The Three Fates Meet The Weird Sisters: Cormoran Strike, Harry Potter, and the Question of Fate, Free Will, and Choice

On 7 July, I thought to check J. K. Rowling’s twitter feed to see if she had posted anything about the anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist bombings that hit London in 2005. Though the 52 deaths and 784 injuries caused by four suicide bombers on 7/7 is recalled in the UK something like 9/11 is by Americans, she did not tweet or re-tweet any of the many articles and messages about the event online.

I was struck while at her page, however, by the header, that is, the picture she has placed across the top of her Twitter page. I do not keep up with these things but the header picture had changed from the last time I dropped in. The current Rowling Twitter Header is a marble relief sculpture by Johann Gottfried Schaddow on the tomb of Prince Alexander von Mark in Berlin called ‘The Three Morai’ or just ‘The Three Fates’ (picture above). 

The only reason Rowling readers should care about such things — why I write this blog post — is something she shared in January 2017 about a previous header: “It’s hard to find a header that sums up everything I’m working on at the moment, but this painting comes close! It’s by Harmen Steenwyck.”

The faculty here at HogwartsProfessor spent some time back then discussing that painting, ‘Allegory of the Vanities,’ amongst ourselves about what it might mean in terms of Lethal White, the Cormoran Strike mystery we’re waiting on and the work we assumed The Presence was working on then. We came up with little more than ‘remember death.’ Which given the first word of the Lethal White title and it being a murder mystery, did not seem to warrant a post. I’ll return to that in a moment after noting that Rowling was then working on two novels, one a Strike mystery as Robert Galbraith, the other of unknown subject matter as J. K. Rowling.

The reason to take a moment to reflect on Rowling’s choice of Twitter Headers is if what was true of ‘Allegory of the Vanities’ continues to be true, i.e., that she is showing us a picture of what her current work is about. That conditional clause does not seem a great leap to me.

What makes her choice of the ‘Three Fates’ mortuary relief that much more interesting in this regard is that Rowling has had a Twitter Header with the Three Fates as her Twitter Header at least once before, probably twice. The certain one is a 16th century Flemish tapestry called ‘The Triumph of Death’ or ‘The Three Fates.’

It hangs in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. We’re told at the page dedicated to the tapestry on the museum’s website that: 

This tapestry is from a series of six based on the poem I Trionfi (The Triumphs), written by the Italian poet Petrarch between 1352 and 1374. The poem described a series of allegorical visions, and this scene represents the Triumph of Death over Chastity. Its inscription tells that however chaste and completely virtuous man may be, the Fates cut the thread of his life. In the end, there is neither king nor pope, neither great nor small who can escape death.

If you’re a little weak on the classical Three Fates, you can catch up quickly herehere, and here. In brief, the Three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, spin, pull, and snip the Thread of Life for each person. They are an appropriate subject for a tomb sculpture because taken together they are a momento mori, a reminder and representation of Death’s inevitability. ‘Know Thyself.’

Rowling spoke at Exeter College, Oxford, in 2014 in a gathering that discussed ‘Mortality and Morality’ in her work and told a New Yorker interviewer that “Mortality, morality, [are] the two things that I obsess about.” The Harry Potter books are largely about death and how we choose to face it:

Meredith Vieira: [Your mother] had been sick for quite awhile.  She had battled MS for ten years. 
J.K. Rowling: Yeah. 
Meredith Vieira: How did her departure, her death affect this book? 
J.K. Rowling: Definitely Mom dying had a profound influence on the books because … in the first draft, his parents were disposed really in quite … in the most cavalier fashion.  I didn’t really dwell on it.  Six months in my mother died and I simply {couldn’t kill off the fictional} mother.  That callously.  Not– it wasn’t callous, but it’s– it wasn’t what it became … And I really think from that moment on, death became a central, if not the central, theme of the seven books. 
Meredith Vieira: You mean death in terms of loss, not just the killing of people but– 
J.K. Rowling: Yeah … The theme of how we react to death, how much we fear it.  Of course, I think which is a key part of the book because Voldemort is someone who will do anything not to die.  He’s terrified of death.  And in many ways, all of my characters are defined by their attitude to death and the possibility of death.

We can conclude safely, then, if our premises of ‘Twitter Headers point to Rowling Themes’ and ‘The Three Fates are representations of our inescapable demise’ are true, that the author continues to write about death and our relationship to it. I’d note in addition that Rowling weaves the subject of ‘mortality’ in with her other concern, ‘morality,’ via the idea of choice, something we see in Harry Potter in relation to The Prophecy.

Rowling actually refers to the Three Fates in this regard. As she told the leaders of two fan sites in 2005:

JKR: It’s the “Macbeth” idea. I absolutely adore “Macbeth.” It is possibly my favorite Shakespeare play. And that’s the question isn’t it? If Macbeth hadn’t met the witches, would he have killed Duncan? Would any of it have happened? Is it fated or did he make it happen? I believe he made it happen.

The three “witches” or ‘Weird Sisters’ are The Three Fates:

In Macbeth the Weird sisters (or Three Witches), are prophetesses, who are deeply entrenched in both worlds of reality and supernatural. Their creation was influenced by British folklore, witchcraft, and the legends of the Norns and the Moirai.

It’s a Nordic equivalence meeting Roman influence —

The Norse called their three Fates the Norns and were sometimes referred to as the Weird Sisters, from the Norse word wyrd, meaning “fate.”

As I wrote last week in the free downloadable pdf, ‘The Top Twelve Rowling Story Sources Every Potter Pundit Needs to Read (and Re-Read),’ this is why reading Macbeth is so important for understanding Rowling’s position on choice and death as well as how it differs from Shakespeare’s. See pages 63-68 in ‘Top Twelve.’

Joanne Gray, far and away the expert on mythological underpinnings in Cormoran Strike and my go-to person for all things Twitter Header, wrote me in April as a follow-up to her Guest Post here on Leda Strike about a Three Fates possibility in a header not quite as obviously mythic as the tapestry and sculpture:

Her new header [in April] is an image of a close-up, aggressive appearing crow (I immediately thought of Cormoran’s Charlotte Campbell when I saw the image since Charlotte is described as a dark-haired beauty). I went looking to see what other people were making of the new image. Someone (I believe) hit the nail on the head, I think when they mentioned that it was another tag to a goddess, Morrigan. 

This time the myth is of Celtic origin (Campbell is a Scottish surname of Gaelic origins) and once again this female deity is part of a triad of sisters (in most versions). The sisters represent the three phases of the moon:  New-maiden, waxing-mistress, old-crone). The sisters also have the ability to change into crows–which are often tied to death. It does make me wonder if the three women in Cormoran’s life:  Robin, Charlotte, and Leda are going to have a big part in the next book. 

The Morrigan?

The Morrígan is primarily associated with fate, especially with foretelling doom and death in battle. In this role she appears as a crow, flying above the battlefield. The Morrígan has thus been likened to the Valkyries and Norns of Norse mythology. … The Morrígan is often described as a trio of individuals, all sisters, called ‘the three Morrígna.’ Although membership of the triad varies, the most common combination in modern sources is Badb, Macha and Nemain.

What was only a marble relief clue now seems like the beating of a Twitter Header drum. “Three sisters, fate, death…”

This may very well be the subject of that unknown novel which Rowling promised late last year she would publish in 2017 under her first pseudonym, ‘J. K. Rowling’ (her name that now seems like a pseudonym is ‘Joanne Rowling Murray’). If we are given a Clotho and Her Sisters novel later this year or Morganna and Her Mates, seemingly out of the blue, then, we really shouldn’t be surprised.

But what if these several ‘Three Fates’ Twitter Headers are clues to the subject matter of Lethal White, the fourth Cormoran Strike mystery? 

All the chapter headings in Cuckoo’s Calling, the first adventure in the seven book series, were classical and a good number were from the Aeneid, Cormoran’s favorite book. The second and third novels had chapter epigraphs from Elizabethan Revenge Tragedies and Blue Oyster Cult, no Virgil or Horace.

If Rowling is repeating her ring cycle pattern in this seven book series, Lethal White, the fourth book, would include a return to the classics note of Cuckoo, the first, and we’d expect to see it in the finale as well. The Three Fates drumbeat we’re hearing in the headers at Rowling’s Twitter feed, 11.1 million followers (not a big secret, in other words), suggests this could be in the works.

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.

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?

I mentioned close to the beginning of this post that one of Rowling’s twitter headers was a painting called ‘The Allegory of the Vanities.’ In the Hogwarts Professors’ private email discussion about it Louise Freeman shared this link and observation:

This particular description was interesting, and connected the painting to the same Biblical passage that the Dumbledore gravestone had [in Deathly Hallows].

The Symbolism of Vanitas Objects

The objects in this painting have been chosen carefully to communicate the ‘Vanitas’ message which is summarized in the Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Each object in the picture has a different symbolic meaning that contributes to the overall message…

Read the whole thing for a discussion of the referents of the individual objects as well as about the formal construction of the painting. The take-aways for me in the writer’s summary were:

  • ‘Vanitas’ paintings were warnings that you should not be concerned about the wealth and possessions you accumulate in this world as you can’t take them with you when you die.
  • Vanitas still lifes depicted objects that had a symbolic meaning: a skull as a symbol of death, a shell as a symbol of birth or books to represent knowledge.

As Professor Freeman points out, the relevance of this Twitter Header choice and clue is that the message of Vanitas paintings, as well as the Three Fates tapestry, tomb marble relief, and Morganna emblem, are the morality consequent to mortality awareness: be sure that your choices reflect your consciousness that death is imminent and that treasures on earth will mean nothing at life’s end, even less than nothing. Choose wisely.

I covet your comments and corrections, as always, especially your thoughts on possible meanings and even plot points that ‘The Three Fates’ might point to in Lethal White

[BTW, because we have the fourth book’s title, we can be certain that she’s finished writing the book. It is in production; look for Lethal White in bookstores this September or October…]

Comments

  1. Mr. Granger,

    The only other source I could point to re: The Fates, would have to be Edgar Wind’s “Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance”. Of particular concern for this post would have to be Chap. 2, “Seneca’s Graces”, and Chap. 3, “The Medal of Pico Della Mirandola”. The main gist of both chapters is how the image or idea of The Fates were viewed in Renaissance Christian terms.

    What’s curious is how the content of the Triad goes from being about Fate, and instead seen as a symbol of the concept of Grace. There’s more in the book, however it’s not entirely concerned with just The Fates, however, they do take up at least a part of Wind’s overall text.

    Other than that, I’m sort of at an unfair advantage. My natural inclination is to root for the ideas of the Fates as pointing toward “Lethal White”, however that’s just because I have no idea of what the non-related Strike text will be about.

    That said, if it were a fantasy novel about the Morrigan, then I can’t say I’m going to object.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Quite off the wall, but, the Weird Sisters… artistry – weaving fate, weaving musical elements… Music being so distinctly temporal in its unfolding and enjoyment – image of the complex beauty, vitality of the limited mutable world.

    Any implications of the context of the sculpture group – the grave of an eight-year-old royal bastard, possibly murdered by poisoning? Other sculptural details of the monument (Sleep, Death, what scene exactly on the sepulchre)? Moved from a Church bombed by the Allies on St. Cecilia’s Day?

  3. Wow, David! I was patting myself on the back for learning how to use Google image search to find out what the new Header was. I didn’t think to learn of its history, especially in light of there seeming to be a Three Fates pattern in the Headers The Presence has chosen and a possible Aeneid revisited theme (in the way Harry’s adventures were Rowling’s re-imagining Macbeth as a postmodern celebration of choice and individual agency).

    Please share your findings about this sculpture — and your speculations about what it might mean for ‘Lethal White’!

  4. Kathrin Franke says:

    I sometimes ask myself if Macbeth would have done what he has had he not been married? Sure, he wants to be King, but he seems to want to go about it the right way – thereby risking that he won’t achieve it (after all Duncan has heirs). He may have contrived an other way of going about it, esp Duncan’s murder, without killing him while he was asleep at Castle Macbeth (which means Son of Life, btw) – and therefore under his special protection, as King, kinsman and guest as Macbeth himself says.

    As for Lethal White, well Leda was a drug addict, wasn’t she? Seems like an obvious thing the title may be connected to that. (What about Leta Lestrange in FB? Coincidence or intent in the similarity of the women’s names?)

  5. As for Lethal White, well Leda was a drug addict, wasn’t she? Seems like an obvious thing the title may be connected to that.

    That’s our thinking, too! Please see: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/guest-post-lethal-white-deadly-heroin/

    (What about Leta Lestrange in FB? Coincidence or intent in the similarity of the women’s names?)

    Leda Strike is almost certainly a reference to the mythological woman that Zeus sleeps with as a swan: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/guest-post-leda-strike-rokeby-zeus/

    Fantastic Beasts’ lita, though, probably is a pointer to the Theseus myth, believe it or not, that Rowling is re-writing in that series: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/finding-the-fantastic-beasts-text-5-2-theseus-the-hero-and-newt-scamander/ (Hippolyta is the Amazon queen Theseus marries on his return from Crete).

    Could the Lita-Leda pair be related? As you say, their assonance certainly suggests a relationship but what it might be, I have no idea!

  6. Kathrin Franke says:

    Well, they’re both figures from Greek myth – so there’s a connection. We just don’t know enough about Leta yet, except that her family had a bit of a reputation in the early 1900s (not much has changed on that count).

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I’m afraid I have not begun to attempt to pay attention to Cormoran Strike, yet, only incidentally picking up things (while avoiding potential spoilers) from posts, here: so I can’t say anything intentionally useful about Lethal White (!)

    I have to get learnèd young people to help me with Google image search… but once you’d done that fundamental work for us, I browsed around quickly in the German Wikipedia on “Alexander von der Mark” and “Johann Gottfried Schadow”, following links to the “Dorotheenstädtischen Kirchen” where the monument was, originally (this redirected to “Neustädtische Kirchplatz” – which also has something about the location of the American Embassy after 9/11…), and to the Wikimedia Commons detailed photos – after which, I ground to a halt (nothing immediately on the scene on the sepulchre, for instance). If you do that, you’ll see a fair bit of military stuff – the little prince with sword and helmet in the effigy, all the arms to the right in the scene – but who’s the woman-figure with helmet and shield, and what of the helmet, shield, and sword at her right foot? The prince led away by death to the underworld before he could follow his martial destiny, though he longs to do so? All a bit antique Roman… anything particularly Virgilian, beyond that?

  8. Brian Basore says:

    Somehow all this made me drift off into memories of reading Melville’s Moby Dick, with its talk of rope, weaving, splicing, and line connections. (What I remember most is that “Ismael” concludes that he never wants to finish anything.) I apologize if this is off-topic.

  9. Brian Basore says:

    Sorry. “Ishmael”.
    Another thing that came up this drowsy Summer morning was the lyric line, “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts […]”.

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Brian Basore,

    I think you’re nicely on topic in lots of ways – including how very Shakespearean in one way and another Melville is in Moby Dick, and also in that wonderful discourse (which I have not paused to look up) using weaving imagery about the different elements of circumstance and choice coming together and interacting.

    I haven’t downloaded the exciting-sounding book, yet, and am quite a tyro about ‘what we know about what J.K. Rowling read – and liked’, but I wonder if Melville in general and Moby Dick in particular come into either category (and Hawthorne, for that matter)?

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Still haven’t run into a detailed discussion, but suddenly wonder – could Schadow’s woman-figure with helmet and shield be Minerva?(!)

  12. Michelle Singleton says:

    Hello, I have been wondering why at times you refer to Rowling as “The Presence”?.
    It comes across as rather snide; surely that is not intended? It distracts from what is otherwise enlightened and positive discourse.

  13. ‘The Presence,’ sometimes ‘The Presence Herself,’ is a euphemism for the author that gently mocks the elevated status given Jo Murray’s every word by fandom, gently chides her for refusing to do interviews with anyone with even a hint of background in literary criticism, and simply notes the awe and consequent ease of questioning those journalists who speak with her clearly feel.

    I understand your point that it can be read as snide, even that it is to a degree. I think the value of the expression in noting that the author insists on staged interviews with questions in advance, insisting on veto power of final product, and refusal to meet with anyone capable of asking questions about her work beyond plot-point information makes it worthwhile. [We only know about this because of the 2012 New Yorker interviewer who refused to comply with these requirements and told her readers about them — and the one about not being allowed to take notes!] Jo Murray, J. K. Rowling, and Robert Galbraith are all taken very seriously at this site and a marker that the writer/critics/fans here are not absolutely besodden with her or her work is important.

    I am certainly open to an alternative phrase that serves this purpose, especially one that does not have the snide after-taste you point out! Thank you for the polite nature of your observation, and, in advance, for any suggestions you have about a replacement.

  14. Michelle Singleton says:

    Thank you for the explanation. I only pop in once a week or so, and so am just reading it today…

    Is whether or not the author insists on staged interviews really justification for calling her other than by her name? It is fairly obvious that the writer/critics/fans here are not besotted with her personally, and that is fine. At least, I never thought that to be a fan of some of an author’s work be a requirement that one be a fan of all of that author’s work, let alone a fan of that author’s personal or public life. I think (I may be wrong) that most authors do not have the gross misfortune to be under as much scrutiny as is Rowling. How gracefully would anyone behave in the same circumstances?

    I would suggest that referring to her as “Rowling”, as is done here the majority of the time, is sufficient…no euphemism needed.

    As always, thank you for providing a forum for truly wonderful discussions that are most educational and enlightening.

  15. Thank you for the gracious response to my over-long and defensive explanation.

    FYI, I asked Prof Groves about this — and she said her thought at reading ‘The Presence’ was not that I was being snarky but fawning!

    Grateful for your contributions to the conversation (and the concern you have to protect this forum from becoming negative or unkind),

    John

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