A Dark, Moralistic Fairytale.
About the Book
Thirteen years ago (crazy, I know), the publication of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows concluded the pop-culture phenomenon and the best-selling children’s book series in history. Already with over 500 million books sold, the Harry Potter novels are still a permanent residence on most annual best-selling charts. Since then, Rowling has written a handful of adult novels (most under the pen name Robert Galbraith), and several Potter-related theater and film screenplays. With The Ickabog, Rowling makes her long awaited return to children’s literature.
Rowling remains an immensely gifted and imaginative writer, but readers should keep their expectations in check. Unlike Harry Potter, this is not Rowling’s life work. The Ickabog was a story written for Rowling’s children a decade ago before being abandoned. As a gift to all the children isolated during Covid-19 lockdowns, Rowling revived the project by posting chapters on her website for free. The story has now been released in a beautiful hardcover volume, including original illustrations by children readers. A nice gesture for young her readers, but the question remains: is it any good? This is a difficult question to answer.
A Dark Fairytale
The story is advertised as a “children’s book,” but is better understood as a dark fairytale—more a Grimm’s fairytale than Aesop fable. The opening pages tease a silly and whimsical tale, until a character’s early death swerves the story sharply into darker territory. From there, characters die and are murdered, while children are orphaned, abandoned, and physically abused. The story is almost relentlessly dark and somber until ultimately ending on a lighter and more hopeful note.
The grim tone of the book is both its strength and weakness. While The Ickabog should not be compared to Harry Potter, the whimsical humor that Rowling effortlessly infused into the Potter books is notably absent here. The Ickabog is not funny book, nor is it a particularly joyful or uplifting one. This is a gritty adult story filtered down into the packaging of a children’s tale.
At the same time, the more serious and somber tone adds increased depth to the thematic elements. Evil is strikingly evil, as opposed to merely “naughty.” The consequences of such evil—murder, manipulation, corruption of power—are severe and not sugarcoated. There is hope of redemption, but also unavoidable consequences for past action. As J. R. R. Tolkien once mused, “A safe fairytale is untrue to all worlds.” The Ickabog may be set in a fantastical world of make-believe, but the thematic material it explores is decidedly human and this-worldly.
The Consequences of Fear and Misunderstanding
The story centers around a legendary monster called the Ickabog; a “boogeyman” used to frighten children, widely believed to be a mere myth (whether or not this is true or not, I won’t spoil here). As all the great “monster” stories (JAWS, Alien, A Quiet Place, etc.) have demonstrated, the ways that the horrifying creature impacts the characters while it is “off screen” is always more interesting than what is explicitly shown. Rowling understands this perfectly. The story is less about a mythical monster called the Ickabog, and more about the fear instilled by the possibility of such a monster, and how it exposes—for good or bad—the true nature of the characters.
If not for the fact that Rowling began writing the story a decade or more ago, a reader might understandably assume that the tale is a direct social commentary on today’s culture. The story explores the reasons why people are so easily deceived by lies, or why some knowingly embrace a falsehood out of selfish interest. The story showcases how our natural human fear of the unknown and misunderstood can be weaponized and used to enslave and divide us. As with most fairytales, the “moral” of the story is not subtle or hidden too far beneath the surface. This is particularly true with how the book ends, as The Ickabog challenges young readers to overcome this destructive fear. Rowling is also able to explore this theme through the choices and actions of the individual characters in a more nuanced and delicate manner that might be out of reach for a less experienced author.
The Ickabog is an intriguing story that explores an important theme. Had the story been written by an unknown author, instead of one of the most famous and successful authors in history, it would likely not have garnered much interest or acclaim. But it is written by one of the great authors of our generation, and if for no other reason, that makes alone makes it worth checking out. In the end, I enjoyed The Ickabog as a quick and diverting read. More than that, I’m excited and hopeful that it foreshadows J. K. Rowling’s triumphant return to a genre that she dominated and redefined for over a decade.