M. Evan Willis: The Mythic Context and Hermetic Meaning of Cormoran Strike

We’ve been discussing the Greek myth underlying the Cormoran Strike mysteries, namely, Leda and the Swan, since Joanne Gray and I wrote up the many links between the Strike story-line and the mythology of Castor and Pollux (and the White Horses!). M. Evan Willis, who has been reading Cormoran Strike in mythic and hermetic terms as he did Harry Potter, writes today about the revelations of Lethal White and why he thinks they re-set the mythic setting of the stories and make the events of the coming novels predictable; he says to look for a Matthew-Charlotte alliance a la the Leucippides to thwart Robin and Cormoran, the Castor-Pollux stand-ins, the pair who stole their prospective spouses.

Stand by to have your minds blown as he lays out Rowling’s re-telling of the age-old myth and what we can expect in not only novels four to seven but also why there will necessarily be more than seven Strike mysteries! Enjoy!

With Lethal White just published, I have a handful of thoughts concerning the use of myth in the series as revealed by the new book. Familiarity with my earlier guest-post on Hermes will be assumed as background information.

I’ll start with two points on method:


1. Hermetic imagery has two different but related uses. The first is to indicate that a Hermetic character is operating in the background, and thus indicates extra narrative plot not immediately visible (most of my guest post covered this usage). The second is as a shorthand indicator of the presence of esoteric meaning, without direct plot implications. Plato is the master at this second use, as Homer was of the first.

For example, in the dialogue the Phaedrus, a myth is presented in which (in Egyptian guise) Hermes invents writing, and Zeus critiques it as ultimately an impediment to memory and as the tool of sophists. The irony: the critique of writing is only known to us by virtue of being written. The inclusion of Hermes is an indicator-light that the surface meaning is not to be trusted.

Likewise, in the Republic, in the section where they discuss what texts should be banned from the ideal city, one of the two prohibitions insisted upon is against works that include magician gods who hide themselves by disguise (i.e. Hermes). Hint: no such prohibition is actually meant, and Hermes’s presence here is the indicator of this. (Aside: I value esoteric reading, but I doubt its presence where there are not these Hermetic indicators. I worry about esoteric reading as practiced by Straussians as having its focus on political indicators of hidden meaning rather than Hermetic indicators of hidden meaning.)

2. A concept I have recently been working with: mythic temporal setting of a work. If we look at the Harry Potter (‘HP’ hereafter) books, their temporal setting is the 1990s. However, with respect to the myth that forms the backbone, namely the Oresteia, it may be said to be set in the decade following the fall of Troy. Consider another work: Moby Dick. In regular temporal setting it is set mid-1800s. However, the names are Old Testament or pagan (Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg etc.) Consequently, I would argue, one must interpret the work’s symbolism as referring to a pre-Christ era, in which Nature has not yet been redeemed by Christ and acts contrary to man. The whale, as representative of nature, must be interpreted in this light. The meaning of a given image or mythological reference is often very dependent upon when the symbolism is set, which is frequently different from when the main plot is set.

The importance to the interpretation is this: to properly interpret a mythological reference, one needs both the reference itself and a sense of when the story is set mythologically. If a story’s references were primarily creation myths, references to Zeus would need to be interpreted as the young bringer-of-order, as the hero. If a story’s references were primarily to the Orestes myth, Zeus would then be the old that needs to be reintegrated into a younger order, and thus as antagonist. In summary: every story has two distinct settings in time, one for the plot and one for the symbolism and mythology that form its structure. The meaning of various allusions changes with the mythological temporal setting.

In my earlier guest post, I had made the assumption that, given the degree of family revenge drama, the Strike books were set post-Trojan War during the younger gods’ universal reorganization. Had this been the case, Zeus/Rokeby would have played the role of primary antagonist contra the Gemini (Strike/?) and Hermes (Shanker). We would have had another retelling of the Orestes myth, as in HP. (This setting places it at the end of the “third act” of Greek myth, which has its focus on the Trojan war and its aftermath). I no longer think such a temporal setting fits what we are being presented, and that consequently we don’t have Orestes (or Aeneas either, as both are set at the same time mythologically) quite yet. That said, we have a Hermetically named (qua Giant-killer) nephew of the Gemini, Jack, who seems at around the right age and genealogy to play the Orestes role in far later books.

However, I think we are being led to posit another mythological time for the current portion of the series: between the voyage of the Argo and the defeat of Pelias and the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the middle space between the Age of Heroes that culminated in Heracles (Greek Myth, Act 2) and the Trojan War (Greek Myth, Act 3). [For Mr Willis’ idea of Greek mythology in three acts, see this comment he wrote in response to an earlier post. John] The Gemini, the twin sons of Leda, are important figures in this entr’acte, as they are in Act 3. Further, the core of their myth is set during this entr’acte. Zeus, however, is here both a figure in need of change (which will arrive in Act 3) but one who has, through Heracles, been reconciled to humanity and is not facing the challenge of the younger gods yet.

If we take this setting, the role of the Gemini is not here as divine resolvers of blood feuds, but as earth-dwelling twins who, in their conflicts over their wives, provide part of the occasion for the Trojan War. The Gemini steal the Leucippides (the daughters of Leucippus, whose name means “white horse”), two women who were betrothed to marry the Gemini’s cousins, another set of twins. This yields a series of cattle raids (about as Hermetic a mode of battle as one could ask for) between the Gemini and their cousins, that culminates in a battle during which Castor is mortally wounded. During this conflict, due to lack of protection by the Gemini’s cousins, Helen is stolen by Paris (cue Trojan War). It is only here that the arrangement is made for part-time heaven/underworld dwelling for the Gemini, to keep Castor’s wound from being truly mortal.

So, let us consider this within the Strike novels. At some point, if the parallel holds, Strike and Castor-stand-in will steal the spouses/soon-to-be-spouses from two other characters, happening within a book that has the white horse (Leucippus) as its motif. Following this, the two other characters, the antagonist-twins, will engage in battles/investigations against Strike and Castor-stand-in until a wedding/battle that ignites the flames of a Trojan War equivalent (we already have signs of a theme of conservative vs. liberal conflict brewing, neither side altogether in the right). Castor-stand-in will be “wounded” somehow, thus forcing Strike or Castor-stand-in to operate in the underworld.

Who is Castor? I think we can safely give up the possibility that it is a literal sibling of Strike’s at this point. This person would need to have parallels to Strike and have at least a moderate liking for horses, while not being fully Hermes. Shanker, I think, by virtue of the fact that he already ascends and descends from the underworld, does not fit the part of Castor. Had we kept the post-Trojan setting for the series, he might have fit the role in this regard. He, I think, fits the role of Hermes best. Given the plot that would be anticipated by this entr’acte mythological setting, one in which both Gemini dwell on earth, only one character fits: Robin. She and Strike are similarly recovering from past traumas, as well as possessing a common aptitude for detective work.

Further, in a work with a white horse as motif, they have stolen a pair of spouses/potential-spouses from two other people, Strike stealing Robin from Matthew and Robin stealing Strike from Charlotte (thus playing both the role of Gemini and Leucippides by stealing each other). If the parallel with the HP books holds, we should expect Strike and Robin’s wedding at the opening of book 7. This should end unexpectedly in a battle against the parallel antagonist-twins Matthew and Charlotte, which will precipitate a war. Robin or Strike will then take on the role of underworld informant (given Robin’s tendency to undercover work in Lethal White, I suspect that Robin/Castor will be, on a more permanent basis, undercover). 

That Charlotte is bearing twins I take as less a case of hidden plot (a “second Leda” etc…) but as an indicator of hidden meaning (esoteric meaning with Hermes symbol as indicator-light), indicating that Charlotte now has something twin-ish about her (even internally multiple/unified). This indicates her role with Matthew as one of the antagonist-twins.

Here I think an aside with respect to ring narrative analysis within Lethal White is useful: the book is bookended by the image of twin swans. We have two white swans getting in the way of the wedding photographer’s perfect photo at the beginning (the Hermes symbolism is strong here: a wedding photographer is one of the most Hermetic figures in a modern wedding, present at every major part of the event, but rarely if ever seen in the record of that event).

The concluding line of the book paints the picture of a mansion with twin swans engraved on the front. Zeus/Rokeby is present, presiding over the world though not entering it. (The final words of the book are “twin swans”!) Likewise with the twin swans (I suspect the mansion of the concluding line is Rokeby’s), this indicates less a hidden plot element and more a hidden meaning of an old Zeus-figure presiding over things, not yet the antagonist but not all good. Such a detached presence fits with the earlier mythological setting.

In sum: if we move the mythological time setting post-Argo and pre-Trojan War, with Strike/Robin as Gemini/Leucippides, we have gained our twin antagonists at just the moment we would want for a seven-book ring narrative paralleling the Harry Potter books: Charlotte/Matthew. Rokeby, on this account, will remain absent until present at the inciting wedding (as Zeus at wedding of Peleus and Thetis), only then taking on an antagonist role (incidentally necessitating more books beyond book 7).

Extra Thoughts on Myth in Lethal White:

That the quote on Lachesis, one of the fates,  is from Plato is significant. The fate referenced in Plato is not fate as externally determined, but as freely chosen. In the myth in Plato, The Myth of Er, Necessity and the Fates present underworld residents with a choice of next lives when they are next reincarnated (the life you choose will happen as determined by Fate, but you still have a choice, not determined by Fate, of which life you will receive). Odysseus is shown as choosing a simple life outside of politics, as opposed to others who choose lives of political power despite the murder (and child-eating) that results. The underworld residents then drink of the waters of Lethe, forgetting their choice. (Philosophers drink as little as possible, thus advancing towards goodness over many lifetimes by virtue of continuing to remember how to make the correct choice). It is our choices that determine who we are, and seeking political power, for whatever side or cause, is a pathway to murderous circumstances. Chiswell chose his life poorly, in choosing a life of politics, and his murder was the sign of this. 

Rowling’s inclusion of this myth I think fits nicely with her frequent attacks on Nietzschean philosophy. Nietzsche argues for an idea of “the eternal recurrence of the same”. Per this account, one’s life inevitably will repeat itself an infinite number of times, as chance and infinite time bring things back to their starting point. Per Nietzsche, the superman is the one who can cheerfully affirm his desire that everything he has ever done should infinitely recur, however terrible and however ugly. The Myth of Ur is an account of fate that is designed to show that even if we have the infinite recurrence, ever returning to life, the goal of this process is to make ever better choices of life. It is an account of fate that allows for the existence of remorse for what evil one has done, which has the power to heal the broken soul, rather than attempting a strong affirmation even of evil acts on account of believing in the inevitability of one’s choices.

 

Comments

  1. Truly fascinating theory! Thank you so much for sharing and its given me a new perspective on the myth and how it may be woven into the series.

    I’m also very glad you brought up the echo of the twin swans in the book’s prologue and epilogue-mirrored bookends. I was struck by the fact that Lethal White ended, as in Career of Evil, in medias res. While at book’s end the couple , Cormoran and Robin, were amiably going their separate ways, with thoughts of meeting a bit later for a pleasant evening, the opening couple, Matthew and Robin, ended up frustrated and the bride fleeing to put distance between them. The twin swans in the prologue scene also mirrored the out of sync couple up to “the moment Matthew had released Robin,” and only then did, “the swan by the far shore… paddle its way across the dark green water towards its mate”. No doubt refusing to move into a picture perfect configuration until the moment the people put right–what was wrong with the human pairing.

    There are definitely some dark notes laid down in the echo of the twin swans in the prologue and epilogue. An undertone that gives a bit of a sinister vibe with the book’s final paragraph of Robin’s “head bowed against the rain, she had no attention left to spare for the magnificent mansion past which she was walking, its rain speckled windows facing the great river, its front doors engraved with twin swans.” Very seldom in a mystery book does a character (especially a detective-in-training), not paying attention while walking in a heavy rain, find themselves moving into a good situation.

    I’m already waiting to read book 5–but I’m also glad we will have some time before in order to try and do some of our own detective work on all the still wonderfully hidden clues.

    Final note: I’m re-reading LW and made a note to find out what the next to the last paragraph in the book was referring to with…”Robin…then calling the guy at Finsbury Park and see if he’ll talk to us.” Probably not important but there it was and I couldn’t remember where I could have seen it before?

  2. Brad Bellows says

    Your observations are insightful. For what it’s worth, the paired swans Robin fails to notice in the final line, actually exist, on Swan House, built in 1876 by R.N. Shaw, overlooking the Thames. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_House,_Chelsea_Embankment

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