There are many instances of sexism and the poor treatment of women in this children’s book. For example, Lady Eslanda is praised for her beauty but her desire to be well educated is mocked and she is labelled by King Fred and his friends as far too "bookish" to be suitable for his hand in marriage. Similarly, the ruler of another kingdom offers his daughter’s hand in marriage in exchange for a handful of pastries, again reducing her worth to her value as a wife.
However, Rowling shows throughout the story that girls and women can be just as smart, brave, and resilient as boys. Indeed, it is Daisy's plan that eventually saves Cornucopia, which she carries out by using skills that might be labeled as "feminine" such as communication, caring, and optimism.
Though J.K. Rowling has stated that The Ickabog is written for children ages 7-9, one of the main themes in the story is death. It could be difficult for some children to process such a constant stream of senseless, violent deaths, but it is important to note that The Ickabog was released during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic when many children had fear and death on their minds already. Through The Ickabog, Rowling shows that people, particularly children, can survive their loved ones dying, and they can use those deaths to fuel their passion for positive things like justice and equality. For example, Bert is devastated after losing his father to what Lord Spittleworth says was an Ickabog attack. Bert believes this for many years, and he plans to kill the Ickabog, but when he finds out that the Ickabog actually didn't kill his father, he changes his tune and uses his desire to seek revenge for his father's death to support and protect the Ickabog.
Gossip and Rumors
The Ickabog shows that gossip and rumors spread quickly and often change as they spread. This is clear from the second chapter of the book, when the narrator states, "The Ickabog, they said, had extraordinary powers. It could imitate the human voice to lure travellers into its clutches. If you tried to kill it, it would mend magically, or else split into two Ickabogs; it could fly, spurt fire, shoot poison—the Ickabog’s powers were as great as the imagination of the teller." This shows that rumors have gone around about the Ickabog for many years, and nobody seems to mind that everyone has their different versions of the truth about the monster.
The theme of gossip and rumors continues after the supposed Ickabog attack in the marsh. When King Fred and his party arrive back in Jeroboam after the fateful night, Lord Spittleworth tells an innkeeper, "The Ickabog is real and has savagely killed one of our men. You understand, I’m sure, why this must not be widely broadcast. There would be instant panic." After this conversation, the narrator states "widespread alarm was precisely what Spittleworth wanted, because it was essential for the next phase of his plan. Just as he’d expected, the landlord waited only until his guests had gone to bed, then rushed to tell his wife, who ran to tell the neighbours, and by the time the king’s party set off for Kurdsburg the following morning, they left behind them a city where panic was fermenting as busily as the wine." This scene underscores the idea that gossip and rumors spread incredibly fast and have significant impact on people's feelings and beliefs.
The theme of gossip and rumors is key in the biggest twist in the story, when the Ickabog is revealed to be a kind creature who has never killed anyone. This shows that the rumors about the Ickabog have always been untrue. Not only that, but they have caused fear and anger for everyone: the humans and the Ickabog. The Ickabog teaches young readers to think critically about gossip and rumors that they hear.
One of the most important themes in The Ickabog is social class. Rowling shows how wealthy, powerful people (usually men) can use their power to influence others to do what they want. King Fred, Lord Spittleworth, and Lord Flapoon are depicted as high-class men, and it seems like for this reason they do not care about others. Lord Spittleworth and Lord Flapoon clearly benefit from the fear and poverty throughout Cornucopia, and King Fred does not even notice the hardship that others are facing. Lord Spittleworth uses his position as King Fred's advisor to threaten soldiers to do his bidding and have anyone who disobeys or displeases him locked in the dungeon or killed.
However, there are some characters of high social class who are shown in a positive light. Lady Eslanda is shown to care for people regardless of their social class; she loves Captain Goodfellow even though he has a low social status, and she warns the servant named Hetty to get out of Chouxville before Lord Spittleworth can find her. Herringbone, King Fred's original advisor, is also shown to have a good moral compass, though he is killed because of this.
In the opening paragraph of The Ickabog, the narrator ironically states that King Fred christened himself King Fred the Fearless when he killed a wasp with only the help of "five footmen and the boot boy." This begins the theme of fear throughout the story. What makes King Fred's moniker so ironic is that he is extremely fearful for most of the book. Lord Spittleworth rises to power because King Fred is too afraid to leave his room, let alone rule the kingdom. Lord Spittleworth then stirs more fear in the people of Cornucopia to increase his power and control over the kingdom. It is due to fear of the Ickabog that people are willing to pay the tax to fund the Ickabog Defense Force, and fear of being jailed or killed prevents them from questioning where their money is really going. In the end, Daisy's lack of fear of the Ickabog and Lord Spittleworth saves the kingdom.
Judgement Based on Appearance
Many characters in The Ickabog are judged based on their appearances, causing them to feel unhappy. The largest example of this is the Ickabog. There are many rumors about how the Ickabog looks: some are true, some are false, but they all cause people to assume that the Ickabog is an evil monster who wants to rip people and animals apart. In fact, the Ickabog is a peaceful creature and has emotions and desires much like humans.
Bert is another example of a character who is unfairly judged based on his appearance. Bert is made fun of and called "Butterball" due to being fatter than other children. Daisy, his best friend, is the only one who will stand up for him because she doesn't see him as defined by his weight. In turn, Bert accepts Daisy even though she doesn't always dress or act like other children (at least until their big fight).
Similar to the theme of social class, another important theme in The Ickabog is poverty. J.K. Rowling shows how poverty occurs due to prejudice and oppression, not due to individuals' moral failings. A strong example of this theme is Rowling's reflections on the underlying causes of child orphans. Rowling writes, "Why did he need orphanages, you ask? Well, in the first place, quite a number of parents were being killed or imprisoned. As everyone was now finding it difficult to feed their own families, they weren’t able to take in the abandoned children. In the second place, poor people were dying of hunger. As parents usually fed their children rather than themselves, children were often the last of the family left alive. And in the third place, some heartbroken, homeless families were giving up their children to orphanages, because it was the only way they could make sure their children would have food and shelter." This quote shows that the people of Cornucopia became impoverished due to the Ickabog tax as well as oppressive situations such as senseless jailings and killings, not because of laziness or other moral failings. In fact, these Cornucopians living in poverty are depicted as morally good by showing that they still care about their children, even enough to send them away to a place where they will be fed.
Ickabog Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Ickabog is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.