A Mythological Key to Cormoran Strike? The Myth of Eros, Psyche, and Venus

Tuesday I discussed seven points in Troubled Blood that suggest a Jungian reading of Strike5 and perhaps the entire Cormoran Strike series is what Rowling-Galbraith wants her readers to attempt. As I concluded in that post, I do not think Rowling is necessarily a Jungian herself but her mentioning the Swiss psychologist in the text by name, her repeated references to Jungian signatures in the story-line, most notably archetypes and symbolism, synchronicity-coincidences, and persona-identity, and the embedded ‘True Book’ that seems a story-cipher for Jung’s mysterious ‘New Book,’ individually and taken together are a big push towards interpreting Strike through a Jungian lens.

Today I want to take the second and follow-up step in that effort in the hope that I have succeeded via yesterday’s post in justifying a Jungian approach. In the post that follows, I will review Rowling’s soul-focused artistry and then argue that her Strike novels are in large part her retelling of the myth of Psyche and Eros as the Jungian school understands it, that is, as an allegory of, as Erich Neumann puts it, “the development of feminine psychology.” This post is preface to the third step in my Jung argument, namely, that the Strike series is an “externalization” or allegory of the integration of anima and animus in its male and female character leads.

This second step-post will have four parts: 

  • a discussion of Rowling’s stated beliefs about the soul and how it is the focus of her story-telling,
  • a review of her psychological artistry in Potter and the post Potter novels and screenplays,
  • a synopsis of the Eros and Psyche myth, and
  • a point to point look at the parallels in the story thus far with speculation about novels to come.

See you after the jump! Forty illustrations taken from traditional paintings and statues of Eros and Psyche…

The Soul

John Updike advised book reviewers to start any assessment of a writer’s work by checking out what the author tried to do. Whether he or she succeeded in what was intended is the surest measure of the text’s value.

This is more than a little problematic, of course, with dead authors who did not share what it was they were after or in living writers whose silence or confused public statements obscure their intentions. The business, even much of the art of literary criticism is figuring out from the work itself, its genre markers, the historical context, embedded allusions, as well as author comments what the target or aim is.

In the case of J. K. Rowling, we have more than two decades of interviews on top of, by her count, fourteen books to guide us. In that pile of writing that is increasingly looking like a mountain she nowhere says, “Hey, this is what I’m about; judge me according to my success in hitting that goal.” In the absence of that explicit pointer, Rowling has been celebrated and condemned through the years by postmodern morality gatekeepers as heroically or insufficiently progressive depending on the litmus strip issue of the day.

Rowling has told her readers, though, both how she writes and what her foundational beliefs are. These and her books are much better guides with respect to what this author aims to do and whether she succeeds or fails than the prevailing winds of the contemporary world’s political atmosphere. 

Rowling’s recent comments about how she writes confirm what she has told aspiring writers from the beginning: “imitate what you think works best in writers you admire.” She acknowledged in her landmark discussion in late 2019 of where her ideas come from, the Lake and Shed interview on the BBC’s 2019 Museum of Curiosities Christmas Show, that her inspiration comes from her subconscious mind dealing with her issues. Her Shed artistry, the re-working of this Lake “stuff” into engaging and meaningful story, is her use of signature tools she has picked up or re-invented from favorite writers that has made her the world’s best selling and most famous author and screenwriter.

As suggested at the end of my post about the “third eye” of Bill Talbot in Troubled Blood, I believe that Rowling has a core belief that suffuses everything she writes in the way that Vera Nabokov said that potustoronnost or belief in a transcendent realm did everything her husband wrote. Rowling’s foundational creed is not conventionally Christian; she attends church for “more than weddings and christenings” but not much more (her faith, she has said multiple times citing Graham Greene, is important but not a constant: e.g., “The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot,” Rowling admitted.

Rowling’s defining belief is not in Christian creeds per se but in the existence and importance of the soul, the human immaterial aspect. As she told a Dutch reporter in 2007:

Q: Do you see death as the end of everything?

A: No. I lead an intensely spiritual life, and even though I don’t have a terribly clear and structured idea about it, I do believe that after you die some part of you stays alive some way or other. I belief (sic) in something as the indestructible soul. But for that subject we should reserve about six hours: It’s something I struggle with a lot….

Q: You said that you saw your soul as something undeniable.

A: Yes, that’s true. But I also have said that I have many doubts regarding religion. I feel very attracted by religion, but at the same time I feel a lot of uncertainty. I live in a state of spiritual flux. I believe in a permanent soul. And that is reflected in [Deathly Hallows].

Rowling’s first epigraphs, those quotations from Aeschylus and William Penn at the beginning of Deathly Hallows, were mythological and esoteric Christian notes about the soul, both as it exists in the afterlife and in fellowship among living friends. The author said she chose and used these quotations as guides to keep her on track in the writing of Harry Potter from the second book to the finale:

“I’d known it was going to be those two passages since ‘Chamber’ was published. I always knew [that] if I could use them at the beginning of book seven then I’d cued up the ending perfectly. If they were relevant, then I went where I needed to go.” 

“They just say it all to me, they really do,” she added.

Rowling’s Potter and post Potter work continue to be texts largely about the soul and for the transformation of the souls of her readers. This is true is much more than an implicit sense, say, of characters having a transformational arc or changing their ideas about themselves and others. An overview of her work reveals that the stuff and substance of Rowling novels are “exteriorizations” and more or less subtle revelations of the soul, its various faculties and character as well as its continued existence after death, and of the invisible, parallel realms of soul and spirit in which human beings live.

Rowling’s Psychological Artistry: Exteriorization and Allegory

The exteriorizing of interior psychic states is most obvious in the various magical objects and creatures designed for just this purpose in Rowling’s Wizarding World. The Mirror of Erised reflects the person’s “heart’s desire” rather than their image. The boggart when confronted turns into the worse fears of anyone it meets. Howlers are letters which explode with the anger of the person writing. The Sorting Hat identifies the primary quality of new students’ soul and proclaims it to the student body as the name of a Hogwarts House. Dumbledore’s Pensieve creates three dimensional experience of a memory. The Room of Requirement changes into whatever the person in need must have, be it a bathroom, an ever expanding secret headquarters for a resistance movement, or a dump for unwanted objects. Each “externalisation of psychological phenomenon” creates “comprehensible, physical forms” of “complex emotions” and soul capacities (Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, p 112, citing Anna Klaus ‘A Fairy-tale Crew? J. K. Rowling’s Characters Under Scrutiny,’ pp 26-7, citing Thomas Kullman’s Englische Kinder-und Jugendliteratur: Eine Einfuhring, p 164. “Thomas Kullmann argues that one of the functions of fantasy fiction is to externalize psychological phenomena.”).

The relatively disenchanted or mundane London of Cormoran Strike is as rife as the Wizarding World with psychological exteriorizing of interior states. The business of the Strike Detective Agency, after all, is the revelation of what is secret or hidden; each novel makes visible the crime of a murderer, always a “genius of misdirection” who has hidden his or her crime under a false narrative. The side-cases the Agency investigates to pay their bills turn out as often as not to be matters of secret infidelities or prosaic and bizarre paraphilias. Robin Ellacott, Strike’s secretary now business partner and incipient love match, is an amateur psychologist who studied the subject in an aborted university program. She and Strike’s business model is “externalisation of psychological phenomena” and of interior, invisible states. 

As important as this is for grasping what Rowling is about, the allegorical depiction of the soul and its faculties as individual characters is at least as meaningful. In brief, her work features characters that represent specific soul faculties and the stories are the dynamic interplay of these psychological aspects with others and their cathartic transformation. She writes allegories of the soul’s healing, its alchemical dissolution and reintegration, or solve et coagula, the hermetic tattoo inked on her writing wrist in late 2019.

  • The Harry Potter novels feature Harry, Hermione, and Ron as a triptych of Platonic psychological faculties, specifically, of body, mind, and spirit. This is the faculty psychology predominant in the West from Plato until Freud and the literary trope seen in threesomes from the charioteer with white and black horses in Plato’s Phaedrus and Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri Karamazov to the Star Wars and Star Trek trinities of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, and Kirk, Spock, and ‘Bones.’ Rowling’s genius here was adapting this psychological triptych topos to the Schoolboy Novel and using alchemical symbolism inside the genre standards to represent the upright relationship of the three allegorical figures and Harry’s transformation and enlightenment.
  • The Fantastic Beasts films turn on the secret power of Credence Barebone, a wizard whose abilities have been repressed by his time in an abusive orphanage and have taken the shape of a supernatural ‘shadow’ of unimaginable force when released. This Obscurus/Obscurial character is an allegory of the soul and its shadow in Jungian psychology; ‘Bob Rightside’ is correct, I think, in arguing that Creedence is only a Dumbledore because he has Ariana’s Obscurial within him as his ‘Shadow.’ The film series will, if they follow the Potter series model, be the exteriorization of this troubled Everyman’s successful struggle either to reintegrate this psychic shadow into his conscious identity or be exorcized of it.
  • Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels are Jungian allegories as well. In these books, Cormoran and Robin are wounded man and woman, each with a complementary and opposite problem. As we will see in a future post about the Jungian ideas of anima/animus that inform the Strike series, Strike the Fisher King is lame (symbolically impotent) and unable to see, accept, or integrate his feminine aspect or anima. Robin the Handless Maiden struggles as a woman in a vocation conventionally assigned to men and with her feminine identity as mother and lover because of her not yet integrated animus or “inner bloke,” as Rowling refers to her own Galbraith pseudonym.

Rowling’s goal as a writer, then, based on what she has told us about her ‘Lake and Shed’ method and her core belief in an “indestructible” and “permanent” soul and on what is evident in her work, is the sublimation of her personal crises “inspiration” into transformative experience in allegorical drama of the soul’s right alignment of its faculties and aspects and its enlightenment or perfection.

Rowling’s Mythological Artistry

We have discussed at some length and depth at HogwartsProfessor the important correspondence between the myth of Leda and the Swan and the Rowling-Galbraith Cormoran Strike novels (see here, here, and here). It is something of a ‘given’ or premise in discussions at this site that Leda Strike is the Leda of the myth and other-worldly rock star Jonny Rokeby is the story correspondent of Zeus with Cormoran being their divine offspring and Robin their mortal child, a Castor and Pollux pairing of boxer and driver.

This mythic backdrop is essential to ‘getting’ what Rowling-Galbraith is after in the series but there is a perhaps even more important mythological key or cipher to the books, their artistry and meaning. The myth of Amor and Psyche, also known as ‘Eros and Psyche,’ even ‘Cupid and Psyche,’ has a host of parallels in the Strike stories, the most important being Charlotte as Venus or Aphrodite, Strike as her three lovers, Hephaestus, Ares, and her son Eros, and Robin as Psyche or the human, mortal Soul.

The story-telling follows the Jungian interpretation of this myth per Jung-disciples Erich Neumann and Robert Johnson as the “psychic development of the feminine.” Robin, from this view, is the primary character of the books rather than Strike. It is in keeping with Rowling’s signature artistic elements evident in all her work, namely, the exteriorization of psychic and spiritual realities in character relations and the blending of myth and esoteric Christian beliefs that foster transformation in the soul of the reader. 

Before we get into this in detail, though, it is worth noting that Rowling is married to myth, both with respect to her education and the stories she has told so far.

One of Rowling’s English teachers at Wyedean Comprehensive, Steve Eddy, was an expert in both astrology and mythology and Rowling’s Exeter years were spent studying not only French but also ‘Greek and Roman Studies’ not to be confused with “Classical Languages” (Rowling has said that what Latin she has was “self-taught”). “In her first year she signed up for French and Classics but an attitude to academia best described as minimum work, maximum fun led to her abandoning Classics after she failed to register properly for an exam.” (Scotsman).  Rowling completed two of the three years of the Classical Studies program before taking her third year overseas, a common-place for UK modern language students.

Rowling’s formal study at the secondary and university levels, then, was largely about Greek mythology. And, as she explained in her 1998 essay for an Exeter alumni magazine, ‘“What was the Name of that Nymph Again?” or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled,’ her fascination with all things mythological didn’t end when she left school but took off from there:  

I arrived at Exeter enrolled for joint honours French and German, but it soon became apparent to me that what German and I needed was a clean break, with no empty promises about staying friends. It was then that I turned thoughtfully towards the Classics department. Somewhere along those unknown corridors, it was whispered, lurked a subsidiary course which went by the name of “Greek and Roman Studies”, and the word on the street was that one did not need any Greek or Latin to join up. This was fortunate, as my Latin consisted of the word cave, which I had gleaned from the Molesworth book….

Perhaps, in the deepest and truest sense, I still don’t really know what Greeks and Romans are, but I’ve never entirely given up hope of lifting a little more fog. A shelf next to me as I tap out these words is dotted with books on Greek mythology, all of which were purchased post-Exeter

As she told Stephen Fry in 2005:

I’ve taken horrible liberties with folklore and mythology, but I’m quite unashamed about that, because British folklore and British mythology is a totally bastard mythology. You know, we’ve been invaded by people, we’ve appropriated their gods, we’ve taken their mythical creatures, and we’ve soldered them all together to make, what I would say, is one of the richest folklores in the world, because it’s so varied. So I feel no compunction about borrowing from that freely, but adding a few things of my own.

Harry Potter needs to be read, consequently, at least in part as a deliberate re-telling of the Orestes myth, and Newt Scamander’s adventures thus far reflect in several important elements the tragedy of Theseus and Hippolyta (via Shakespeare). Through the exegetical efforts of Joanne Gray and Evan Willis, readers at HogwartsProfessor are well aware of the mythological foundation of Cormoran Strike in the myths of Castor and Pollux as well as Leda and the Swan.

In addition to those myths, though, I think we are obliged to explore the legend of Eros and Psyche as a model from which Rowling is once again “borrowing” and “adding a few things of my own” in her efforts to exteriorize the mysteries of the human soul in transformative story. Most of us didn’t have the grounding in mythology that Rowling did in high school and college and few of her readers have done the follow-up study as she has in the subject so let’s review the high spots of the Eros and Psyche myth so the parallels and departures from the original in Rowling-Galbraith’s version are clear.

Eros and Psyche: The Myth

There are five parts to the original story, the best and most detailed version of which we have in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or  Golden Ass: the Sacrifice of Psyche, Life with Eros, the Evil Sisters, the Trials of Psyche, and Apotheosis. The wikipedia summary of Apuleius’ version of the oft-told tale is adequate for our needs here; I’ve divided that summary into the five parts noted above:

(1) The Sacrifice of Psyche: Psyche, the most beautiful woman in the world, is envied by her family as well as by Venus. An oracle of Venus demands she be sent to a mountaintop and wed to a murderous beast. Sent by Venus to destroy her, Cupid falls in love and flies her away to his castle.

(2) Life with Eros: There she is directed to never seek to see the face of her husband, who visits and makes love to her in the dark of night.

(3) The Evil Sisters: Eventually, Psyche wishes to see her sisters, who jealously demand she seek to discover the identity of her husband. That night, Psyche discovers her husband is Cupid while he is sleeping, but accidentally burned him with her oil lamp. Infuriated, he flies to heaven and leaves her banished from her castle.

(4) The Trials of Psyche: In attempted atonement, Psyche seeks the temple of Venus and offers herself as a slave. Venus assigns Psyche four impossible tasks.

  • First, she is commanded to sort through a great hill of mixed grains. In pity, many ants aid her in completing the task.
  • Next, she is commanded to retrieve wool of the dangerous golden sheep. A river god aids Psyche and tells her to gather clumps of wool from thorn bushes nearby.
  • Venus next requests water from a cleft high beyond mortal reach. An eagle gathers the water for Psyche.
  • Next, Psyche is demanded to seek some beauty from Proserpina, Queen of the Underworld. Attempting to kill herself to reach the underworld, Psyche ascends a great tower and prepares to throw herself down. The tower speaks, and teaches Psyche the way of the underworld.

(5) Apotheosis: Psyche retrieves the beauty in a box, and, hoping to gain the approval of her husband, opens the box to use a little. She is put into a coma. Cupid rescues her, and begs Jupiter that she may become immortal. Psyche is granted Ambrosia, and the two are forever united.

The background necessary to grasping the story neglected in this synopsis is that Cupid or ‘Love.’ hence his being called Eros and Amor as often as not, is both the son and lover of Venus-Aphrodite. There are a multitude of origin stories for Eros, to include his being a power from the rise of order out of chaos or his father being Vulcan-Haephaestus, Venus’ husband, or Mars-Ares, her lover. There are erotic moments between Cupid and his mother in Apuleius’ version which play into Rowling’s re-telling.

The driving force and inciting incident of the drama is Venus’ jealousy of the human Psyche. At story’s start, Psyche is reported to be so beautiful that she is considered a “new Venus” to whose residence men make pilgrimage. The worship of Venus in her temples is forsaken because of this mortal rival and she is going to have her revenge.

There are a host of details left out of this synopsis, of course, so I urge you to read the full tale, especially if you are a Serious Striker. An English translation can be found at Sacred-Texts.com as ‘The Most Pleasant and Delectable Tale of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche’ and it rewards a careful reading, believe me.

This sample from that translation is helpful for setting the scene of Psyche’s being offered as a sacrifice on the mountain top by her parents:

In the mean season Psyche with all her beauty received no fruit of her honour. She was wondered at of all, she was praised of all, but she perceived that no king nor prince, nor any of the inferior sort did repair to woo her. Every one marvelled at her divine beauty, as it were at some image well painted and set out. Her other two sisters which were nothing so greatly exalted by the people, were royally married to two kings; but the virgin Psyche sitting at home alone lamented her solitary life, and being disquieted both in mind and body, although she pleased all the world, yet hated she in herself her own beauty.

Whereupon the miserable father of this unfortunate daughter, suspecting that the Gods and powers of heaven did envy her estate, went into the town called Miletus to receive the oracle of Apollo, where he made his prayers and offered sacrifice, and desired a husband for his daughter: but Apollo though he were a Grecian and of the country of lonia, because of the foundation of Miletus, yet he gave answer in Latin yerse, the sense whereof was this —

Let Psyche’s corpse be clad in mourning weed
And set on rock of yonder hill aloft;
Her husband is no wight of human seed,
But serpent dire and fierce, as may be thought,
Who flies with wings above in starry skies,
And doth subdue each thing with fiery flight.
The Gods themselves and powers that seem so wise
With mighty love be subject to his might.
The rivers black and deadly floods of pain
And darkness eke as thrall to him remain.

Her parents are obliged to obey the Oracle and march their daughter in a combined wedding and funeral procession to the mountain crag. Venus has told Cupid to throw her from the mountain-top but, having nicked himself with the tip of his own arrow and being smitten by her beauty, the god of Love rescues her instead. He takes her to a private paradise, a fairy-tale palace out of Beauty and the Beast, where he comes to her at night under the cover of darkness to love her, albeit without revealing who or even what he is.

Psyche’s sisters are allowed to visit after she pleas with her lover, though Cupid tells Psyche they will be her ruin. Sure enough, the sisters convince her that her mystery lover is the serpent-monster foretold by the Oracle; Psyche must arm herself with a lamp and a knife to discover what sort of beast he is and murder him before he kills her.

His identity is revealed when she shines her lamp on him and she realizes her lover is a god rather than a demon. Cupid is wounded not only by her broken promise but by burning lamp oil she accidentally drips on him. He flees to Venus’ sanctuary and the trials of Psyche begin.

Let’s stop there to talk about how Rowling-Galbraith is re-telling this myth within her Strike novels and most especially in Troubled Blood.

Eros and Psyche: The Template for the Cormoran Strike Mysteries

Let me note first that this myth, though you may not be familiar with it, is critical in Jungian understanding of the soul and human development. Here are three books devoted to the subject by noted Jungian analysts:

My next post on this subject, in which I discuss Rowling’s exteriorization of the anima and animus in Robin and Cormoran’s relationship, will draw heavily from these sources. To get there, though, and think that discussion is worthwhile, we have to see Cormoran as Cupid and Robin as Psyche. I’ll begin with what I think are indisputable parallels and proceed to the more obscure.

  • Charlotte Campbell as Venus-Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty

‘Milady Bezerko,’ as Polworth tags her, is referred to as Venus or in the same breath as Aphrodite.

His mobile buzzed again. He picked it up.

Charlotte had sent him a photograph. A naked photograph, of herself holding two coffees. The accompanying message said 6 years ago tonight. I wish it was happening again. Happy Birthday, Bluey x

Against his will, Strike stared at the body no sentient heterosexual man could fail to desire, and at the face Venus would envy. Then he noticed the blurring along her lower stomach, where she’d airbrushed out her Cesarean scar. This took care of his burgeoning erection. Like an alcoholic pushing away brandy, he deleted the picture and returned to Talbot’s notebook.

Charlotte Campbell Ross is the most beautiful woman in the room in every room as we are told repeatedly throughout the series. A London Veela, men find themselves unable to complete sentences they began or keep themselves from staring when she comes into view. In her otherworldly beauty and her love-madness, Strike’s first great love is a natural stand-in for the Venus-Aphrodite of the Cupid and Psyche myth.

  • Cormoran Strike as Cupid, Hephaestus, and Ares

If you have a fat baby angel with wings in mind, Strike is a hard match for Cupid. His other mythological correspondences, in addition to being Pollux (rhymes with “bollocks”) the son of Leda and Zeus, are a little easier to grasp.

Vulcan-Hephaestus is the husband of Venus-Aphrodite — and the god of the forge is as homely as she is beautiful, the great mismatched couple of the Olympian gods. This beauty and beast pairing is a further match with Cormoran and Charlotte in that Strike, like Hephaestus, is both wicked clever especially in comparison with his mad bride and is lame, known by epithets in the literature as “the lame one” and “the halting.” Rowling-Galbraith nails this down in Lethal White by referring to Strike as Hephaestus:

Lorelei liked to dress up. To bed that night, she wore stockings and a black corset. She had the talent, by no means usual, of staging an erotic scene without tipping into parody. Perhaps, with his one leg and his broken nose, Strike ought to have felt ludicrous in this boudoir, which was all frivolity and prettiness, but she played Aphrodite to his Hephaestus so adeptly that thoughts of Robin and Matthew were sometimes driven entirely from his mind. (116)

Venus takes Ares the God of War as her lover, and, Strike, decorated Army veteran, fits this role, too. Readers are told repeatedly that one of the causes of friction between Strike and Charlotte was her demand that he leave the Army and devote himself to her. Ares, of course, refuses.

Venus is famous for her infidelity with Mars and the cuckolded Vulcan is legend for how he has his revenge. The master smithy crafts a blanket for the bed in which the Goddess of Beauty and the God of War copulate, a covering that becomes a net which captures the two in congress. Vulcan invites all the Olympians to come and see the unfaithful pair, unable to escape the other or the net.

Rowling-Galbraith’s parallel here is with Jago Ross and his marriage to Charlotte. Prof Groves translates ‘Jago’ as “supplanter” from the Cornish and this makes a kind of sense in that Jago takes Strike’s place as Charlotte’s fiancee, but in another sense it does not. Strike, after all, supplants Jago at Oxford where the aristocrat was Charlotte’s beaux and Charlotte tells Cormoran in both Lethal White and Troubled Blood that she despises her husband and loves only Strike. He is, at best, a wanna-be supplanter.

‘Jago,’ I think, is better understood as being from the German, ‘Jager,’ meaning ‘hunter,’ the word used in Germany for ‘infantry, armed foot soldiers.’ Jago plays the part of compliant Ares, in other words. He and his ilk in the UK social equivalent of Mt Olympus have only disdain for the lame and poor Cornish commoner with whom Charlotte the goddess is engaged. Strike withdraws from his relationship with Charlotte, just as Vulcan leaves his bed and magical blanket open to his wife and her lover, and the Goddess of Beauty and the God of War are caught in a marriage of their own devising from which they both now only want to escape.

But how is Strike a Cupid figurine? For that, believe it or not, we need to ‘get’ how Spenser uses Cupid in his Faerie Queen.

  • The Two Cupids: Eros and Anteros

None of the Spenserian epigraphs chosen for Troubled Blood refer to Venus or Cupid which is a shame. As C. S. Lewis remarks in Spenser’s Images of Life, “the mythology of Cupid and Venus is one of the central interests of the poem” (19); Lewis devotes the better part of his book on Faerie Queen, in fact, to discussion of its treatment of Cupid and “the false Cupid.” Thomas Hyde in his ‘Cupid’ entry for The Spenser Encyclopedia concurs: “The god of love, or more precisely, of amorous desire, appears in Spenser’s poetry more often and in greater variety than any other god or goddess” (201). Hyde thinks the two Cupids evident in Faerie Queen are aspects of the one god in his carnal and spiritual aspects, a “coherent mythology” as well as a “poetic theology of love.” “In fact, Spenser persistently relates human erotic impulses to the heavenly love that created and sustains the universe” (ibid.).

But two Cupids there are, in Faerie Queen and in Cormoran Strike. We’re struck by this in the story because it begins in Cuckoo’s Calling with Robin’s recall of Matthew’s proposal the night before beneath the statue of Cupid on top of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus. Robin thinks on her way to Strike’s office in Chapter 1:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relief following her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop the question in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that he had reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped on their entire conversation. He had therefore suggested a walk through the darkening streets, in spite of Robin’s protests that they both needed to be up early, and finally inspiration had seized him, and he had led her, bewildered, to the steps of the statue. There, flinging discretion to the chilly wind (in a most un-Matthew-like way), he had proposed, on one knee, in front of three down-and-outs huddled on the steps, sharing what looked like a bottle of meths.

It had been, in Robin’s view, the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history of matrimony. He had even had a ring in his pocket, which she was now wearing; a sapphire with two diamonds, it fitted perfectly, and all the way into town she kept staring at it on her hand as it rested on her lap. She and Matthew had a story to tell now, a funny family story, the kind you told your children, in which his planning (she loved that he had planned it) went awry, and turned into something spontaneous. She loved the tramps, and the moon, and Matthew, panicky and flustered, on one knee; she loved Eros, and dirty old Piccadilly, and the black cab they had taken home to Clapham. She was, in fact, not far off loving the whole of London, which she had not so far warmed to, during the month she had lived there. Even the pale and pugnacious commuters squashed into the Tube carriage around her were gilded by the radiance of the ring, and as she emerged into the chilly March daylight at Tottenham Court Road underground station, she stroked the underside of the platinum band with her thumb, and experienced an explosion of happiness at the thought that she might buy some bridal magazines at lunchtime.

Robin “loves Eros” because she thinks the statue above the fountain is Cupid, the god of love. As Joanne Gray has pointed out, however, it is not; the figure looking out over Piccadilly Square is not Eros but Anteros, the god of reciprocal and reciprocated love. Robin is thinking about her romantic love with her childhood sweetheart in the first paragraphs of the first chapter of the first book and is on her way to meet the man with whom she now seems will have a truly complementary and integral, reciprocal love, Cormoran Strike. Moments later, the Peg-legged PI makes his appearance as Cupid in the drama of Eros and Psyche.

Unlike Psyche climbing the mountain to her death, marriage to the inhuman monster foretold by the Oracle, Robin has a suitor in hand. Very much like Psyche, though, she is about to enter the mad world of Venus. Robin just misses being run over by Charlotte Campbell, our Aphrodite, as she exits the Denmark Street street entrance; they meet face to face, “missing contact by a centimeter,” and Robin is astonished by the woman’s beauty and “exhilarated” appearance (13).

Strike here takes the role of Cupid in the myth head-on. Eros was charged by Venus, you recall, to throw Psyche from the peak of the mountain; instead, he rescues her from the precipice, falls in love with her, and takes her to a secret, magical place apart from the world, hiding himself from her vision. Strike, in pursuit of Charlotte, knocks Robin off the top of the “lethal staircase” and she was “catapulted backwards, handbag flying, arms windmilling” (14) to her almost certain death.

But he does not kill her. He saves her. “He seized a fistful of cloth and flesh” and

a second shriek of pain echoed around the stone walls and then, with a wrench and a tussle, he had succeeded in dragging the girl back on to firm ground. Her shrieks were still echoing off the walls, and he realized that he himself had bellowed, “Jesus Christ!” (15).

The God of Love, Spenser’s heavenly love that created and sustains the universe,” is named by the story stand-in for the mythological Cupid, spiritual god of love. And the myth-love-story of Robin and Cormoran has its start.

As in the myth, their first contact is physical, even sexual (he grabs her, you’ll recall, by “a substantial part of her left breast,” the part just above her heart). The office is their secret sanctuary. Strike, in emotional and financial free fall because of Charlotte’s madness, immediately hides himself from Robin in his inner office and, until Troubled Blood at least, conceals his history and feelings from her so she cannot know who he is.

This remains the case through the first four books. Strike has girl-friends he uses for sex, meals, and to get information for cases he is investigating. He wonders to himself, because he has no feelings for these women, if Charlotte has not destroyed his capacity to love. Robin cancels her engagement to Matt after learning he cheated on her years previously, reconciles with and marries him, only to break with him again both because of his repeated infidelity and because she loves her job more than her husband.

Robin and Strike become business partners in Lethal White, and, more important, at the story turn they both realize, unconsciously at first, that they are “best mates” as well. Just as Robin cared for Strike in Cuckoo’s Calling the night of his drunken binge consequent to learning Charlotte was engaged to marry Jago Ross, so Cormoran helps Robin pick up the pieces of her life in Career of Evil when she first breaks her engagement and again in Lethal White at the break-up of her marriage. Except for his revelations about Charlotte-Venus when pissed-drunk, however, he remained invisible and unknown to Robin with respect to his feelings and history.

The first four books are, in other words, the myth of Cupid and Psyche up to the point of the evil sisters’ appearance. It is the false Cupid of erotic love that is the god of both their love-lives, though the foundation of anterotic, reciprocal, and complementary love has been laid.

  • Troubled Blood: Valentine’s Day

Both Robin and Strike cut themselves off at last from their imbalanced and disproportionate loves for Matt and Charlotte respectively. Each comes to a conscious understanding that they were saved in large part at their nadirs — Robin post rape, Strike after the IED blast — by the love shown them by a handsome man and a beautiful woman. They acknowledge that debt in Troubled Blood: Robin via her spoken thanks to Matt after their meeting with lawyers, Strike via text after saving Charlotte’s life on Easter. Charlotte’s seemingly complimentary text to Strike before he changes his number is pure Venus-Aphrodite bitterness and envy about the beautiful Psyche. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so envious in my life as I am of that girl Robin.

Before we get there, though, we have to pass through the Troubled Blood nigredo-story crucible at its mythic and structural center, Valentine’s Day, the only day that is devoted to paying oblations to Cupid and his arrows. We meet there at last the Wicked Sister of the myth.

As in Lewis’ Til We Have Faces, Rowling’s version of the story has a sympathetic picture of the jealous sisters who convince Psyche that her lover is a monster. Ilsa Herbert, after all, is no shrew; she seems to be doing all she can to bring her two friends together, though her “match-making” succeeds only in keeping them apart. A closer look, though, shows us the several correspondences with Psyche’s sisters.

For one thing, she’s married to a jerk. If you think Dr Nick is a nice-enough guy, I urge you to read Louise Freeman’s take-down of his response to his wife’s Valentine’s Day miscarriage, which is not to mention that he is a more than credible suspect in the death of Leda Strike. That’s a point of correspondence with Psyche’s sisters.

Another is that she is jealous of Robin. Call it fan-fiction, if you like; I think it’s obvious that she loves Cormoran, hates Charlotte the way she does (with a catalogue of Campbell nightmare stories to share at the drop of a hat, arguing with her husband about Strike’s relationship with his fiancee, etc.), and intentionally if unconsciously is blocking a Strike-Ellacott match with her counter-productive invitations to double-date. She calls Robin after having miscarried and she asks for Cormoran; she only shares her tragedy with Robin with great reluctance. As we see at Aunt Joan’s funeral, Ilsa wishes she were Cormoran’s wife the way the myth’s sisters want to live in Cupid’s magical palace.

Last, Strike calls Ilsa Robin’s sister. The Ellacotts had only one daughter, hence Grandmom’s excitement that the first grandchild is a baby girl. That’s a problem for a story paralleling the myth of Psyche and Eros because we need evil sisters who conspire to get Robin to take light and knife to force her hidden lover Cupid to reveal himself. Rowling-Galbraith tips her hand on this count when she has Strike call Robin’s conversation with Ilsa “the Great Sisterhood Grievance Meeting.” From the street fight outside Robin’s flat on Valentine’s Day:

“—and you can’t be fucking bothered, with all I do for you, to arrive sober for one dinner—”

“If you must know,” said Strike, temper rising anew from the ashes of his previous euphoria, “I was in the pub with Nick, who—”

“—whose wife just lost their baby! I know—and what the fuck was he doing in the pub with you, leaving her to—”

“She threw him out!” barked Strike. “Did she tell you that, during the Great Sisterhood Grievance Meeting? And I’m not going to apologize for wanting some fucking R&R after the week I’ve just had—”

This is the story-shadow of Psyche begging Cupid to allow her sisters to visit, his refusal, then his acquiescence, with warnings that if Psyche listens to them only tragedy can result, i.e., he will have to leave her. The Troubled Blood equivalent is Strike’s life-changing apology to Robin on the phone before he begins his mythic journey to the other-worldly Cornwall.

Rowling seems to be saying in her version of the myth, as she once wrote that mythic Theseus was “a mass-murderer and bigamist,” that Cupid is, even for a god, quite the dickhead, Troubled Blood’s default epithet for clueless, self-important men. Strike behaves outrageously at the Valentine’s Day dinner party from hell and Robin-cum-Psyche doesn’t need the prompts of the Great Sisterhood to call her Cupid out on it.

  • Carl Bryce Oakden: Hermes the Trickster

4×5 original

In the ancient myth we have via Apuleius, Mercury-Hermes only appears twice, once as Venus’ go-pher to fetch the missing Psyche and then as psychopompos to guide Psyche to Mt Olympus at Jupiter-Zeus’ command. He plays a much bigger role in the Troubled Blood part of Rowling-Galbraith’s revision of Psyche and Eros. Hermes in the guise of Carl Oakden is simultaneously the Loki-trickster of the story and the messenger bearing essential information (Polworth the gamin plays the god of travelers part). 

His name plays a big part in his story. Strike finds him by playing with the letters of Oakden and alternative surnames because Carl, like Douthwaite, changes his moniker to conceal his past. Hermes, as Evan Willis told us, is a god of disguise and dissimulation (he invented writing!). What do Oakden’s names mean?

Carl is German for “free man” and Bryce is Gaelic for “quick” or “speedy.” That’s a good match for Mercury, the FTD delivery boy and messenger of the gods. Oakden is richer, though, as a cryptonym and brings us to Mercury-Hermes’ relation to Jupiter-Zeus. In the Dictionary of English Surnames we know Rowling uses, we learn that the surname means, as you might expect, “residence by an oak or group of oaks” (327). What you probably didn’t guess is that the name is tied to “ROKE,” and Rokeby which has the same meaning, “at the oak” (cf., 327, 381). Rokeby in the story version of Leda and the Swan that is Strike’s origin as ‘Pollux’ (rhymes with…) is the Swan or Zeus; Mercury-Hermes is the servant of Zeus, his fleet of foot messenger who moves across all boundaries to include life and death, the world and the underworld.

Why an “oak”? We might be meant to think of Odin and the World Tree/Axis which was an oak as Odin is considered both a Mercury and Jupiter figure to the Romans. I cannot say that with any certainty.

Regardless, Oakden, though in hiding for most of the book, delivers essential information to the Strike Detective Agency in Troubled Blood, is presented as a caddish trickster, and acts as the necessary catalyst to the critical Robin-Strike scene in Strike5. All are Hermes roles. In addition, he tracks “dog shit” into Janice’s apartment (591), a joking reference I think to Hermes because the pooping Doberman pinscher who belongs to Elizabeth Tassel in Silkworm is described as having the “head of a living Anubis,” the dog-headed Egyptian god equivalent of Mercury (44).

Think of Troubled Blood without Oakden. His pulped book, Whatever Happened to Margot Bamborough?, delivers the news of the Bride Street abortion (indirectly), the picture of Nicco Ricci, and, most important, the location in 1985 of Steve Douthwaite. The information in his book leads as well to Strike’s figuring out that he might have changed his name from ‘Jakes’ to ‘Diamond.’ [I suspect Oakden is responsible, too, for telling Janice Beattie where her heart-throb had disappeared to — and to her appearance at the resort and murder of Steve’s heart throb. Just think how quickly the case might have been solved if Strike and his partner had asked for the resort’s guest list for the day of Julie Wilkes’ drowning (898). Oakden gave them the clue.]

In a novel that is an exploration of changes in feminism, too, the Oakden character is a misogynist treat who speaks the “neglected truth” about women’s liberation. He is a convicted abuser of old women, deceiving them to give him their jewelry, but he makes his living now explaining how the women’s rights revolution has ruined the world and by counseling fathers and husbands victimized by a culture that hates men. Again, the trickster, deceiver, and hidden character mark him as the book’s primary Hermes figure. It’s no accident that, in a book about Cupid and Psyche, the relations of man and woman at the level of soul, that Strike discovers Hermes on Valentine’s Day (469), the story center.

Oakden’s big moment, of course, is in his meeting with Cormoran and Robin in the American Bar. He is trying to set Strike up by having him be photographed near his biological father’s Deadbeat 50th anniversary party, but what he succeeds in doing is catalyzing at last the reaction that reveals Robin and Strike to each other back in the Agency office.

Note that the trickster seems to have been frustrated in his plan. He succeeds, however, in sneaking in at the last second the critical information that breaks Strike’s self-control and makes him swing in anger at Carl. Oakden reveals to Strike the tawdry facts of his conception in another ‘American Bar,’ suggesting that Oakden’s hermetic purpose from the start was to deliver this painful, priceless news to the bullying Strike: 

“You didn’t even know your own fucking father’s having a party round the corner,” said Oakden loudly, pointing in the direction of Spencer House. “Not going to pop in, thank him for fucking your mother on a pile of beanbags while fifty people watched?” (716)

The mercurial catalyst does its job. Robin tries to prevent Strike from decking Oakden and only manages to catch the former boxer’s elbow at full speed in the bridge of her nose as he cocks his arm to punch Carl. They run from the scene and retreat to Denmark Street for the biggest moment in the Psyche and Eros myth reinvention since he pulled her back at series start from certain death into the office.

  • Psyche Sees Eros At Last: The Light and the Knife

In the Apuleian myth, Eros takes Psyche from the mountain top of her supposed funeral-marriage to a hideous monster down to a bower palace in a magical valley. He visits her at night in pitch darkness to love her but only on the condition that she never attempt to see him or discover who he is. Psyche’s sisters are allowed to visit against Eros’ understanding  and explanation of the risks; they convince their beautiful sibling on their second meeting that she is married to the monster who will kill her and their baby if she does not kill him first. She is convinced and brings a light and a knife into their bedroom that night so she can see the beast and slay him.

The Strike Agency office is the magical bower to Robin-Psyche, the soul of a woman, the incipient psyche-ologist. She is rescued by Strike-Cupid contrary to his intention to serve Charlotte-Venus and brings her into his inner sanctum. They work together and become effective partners, always, however, respecting the boundaries setting apart the other’s personal life and history, rarely asking questions or offering help unless their comrade is in undeniable distress.

This all changes the night Strike clocks Robin and they return to the office-bower for curry and whiskey.

Strike is wracked with guilt for hitting Robin, though it was an accident, and feels she is owed an explanation. After downing the better part of a bottle of whiskey, he explains to her in the dark, as in “unable to see each other,” about his two meetings as a boy and eighteen year old with Rokeby and about Charlotte’s suicide attempt on Easter Sunday. They then confide in each other their thoughts about having children and both think about the double bed up one flight of stairs in Strike’s apartment. He tells her she is his “best mate” and she, shocked, says that “the feeling is mutual.”

And then the light turns on.

When Barclay enters the darkness of the office, he interrupts Rowling-Galbraith’s inverted re-telling of the Psyche and Eros myth.

The original has the god and mortal living in darkness of night together so that she cannot see who or what he is. Only by her shining a light on him with a knife in her hand, does she learn he is not a monster but an Olympian. The Strike5 version has Robin-Psyche learn who Strike-Cupid is in the darkness, his revelations of his interior and invisible reality, his soul, only in the absence of light.

Saul Morris appears soon after. Barclay and Strike are in his office adjusting the rota and Robin is washing dishes and singing. “Out on the Charing Cross Road, a car passed, blaring Rita Ora’s  ‘I Will Never Let You Down,’ and softly, under her breath, Robin sang along” (737). If you hear an echo here of another seminal moment in the Strike-Ellacott relationship, it’s almost certainly what Robin said to the jokester policeman as she gets into the Land Rover in Lethal White after her emotional breakdown on the roadside in which she told Strike her marriage was over. The laughing cop commented, “You don’t see many [Land Rovers] of this age still on the roads.” She says, “It’s never let me down yet” (543).

[Speaking of echoing parallels, in their bare-all conversation with drinks and no lighting, Robin tells Strike he is being “bloody self-indulgent” when tells her he doesn’t want to have children lest he “perpetuate the mistake” of his conception and birth (729). Strike tells Charlotte, “Don’t be so fucking self-indulgent” in their restaurant meeting in Lethal White after she tells him “I tried to think up ways of dying without killing them” at the beginning of her pregnancy with twins (433).]

Back to Saul Morris and his entrance into the office.

Morris is the epitome of the False Cupid, ‘love’ that is only carnal use without awareness or reciprocity with the beloved. Robin-Psyche hates him and only tolerates his verbal foreplay because Strike-Cupid and the Agency need him. Saul’s name, like Sirius Black by the way, is from the alchemical Sol Niger, the ‘Black Sun’ or ‘Shadow of the Sun,’ indicative of the nigredo stage in the Great Work (Saul is assonant with ‘Sol’ and ‘Morris’ comes from ‘Moorish, black, swarthy’ [Dictionary of English Surnames, 303; Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, 186]).

He enters the office, grabs Robin by the waist from behind, and she puts her self-defense training to the test. After driving her high-heel into his foot, she slams her head back into his nose and turns to face him with a knife, ready to kill him if he moves towards her. No worry there! Strike fires him on the spot after learning Robin “wants him gone” and that Morris had sent her a Xmas dick-pic.

In the original myth, Cupid is wounded by the light and Psyche has no wish to use her knife. In the Rowling-Galbraith inversion in retelling, Strike-Cupid is “annoyed” by the light and its interrupting his revelatory conversation with Robin, but not injured and he does not flee. False Cupid, however, who enters the fully lit bower-office, is wounded quite literally and escapes a la Eros, after being threatened by Robin-Psyche’s knife.


Three notes to close this epic post on the embedded retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth in Cormoran Strike:

(1) What Next?

I think that any speculation about Strike6 and Strike7 will have to include a point to point look at the parallels in the story thus far with speculation about the remaining part of the myth playing out in the novels to come.

The Apuleian version ends with Psyche’s apotheosis via drinking ambrosia given to her by Zeus. That comes after successfully surviving the trials set for her by Venus and her rescue by Eros after she opens the Persephone perfume box. This points to a break between Cormoran and Robin in Strike6, her being tested repeatedly in sadistic fashion by the jealous Charlotte, and their reunion in Strike7 after Strike figures out a perfume clue. Strike is already thinking “apotheosis” in Troubled Blood (405).

I think, too, that my next reading of the first four Strike novels will be shaped by my knowing that Rowling is using the Psyche and Eros myth as her template, albeit one from which she is improvising and altering creatively.

The series opens, for example, in Cuckoo’s Calling’s prologue with the crime scene of Lula Landry’s death. One of the most beautiful women in the world died after falling from a great height. It turns out to be all about her family and a false brother and a true brother. Sound familiar?

I suspect each book will have resonant elements in it that will have to be teased out.

(2) Another Look at C. S. Lewis as a Rowling Influence

Rowling has largely succeeded in stopping the popular meme that she was imitating C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in her own seven book series for children. For the better part of two decades she has downplayed his influence on her work to the point of saying risible and unkind things about his writing.

If I’m right about the Strike series being a reimagining of the Castor and Pollux myths, the Leda and the Swan story, and the legend of Psyche and Eros, we’re going to have to revisit CSL’s place on the list of greatest influences on Rowling. His Narniad, after all, includes a Castor and Pollux retelling, the phenomenal Horse and His Boy (my favorite of the seven, not hers) and his last book, Til We Have Faces, Lewis’ best in his opinion, is his retelling of the Psyche and Eros myth from the perspective of one of Psyche’s sisters.

Not enough? His critical work includes The Allegory of Love, long parts of which are devoted to Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and his most notable posthumously published work is Spenser’s Images of Life which includes the seminal exploration of the Cupid/Anticupid story embedded in Queen. I find it hard to believe, given the place of Eros/Anteros at the opening of the series and the place of real and false love in Troubled Blood whose story structure and meaning are taken from Spenser’s epic, that she was unaware of this scholarship.

“The Lady doth protest too much.” Or maybe this C. S. Lewis hat-tipping is another intentional and ironic parallel between the Hogwarts Saga and Strike series?

(3) So What?

I think, as I explained at the start, that this myth is important in light of Jung and his ideas about the soul. Rowling is “intensely spiritual” by her reckoning, but not very religious; her focus, though, is on the soul and her literary artistry is largely about the psychological allegories she writes exteriorizing its faculties and transformation, even its illumination.

As I hope to explain in the third part of this series, just as Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the three faculties of one soul in story form, ‘body, mind, and spirit’ in the vernacular, so Robin and Cormoran are one soul and its complementary and antagonistic anima and animus aspects, needing integration to achieve full consciousness, as the Jungians would put it. Now that we have the rudiments of the Psyche and Eros myth correspondences down, I can share the Jungian understanding of this myth and its importance in Rowling’s externalization of a psycho-spiritual realization in which her readers will share and be transformed.

Thank you for reading this mammoth post, and, in advance, thanks for sharing your thoughts on Robin and Cormoran as the Mortal Soul and the God of Love.





  1. Louise Freeman says

    Fascinating, as always, John!

    As you know, I earlier predicted Robin and Cormoran with eventually have a son, named “Rokeby Strike” (the name Robin typed into her computer in CC when first curious about her boss’s parentage). However, if you are correct here, we should instead predict that their firstborn will be a daughter, whose name will have some connection to “pleasure.”


  2. This is exactly what I meant, Louise, about predictions having to take shape from the myth! Thank you for this opening entry.

    I woke up this morning, though, with the contrarian idea that perhaps Charlotte is Psyche, not Venus. After all, Strike thinks his old flame has a face “Venus would envy” and she tells Cormoran during her Easter NDE that she is “in hell” (the final trial of Psyche is a trip to Hades for a box from Persephone).

    Probably just thinking way too hard about the parallels after a very long day writing this up…

  3. Louise Freeman says

    Could Charlotte, in addition to being a Venus figure, also be a false Psyche, in the same way that Morris is an anti-Eros? That would fit well with their opposite polarity as far as mental health goes: Robin, the “Psyche”-ologist who has now fought her way back from crippling anxiety twice, versus Charlotte who seems to relish every mental breakdown she has.

    I don’t know if we will ever learn the name of the Ross twins, but wouldn’t it be cool to have the girl with a name of “pain”— perhaps a variant on Dolores? Lori? Or even a nice Nabakov connection, with Lolita?

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