him to offer petitions for him to graciously grant. Fred, in a state of distress, dresses down for the occasion. It is the first sign that he is making an attempt to not be selfish, or vain, or cruel. But his attempts to be patient with his subjects and less of a fop than usual are still little more than a show. He wants to present an image of himself to his people being a certain way so that he will never have to suffer the indignity of being called “selfish, vain, and cruel” ever again.
About this point in the story, you might be thinking, along with me, “What does all of this have to do with the Ickabog?” As of writing this, eleven chapters of The Ickabog have been posted online, and up to chapter nine, there was no mention of Marshland or the Ickabog itself since the very beginning of the story. That’s when we were told that it’s a monster that lives in Marshland—a sort of bogeyman that takes many forms, lurks at night in the shadows of the marsh, and steals mostly children. Most adults in Cornucopia don’t believe the Ickabog even exists—they just tell children about it to scare them into behaving. The Ickabog is little more than a scary story and has had no bearing on the events of King Fred’s reign so far or the death of Mrs. Dovetail.
But now, on the Day of Petition, when Fred is feeling rattled and as though he needs to fix his image, a shepherd from Marshland comes before him. Rowling takes care with describing the man’s appearance, and I think it’s noteworthy to show the stark contrast between him and all the other people we’ve been introduced to so far in Cornucopia:
“The old man who now tottered up the long red carpet towards the throne was very weather-beaten and rather dirty, with a straggly beard, and ragged, patched clothes. He snatched off his cap as he approached the king, looking thoroughly frightened, and when he reached the place where people usually bowed or curtsied, he fell to his knees instead.”
The shepherd comes in humility as a supplicant. Where Fred’s usual subjects bow, he falls to both knees—an act of desperation. And what he asks of Fred is that the king would travel north to Marshland (where Fred has never gone, despite being king of all the land) to punish the Ickabog, who has killed the shepherd’s beloved dog.
After the shepherd’s petition, Fred declares that he will ride north to hunt the Ickabog. He has found a way, he thinks, to reckon with his guilt and shame once and for all, but most importantly to fix his image with his subjects. Because nothing is more intolerable to him than to have his people thinking poorly of him.
“King Fred strode from the Throne Room feeling quite delighted with himself. Nobody would ever again say that he was selfish, vain, and cruel! For the sake of a smelly, simple old shepherd and his worthless old mongrel, he, King Fred the Fearless, was going to hunt the Ickabog!”
But Fred, like most adults in Cornucopia who do not live in Marshland, does not even believe in the Ickabog. Going north is nothing more than a single, grand, empty gesture. He thinks it will cure the sin that eats at him. Instead of making it right with the family he has wronged, he’s more concerned with his appearance before his people. If he can appear to do good, then maybe he can appear to be good. He hopes hunting the Ickabog will make him feel good, too, and—well—that’s what virtue signaling is all about, isn’t it?
When Fred finally travels north to find the “imaginary” Ickabog, he sees the Marshlands for the first time and is almost amused by the land and its people. They are a curiosity for him, and their poverty becomes an explanation for the legend of the Ickabog. “Feeble-minded” one of his advisors calls them, saying they must mistake things like rocks and swamp plants for the Ickabog in the foggy marsh.
Because poverty must be a result of being feeble-minded in a country that is otherwise prosperous. And a monster that lives in the poor region of this country must be imaginary—because everyone knows Cornucopia is a happy place.
So Fred goes north, but his foray into Marshland does not at first glimpse offer him any enlightenment or change of heart. Fred has neglected his subjects in Marshland for his entire reign because they don’t have anything to offer him—they are not prosperous or beautiful in the way that he values beauty, and they don’t give him the flattery he both craves and believes is a mark of his efficiency, benevolence, and goodness as a leader. In a word, the Marshlanders are poor, and what can the poor give to a king like Fred? The Marshlands might as well be another country.
It strikes me that perhaps The Ickabog is not a fairy tale after all, but a parable. Or maybe, better said, it is both. Like the prophet Nathan going before David to sear his conscience with a story and a scathing, “You are that man!” I feel a searing of my own conscience as I read The Ickabog, especially in the context of events unfolding across America with the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. America has been a cornucopia for so many—a horn of plenty—but as my brother in Christ Timothy Thomas wrote on Medium, America is also “a supposed ‘Christian’ nation that touts liberty and justice for all (that) is consistently marked by oppression and injustice for some.” White America longs to give the appearance of prosperity, benevolence, and “liberty and justice for all,” but we consistently hide, ignore, and look away from national, corporate, and individual sins that make us feel uncomfortable—even if and when they tell the truth of who we are.
What is happening now is what happens when we have a festering rot of sin as a nation and we care more about appearances than we do about justice. There are a lot of things in our national history and in our present time that we push out of sight, out of mind because we just don’t want to face them. We are unwilling to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of our black brethren. We too self-title ourselves the heroes of our own stories and make grand—often empty—gestures to appease those we have hurt as we try to fix our own image. But there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without true repentance.
I’m still reading The Ickabog, so I don’t know exactly what role the Ickabog itself will play in the scourging of King Fred’s soul and the soul of Cornucopia (or what direction this story will even take from here), but I know what sins he’s committed so far and the corporate consequences of them. I know too that everything was not as perfect in the kingdom of Cornucopia as Fred and his people liked to pretend it was, even before the death—the murder—of Mrs. Dovetail. Unresolved, unrepentant sin in The Ickabog eats at King Fred in a tangible way, and every attempt he makes to alleviate his discomfort—to change his clothes—only reveals more of his selfishness, vanity, cruelty, and shame. If we consider The Ickabog as a parable and all of the prosperous West as Cornucopia, that should lead us into a contemplation of not just our leadership, but of ourselves as well. And who, and what, we have corporately ignored to save our image as white Americans and as Christians. Resolution is not found in looking away.