At the height of the coronavirus pandemic last April, when celebrities around the world were lecturing us via tweet to stay home and wear a mask, British novelist J. K. Rowling took a different approach. As kids were forced to forego school and interactions with friends, she published a new children’s book and released it in free installments for families stuck at home. The novel, The Ickabog, was published in full this past Thanksgiving. Proceeds from sales of the book are donated to communities hurt most by COVID-19.
Rowling has said that the Ickabog story first came to her years ago, when her own children were young. She wrote the book during the period in which she wrote the Harry Potter books, and claims to have made no serious modifications since that time. Yet intentionally or not, The Ickabog may be the most serious literary indictment of the mass response to the COVID-19 epidemic published to date.
I bought the book as a gift for my Harry Potter-loving 9-year-old, and first picked it up on the Sabbath after Hannukah. My family had just returned from Jerusalem, where the lack of tourists and the still-considerable virus restrictions cast a pallor on this normally magical time of year. After months of closures, the street vendors of Jaffa and Ben Yehudah streets finally had their Judaica and souvenirs proudly on display, albeit with few takers. Seemingly half of the usually bustling restaurants were temporarily shuttered or closed for good. I wasn’t in the mood to read more of the endless news about the pandemic, so I turned to my son’s Rowling book looking for a light fantasy escape.
The story begins with a good-natured, flaxen-haired king named Fred who rules the prosperous kingdom of Cornucopia. Fred is well-meaning enough, if a bit shallow, but he is flanked by two manipulative advisors, Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon, who are less concerned about the citizens of Cornucopia than they are with their own power and profit. Much of the havoc that follows is the result of the machinations of these bureaucratic second-in-commands, accountable only to Fred and to themselves. The book's heroes are two children named Daisy Dovetail and Bert Beamish.
One day King Fred embarks on a quixotic mission to kill the mythical Ickabog, a creature who has heretofore been considered imaginary by most Cornucopians. Daisy asks her father: “There isn’t really an Ickabog, Daddy, is there?” Her father answers: “There’s no Ickabog, but if the king wants to believe in it, let him. He can’t do much harm up in the Marshlands.” At this point, the narrator interjects: “which just goes to show that even sensible men may fail to see a terrible, looming danger.”
In this case, it turns out the danger is not the Ickabog (which may or may not exist), but rather the kingdom’s reaction to this ambiguous threat. King Fred’s initially frivolous mission turns deadly serious when Bert Beamish’s father, the head of the Royal Guard, is accidentally shot by Lord Flapoon. Spittleworth and Flapoon quickly hatch a plan to blame the death on the Ickabog, and soon discover that they can achieve many of their nefarious goals by rallying the kingdom against the mythical monster.
What follows is a downward spiral for the once blissful society of Cornucopia. An Ickabog tax is levied on citizens for the purpose of defending them from this terror. Additional taxes are required to subsidize the salaries of the tax collectors themselves. The narrator notes that these taxes initially only hurt small merchants and poorer individuals, as the large businesses and the wealthy can recoup their costs in other ways. Ultimately, the emergency measures bring down the economy altogether. Public dissent becomes more and more dangerous, as Spittleworth and Flapoon seek to silence any skepticism about the existence of the Ickabog and whether the danger it poses is worth the heavy price paid by citizens:
It was treason to question the king’s decisions, treason to suggest that the Ickabog might not be real, treason to question the need for the Ickabog tax, and treason not to pay your two ducats a month. There was also a reward of ten ducats if you reported someone for saying the Ickabog wasn’t real.
As the royal clampdown becomes harsher, nearly all of the story's major characters are thrown into jail or otherwise imprisoned. Daisy and Bert end up in a grim orphanage with no communication with the outside world. A story that starts as light-hearted children’s fare grows downright terrifying. At one point the narrator notes that Daisy “wishes that she too believed in a monster in the marsh, rather than in the human wickedness she’d seen staring out of Lord Spittleworth’s eye.”
There are biblical resonances in the land of Cornucopia. “Ickabog” is derived from the name “Ichabod” in the Hebrew Bible. Rowling notes in the introduction that it means “no glory,” or “the glory has departed.” Of the five cities of Cornucopia, one is called Jeroboam. The biblical Jeroboam, the first king of Northern Israel, famously rebelled against the excessive taxes of King Solomon and his son and successor Rehoboam. Soon thereafter Jeroboam himself became mired in idolatry.
There is something biblical about the nature of Cornucopia’s descent, how quickly the corruption of its leaders translates into its material downfall. It brings to my mind what transpired in my homeland of Israel and all around the world over these past nine months. Small business owners and employees in numerous sectors were brought to financial ruin due to on-again, off-again lockdowns. These regulations were often rashly instituted by governments that seemed to lack wisdom and a long-term strategy.
When The Ickabog was first released, I was not the only reader who had these thoughts. Rowling made sure to announce the following on her blog:
The Ickabog is a story about truth and the abuse of power. The themes are timeless and could apply to any era or any country. 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.
Indeed, many aspects of our current moment are not unprecedented. Unfortunately, it is nothing new for members of a ruling class to lie and fail to heed their own rules. It is nothing new that the needs of children and the most vulnerable are trounced on while the out-of-touch elite remain relatively unscathed, or even benefit, from some crisis. As President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1961 farewell address, public policy can “become the captive of a scientific-technological elite,” which by nature lacks the temperament and broad thinking necessary to steer a democratic society. Instead, this elite’s conceptual blindspots and ignorance of broader human and spiritual concerns mean it is likely to steer us into the ditch of never-ending lockdown cycles to “slow the spread” of a virus that is demonstrably uncontainable by governments and their edicts.
It may take years to understand the extent to which the non-pharmaceutical interventions cooked up by today’s politicians and public health bureaucrats had a perceivable effect on the virus’s spread or its tragic death toll. So far, many studies have concluded that the benefit of these measures, forced upon huge populations through dictatorial fiat or media-driven panic, has been more or less negligible. Rowling had the insight to sense these possibilities a decade ago, and her universal fable could be applied to a wide range of circumstances. Still, she deliberately revised and released this tale at the height of the pandemic; it is possible that she made certain subtle tweaks to give it an added resonance.
For me, the most compelling hint of this is the account of the imprisonment of Daisy and Bert, which echoes the introduction's reference to the “millions of children stuck at home, unable to attend school or meet their friends.” Perhaps Rowling is highlighting the mostly ignored and likely unnecessary toll that the response to the coronavirus pandemic has taken on children—those least likely to be infectious, become ill, or die from the virus.
The most innovative part of the book is its ending. Rowling brilliantly devises a conclusion wherein the Ickabog is both a real threat and a non-threat. The difference, she implies, depends upon our society and our ability to muster our best selves to deal with a challenge rather than rely on selfishness, censorship, and crude politics to forestall danger. An essential message for these and all times.
Sarah Rindner is a writer and teacher who lives in Israel. More of her work can be found on The Book of Books.
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