Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Catullus

Trinity College Portraits by Ian Wallman

A Nativity Guest Post post from Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow and Tutor in English at Oxford’s Trinity College and the author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter as a Christmas gift to you about distinguishing an artist from her artwork and a pointer to a BBC program this week which Serious Strikers will want to attend. Enjoy — and Merry Christmas!

On 9 Jan on Radio 4 (9am and 9.30pm) there will be an ‘In Our Time’ episode on Catullus – which serious Strikers may be  interested in listening in on. Guests include my friend and colleague Dr Gail Trimble, who has written the forthcoming Cambridge University Press edition of Catullus 64 (and what she doesn’t know about Catullus isn’t worth knowing). The write-up of the programme describes how:

Catullus (c84-c54 BC) wrote some of the most sublime poetry in the late Roman Republic, and some of the most obscene. He found a new way to write about love, in poems to the mysterious Lesbia, married and elusive, and he influenced Virgil and Ovid and others, yet his explicit poems were to blight his reputation for a thousand years. Once the one surviving manuscript was discovered in the Middle Ages, though, anecdotally as a plug in a wine butt, he inspired Petrarch and the Elizabethan poets, as he continues to inspire many today. 

One those he continues to inspire, of course, is J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith. She has made Catullus her new hero’s favourite poet – in a way that marks both Strike’s continuity with Harry Potter (in which she delights in using Latin as a magical language) and a gear-change in the way in which she approaches such subjects in her more explicitly adult series. Catullus is a major presence in both the second and fourth Strike novels. In Silkworm Catullus is first mentioned as Strike’s favourite author without giving the reader anything to identify the book by: his favourite book lay in one of the unpacked boxes of possessions on the landing; it was twenty years old and he had not opened it for a long time’ (Silkworm, p.254). Catullus’s poems lies buried in Strike’s subconcious (just as they are literally buried among the books on his landing) and first rise unbidden to his mind on receiving Charlotte’s text ‘Congratulate me. Mrs Jago Ross:’

As he walked with the aid of his stick back to Denmark Street he remembered words from his favourite book, unread for a very long time, buried at the bottom of the box of belongings on his landing.

difficile est longum subito deponere amoren,

difficile est, uerum hoc qua lubet efficias

it is hard to throw off long-established love:

Hard, but this you must manage somehow… (Silkworm, p.373)

It is only in the third and final reference to Catullus in Silkworm that the poet is finally identified. In this passage – which one reviewer called ‘corny but thrilling anyway’1 – Strike performs the ultimate put-down by quoting Catullus at length in Latin:

sicine subrepsti mi, atque intestina pururens

ei misero eripuisti omnia nostra bona?

Eripuisti, eheu, nostrae crudele uenenum

Uitae, eheu nostrae pestis amicitiae.’

He looked unsmilingly upon Fancourt’s astonishment. The writer rallied quickly.

Ovid?’

Catullus,’ said Strike, heaving himself off the low pouffe with the aid of the table. ‘Translates roughly:

So that’s how you crept up on me, an acid eating away

My guts, stole from me everything I most treasure?

Yes, alas, stole: grim poison in my blood

The plague, alas, of the friendship we once had.

 ‘Well, I expect we’ll see each other around,’ said Strike pleasantly.

(Silkworm, p.401)

This is a quotation of almost the whole of Catullus 77 and its relevance to the grotesque murder in Silkworm is clear. But the earlier quotation of Catullus 76 – ‘it is hard to throw off long-established love:/ Hard, but this you must manage somehow’ – appears to have a more wide-ranging relevance for the Strike series.

Rowling has had an all-or-nothing relationship with Twitter in 2019 – her year-long near-silence broken at the very end of the year by a tweet which seems to have been one of the most talked-about tweets of recent times. In the good old days, however, she used Twitter to tell us about Catullus.

On the 16th November 2017 she posted a picture in which I was delighted to spot Peter Green’s bilingual translation of Catullus hiding under the popcorn.

After reading Lethal White I can’t but wonder if this was an intentional set-up – another of her infamous gingerbread trails. For Strike, likewise, strains to read the half-revealed book titles on Jasper Chiswell’s coffee-table and spots an edition of Catullus: ‘Strike could see nothing but a partial title on an old cloth edition – “CATUL”’ (p.292). In this tweet Rowling places her readers in precisely the same position as her detective: straining to find clues from a photograph of a copy of Catullus on the coffee-table of someone who has been quoting that poet. And is she teasing us by leaving precisely the same five letters ‘CATUL’ visible on the book’s spine? Can we come to the same conclusion as Strike from precisely the same evidence?!

Then, on 1 July 2018, Rowling replied to a fan-tweet (can you give us a tease on Lethal White?’) with her first Latin tweet: ‘Odi et amo. Quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’ Rowling’s tweet quotes the whole of Catullus 85: ‘I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment.’

By quoting Catullus in Latin, Rowling links herself directly with her detective (who, as noted above, has quoted both Catullus 76 and 77 in Latin from memory). Rowling has commented in interview that these quotations are a hint about Strike’s own personal story arc: ‘it is a clue to what he was studying before he left university… I have backstory there.’2 Rowling, too, studied the classics at university (in her case Greek and Roman Studies at Exeter University – in addition to French) and lines from Catullus clearly rise to her mind as expressing precisely the mot juste, just as they do for Strike. Before the publication of Lethal White I wrote a post for Bathilda’s Notebook on Mugglenet about Rowling’s ‘Odi et amo’ tweet (– which I hope John will post a link to here when Mugglenet is back up!). And, as promised, in Lethal White Catullus did indeed make a return. The copy Strike spots on the villain-victim Chiswell’s coffee table is a pointer to his two important quotations of the poet.

Firstly Chiswell quotes Catullus 16 (apparently with homophobic intent) at Aamir Mallik: ‘Catullus more up your street, I expect. He produced some fine poetry about men of your habits. Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi, eh? Poem 16, look it up, you’ll enjoy it’ (pp.186-7). (In a nice detective-y detail Strike is able to identify the poet later when discussing this moment with Robin – although she cannot remember the Latin – because Chiswell gives the poem a number not a name: ‘Catullus’s poems are numbered, not titled’ [p.296]).

And then, just as in Rowling’s ‘Odi et amo’ tweet, Chiswell quotes Catullus 85 itself: ‘Odi et amo, quare id faciam fortasse requiris? Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.’ Robin finds it written out in Latin by Chiswell on a crucial note that is one of her biggest under-cover finds. Strike translates it for us – ‘“I hate and I love. Why do I do it, you might ask? I don’t know. I just feel it, and it crucifies me….” that’s Catullus again. A famous one’ (p.449) – and in doing so reveals a little more of his backstory as he parries Robin’s question about how come he can read Latin though he did not (like Rowling) study it at university: ‘in fact the story of his ability to read Latin wasn’t long, merely (to most people) inexplicable. He didn’t feel like telling it in the middle of the night, nor did he want to explain that Charlotte had studied Catullus at Oxford’ (p.453).

In my Mugglenet blog I suggested Peter Green’s translation of Catullus 85 as our best pre-publication guess at how Rowling/Strike would translate it:

I hate and love. You wonder, perhaps, why I’d do that?

I have no idea. I just feel it. I am crucified.3

Rowling hasn’t followed it precisely (as indeed, given copyright, she couldn’t have), but the ‘I just feel it’ and the verb ‘crucify’ suggests that she has used Green as a guide in her translation (Strike’s version, for example, is much closer to Green than to the Loeb: ‘I hate and love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not, but I feel it, and I am in torment’).

Rowling kept faith with that ‘Odi et amo’ tweet, too, in the sense that Catullus is even more important for the plot in Lethal White than in Silkworm (a pattern we should see repeated in Strike 6 if John is right about the structure, with Lethal White as the ‘pivot’ novel). Strike, musing on why Chiswell has quoted Catullus to Aamir Mallik, notes the obvious point that Chiswell is calling out some form of sexual deviancy – sexually explicit poetry being what Catullus is best-known for: ‘Catullus described plenty of interesting habits: incest, sodomy, child rape… he might’ve missed out bestiality’ (p.296).

He also makes the slightly less obvious connection that Catullus writes about relations with an older woman: ‘the best-known ones are on that very subject,’ said Strike. ‘Catullus was in love with an older woman’ (p.337). An older, married, woman, indeed – although Rowling wants us to work out that clue for ourselves. And Chiswell is indeed, by quoting Catullus 16, expressing his violent anger at sexual deviancy (something very close to incest, in fact) with an older, married woman. Strike has put his finger on the oblique accusation Chiswell is making, he just isn’t ‘addressing’ the person Strike thinks that he is (‘we are never too old to learn, eh, Raff?’ [p.187]).

Catullus – even, perhaps the startlingly adult Catullus 16 – also marks a subtle cross-over between the Strike and Wizarding Worlds. It is difficult not to notice post-Crimes of Grindelwald that Rowling quotes the second line of the Catullus 16 in Lethal White, the line which addresses ‘Aureli:’ the Roman Senator Marcus Aurelius Cotta Maximus Messalinus. This Aurelius is a tempting source for Credence’s new name (revealed to the world two months after the publication of Lethal White) – did she come up with it when re-reading Catullus 16 for Strike research?

More pertinently, I think, Catullus is a name Rowling used in her Wizarding World (posted on Pottermore in 2016 after he had turned up as Strike’s favourite poet in Silkworm in 2014) for ‘the great eighteenth-century researcher of Charms, Professor Catullus Spangle.’ Catullus Spangle is an authority on the Patronus, and in particular, on the way in which this Charm (as we’ve seen in particular with Harry, Snape’s and Tonks’s Patronuses) makes deeply private realities visible: ‘the Patronus, asserted Spangle, represents that which is hidden, unknown but necessary within the personality… the Patronus is the awakened secret self that lies dormant until needed, but which must now be brought to light…’ (Rowling deepens this point by having Spangle, surprisingly, suggest that there is something odd about those whose Patronus takes the form of their favourite animal: ‘Here is a wizard who may not be able to hide their essential self in common life, who may, indeed, parade tendencies that others might prefer to conceal.’4) The Patronus – a bit like more traditional acts of creativity? – negotiates between someone’s private and public natures, their surface and their depths.

Catullus 16, which is only quoted in Lethal White in Latin (and, indeed, was only published in full in English in the late twentieth century), is far from suitable fare for many Pottermore readers. But it is a poem Rowling chooses to quote in her adult work and it is interesting that she gives its author’s name to an academic who writes about the Charm which mediates between the hidden and revealed selves.

The most interesting aspect of Catullus 16 (for this reader, at least) is its explicit (in both senses) discussion of the relation between an author and their art. It is a performance of outrage against those who cannot distinguish between an artist and an art-work. Others claim that Catullus ‘parades tendencies that others might prefer to conceal’ and he replies, in effect, that the poetry is no measure of the man. But he does so, of course, poetically: the poem is a wittily circular, as well as violently memorable, demonstration of its central point.

As we wait for Strike 5 (which Rowling noted last month is pages away from completion) I hope you’ll join me in tuning into the Catullus special on Radio 4 and learning a bit more about Strike’s favourite poet. Who knows? It might provide future clues….

  1. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/jk-rowling-the-most-successful-writer-in-the-world-spins-a-winner/news-story/49666ffcf0ae7d82afdbc379101f584b
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbvJbbgFhrQ
  3. The Poems of Catullus: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Peter Green (London: University of California Press, 2005). p.191.
  4. https://www.wizardingworld.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/patronus-charm

Guest Post: The Real Tycho Dodonus?

The Predictions of Tycho Dodonus play an outsize role in the understory beneath the confusing surface action of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise. In a nutshell, the wizards of the age seem to believe that the poetic predictions made by Tycho point to the identity of Credence as something of a deliverer. What we haven’t been told is who this Tycho was (is?) and why his cryptic utterances carry such weight with witches and wizards between the two great World Wars. Tyler Brown has found a real-world model that may be an important clue in grasping what the Tycho prophetic sub-plot means in Beasts. Enjoy!

The Predictions of Tyconius the Donatist?

In The Crimes of Grindelwald, we are newly introduced to a prophecy that has taken the wizarding world by storm, the Predictions of Tycho Dodonus. We first hear of Tycho Dodonus when Yusuf Kama mentions the Predictions to Tina outside the Parisian Café, where she dismisses them as mere poetry. Prediction 20 itself first appears in the extended cut’s next scene, the ballroom scene featuring Leta, where rumors are that Credence Barebone is actually Leta’s brother Corvus Lestrange returned beyond hope. Travers begins to quote Prediction 20 to Dumbledore in the DADA classroom scene, who cuts him off with, “Yes, I know it.” Yusuf recites the full text later in the Lestrange Mausoleum: “A son cruelly banished / Despair of the daughter / Return, great avenger / With wings from the water.” Yet, the Corvus Lestrange interpretation is invalidated, of course, by Leta’s admission of the Credence-Corvus baby-swap.

Interestingly, the Predictions of Tycho Dodonus are a unique prophecy in the Potterverse, being, apparently, public knowledge. Rowling has departed from her usual procedure with the prophecies of Tycho Dodonus, since, as we know from the Potter series, prophecies are typically collected by the Department of Mysteries to be placed under guard in the Hall of Prophecies. That the Tycho Dodonus prophecies are not handled this way suggests their importance. Therefore, we can probably expect the continuing influence of Tycho Dodonus’ prophecy in Beasts.

Being aware of this, I was surprised the other day to come across a real-world name very similar to Tycho Dodonus: Tyconius the Donatist (try saying them aloud!). It turns out that Tyconius the Donatist wrote a Book of Rules which is intended to guide readers through, wait for it, “the vast forest of prophecy” of the Scriptures.i This discovery was enough to hook me in, so I started doing some digging to see if there were any parallels between Tyconius the Donatist and Tycho Dodonus, and I was not disappointed. So, could Tyconius the Donatist be a real-world inspiration for the prophet of Fantastic Beasts? My reasons for believing so follow. [Read more…]

Halloween! About the Hogwarts Ghosts

A Halloween Guest Post from David Martin! Joyous Walpurgis Nacht, Everyone!

As we approach Halloween, the time when we are concerned with

Ghoulies and Ghosties,
And long-leggity Beasties,
And Things that go bump in the Night…

let us pause a moment to consider the Hogwarts ghosts and how different they are from other literary ghosts. Let’s compare the Hogwarts ghosts with what are perhaps the two best-known literary ghosts, Marley from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Hamlet’s father.

The first difference to observe is the “age” of the ghosts – or whatever we should call it when considering how long a ghost has been dead. Marley, we are told very clearly, has been dead for seven years at the start of A Christmas Carol. With Hamlet’s father, we aren’t given an exact date but it seems clear that his death is recent, perhaps less than a year before the play begins. By contrast, the “youngest” of the Hogwarts ghosts that we meet is Moaning Myrtle who has been dead about 50 years. Professor Binns has been dead for several centuries. Nearly headless Nick has been dead 500 years. The Fat Friar dates from the middle ages – so perhaps 800 years ago. And the Grey Lady and the Bloody Baron died within a generation of the founding of Hogwarts – so, 900 to 1,000 years ago. That’s a major difference.

The second difference to observe is what the ghosts tell us. Both Marley and Hamlet’s father carry grim warnings of judgment and perhaps suffering after death. They bring us information about the next world. The Hogwarts ghosts, on the other hand, tell us things about this world. Nick tells us that the Sorting Hat has issued warnings before. Professor Binns tells us when the International Statute of Secrecy was signed. The discussion between Harry and Nick after the death of Sirius makes it clear that Nick, at least, knows nothing of the next world.

I believe what we have here is another instance of one of Rowling’s favorite techniques, namely giving a specific form or representation to a non-physical reality. She tipped us off about this technique years ago when she told us that Dementors are representations of depression. Looking around the novels, it’s easy enough to find other instances of this technique.

Boggarts can be seen as representations of phobias. I see the Mirror of Erised as a representation of daydreaming. I also think – though it may be a stretch – that Ginny’s enslavement by Tom Riddle’s diary can be seen as a representation of an addiction, perhaps alcoholism because of the memory lapses. And using the Pensieve to sort out your thoughts when there are too many of them – that’s Rowling’s representation of the confusion at the start of the writing process. (My personal Pensieve is a big, flat table and several dozen Post-It notes.)

So what do the Hogwarts ghosts represent? I believe that they can be seen as representations or memories of the past, and often as representing the influence of the past on the present.

First of all, let’s note that speaking of memories as ghosts is common enough. The folk singer Judy Collins has a song called “Secret Gardens” about visiting the remains of her great-grandfather’s farm. She sings “Inside the old kitchen I still see the ghosts of the people I knew long ago.” In a TV program made about her life, J. K. Rowling visited her former flat in Leith where she lived while writing the first Harry Potter book. While looking around it she said “Coming back here is just full of ghosts.”

Such “ghosts” may also represent what might be called collective or cultural memories. My wife had some ancestors who came west to Colorado in a wagon train 150 years ago. Once in Nebraska we stopped at a roadside park where the ruts of the very wagon trail they must have followed are still visible. My wife “felt the ghosts.” I live near Philadelphia. Once I took an out-of-town friend to tour Independence Hall and she, too, “felt the ghosts” there as I suppose most Americans would.

If we accept this interpretation of the Hogwarts ghosts, then a number of details fall into place. Of course, history is taught by a ghost. History is about the past. Of course each house has a ghost to represent its traditions and values, rather than, say, a mascot. And of course the key information from the past that is needed to solve the mystery at hand is sometimes given by a ghost. Moaning Myrtle tells Harry and Ron where she was murdered. The Grey Lady tells Harry what happened to the Diadem of Ravenclaw.

This interpretation of the Hogwarts ghosts is consistent with a fundamental viewpoint that is observable in the Harry Potter novels. The Harry Potter novels seem to have the viewpoint that the present is best understood as the result of the past, or as an expression of the past. For instance, when Rowling wants us to know more about a character, she does not give us their horoscope or their classification on some magical equivalent of the Myers-Briggs personality test. Instead, she tells us their personal history. (But that’s another essay.)

In the 1960s there was a cheery saying that “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That saying looks to the future and suggests that your future can be liberated from your past. The viewpoint in the Harry Potter novels is different. It’s more like “Today is the latest installment in the ongoing, continuing story of your life.” We are all firmly connected to the past. Our ghosts – both personal and collective – remind us of that.

— David Martin of Hufflepuff

Four Dropped Threads in Beasts Films

I’m a shameless Laurie Beckoff fan-boy. She’s a UChicagwarts alumna, a Jeopardy champion, and a first tier Potter Pundit. If you have any doubts about that, go back and listen to the ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcast in which she was the guest expert on King Arthur and the Medieval aspects of the Hogwarts Saga, the subject of her Master’s thesis. Smart, funny, well-read — did I mention “smart like Hermione”? You can watch her tell her Harry Potter story (with great pictures of her pre-teen Luna Lovegood Halloween costume) here.

Anyway, I stumbled on an article Beckoff wrote for MuggleNet last year — she is a regular contributor to the “#1 Wizarding World Resource since 1999,” not to mention MNet podcast producer and their Campaign Co-ordinator — about The Crimes of Grindelwald. The piece is just what its title says it is, namely, Four “Fantastic Beasts” Threads Lost in “Crimes of Grindelwald.”

We’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink here about the failings of Crimes of Grindelwald (check out the fifty pieces listed on the film’s Pillar Post) but I think this Beckoff post on ‘Lost Threads’ brings up the more obvious and at least as important point not discussed here. The sequel failed to deliver on expectations primarily because it didn’t work as a sequel, i.e., the things we learned in Beasts 1 didn’t mesh with the developments we were given in Beasts 2. Jacob’s obliviated-by-rain memory and his shop? Credence’s death? Newt’s expulsion from Hogwarts? Leta’s relationship with Newt? “All gone!”

Yes, there’s a lot more that’s wrong with Crimes than that. We had the director once again butcher Rowling’s shooting script ring composition, for example. The Leta Lestrange sub-plot was incomprehensible because almost every cut scene was one that included Leta or was about her. Check out the Pillar Post for the full agonizing survey. Having noted all that, though, it pays to remember the first great disappointment with Crimes for fans was that it didn’t work as a Fantastic Beasts follow-up. Beckoff’s list of “lost threads” brings that shock back into sharp focus. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Lorrie Kim on Snape and Dumbledore

Lorrie Kim, author of Snape: A Definitive Reading, gave a talk at this year’s Leaky Con on the relationship of Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, perhaps the two must idiosyncratic and powerful wizards ever to be Headmasters at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If, like me, you were unable to weekend in Boston this year and missed the talk, Ms Kim has generously posted her notes for this talk at her website. Enjoy ‘And My Soul, Dumbledore? The Dumbledore-Snape Relationship’!

Hat-tip to Kelly for the great find.