Guest Post: Rowling’s Mercurial Hermetic Artistry from Snape to Strike

Late last month, a reader wrote a note on an old thread about the role of Severus Snape in the alchemical artistry of Harry Potter. “Hi, I don’t know if this question has been asked before, but in HP, which alchemical (or else) role embodies Severus Snape ?” More than ten years ago, I wrote a longish post on this subject, a post that aimed to refute the idea that Snape was the ‘Green Lion’ of the Great Work.

I have been corresponding with Evan Willis, though, since 2015 on this very subject and his work is the best by far I have read on the subject of Snape and alchemy. He has recently expanded his critique to include Cormoran Strike and what we might expect in Lethal White along the mythological, Orestian, and alchemical lines Rowling/Galbraith seems to be writing. His command of the classical and achemical strands is mind boggling, which integration makes his writing important, dense, and a lot of fun; speculative, insightful, and rich with meaning, I’m confident that you will find as I have that this piece rewards a close reading (and a second and third reading, too). Enjoy!

Dark Gods Beneath the Earth: Hermetic Plot Elements in the Cormoran Strike Series

Evan Willis

I have divided this analysis into four sections.

  • In the first, I will attempt to build up an account of the character of Hermes and its place in the interpretation of texts, particularly ones like those of J.K. Rowling. Much in this section has already been covered in other blog posts on this blog, but here I condense it and present much of it outside of a strictly Alchemical context. Some elements are also derived from the account of Mercury to be found in Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, particularly the chapter on The Horse and His Boy.
  • The second part traces, through analysis of the Deathly Hallows epigraph from The Libation Bearers of Aeschylus, the meaning of the Orestes myth and Hermes’s place in it (c.f. this blog’s previous interpretation: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/the-aeschylus-epigraph-in-deathly-hallows/).
  • The third part includes my application of the previous parts to the Cormoran Strike novels as I was able prior to the release of Career of Evil.
  • The fourth part includes my conclusions from what was revealed in Career of Evil, looking ahead to Lethal White and beyond.

Foundations

Let me begin with certain foundation-stones of the argument.

First, the Quadriga, or Four-fold method of reading. The concept here is that any text must be read at four levels: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical. The literal consists in the surface level reading of the text: what happened and who did what. The moral level of interpretation provides an ethical lesson: what we should do. The allegorical level indicates that there is some correspondence between the elements of the text and reality; something in the story indicates and stands in for some aspect of the world outside the text. And then finally the anagogical level, or eschatological level of meaning: here the spiritual truths pertaining to the purpose and end of all things are shown. The biblical books of Revelation and Daniel are primarily written in an anagogical mode: they use symbols to show the spiritual purpose and end of all things in the renewal of the world and the victory of Christ over death and evil. This last layer, in its mystical focus, must rely upon strong systems of symbolism.

Second, Literary Alchemy and similar projects. The core symbolism sets that have been found most adequate to express the focus of the anagogical layer are those of Alchemy, Astrology, and Numerology. These are those symbolism sets that most resonate with the noetic faculty, or “heart”, of human beings. In viewing art imbued with these symbols, having the rational faculty reserved in willing suspension of disbelief, the soul of the viewer is perfected by reflection of these symbols. This sacramental quality is what gives them the power to express the anagogical layer of meaning. These symbols are at the very heart of the redemptive project. For example: the core image of Alchemy is of the Alchemical Wedding, in which the world is perfected through union of opposites. This is the anagogical expression of what is expressed by the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation: the union of God and man, saving the world and renewing it.

In the literary use of Alchemy and related symbols, we have works that structure themselves after the character of the Alchemical work and thus gain in power and reformative strength. This and other blogs have extensively shown the strength of Harry Potter and other works by J.K. Rowling in demonstrating the use and strength of this method of structuring works after these eternal symbolism sets.

In sum, we have the deepest layer of meaning, the Anagogical, which expresses the depths of mystical truths through perennial sets of symbols, chiefly Alchemy, Astrology, and Numerology.

Now suppose we sat down to write a work with anagogical depth, using these symbols to guide and structure our writing. And let us further suppose that we introduce a character whose primary modus operandi is to act precisely like these symbolism sets themselves act. Such a character would embody meaning, but would hide behind images. Much as in Anagogical reading one must be able to quickly associate vast collections of symbols to see the whole that is being aimed at, such a character would need to be swift and effective at reaching his goals.

Further, anagogical symbolism is hidden, one needs to be on the look-out for it to recognize it, and yet it is the thing that provides a root for meaning even at the literal level. So, our character must ever hide in darkness, hiding whatever he does while ever building to his goal. Core to Anagogical symbolism is the Alchemical Wedding, the union of opposites after separation. As such, his goal must be to bring characters apart and together in such a way that the world is perfected, and yet must ever do so behind the scenes. As a personification of language he must be tricky, one who could steal as readily as give. As relating to the meaning of the world he would be related to the Logos, he must be a character that descends to and ascends from the Underworld, rescuing others.

Thus, we would write a dark character, acting behind-the-scenes, recognizable through known symbolism sets, dividing and unifying those around him, of questionable goodness (probably a thief or used-car-salesman-esque businessman), who goes down into the depths of the Earth and ascends. Using such a character would allow the anagogical vision to shine through, and the use of such a character would force the plot as a whole to abide within these symbolism sets.

Ancient Greek and Roman mythology had such a character: Hermes, or Mercury for the Romans. Consequently, when alchemy, astrology, and numerology emerged historically in Hellenistic Greek culture, said movement was called Hermeticism, and was attributed to a person called Hermes Trismegistus.

So, to sum up thus far: Anagogical meaning is the sort of meaning that provides symbols that illuminate the universal grand narrative, chiefly in demonstrating eschatological rebirth. Core sets of symbols that accomplish this are alchemy, astrology, and numerology. Further, the central figure of these symbolism sets, who embodies in his actions the very illumination of the narrative, is the figure that is represented in Greek Myth as Hermes.

So, let us distill the personality of Hermes into a more succinct form so that we can better recognize it. Here I will look at the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. In this Hymn, he describes the very early life of Hermes. He is born in a cave early in the morning, and before the end of the day he stolen the cattle of Apollo, having stopped along the way to provide himself with a turtle shell. From a couple of the cows and the turtle shell he invents the first lyre. The next day, Apollo goes looking for his cattle and accuses Hermes. Hermes claims innocence, on the grounds that he was only born yesterday. Ultimately taking the case before Zeus, who, laughing at Hermes’s audacity, convinces Hermes to return the cattle to Apollo. There is then an exchange of gifts between Hermes and Apollo. Hermes gives Apollo the lyre, and receives in return the Caduceus, the magic staff of Hermes, and various realms for him to preside over as deity: a certain form of prophecy, cattle, trade and theft, and the guiding of souls down to the Underworld. Thus Hermes and Apollo are absolutely reconciled.

Throughout this story, we see that the seemingly random actions taken by Hermes, from stealing cattle to claiming the tortoise, were secretly aimed at providing for himself a domain over which to rule. But his domain is double-directional: in theft you may lose cattle, but from the thief’s perspective this is sudden gain, he  descends to the Underworld but also rises, he divides lovers and unites them (this aspect core to Alchemy), his prophecy either tells the truth or tells outright lies. We may thus think of his action as a two-way movement of dividing and reuniting that is accomplished behind-the-scenes in such a way that he can remain utterly unnoticed unless you are familiar enough with the symbolism that indicates him to see his presence.

Thus we have an interesting phenomenon: Hermes as a character who, by virtue of embodying the Anagogical, acting within the story (i.e. Literal level of meaning), can only be recognized as being present by understanding the Anagogical.

Michael Ward has shown in Planet Narnia that C.S. Lewis’s Horse and His Boy is structured along Mercurial (i.e. Hermetic) lines. Throughout the story, we see various lions and a cat show up, grouping and separating the main characters precisely as is necessary to allow for the salvation of Narnia and Archenland from the Calormene invasion. The thing to notice here is this: if The Horse and His Boy was the first of the Chronicles of Narnia one had ever read, one would not have been on the lookout for the Great Lion Aslan, and so one would completely miss the fact that all the various lions and cats are all One Lion (at least before it is dramatically revealed near the story’s end). If, on the other hand, one has great familiarity with the rest of the series, one automatically arrives at knowledge that Aslan is secretly guiding the adventures of the main characters. Not only do we receive an anagogical meaning from seeing Aslan in this hidden form, but we are shown Literal level plot that we would have utterly missed. By the anagogical we gain greater knowledge of the literal.

So, the goal is this: given that we know that Hermes or a Hermes-like character will be acting behind the scenes to achieve some end, we can see this hidden element of the plot by recognizing the symbols pertaining to Hermes throughout the work. All the actions done by this character are absolutely off-stage, but we can know they happened by carefully noticing symbols that follow his presence.

Tracing a Hermetic Thread in Rowling: The Orestes Myth

 Let us begin to apply this methodology to reading J.K. Rowling’s works. We will start by tracing the story behind the Libation Bearers epigraph from Deathly Hallows:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

But there is a cure in the house,
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.

Now hear, you blissful powers underground —
answer the call, send help,
Bless the children, give them triumph now.

The first stanza indicates that there is some curse or deathly evil that has been passed down in the family; the second indicates that the cure for this is to be found within the action of the members of that family themselves, and the third is a call for “blissful powers underground” to help the children. In the context of the Harry Potter books, this is seen as a recognition of the cursed strife among the Peverell descendants (Harry vs. Voldemort) in large part over what it means to become Master of Death, for which the cure lies in Harry’s self-sacrifice that allows him to properly reunite the Hallows, and a prayer for an as-of-yet hidden plotline (i.e. a Hermes-like “dark god beneath the earth”) to allow Harry to accomplish his task. This last element we see in Snape, who in his death provides Harry with the knowledge he needs to face Voldemort and resolve the problem. Snape had worked throughout the book, secretly or “underground”, to help Harry find the horcruxes and ultimately face Voldemort, from the Silver Doe to the memories he gives at his death.

I suggest that Snape is the Hermes/Mercury role in the books. If we hadn’t been familiar with the tropes of the rest of the series (e.g. “You always suspect Snape, but he is consistently ultimately not evil”), we wouldn’t have been able to see Snape’s hidden loyalty to Dumbledore and have suspected his being behind the provision of the Sword of Gryffindor through the Silver Doe. But knowing these, we can see his action behind the scenes. Without his aid to the Trio, they never could have overcome Voldemort. Without Snape’s hidden loyalty to Dumbledore, Harry would have been unable to defeat Voldemort in the final duel.

Now, in the original context of the Libation Bearers, let us consider the meaning of the epigraph. The family of Tantalus, through Pelops, through Atreus, has been cursed on account of Tantalus serving his children as soup to the gods. This has led to generation after generation of murder, cannibalism, child-sacrifice, and other evils in perpetual cycle. Before the opening of the play, Agamemnon, son of Atreus, has sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis in order to allow Greek forces to leave for Troy. Upon his return from Troy his wife, Clytemnestra, kills Agamemnon in revenge for the death of Iphigenia, as recounted in the tragedy Agamemnon. Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, had already been sent into exile by Clytemnestra. Such is the curse within the house.

And yet, per the text, the hope of deliverance from the curse lies within the house of Atreus, particularly if they are helped by “dark gods beneath the earth”. Now the context of the Libation Bearers is very clear on who is meant by “gods beneath the earth”: Hermes. The tragedy opens with a prayer of supplication directly addressed to Hermes. Hermes is thus acting behind the scenes to resolve the curse on the house of Atreus. Various images further strengthen the connection with Hermes within the text of the Libation Bearers, including a dream of an avenging serpent sent to Clytemnestra (notable as Hermes is the bringer of dreams, and his wand, the Caduceus, is two snakes entwined around a winged staff).

Now, this story is told in separate tragedies by the playwrights Aeschylus (in his already mentioned Libation Bearers) and by Euripides (in his play Electra). These tell roughly the same story, though with significant differences between them. In particular the scene in which Orestes is recognized by his sister Electra is differently presented between the plays. In the Aeschylus’s version, he is able to present various signs that do not really prove his identity very well. Euripides, writing later, writes his account as a parody of the earlier one. Here the various signs from the original version are presented and rejected as viable sources for identification. However, Orestes is finally recognized by a scar on his forehead that he gained in a hunting accident involving a fawn. Orestes is revealed, having been unknown, by this scar. This “recognition of identity through hidden marker” aspect is already a sign of Hermes. This aspect of scar imagery continues even through the Harry Potter series, where the hidden connection between Harry and Voldemort is indicated through and by the scar.

However, the reasons for Euripides’s inclusion also firmly tie it within the tradition of Hermes symbolism. In the nineteenth book of Homer’s Odyssey, there is an account of how, in his youth, Odysseus had gone boar hunting with his uncles. During this hunt, a boar suddenly came out of the dark and attacked him, leaving him with a scar on his shin. After his long journey he returns home to find it overtaken by Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus enters his household in disguise, arranging a plot to defeat the suitors. Those in Odysseus’s household who are still loyal to him recognize the scar. It is by this hidden sign of his identity that Odysseus is able to organize sufficient support to enact his plan.

The subtleties of this story are worth focusing on. First, Odysseus is hunting boars with his mother’s brothers, the sons of Autolycus, master thief and favored demigod son of Hermes. This also means that Hermes is the nearest divine ancestor of Odysseus, which explains his tendency to act like Hermes. He is efficaciously acting behind the scenes, only recognized by a hidden sign of his identity that is only known to those who are expecting him. Further, the boar is described as swiftly coming out of the dark. Its swiftness and hidden nature point to Hermes, particularly when one considers his power of herding animals without leaving a trace of his action.  Here Hermes acts to mark Odysseus with the hidden sign by which he will reclaim what is his.

Euripides, in harkening back to this scar within his parody of the recognition scene in Aeschylus, has thus added a greater sign of Hermetic action within a plot that was already strongly associated with Hermetic action. Like Odysseus, Orestes can only gain the support he needs to retake his household through a scar that was secretly granted by Hermes.

Orestes kills Clytemnestra in revenge for the death of Agamemnon, at the order given by Apollo. In response, the Furies, the old dark gods whose job it is to punish those who violate the duties of family and hospitality, try to continue the cycle of vengeance by punishing Orestes for the death of his mother. In the Eumenides, the continuation of the story of the Libation Bearers as told by Aeschylus, Orestes stands trial upon Mars Hill in Athens, with Athena as judge, the Furies as prosecution, and Apollo the defending attorney. Hermes, having brought Orestes to Athens for the trial, stands quietly behind the scene. Apollo presents a convincing, but ultimately fallacious, argument that manages to sway the jury into acquitting Orestes, thus ending the cycle of violence that had characterized the house of Atreus. Hermes is present at the trial, quietly standing behind the scenes, and the verdict is stolen through clever language. The curse of cycles of vengeance within the house of Atreus is at an end, through the “dark god beneath the earth” coming to the help Orestes and Electra. Such is Aeschylus’s account of the Hermetic victory following Orestes’s killing of Clytemnestra.

The account in Euripides’s Electra gives a different resolution to the anger of the Furies. Here, Castor and Pollux, the deified brothers of Clytemnestra, arrive and settle the matter, setting a penance to be done by Orestes and Electra for their action. If we consider the dividing and unifying nature of Hermes, we are faced with differences of meaning joined into one (e.g. Alchemical Wedding), but also single meanings divided among many things (e.g. Twins). Thus Castor and Pollux, who are called the Gemini, meaning “twins”, are naturally associated with Hermes, as they are unified in aspect though divided in body (further information regarding the association of these two with Hermes can be found in the Planet Narnia chapter). Though called the twins, they are only half-brothers. Zeus, in the form of a swan, came to Leda, leading to the birth of Helen (the one associated with the Trojan War) and Pollux. Leda also had children with Tyndareus, a mortal, who were Clytemnestra and Castor.

Thus, in both accounts of the Orestes myth, whether by hidden sophistic interference in a court case, or by the deus ex machina of the Gemini, who are associated with him, Hermes acts in the background as the god who brings the curse of the house of Atreus to an end.

Consequences in Interpreting the Cormoran Strike Series (pre-Career of Evil)

From the core of the above, I think we can begin to construct similar principles within the Cormoran Strike books. As is typical (and a feature that itself carries Hermetic tendencies) with Rowling’s novels, we may look to significant naming to find cases of hidden meaning. Let us consider the main character’s name: Cormoran Strike.

“Cormoran” is named after a folkloric giant, one of the giants in the Jack and the Beanstalk tradition. So here we not only have a reference to a giant (one of the main traditional epithets of Hermes was Argeiphontes, Hermes Argus-slayer, i.e. Hermes the Giant Killer), but also to the Hermetic attribute of theft. Further, he is frequently described as looking like a boxer (or one who “Strikes”). Pollux is characterized as a great boxer (again, see Michael Ward’s elaboration on this for clarification). Thus we have a character whose first name is a Hermetic reference, whose description matches the Hermetically associated character Pollux, and who is the son of a person named Leda. This interpretation thus places Rokeby in the role of Jupiter/Zeus.

Further, there is at least one half-sibling of Cormoran that has not been explicitly introduced, given the information found in The Cuckoo’s Calling, who is not a son/daughter of Rokeby. I suggest that this is the Castor equivalent, who should, in some degree, be associated with horses (the chief attribute of Castor is the association with horses). This raises significant questions. Is the brother the “underworld” informant (note the transposition of mythological to crime novel tropes without change of name for the descending place of Hermes) that Cormoran has been getting help from? Is there a half-sister of Cormoran, not a daughter of Rokeby, who will play the role of Clytemnestra? Lucy is a possibility. Is she going to remain as innocent as she has appeared in the first two novels? The symbolic setup of these novels, by their connection with Euripides’s Electra, leads one to expect a variation upon the story of Orestes.

Consequences in Interpreting Cormoran Strike (post-Career of Evil)

The above was the extent of my speculation prior to reading Career of Evil. Certain points now have greater support. For example, we have greater established connection between Leda Strike and the Leda of myth, strengthening the connection of Cormoran and one of his brothers to the Gemini. The Blue Oyster Cult song, “Mistress of the Salmon Salt”, whose lyrics were included in the note attached to the leg that was sent to Robin and Cormoran, and whose lyrics were those chosen by Leda for her tattoo, include among their closing lines “A harvest of limbs, of arms and of legs, of necks…that turn like swans…as if to gasp or pray” (as quoted in Career of Evil, hardback p.14-15). Thus we have the song that contextualizes the inciting event of the novel resting on the association of Leda and swans. As far as I have been able to find, this is one of only a couple songs by the Blue Oyster Cult that include the word “swan”. Given the centrality to the novel, the strength of the Leda Strike to Leda the mother of the Gemini connection is increased here, as well as suggesting the centrality of this narrative in constructing the series.

Beyond the direct naming convention, we have been provided directly with the narrative detail that Cormoran is not comfortable with horses (as in the conversation with Robin on p. 176-177 in Chapter 23). I suspect that this will be an important point later, when we are properly introduced to the character that is the other twin to Cormoran’s Pollux, who will, as the Castor stand-in, be chiefly associated with the taming of horses.

This, however, also leads me to conclude that Shanker is not the twin character, given the lack of any association with horses. However, he has another fairly obvious association, Hermes himself. He acts behind the scenes, often acts as quick mode of delivery for information or people, presently has a strong association with reuniting the divided at weddings, operates within the underworld, and has a scar. Chiefly, however, is his personality as a benign thief. I suspect in the Orestes drama that is being constructed he will play the role of Hermes, guiding the whole of the drama up to and including bringing the Gemini to resolve the matter. He is also strongly associated with that Hermetic figure of speech: the pun (in which double meaning is found in a single word). This, among other places, is demonstrated in his nickname for Strike, “Bunsen”, given that a “striker” is a tool used to light a Bunsen burner (http://www.madsci.org/~lynn/micro/tools/striker.html). Consequently, I suspect the Pollux character remains unknown.

The association with horses also leads me to suspect the meaning of the title of the upcoming Lethal White is, in fact, Lethal White Syndrome. A genetically inherited defect that is the death of the young would be the ideal metaphor for “the torment bred in the race”, the curse that must be overcome.

One more aspect, not yet addressed, of the Orestes myth remains to be considered. And this is the chief antagonist, the force to be overcome, within the work. This is Zeus himself. From the summary above, and from most considerations of the text, one would not consider Zeus as a contender for relevant character much less chief antagonist. But, if one looks at the story within the context of Greek mythology as a whole, it becomes apparent.

From the primordial Chaos, Eros emerged. Eros brought into being Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven). Their children were the Titans. Once Ouranos had become tyrannical, Gaia convinced her son Kronos to overthrown Ouranos. And thus the Titans overthrew their parents to gain authority over the world. Kronos, fearing that he would be overthrown in the same manner as he had overthrown his father, began devouring his children as they were born. The youngest of these, Zeus, was hidden from Kronos. Kronos swallowed a stone that was given to him, thinking it was Zeus. Zeus grew, until he was able to rally sufficient support that he could overthrow Kronos. He defeated the Titans, freed his siblings from their imprisonment within Kronos, and set up the rule of the Olympian gods. However, Zeus himself now faced the problem of potential overthrow by the younger generation of gods. So far in this grand narrative, every overthrow of an elder generation by the younger was an increase in order, peace, justice, and general prosperity. (The classical source here is the Theogony of Hesiod).

Thus, within the family of the gods themselves we see a curse of the cycle of revenge. Zeus, of better character than those who had gone before him, had tried to incorporate his children into his own management of the world, giving them various domains to rule (as mentioned above, Hermes, one of this new generation of gods, took efforts even from the day of his birth to carve out for himself one of these domains). But still, the order of the world under Zeus was one requiring absolute retribution for violations of hospitality and family duty, as represented by the Furies, themselves old gods. It was also an order of the world that refused a place for man in its governing (hence the binding and torture of Prometheus for the gift of fire to man). Consequently, unless something should stop it, the old cycle of the new generation overthrowing the old for the sake of bettering the world would eventually continue.

Thus we have the inherited curse among the family of the gods, and somehow the cure must come from the children of the gods (the youngest generation, in this case chiefly Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Hercules, and the Gemini). And thus they seek help through a plot that goes behind the scenes.  Within a generation of the freeing of Prometheus from his bonds by Hercules, inflame again the curse of the house of Atreus by starting the Trojan War, providing the occasion for ordering the sacrifice of Iphigenia (who, incidentally, in a number of accounts is secretly exchanged for a deer during her sacrifice, thus saving her). Then, through hidden powerful intervention in favor of Orestes, bring the case to a decision point.

Per Aeschylus, the old gods are reintegrated into the new order (an order that strengthens man’s role by the introduction of Athenian democracy), the Furies become the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, patrons of Athens. And this is accomplished through a trial overseen by Athena, Apollo, and with Hermes quietly practicing sophistry in the background. Per Euripides, the Gemini appear and stop the cycle of vengeance. The younger gods have had the absolute victory over the rule of Zeus, not through his overthrow, but by the institution of a new order not predicated upon absolute vengeance for wrongs done, but upon human justice and reason. In this new order the old gods are not abolished, but fulfilled and repurposed: Furies become Eumenides.

We have seen, especially in Career of Evil, the depiction of revenge for prior wrongs as the chief motivation for many characters actions, particularly among the antagonists. Rokeby, in his role as Zeus, represents this old mode of eye-for-an-eye revenge. Consequently, I think Rokeby will play the role of primary antagonist, but as a representative of the old order that must be both overcome and integrated. Consequently, I don’t think he will be a Voldemort-like adversary. He will, I think, play a role far more like Zeus in the story of Orestes. His influence will cast a shadow over everything until it is overcome and repurposed, though never actually appearing.

More specifically, predicting an Orestian narrative, we should expect, long term, the following. An old family grudge will be reinflamed through the actions of Strike and Shanker. This will culminate in an act of revenge by some unknown character, helped by Shanker. Given the prevalence in detective fiction of the courtroom drama, I suspect that we will have a trial emerge from this, associated strongly with Rokeby, which will end with a verdict that is not aimed at revenge or retribution but mercy and love, breaking the cycle we have seen developing in the books thus far. At the trial, Cormoran and his twin will be central, with Shanker helping them from behind the scenes.

Such is the extent, at the moment, of my predictions given the mythological foundation of the Orestes myth as playing out within Hermetic imagery, as based in the accounts of Aeschylus and Euripides.

Note: Translations of Hesiod’s Theogony and The Homeric Hymn to Hermes were from the Anthology of Classical Myth, edited by Trzaskoma, Smith, and Brunet; Fagles translations referenced for The Orestia and The Odyssey, Vermeule translation referenced for Electra by Euripides.

Comments

  1. THANK YOU so.much for having taken the time to answer my ask. Mr. Willis thoughts are very enlightening ! I just purchased Cuckoo s calling cause it seems great. Good Day !

  2. This post has a strong start with the idea of Snape as the main Hermes figure. The trouble is I don’t think the theory will be able to hold up altogether.

    The main reason for misgivings has to with the myth that is being used as the rubric to view the Strike series as a whole. Evans believes that Ms. Rowling is penning another riff on the Orestes myth. However, another possibility is that the myth informing the story is not Aeschylus’s “Orestes”, but is rather Virgil’s “Aeneid”.

    This is an idea that was brought up originally in connection with the Three Fates of classical myth. It was also a part of a general discussion of the Strike series on a HogPro podcast episode. The basic idea with this alternate rubric is that Strike is more of an analogue for Aeneas, although he does have traits normally associated with both Hermes and Gemini. The key line of thought goes as follows:

    “If Cormoran Strike’s story is Rowling’s postmodern re-telling of the Aeneid, then the Fates theme is more than apt.

    “The Aeneid is all about, after all, the hero’s destiny or fate to recreate Troy in Italy as Rome which it is pointless for him to resist. The refugee from Troy, son of the goddess of beauty, is forced ever onward, often over-riding his preferences and pledges, to his destiny to found Rome as the New Troy. A soldier in an eastern country ‘coming home,’ Aeneas is a wounded man, haunted by his divine mother, a man of destiny forced to leave a beautiful, powerful woman who curses him at his departure.

    “Sound familiar? The Aeneid is a reverse reflection and re-telling of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in that it’s first six books are about the Trojan’s travels and the last six relate his battles with the local tribes in Latium. It seems possible that Rowling might be trying to do with the Aeneid what she did with the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, namely, present what seems to be a tale of inevitability or fate, something prophesied or otherwise seemingly inescapable, as a function really of character choice.

    “In the Peg-Legged PI’s story that could mean Rowling’s revisiting fate vs choice vis a vis whether he is able to choose to take-or-leave an investigation of Leda’s death (and face the dangers inherent in threatening his biological father, Jonny Rokeby) or whether he feels doomed to follow it to its end, whatever the costs to him and to those he loves”.

    From this perspective, it seems less about ending a constant cycle of revenge than it does a simpler plot involving the righting of past wrongs.

    Of the two themes, I’m more inclined to believe the Virgilian, rather than the Orestian myth is the one she might be basing her work off of. The link for the discussion of Virgil and the Fates can be found here:

    http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/the-three-fates-meet-the-weird-sisters-cormoran-strike-harry-potter-and-the-question-of-fate-free-will-and-choice/

  3. Thank you for your comments. The Aeneid parallels are interesting, though I do not believe they upset my analysis to any great degree. My reasons are these, and forgive the length needed to show my point.:

    In considering myth, I keep an eye to where the individual myths find themselves in the whole of the mythology. As I have sketched briefly above, Greek myth as a whole has a three act structure, which acts I will call Theogony, Gigantomachy, and The City. Let me here give paragraph summaries of each:

    In the Theogony, we have the birth of the universe from primordial chaos, the rise of the old gods (Furies, Fates, Aphrodite Urania, et. al.), the overthrow by younger generations in cycle until the victory of the Elder Olympians. The gods battle monsters sent by Gaia and defeat them. She then gives a prophecy that, without mortal help from a demigod, the gods will be defeated by a future invasion of giants (I’ll call this the “Giant Prophecy”). Mankind is created by Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and grants it to men. Zeus replies by cursing mankind through Pandora and by chaining Prometheus to the rock. Prometheus then gives a second prophecy, that the son of the nymph Thetis would be greater than his father (I’ll call this the “Great Son Prophecy”). There had been a danger, prior to the expression of this prophecy, that Zeus would cause the cycle of generational overthrow to continue if he had a son by Thetis. Thus ends the Theogony.

    In the Gigantomachy, the gods set out to breed the perfect demigod to aid them in the battle prophesied in the Giant Prophecy. This produced the age of heroes. Notable here is Perseus, the first of the great heroes, son of Zeus, who defeated the Medusa and saved Andromeda from the sea monster. His granddaughter (mortal, but inheriting significant degree of divine blood) was Alcmene, the mother by Zeus of Heracles (who is born in Thebes under the rule of Creon, uncle to Oedipus). In Hercules at last was the perfect demigod, who aided the gods in their battle with the giants. And thus victory was gained. (Norse myth, incidentally, had precisely the same prophecy concerning the battle with giants, only in that case the ideal demigod, Siegfried, died before he could help. Ergo, Ragnarok, where the gods are defeated by the giants.). Hercules, under instructions from Hermes, frees Prometheus from the rock, signifying that in Hercules the gods truly begin to accept the high place that mankind has gained for themselves. All the heroes of this generation have one last heroic get-together retrieving the golden fleece on the Argo. This ends act 2, the Gigantomachy.

    Act 3, The City: The Great Son prophecy has yet to be dealt with. Zeus, therefore, has Thetis marry Peleus (their son, Achilles, may be slightly excused for his temper knowing that he was so very near to having been king of the gods). At their wedding, the apple of discord is thrown, sparking the Trojan War with the judgement of Paris. Iphigenia is sacrificed to start the war. The war is fought, Troy defeated. Agamemnon returns home, is killed by Clytemnestra, who in turn is killed by Orestes and Electra. The Furies attack Orestes, and their power is redirected under the new order of the Younger Olympians, who have subtly reorganized power using the house of Atreus, resolving the cycle of generational battle through the institution of Athenian Democracy. Thus, the benign response of Zeus to the Great Son prophecy hasn’t kept the quasi-overthrow from happening, but has morphed it into a new era of Democratic citizenship under the guardianship of the Gemini. Aeneas flees Troy, and receives a prophecy that he will know where he is going when he and his people are so hungry that they desire to eat their tables (“Tables Prophecy”). Fleeing from the wrath of Juno, he arrives at Carthage, “marries” Dido (as brought about by Venus and Juno), and then at the command of Mercury leaves to fulfill his prophesied duty to found Alba Longa, whence, eventually, the Romans. Here the power of Venus Urania and Juno, queens of the Elder Generations of gods, is overthrown by Roman duty at Mercury’s command. He then arrives in Italy, where they have a great dinner of what is effectively an early form of pizza (fruit on bread). It is then realized that they are so hungry they are “eating the tables”, i.e. the bread. Thus the Tables prophecy is fulfilled, their benign response hasn’t kept it from happening, they have just mollified its effects (I like to call this the “Pizza Prophecy Principle”). The Fates, again of the elder gods, are conquered and repurposed, and their prophecies now have a new place, kept in check by Mercury’s subtleties of language. Aeneas and his followers are saved by a bread pun. The new order finds its place in the glories of the Roman Empire under Augustus, supposedly descended from Aeneas, and under the patronage of the Dioscuri (the Gemini). Thus ends Act 3.

    Seen from the large scale, i.e. “younger generation solving the endless cycle of prophecies and vengeance of the older gods through quasi-overthrow as brought about through the Trojan War” level, there is no functional difference between Orestes and Aeneas. Both defeat terrible trios of underworld goddesses, reworking their power to serve the new order of the younger gods. Both defeat the power of the elder generations of gods (Venus and Juno’s attempt to drive Aeneas away from his prophesied destiny, Zeus and the laws of vengeance), and bring about new civil orders under the Younger Olympians. Hermes/Mercury acts behind both of them, driving them to the acts which insure the new order. The new political order is patronized by the Gemini/Dioscuri. The chief difference is this: Greek Democracy or Roman Empire. Their authors both saw the place needed in the mythology as a whole to resolve the cycle of vengeance and lives ruined by the old gods, both Fates and Furies (who are roughly interchangeable in representation), and set forth myths in favor of the governments they deemed ideal. The elegance of the third act of Greco-Roman myth is besieged by this imperialistic impulse of Vergil’s leading to a structurally redundant story (that said, I love the Aeneid. I just recognize that it is itself a rehashing of the Orestes myth in its structural role in the whole of the mythology.)

    So, to sum up. The inclusion of the fates in Rowling’s thinking, given her focus on the right response to prophecies, is as much an element (if not more, being tied to a prophecy that defined the final act of Greco-Roman myth, rather than a newly-invented one about tables) in the Orestes myth as it is the Aeneid. Both insist upon obedience to the divine, as represented in Hermetic figures, as means of restructuring prophecy and revenge to the purposes of social order. In Harry Potter, Harry’s submission to his death, as brought about by a divine/Dumbledoreish message brought by Snape, reinterprets the prophecy so that it is fulfilled benignly. Orestes follows the commands of Apollo as brought by Hermes to kill his mother, which reinterprets the cycle of revenge so that it is fulfilled benignly. Aeneas follows the commands brought by Mercury to leave Dido, which reinterprets the prophecy of the tables so that it is fulfilled benignly. Strike will ultimately have to follow a terrible message from Shanker, reinterpreting what about him may seem inevitable and thereby countering the great cycles of revenge so that the immoralities and excesses of the elder generation are overcome.

    So, while I don’t deny the possibility of Aeneid influence in Strike, I don’t think it overly relevant given the Aeneid’s place as Romanesque Orestes-retelling in the larger structure of Greco-Roman myth.

    P.S. I would put the Pizza Prophecy Principle thus, and I think it is consistent with what we see of the treatment of prophecy in Harry Potter: it is inevitable that prophecy be fulfilled (and thus a strong and correct fatalism), but the power of a prophecy to determine precisely what happens is limited by the strong ability of the words of the prophecy to be reinterpreted (and is thus a strong expression of free will). In prophecy, absolute fatalism, in subtle re-interpretation of the words of the prophecy, freedom.

  4. Thank you for your response. I tried a response yesterday, and something in the computer system didn’t save my lengthy response, it might still be processing, so forgive multiple responses if any. I have thought more about your question since then, and I would like therefore to provide a better answer.

    First, I think the Aeneid analysis above greatly mistakes, not necessarily the ties with Strike, but the meaning of the Aeneid itself. The above claims that “The Aeneid is all about, after all, the hero’s destiny or fate to recreate Troy in Italy as Rome which it is pointless for him to resist. The refugee from Troy, son of the goddess of beauty, is forced ever onward, often over-riding his preferences and pledges, to his destiny to found Rome as the New Troy.” This is not Aeneas, at least as I have seen him. He is constantly referred to as “Pius Aeneas”, a man who ever freely chooses to submit to the will of the gods, despite numerous opportunities for him to do so. This is represented most strongly in another prophecy within the text, in which it is prophesied that he will know he has arrived where he is going when his people are so hungry they will eat their tables. Aeneas takes no active steps to avoid this, trusting that if this is what the gods have declared, so be it, and they will have to deal with it when it happens. They arrive at Italy, and have their first meal, a fruit dish held on bread (a sort of early pizza, fitting for arriving in Italy). They eat heartily, until Ascanius comments that if they continue at this pace, they will be eating the tables (i.e. the bread the fruit dish is held on). Thus, by not resisting fate, on account of his strong trust in the gods, he reinterprets the prophecy to his benefit. Yes, he is ever driven on by fate, but this is to his benefit, and he knows it. Mercury does not force him to leave Dido, he asks, and Aeneas, pious, obeys. That Aeneas was as briefly distracted as he was by Dido is what brings about the later calamity of the Punic wars, in which Rome is nearly destroyed. The message of the Aeneid is not that of a man harrassed by destiny, causing pain to those around him in his attempt to follow it, but a man who willingly submits to his destiny, thereby lessening the pain felt by himself and those around him.

    Venus Urania and Juno, together of the older generation of gods, distract him from the path by making Dido fall in love with him. This act, fed by the wrath of Juno, aims at having all prophecies fulfilled as they had ever been before: according to eye-for-an-eye vengeance (c.f. Oedipus). In his willing submission to his fate, even at the cost of Dido, he overcomes the rule of these old gods, be they the Fates or the Furies, who are ever allied. Prophecy and fate no longer mean doom, for we have the power of the younger god Mercury express itself in the mollification of prophecies of doom through subtle textual reinterpretation of the prophecy. They are saved from starvation by a bread pun.

    All this to point out: the Aeneid, in the large scale structure of myth, plays the same role as the Orestes myth: the overcoming of the elder gods, not through their destruction (Fate, Zeus, the Furies, Juno, Venus, are not destroyed), but through dramatic repurposing of them as benevolent deities managed through the power of the younger gods, particularly Hermes/Mercury. This, in both, results in the creation of the ideal human society (be it Greek Democracy or Roman Empire). To claim Aeneid rather than Orestia as basis, misses the fact that they are ultimately the same story, told one in a Roman and the other in a Greek key.

    As to Rowling’s works, Harry reinterprets the prophecy to indicate Voldemort’s destruction of the Harry-horcrux, as guided by the divine/Dumbledore’s command as given by Snape the messenger. It was ultimately by submitting to the prophecy, using the Hermetic power of reinterpretation, that defeated Voldemort. The prophecy will be fulfilled, and in this is a valid fatalism, but it will be reinterpreted when freely submitted to, and in this is absolute liberty that mollifies the effects of even the worst prophecy.

    Strike ought to submit to his destiny, and I think this better dramatically in Greek mode, where a court case fits in better with the mystery genre. The conclusions that seem to have been drawn about what will happen on the basis of the Aeneid seem to me concluded from a bad interpretation of the Aeneid.

  5. First off, let me say thanks for giving such an in-depth response, twice. In particular, your remarks remind me of thoughts I’ve had about the need to get the narrative of any given story as right as humanly possible.

    In terms of my reply to your response, there’s a lot to say, and so little space to say it. This is because your reply and thoughts about the myths of “Orestes” and “Aeneid” all hinge on just how these narratives are viewed. For this reason, I think my reply will have to go into the viewpoint that underlies my take on Virgil and Aeschylus. If such has any value, then it has to be in the simple fact that a proper understanding of the viewpoint behind a work of literary criticism helps the reader actually engage with said criticism on an informed level. With this in mind, I have to admit I’m still not convinced by the particular take you’ve suggested.

    There are two parts that stand out for me. One is the question of how the idea of prophecy and fate are treated in Rowling’s work. The second has to do with a potential fallacy.

    To take the fallacy first, I have to wonder if you might have made a mistake J.R.R. Tolkien said to guard against. In “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien explained we have to be careful when we begin to sum up two stories as being, essentially, one and the same.

    “(I)gnorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgments. To investigators of this sort recurring similarities (such as this matter of the heart) seem specially important. So much so that students of folk-lore are apt to get off their own proper track, or to express themselves in a misleading “shorthand”: misleading in particular, if it gets out of their monographs into books about literature.

    “They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.” We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneken”; that “The Black Bull of Norroway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.” Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature.

    “It is precisely the coloring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is not the same as Layamon’s story in his “Brut”. Or to take the extreme case of Red Riding Hood: it is of merely secondary interest that the retold versions of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault’s story in which she was eaten by the wolf. The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending (more or less, and if we do not mourn the grandmother overmuch), and that Perrault’s version had not”.

    I can’t help but believe Tolkien’s criticism applies when it comes to how two different authors separated by wide spaces of time handle the same trope. It is perhaps critical here to distinguish a trope from an actual story. A trope all by itself can never, taken in isolation, be a full and complete story. At best, all it can do is conjure an image or an action. Both results stop at being just themselves. Xanadu was just an image in Coleridge’s imagination until he started to compose a poem describing what her saw in his mind’s eye.

    On this reading, it is each individual story that determines the nature of any given trope or symbol. The figure of Hermes as a character who resolves the plot behind the scenes is a valid enough trope. However, it has to be stressed that this does not exhaust the dramatic uses and potential of character/symbol. It is just as possible for this same figure to be represented in a minor detail of the scenery in which any potential story is set. For instance, it could be done by a simple note about how red autumn leaves are falling during a story’s denouement. Or it could be accomplished simply by how an author frames the internal changes going on in a character’s mind.

    I think what’s happening is that a symbol is being fitted into a one-size-for-all rubric without first taking into consideration how and why any given narrative would choose to express that symbol. The keynote of the figure of Hermes boils down to just one idea: Change. This change is most often toward positive results, however, in the case of Tragedy it does seem that the only a positive outcome can be achieved is with the erasure of the main character. This is another use of literary hermetics which I don’t think is kept in mind often enough.

    Granted that both the Aeneid and Orestes involve positive change, that does not make them the same story. The latter is concerned with a family feud, while the other is about the founding of a nation. It seems more probable that the only uniting Aeschylus and Virgil is the simple presence of a trope symbol. In each story, this symbol functions in different ways based on the demands of their respective narratives.

    At its core, it seems to me to be a question of how you view this Hermes symbol, and the way it ties in with Mythopoeic writing practices in general. A good source for me has been Jean Seznec’s “Survival of the Pagan Gods”. I regard it as perhaps the most important unexplored source for understanding the nature and history of Mythopoeia for both art and religion. In terms of Aeschylus and Virgil, Seznec highlights an aspect of the latter poet that was important to both Pagans, and later Christians. “Orestes” deals is a personal story dealing with family. “The Aeneid”, on the other hand, is an epic. It is a story about the founding of a civilization. The reason Virgil is held in such high esteem is because his poem was able to give to Rome a sense of both identity and purpose. “Orestes” is poetic; the “Aeneid” is both poetic and cultural. Hence the trajectory of their respective stories couldn’t be more different.

    Finally, to return to the HogPro Fates article, the topic of “reverse reflection” is brought up. “The Aeneid is a reverse reflection and re-telling of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in that it’s first six books are about the Trojan’s travels and the last six relate his battles with the local tribes in Latium. It seems possible that Rowling might be trying to do with the Aeneid what she did with the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, namely, present what seems to be a tale of inevitability or fate, something prophesied or otherwise seemingly inescapable, as a function really of character choice.

    “In the Peg-Legged PI’s story that could mean Rowling’s revisiting fate vs choice vis a vis whether he is able to choose to take-or-leave an investigation of Leda’s death (and face the dangers inherent in threatening his biological father, Jonny Rokeby) or whether he feels doomed to follow it to its end, whatever the costs to him and to those he loves.

    “Given the notes sounded about justice as Cormoran’s “pilot light” (Cuckoo) and about his self-perception as something akin to the God of Vengeance (Silkworm), it’s hard to see him as a free-agent who chooses the hard, right path. It’s all but pre-determined, right? He’s the Chosen One, the fore-ordained nemesis of Papa Rokeby, rock-star. But we’ve been there before with a character in this position, sorting out fate and choice with Harry in Dumbledore’s office, right?”

    Another example of inverse mirroring was brought up by, I think Dr. Louise Freeman. She cited the world of Showbiz in the Mystery novels as a magical world Strike is always trying to escape, as opposed to one Harry is always trying to get back to. That’s because Strike is aware that the world of Jonny Rokeby is pretty much a world of illusion and self-delusion. Therefore he would want to avoid it as much as possible.

    A final example of narrative inversion is to suggest a plot that would mirror “Order in the Phoenix”. In this hypothetical scenario, rather a group of good characters forming a group to combat evil, we might take the character of the insecure Inspector Carver. After repeatedly being made a fool of by Strike, he let’s his own anger and disappointment get the better of him, so he forms a cabal with a group of other crooked Metro Bobbies. Together they contract a hitman to take out Strike. However, a typical narrative twist leaves the cabal without enough money to pay-off the hitman, and buy his silence. The hitman would then decide to take matters into his own hands, and take both Strike and the Carver cabal all in one go. The rest of this narrative would see follow Strike, Robin, and perhaps a Sgt. Anstiss who’s been pulled into the proceedings, as they have to deal with Carver’s screw-up while the hitman acts as a ticking clock, methodically picking off members of the cabal one by one.

    This is just one example of the technique Rowling is using for this series. None of it, however, suggests a slavery to indelibly fixed forms. Instead, she seems to be finding a ton of creative ways to remix a lot of old ideas and “make it new”, in a manner of speaking. It also occurs to me that I should have brought of V. Nabokov, as he has a lot to do with Rowling’s chosen technique. Just type in Nabokov on this site an prepare for one hell of an eye opener.

  6. Joanne Gray says:

    This is a response to the Cormoran Strike part of this post, even though the entire post was very thought provoking and shows a depth of knowledge and a wonderful skill in presenting a well-considered analysis. The CS series may well turn out to follow the route you have speculated about here but I confess at this point I don’t see the main direction as family revenge—unless it turns out Jonny Rokeby did have something to do with the murder of Leda. I hope to revisit everything here when Lethal White is finally published in 28 days because I expect it will be a different CS world after we finally read those new 656 pages.

    I gave another listen to a video interview that JK Rowling gave in 2017 before the premiere of the BBC TV Strike series and she talks in detail about what is at the heart of the book series and where to find clues to future books in the series: The pertinent part (follows)—which I transcribed and it deals with the heart of this series and where she has placed clues for future plots in the series:
    Transcription excerpt from JK Rowling 2017 interview:
    “The dynamic between them {Cormoran and Robin} is the thing I think that keeps people reading and it’s certainly the thing that keeps me writing. Through the whole of the first three books, I have seeded future plots, so I already know where he’s going to go. I’ve already mentioned things I need to mention, and I’ve mentioned people I need to have mentioned because you will need them in further books. So the larger plot is about these two characters and what happens to them personally. That’s what I’m keeping my eye on.”

    I agree that she has incorporated many aspects of mythology into the ongoing series and that some of that is definitely Greek mythology. The mythologies infuse the story with deeper layers of meaning that give the books a more satisfying and lasting experience for those who read them. But I also believe her main story deals with correcting injustices—which both main characters have encountered injustices beyond their control—Cormoran with losing a part of his leg and believing his mother’s killer beat the court system and Robin when she was raped and left for dead. Making things right is their motivating principles.

    The main crime mystery has been laid out from the beginning in Cormoran’s back-story: To find the killer of his mother, Leda Strike. Ironically the case has been frozen and still remains unsolved by him, because of his own inability to free himself from his certainty that his thoroughly hated stepfather is the killer and since he has already been tried and found not guilty—Cormoran isn’t looking for anyone else.

    This is the barrier that is keeping the case from ever being solved. There needs to be something that will finally dislodge this barrier to move outside a see the case with new eyes. This was one of the reasons I was very excited when I saw that the title of the fourth book was Lethal White. That is the perfect two words for what killed Leda Strike—heroin overdose.

    I don’t believe the fourth book will be the one that solves her murder, but I do think it will be the one to provide us with some of the first real and necessary pieces to begin to see the bigger picture of her murder and allow us to begin to sort the true clues from any red herrings that might be swimming around.

    I agree with you that we have yet to see who the main antagonist is in the main plot (even though JKR has said that she has seeded the necessary plot points and mentioned who needs to be named through the first three books). So that means we do have the name but we’re still missing the information to connect those plot points and people together.

    I agree that Jonny Rokeby’s position as the biggest name we still haven’t seen make an entrance (as well as being paterfamilias) does seem to make him the choice to play the book’s antagonist, if only because he fills the classical context for the lead character’s opposition. But at this point, with what we know of him, (as you rightly point out), he also seems an unlikely choice for the part.

    I confess I would rather have an antagonist turn out to be someone unexpected. Someone on an equal footing with the main character by way of his talents and to go toe to toe with him—or even better, someone who possesses skills that put the main character at a bit of a disadvantage. I ‘m very interested to see JKR’s choice to fill the part.

    So far I have not seen anything that gives old Jonny a real villain vibe. Pre-book four we still have too little information about Rokeby to know if he can play the part of main antagonist. Whoever committed the murder will need a good reason for doing so since it seems it would take a mighty cold heart indeed to kill someone who a person ended a sexual relationship with 20 years previously. It’s possible but at this point we have no indication that old Jonny has that type of skeletons on his resume.

    If, however, old Jonny hasn’t made a real appearance by the end of book four, then we would need to look elsewhere for the main antagonist of the series (although, Jonny could still figure in the overall solution to Leda’s murder). Hopefully Lethal White will finally give us a good idea one way or the other of who will fill the position of prime antagonist. At least we know there has to be one, because the one case that has to be solved by the end of the series is Leda’s.

    It’s great that Cormoran has been given such a strong and wonderfully layered mythological foundation story with the Leda mythology. It gives JKR’s Cormoran the military connection (Leda was a Queen of Sparta, sons were in the Spartan Cavalry) and the shared boxing connection links Cormoran to Leda’s immortal twin Pollux and therefore Zeus his father is linked to Cormoran’s father Jonny Rokeby.

    I do believe that since the only other biological son of Leda Strike was Switch LaVey* Bloom Whittaker who was born 18 years after Cormoran, makes this big age gap (not even close to twins), as well as the fact that there has been no contact between the two half brothers ever, removed Switch LaVey out of the running to play the twin brother Castor to Cormoran’s Pollux.
    *Interesting fact:
    Jeff Whittaker definitely was behind the odd name for Leda’s second son. The occult loving Whittaker no doubt named his son Switch LaVey in honor of Anton LaVey an occultist who founded the Church of Satan. (Ironically the same LaVey died in a medical center named St. Mary’s.) It would be interesting to see if this 2nd biological son of Leda’s shows up in book 4—and how he turned out—while double burdened with the bad Whittaker genes and the unfortunate origin of his name.

    For all those reasons I believe Shanker is the Castor to Cormoran’s Pollux. Shanker is not Rokeby’s son and although he is not biologically linked to Leda, he has a closer link to Leda than even Switch had since he was taken away as a baby and never knew his mother. Shanker is the closest to Strike’s in age (the twin link) and he is also the closest to him on a personal level. The mutual bond between Shanker and Leda was very like a son to a mother—and it was a reciprocal link.

    I too believe that Cormoran and Shanker will work together to solve the murder of their mother. At the time of Leda’s murder, Shanker had taken over the protection of Leda from Cormoran. Shanker took over her protection in order to allow Cormoran in order the opportunity to go to university and escape the old life he’d always had with his mother. It was therefore a double misfortune that on the day Leda was murdered, Shanker was out on a drug buy.

    This added weight on his already damaged psyche for failing to protect Leda on the day she needed it most does not bode well for when he finally comes face to face with her killer. It may very well turn out that it will tax all of Cormoran’s strength—mental and physical—to restrain Shanker’s Caliban tendencies to go for immediate “justice”.

    It really seems to me that the horse in Lethal White will turn out to be the street name for heroin and I don’t think it will be necessary that Shanker actually trains horses to fill the part of Castor. Shanker is the very character that is most connected to Cormoran and his go between to the drug/criminal underworld in the book.

    There are white horses, however, in the mythology of both Castor and Pollux’s stories. Both were a part of the military in the Spartan cavalry, as well as having white horses in their mythology of how the brothers kidnapped two Messenian princesses to make them their brides. The two women were known as Leukippes (“Daughters of Leukippos” also meaning “of the white-horses”). The kidnapping turned out to be the precipitating event that eventually lead to the death of both brothers.

    In one respect Cormoran and Shanker can be seen as already living out a sort of echo of Pollux and Castor’s afterlife story*. A story of an alternating existence between Hades and Olympus.

    (afterlife story* When mortal Castor was killed, Pollux asked his father Zeus (who had saved Pollux from the same fate) not to separate him from his dead mortal brother. Zeus agreed but told Pollux that in order to do that, Pollux would have to give up half of his own immortality. Pollux agreed and the brothers then began to alternate between Hades and Olympus for all eternity.)

    In their own “afterlife echo” of the story: Shanker lives and works in a kind of modern Hades underworld and Cormoran lives on the border between (in a place above Hades but below Olympus) with his work allowing him to move freely between the upper levels (Olympus/rich) and the lower level (Hades/criminal). This hopefully means that JKR can skip the actual tragic ending part of the twin’s mythology.

    But it could be fun to have a scene of the protagonist figuratively making the trip to Hades, a popular recurring trope in ancient classics. Like in the 6th book of the Aeneid when the protagonist Aeneas drops the name Pollux while trying to get into Hades to visit his dead father. Aeneas makes reference to the fact that Pollux’s makes constant alternating trips in and out of Hades and he wonders if he could at least make one round trip visit. He is told that it’s easy to get into Hades—the door is always swinging open—but the real trick is getting back out again. I would love to see how that would work in a non-fantasy book. Actually his instructions for getting back out sounds a lot like what being a good detective entails. Turn out the trick is to precisely retrace the steps previously taken. As in retrace the tracks of the criminal.

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