We’re thrilled to be able to share with you this two-part series of guest posts written by Dr. Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Dr. Groves teaches Shakespeare and Renaissance English Literature at Oxford University, and her blog Bathilda’s Notebook can be found over on Mugglenet. In this first part, Dr. Groves draws parallels between Harry Potter and the Strike & Ellacott series and shares her predictions for The Running Grave.
[I have not read any of the pre-released chapters of Running Grave – only the blurb – there are no spoilers in this blog!]
The run-up to a new Strike novel is for me – as for many – a welcome excuse for a reread of the series. On this reread one of the things that struck me were the Harry Potter connections of which this reread itself is, of course, one. In creating a second series of novels in which relationships mature and easter eggs abound, Rowling has created another series which repays careful rereading. We discussed these parallel rereads when Nick Jeffery, Louise Freeman and I were generously invited on The Three Broomsticks podcast to chat Running Grave/Deathly Hallows parallels with hosts Sophia Jenkins and Irvin Khaytman and of course the Strike diehards rereads are nothing to the international rereading frenzy that marked each new Potter arrival. But nonetheless this poring over previous novels on the look-out for new clues before each new publication, luxuriating in the unfolding relationships and trying to work out how the underlying plot-arc is going to play out is not only something that unites the two fandoms, but a mark of underlying similarities that tie the two series together.
On this reread a number of small connections with Harry Potter jumped out at me– such as the chime in Troubled Blood with arguably Dumbledore’s most famous saying: ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ Margot’s own perceptiveness chimes with this, and it is a connection which provides the reader with an instinctual warmth towards her when Gloria recalls her cherished memory of the older woman’s wisdom: ‘We aren’t our mistakes. It’s what we do about the mistake that shows who we are’ (825). Gloria is saved by Margot’s death (it is only this that gives her the impetus to escape her abusive relationship) and this sanctifies that death in a way likewise familiar from Harry Potter. This connection works to increase the reader’s warmth towards Margot, which is quite a feat for such a cold case. It is an example of a parallel which provides an emotional pull for the reader – but other connections may provide clues. It is noticeable, for example, that Strike observes in Lethal White (the pivotal fourth book of the series) that only one of Leda’s three grandchildren resembles her. This seems strikingly close to the fact that in Harry Potter only one of Lily’s three grandchildren (Albus Severus – the one who most interests Rowling) resembles his grandmother. This underlines apparent parallels in the author’s mind between her heroes’ mothers – Leda and Lily who, in addition to their rather similar names, are both loving, beloved and die young. Should this parallel alert us to connections between their deaths? It had me thinking, at least, that Leda’s death, like Lily’s, might have roots in a desire to protect her son, may have had some protective benefit for him not dreamt of by either of them and that it may have both been either unknowingly precipitated by Rokeby (as the ‘Snape’ of the series?) or that he likewise made bootless efforts to circumvent it?
Throughout Strike fandom, over the years, we have discussed at length the parallels between each Strike novel and its parallel number in Harry Potter (see for example my piece on Ink Black Heart and Half-Blood Prince) but on this re-read I particularly enjoyed some of the more general connections. One of these was to do with chocolate and Dementors. The information that Strike recalls in Cuckoo’s Calling, imparted by Bernie Coleman from the Army Medical Corps, about how his family-sized bar of Dairy Milk will help with the hypoglycaemia that causes hangovers, has a nice ‘Madam-Pomphrey- stuffing-Harry-with-chocolate-to-deal-with-Dementor-aftershocks’ vibe. However, when this chime returns in Troubled Blood it is a little more profound:
“He rang off. Robin picked up the rest of the brownie and finished it slowly, savouring every bite. In spite of the prospect of mediation with Matthew, and doubtless because of a much-needed infusion of chocolate, she felt a good deal happier than she had ten minutes previously.” (197)
Chocolate is useful to counteract the effects of Dementors, but it is only Patronuses, of course, who can chase them away. The ability to conjure up a Patronus is linked to friendship throughout Harry Potter, it is often by fixing on Ron and Hermione’s faces that Harry finds he can dredge up a Patronus when all had seemed lost. The wider circle of Harry’s friendship is useful in warding off depression too. One of my favourite moments of the series is Luna’s appearance with her beautiful hare Patronus – ‘‘We’re all still here,’ she whispered, ‘we’re still fighting’ (Deathly Hallows, chap 32) – alongside Ernie and Seamus with the boar and fox Patronuses which Harry taught them all to conjure. These friends save Harry, Ron and Hermione when all had seemed lost and the power of his love for his friends enables Harry to conjure a Patronus even when he feels at his most defeated.
But as Robin/Strike shippers will surely feel the Strike-is-better-than-a-brownie moment, although it speaks to Robin’s love of Strike as her best friend, tells us something more. As Rowling has explained ‘the Patronus often mutates to take the image of the love of one’s life (because they so often become the “happy thought” that generates a Patronus).’ When Tonks’s Patronus becomes a wolf or Snape’s Patronus takes shape as a doe it is a sign of the depth of their devotion: ‘your Patronus only changes if it’s eternal love, unchanging – part of you forever’. Murphy is a mere ‘also ran’ – whether or not we get the kiss in Running Grave or at a later date, I am confident that Robin’s Patronus has taken fixed form as bear.
But much as I enjoy spotting specific parallels like this, what really stood out for me on this reread, is something more fundamental: the re-enchantment of the mundane in which both series partake. Rowling’s new hero has a name embedded in myth and he is suitably attuned to the mythic strands that remain visible in the workaday world. The opening of Silkworm, for example, finds him noticing the stone griffin standing sentinel over Smithfield market and the face carved over the market’s arch ‘a stern stone face, ancient and bearded, stared back at him from over the doorway. Had there ever been a god of carcasses?’
This might read to us, now we know who Robert Galbraith is (something Rowling had not intended when she wrote Silkworm), as Rowling’s burnishing of the real-world with some of her habitual magic. But in reality, it is the opposite. These moments in Strike function as a reminder that the magical world of Hogwarts was always rooted in an imagination triggered by the real world. Just such a stone griffin seen on London’s streets might have been what inspired Rowling to name Gryffindor; just such a stern ‘ancient and bearded’ stone face might have inspired Slytherin’s statue ‘ancient and monkey-like, with a long thin beard’ (Chamber, chap 17). The prophet-like man in Cuckoo’s Calling – ‘they were momentarily impeded by a tiny hooded, bearded man like an Old Testament prophet, who stopped in front of them and slowly stuck out his tongue’ (126) – feels like an encounter with a Wizard because Mr Dursley’s horror at Daedalus Diggle (a ‘tiny old man… wearing a violet cloak’ [Philosopher’s Stone, chap 1]) is precisely such a real-world encounter reimagined from the perspective of the outsider. Diggle’s eccentricities mark his joyous membership of a magical society rather than being signs of mental illness. Parallels between this nameless man in Cuckoo’s Calling and Diggle are a politicised version of the wider perspective which is always functioning in Rowling’s work: the perception of the numinous in the everyday. Fascinating histories and myths underlie quotidian reality just as they do magical worlds.
One of the ways Rowling has always expressed this idea is through her evocative names. Cormoran’s name comes from a mythic giant and the novels are peppered with names that conjure up wider horizons: such the wideboy journalist Dominic Culpepper (whose name is a nod to Culpeper, the seventeenth century herbalist-cum-astrologist who is such an important source for both Herbology and Potions in Harry Potter) or the blink-and-you’d-miss-her Margaret Bunyan who turns up in Career of Evil (the novel that follows Silkworm – the book which confirmed Rowling’s long-held interest in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the most influential stories of all time). In London, Robin and Strike are surrounded by real-world names that likewise often recall similarly complex histories. For example, the White Swan pub near Robin’s home gives a local habitation and a name to all the symbolic swans that float through the novels themselves, and their mythic hinterlands.
The name of the White Swan is inscribed not only on its pub sign, but also into the wall of the pub, with its ‘single carved swan’ (Lethal White, 56). I particularly enjoyed this detail as it reminded me of noticing, when I lived in London briefly as a teenager, passing by a pub with one of those generic ‘Slug and Lettuce’ names so common in the 1990s and noticing high up on the pub’s wall a carving of a mitre. Despite the attempted erasure, I knew what the old (real!) name of that pub had been. And ‘The Mitre’ is indeed a classic pub name – the one on Oxford High Street, for example, has been named ‘the Mitre’ since c.1500, after the Bishop of Lincoln’s mitre on Lincoln College’s coat of arms (Lincoln College owns the pub). In a nice serendipity this Oxford Mitre inn plays an important role in one of Elizabeth Goudge’s novels. Goudge is a writer whose deep reverence for the numinous-in-the-everyday made her Little White Horse such a magical read (and Rowling’s favourite childhood novel). And that novel itself – with its magical unicorn mistaken for a workaday white horse – may be one reason embedded in Rowling’s own personal history why white horses (including frequent White Horse pubs) play such an important symbolic role in Lethal White.
Pub names are themselves an interesting piece of Britain’s national history that reach back to the fourteenth century. Pub names are often a simple, easily recognisable visual sign (like a mitre or a white horse) because they go back to a time before mass literacy. Tavern signs evolved from the ‘bush’ of the Roman taberna (a wreath of vine leaves signalling that new wine had been delivered) and when Richard II decreed that all inns had to display a sign, each establishment, keen to be identified by those who could not read as well as those who could, advertised themselves with a clear, often solid-colour image (such as a white horse or a red lion). As Robin tells us the White Horse is one of the ten most popular pub names in Britain – or at least it was when she read this fact (presumably in this 2007 list compiled by CAMRA):
1. Crown (704)
2. Red Lion (668)
3. Royal Oak (541)
4. Swan (451)
5. White Hart (431)
6. Railway (420)
7. Plough (413)
8. White Horse (379)
9. Bell (378)
10. New Inn (372)
This list comes from the fascinating Wikipedia entry on pub names and shows how many inns chose a single animal or object as their sign. Strike readers will no doubt be pleased to see that ‘The Swan’ is doing well in that list and it is interesting that the White Hart – the badge of Richard II and a crucially important symbolic animal throughout Harry Potter (see here) – should also be such a perennial favourite.
While pubs play a large role in Harry Potter (just as they do in Strike), churches –arguably the other most numerous set of ancient public buildings that connect the English landscape with its past – play a much larger role in the more recent series. Churches are important locations in Strike where the mythic past intertwines with the lives of our protagonists. This happens at weddings and funerals (such as Joan’s funeral church functioning as a reminder of the saint underlying Strike’s home ‘St. Maudez, for whom both village and church were named’ [Troubled Blood, chap 48]) and in the surprising cameo of the truncated churchyard of All Saints, Leamington Spa in the same novel marking a dead-end in the investigation. But the novel with the most symbolically important churches so far has, once again, been the ‘pivotal’ novel, Lethal White.
Early in Lethal White Robin steps off her accustomed path into St Nicholas’s churchyard in Deptford – drawn in by the extraordinary skull finials on its gateposts. These memento mori skulls have a fascinating history and a persistent local legend suggests that they may have inspired the Jolly Roger itself and the narrative makes an oblique reference this piratical connection: ‘the finials would have looked at home, Robin thought, moving closer to examine the black eye sockets, garnishing the front of a pirate’s mansion in some fantasy film’ (48). Suitably, the peaceful churchyard beyond these gates – ‘Robin saw a church and mossy tombs lying amid an empty rose garden in full bloom’ – is where she stops to examine the fictions within her own history, the reasons for staying married to Matthew which (like the link with the Jolly Roger) don’t quite add up. The churchyard is a haven for Robin – surrounded by roses, eating her ice-cream, revelling in the ‘free’ hour she has bought herself by chucking her therapy – which allows her both to revisit these painful memories and to start building a future. This is where she first hears about Billy and re-establishes some of her old friendship with Strike and after this absorbing phone call, she ‘forgot to glance up at the White Swan pub… a single carved swan, which reminded Robin, every time she passed it, of her calamitous wedding day’ (56). It is a good start.
I have a particular affection for another place of worship in Lethal White – St Mary Undercroft, which Rowling first revealed in a Twitter Header on Valentine’s Day in 2018. This is a sacred space both literally and figuratively submerged beneath the workaday world above:
“Robin’s eyes followed the course of twisting vines that covered the ceiling. Strange faces peered down at her out of the moulding, like the wild Green Man of myth. Heraldic and pagan imagery mingled with angels and crosses. It was more than a place of God, this chapel. It harked back to an age of superstition, magic and feudal power.” (188)
Robin’s acute awareness of the chapel’s symbolic power returns a few pages later:
‘D’you believe in redemption?’
The question caught Robin totally by surprise. It had a kind of gravity and beauty, like the gleaming jewel of the chapel at the foot of a winding stair. (190)
St Mary Undercroft literally underlies the Houses of Parliament and its symbolic power speaks to the importance of the past which underlies the present. It is a symbolism which might appear destablised, perhaps, by the falsity of Raphael’s question but it is false question which generates a truth in Robin’s response: ‘I… yes, I do.’
This chapel is the first place of religion in the series in which holiness is explicitly foregrounded – ‘it had a kind of gravity and beauty, like the gleaming jewel of the chapel’ – but the importance of the sacred is likewise nascent in an crucial detail about Robin’s past. We learn in Career of Evil that it was in a church – reflecting on the large stone crab clinging to the wall of St. Mary the Virgin, Masham – that Robin’s true, truth-questing nature revealed itself to her for the first time: ‘her curiosity on the point had ended up infecting Linda, who had gone to the local library, looked up the records and triumphantly informed her daughter that the crab had been the emblem of the ancient Scrope family, whose memorial sat above it. Nine-year-old Robin had been disappointed by the answer. In a way, an explanation had never been the point. She had simply liked being the only one who wanted to find out the truth’ (401). In terms of the Johari window (which Cuckoo’s Calling made into a framework for the series), Robin’s true detecting nature become known to herself at nine, but it takes many years before it becomes known to others and it seems symbolic that this moment of self-revelation should have taken place in a church.
In Lethal White there is also another important religious symbol, this time an action not a place: Billy’s ‘slipshod half-cross’ (101), a stim that marks him as both mentally unwell and spiritually pure. Just like nine-year-old Robin in her home church, Billy is a rare person who is truly seeking the truth. Unlike everyone else in the novel he is seeking justice for another, and he is seeking it at a cost to himself. (Paradoxically, of course, his goodness will bring its own reward for his search for the truth will uncover the fact that he did not actually witness a murder, freeing him from that nightmare.) His stim is described in the epilogue as apotropaic ‘the tic that seemed for Billy to have something of the significance of warding off evil. Rain continued to lash the restaurant windows’ (642). The truth washes away Billy’s suffering and the epilogue marks a moment of renewal for Robin too: the rain symbolises the way in which, at the conclusion of this novel, both are washed clean of the pasts that had been dogging them. Billy is free of his murderous nightmare, Robin of Matthew.
Rain marking a new start alerts us to one of the central tropes of Rowling’s writing operating here – the alchemical idea of solve et coagula (‘dissolve and rebuild’). This, one of the oldest and most important maxims in alchemy, posits that some kind of dissolution is necessary before purification can begin. It is a maxim Rowling holds so dear she has tattooed it on the inside of her writing wrist and I wrote a three-part blog about its importance in her work here, here and here. This symbolic rain of dissolution continues in Troubled Blood – a very watery novel! – signalling the dissolution that must likewise precede rebuilding for Strike. The floods are the most obvious sign of this, but my favourite watery moment is the synthesis of rain and tears as Robin cries after Strike breaks the habit of a lifetime and apologises to her: ‘the eternal rain fell outside his attic window. Somehow, the texts from Charlotte had made him realise he had to call Robin, had to make things right with her before he set off for Cornwall and Joan’ (512). The rain marks the moment of the turn as solve becomes coagula. Charlotte is at a nadir in her life and determined to embroil Strike in her suffering – but he learns from this destructiveness, this dissolution, to rebuild. Not that, unsalvageable relationship, but to shore up the central relationship in his life: not to call Charlotte, but to call Robin. It is a wonderfully sane response to Charlotte’s text – coagula indeed.
Ink Black Heart is a novel of reprises – yet another final parting from Charlotte, yet another meaningless relationship for Strike, yet another failure of Strike and Robin to openly acknowledge to each other what they mean to each other. One alchemical writer states that the whole work of alchemy ‘is nothing but that of dissolving and making hard again: namely, dissolving the body and making hard the spirit.’ To make the Philosopher’s Stone, solid substances must be dissolved (‘solve’) while the resultant ‘spirit’ must be fixed again into a solid (‘coagula’). The alchemist makes his raw material undergo this process over and over until they – and he – are fully purified. Much as I wish we’d seen the end of Charlottian seductions and Strike’s meaningless couplings, the repetition of both in Ink Black Heart fits with the solve et coagula idea which recognises the difficulty of change. Just as with the CBT exercises that don’t help Robin if she doesn’t do them, to achieve alchemical change the practitioner has to commit to repetition – to repeating the stages of the philosophical Great Work over and over again – before purification occurs. We’re going to see Strike committing again to self-improvement in Running Grave but he is going to need to keep choosing wine over beer, vaping over cigarettes and Robin over random beautiful women before true change can occur.
Alchemical symbolism has an important spiritual dimension and indeed we could think of the solve of Strike’s attraction to Charlotte as the breaking down of a love which was primarily physical (the dissolution of the base solid) to build up his true love for Robin (the fixing of the spirit). This alchemical symbolism is part of the spiritual hinterland in the symbolism of both Strike and Harry Potter and the importance of this dimension is signalled in the pivotal novel of Lethal White by the importance of churchyards, chapels, and Billy’s ‘slipshod half-cross. It is built on in Troubled Blood with the location ( St. John’s Gate was originally the entrance to Clerkenwell Priory), the repeated references to St John crosses, the biblical quotation in golden letters on the door of the nursing home and statue of Jesus within: ‘the almost life-size plaster Jesus looked sadly down upon the killer and the impostor as they headed toward the door’ (759). The word ‘Jesus’ is used over forty times in the series as a swear word, but this statue animates the word’s true meaning. Not only is it a depiction of Jesus but the narrative voice also imputes agency to his sadness – suggestive of the living presence the plaster imitation is intended to evoke. Jesus reappears in Ink Black Heart (in a discussion of a production of Tannhäuser in which he, rather surprisingly, appears ) but also, even more surprisingly, when the swear word the reader has heard so often is suddenly reinvested with its original meaning:
‘Jesus,’ said Robin, hurrying over to them, and finding nothing else to say she repeated, ‘Jesus!’
‘He was definitely on our side an hour ago,’ said Strike.
Suddenly – in a startling moment – ‘Jesus’ is transformed out of the semantically bleached swearword into its true meaning.
Both because of the steady building of religious symbolism in the Strike series from Lethal White onwards (not least, of course, in the appearance of a pelican in Ink Black Heart) and because Deathly Hallows contains the most important religious symbolism in Harry Potter, I’m expecting things to go further in this direction in Running Grave. St John the Baptist Church, Aylmerton is the Running Grave parallel for the parish church of Godric’s Hollow in Deathly Hallows and I’m hoping that its nearby cross – with its evocative surroundings of secret tunnels, Shrieking Pits and ghost sightings – will be important too. And my expectation is that the traditional religion embodied by this church and its nearby cross on the Walsingham Way will form a symbolic counterpoint to the spurious religiosity of the cult of the Universal Humanitarian ‘Church.’
One of my favourite aspects of Deathly Hallows is the way in which the Horcrux Quest – the kind of ‘detective quest’ we see in each Harry Potter novel: solve the clues and defeat the bad guy – is overlaid with a different kind of quest, a ‘Grail Quest’ for the Hallows. The Hallows Quest is about something more spiritual, more esoteric – there are true believers and seekers who are searching for sacred objects most people don’t even believe exist. Harry has to decide what kind of Seeker he is and, having discovered that the Hallows are indeed real, make the final decision to relinquish this quest. Harry chooses not race Voldemort to the Elder Wand, to throw the Resurrection Stone from him and finally face death with no magical aids. I am hoping that the Running Grave will perform the same pitting of one quest against another – that alongside the ‘Horcrux Quest’ to save the young man in thrall to the cult will be a ‘Hallows Quest’ which Strike, like Harry, will have to learn to relinquish.
Harry is a ‘doing’ sort of a hero and his test in the Hallows Quest is to learn not to act: ‘The enormity of his decision not to race Voldemort to the wand still scared Harry. He could not remember, ever before, choosing not to act’ (Deathly Hallows, chap 25). Strike is a ‘knowing’ sort of hero – he would, as Robin reminds him, ‘never choose not to know’ (Troubled Blood, 767). I wonder if this means that he’ll have to learn to leave a stone unturned for once? (But Robin will solve it for him after all?). Alongside the main thrust of the detective plot, I think we’ll be seeing some version of the Grail Quest which touches deeper chords in Strike’s psyche (discovering the truth about something that happened in his Norfolk childhood? Some clue to Leda’s death?) and takes him into uncharted waters. I am hoping for a moment of growth that echoes that of Harry in the climatic moment when he chooses Horcruxes over Hallows:
“Am I meant to know, but not to seek? Did you know how hard I’d find that? Is that why you made it this difficult? So I’d have time to work that out?” (Deathly Hallows, chap 24)
Tomorrow – seven predictions for Strike Seven!
[Please remember that Dr. Groves has not read the sample chapters for The Running Grave! Please no sample or any other spoilers in the comments.]