I can hardly believe it, but less than 2 weeks into 2021 I’ve finished my second book for the year – The Ickabog by JK Rowling. (the first being Piranesi by Susanna Clarke)
I know JKR has gotten a lot of bad press recently. I’ve decided that it’s not my place to judge whether that press is or isn’t deserved; rather, it’s only my place to choose whether or not to read her books. For myself, the Harry Potter series continues to be an important part of my life and one that I’m not willing to give up quite yet. Having heard some good opinions of The Ickabog, and having never read any of her writing outside of Harry Potter, I decided to give it a try.
I was pretty quickly entranced. The Ickabog reminded me of early Harry Potter, with its simplicity and playfulness. It’s a fairy tale through and through! Each chapter takes only about 5 minutes or so to read, making it a perfect night time read-aloud. The bones of the story are simple and whimsical: a king named Fred the Fearless rules over the kingdom of Cornucopia, whose variety of small towns produce the best of whatever they are known for: pastry, wine, sausage, cheese. The inhabitants of Cornucopia live in peaceful prosperity and King Fred enjoys their worshipful adoration of him. The only small blight on their peaceful king lies in the Marshlands, the northernmost region of Cornucopia which is said to be home of the Ickabog: a fearsome monster who lives in the marshes and eats children. When an unintended consequence of King Fred’s vanity leads him to question himself, King Fred ventures forth into the Marshlands to find the Ickabog. The events that happen afterwards go from bad to worse as Cornucopia is forced through many trials on its journey back to peace.
As a story for children, The Ickabog is an easy read with memorable characters and places that will keep them engaged. As all fairy tales do, cause and effect is on easy display with the consequences of characters’ decisions forming the major events of the story. Also as fairy tales do, negative consequences are not overlooked. People die and people suffer. It’s not gruesome or gratuitous – I found it to be honest and thought-provoking – but it is present. There are children for whom events could be upsetting. But, of course, everything comes together in the end. The heroes of the story are clearly defined, even if parts of their story require redemption and forgiveness. You’ll find no shortage of things to talk about!
Reading The Ickabog as an adult, especially in January 2021 amidst post-election turmoil and, indeed, finishing it 3 days after the Capitol Riots, the story takes on an entirely different meaning. King Fred is advised by two scruple-less lords named Spittlesworth and Flapoon. Seizing an opportunity to both save their own skin and gain more power, they devise a story about the Ickabog that leads only to death and destruction. By misleading both the king and the public, Spittlesworth and Flapoon make themselves rich and make the king little more than an ornament within the kingdom. Corruption runs deep within the kingdom and, in the end, it is down to those who were able to follow facts and logic to save the kingdom. In one of the more interesting turns of the story, King Fred is convicted alongside those who were knowingly involved, despite having no knowledge of Spittlesworth and Flapoon’s treachery. His sin is vanity that leads him to be unaware of the needs and situations of his people and of the wrongdoing of those closest to him. For those of us trying to live in this world of misinformation, I found the ideas expressed in The Ickabog to be quite timely.
If your convictions have not led you to avoid, JKR’s works, I would highly recommend The Ickabog as a fun read aloud with your slightly older young children or as an easy, fantastical read for yourself!