Agatha Christie and ‘The Pale Horse:’ Rowling Borrowings from the Master

I bought a copy of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse because (1) there is no other author with whom J. K. Rowling has more in common in terms of sales, personal life, and writing choices (did you know, for instance, that Christie wrote six books under a pseudonym?), (2) Rowling has expressed her great admiration for Christie as a mystery writer, especially for the Queen of Mystery’s sense of humor, and (3) previous forays into the Christie oeuvre – I’m thinking of Appointment with Death and The Moving Finger, books Rowling says she loves — have yielded some fascinating parallels and likely name-lifts. Dolores Gordon-Smith, noted mystery thriller writer, for example, noted that the young, spirited red head girl in Appointment has the name Ginny-which-is-really-Ginevra.

Those are good reasons for reading any of the almost seventy Christie whodunnits. I chose The Pale Horse specifically because of the flood of white horse notes scattered throughout the fourth Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White, and all of Rowling’s pointers to its importance in her twitter notes and public comments pre and post publication (for a review of all that, go here, here, and here). White horses are also a theme of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, the play from which every chapter epitaph is taken and which play’s events and meaning the story in Lethal White parallels in significant ways.

If that weren’t enough, Robin and Cormoran even talk about the pale horse versus the white horse in Lethal White. While referencing the Ibsen play obliquely (the actor playing the Cormoran part may have had it on his mind…), we get the direct link to the last book of canonical Christian scripture, albeit with the usual layman error in its name, on the drive back to London after the group interview at Chiswell House (chapter 44, p 378):

“White horses,” [Cormoran] said. “Isn’t there a play where white horses appear as a death omen?”

“I don’t know said Robin, changing gear. “Death rides a white horse in Revelations (sic), though.”

“A pale horse, Strike corrected her, winding down the window so that he could smoke again.


“Says the woman who won’t call a brown horse ‘brown,'” said Strike.

Join me after the jump for the three reasons any serious reader of J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith will be delighted by reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse!

(1) It’s a Painting with a Secret: The pale horse in Christie’s The Pale Horse turns out to be a reference to a pub name and the painted sign for which the new owners of the old pub building have hung as a piece of art in their living room. This is echoed in Lethal White both in the Galbraith novel’s preoccupations with pub signs and names, especially those involving white horses and swans, and the singular importance to the murderer’s motive of the painting of a white horse in the Chiswell manse. Without giving away the big twist in Christie’s novel, the pub sign turns out to have a dark secret that explains why it is ‘The Pale Horse’ rather than the much more common pub name ‘White Horse.’

(2) The Intertextual Fun: I hadn’t realized until I took up Agatha Christie in my dotage how much fun she has dropping references in her mysteries to Greats of English literature as well as contemporary pieces she admires. Pale Horse not only has the biblical backdrop of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the rider of the fourth and pale horse but important (and fun) asides to Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog‘ and to Rutland Boughton’s opera, The Immortal Hour.

The backdrop text, however, to which various characters make repeated reference throughout the book is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The narrator of the book, Mark Easterbrook, attends the play with his ‘steady’ Hermia, discusses the production with another couple afterward, and then drops pointers to it as the mystery unfolds. The heart of the story turns on three strange women immersed in the occult who live in what had been the Pale Horse pub. Easterbrook calls them at one point “the three weird sisters” in highlighted quotation to make the reference jump out at the reader.

So what? Well, Rowling is a big fan of Macbeth, too, as she told Emerson Spartz and Melissa Anelli in the Mugglenet/Leaky Cauldron Interview, 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.

MA: If everyone would just shake hands and play a round of golf, everything would be fine.

Rowling gets this ‘Macbeth idea’ right and wrong (more of what she thinks of this idea can be found at her archived website) – see my discussion here and Beatrice Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, p 89, and her online post for that — but there’s no doubt The Presence shares Christie’s fascination with Macbeth.

(3) The Names! But the takeaway piece I think serious readers of Rowling will keep in mind after reading Christie’s Pale Horse is less the parallels with Lethal White or their shared preoccupation with Macbeth than the names common to both books. In one character especially I think we have a connection as strong as Appointment with Death’s Ginny/Ginevra.

But there a bunch of suggestive touches before we get to that.

There is a mention of a Grimoire in the Pale Horse’s library of occult classics, for example, that Potter-philes will recognize as one source for the Grim or black dog that plays such an important part in Prisoner of Azkaban.

Mark Easterbrook’s ‘steady’ girl-friend is the bookish Hermia Redcliffe, who is, he realizes mid book, more than a bit of a boor. He takes up with the red-headed and confident Ginger Macalister, who takes charge of his forever self-doubting investigation of the Pale Horse trio of occultists. Yes, I’m suggesting that there is a Hermia-Hermione link as well as a Ginger-Ginny echo. Maybe even a bit of Robin Ellacott, Girl Friday?

[And while we’re on the subject of Robin and cratylic and allusive names, has anyone discussed that Puck’s real name in Midsummer’s Night Dream is Robin Goodfellow? Remember Strike’s drunken conversation with Robin in Cuckoo’s Calling during which he repeatedly tells her “You’re a good person, Robin”? It’s not as if there aren’t a boatload of allusions to that play in Rowling’s work already. (See Elizabeth Baird-Hardy’s discussions of Dream echoes here and here and Beatrice Groves’ here and here). Have we missed the magically literary fun in Robin’s name hidden in plain sight?]

Yes, there’s a character in Pale Horse named Potter, albeit Mike Potter rather than Harry.

The seriously nutters and most dangerously unhinged member of the three weird sisters, the one in charge of sacrificing cockerels and screaming, “BLOOD!” is named Bella. Not quite ‘Bellatrix,’ I grant you, but we’re close.

I enjoyed that the name pulled from the hat by the ditz-dating Oxford don David Ardingly for the proverbial “witch in every village is rural England,” the woman every child knows to appease lest she be offended and curse them, is “Old Mrs Black.” Sirius would have shrugged in agreement at the aptness of this choice.

The character who provides the clue in the end that unlocks the mystery quite unintentionally of course is named Edith Binns. I love the Harry Potter Lexicon and use it frequently as a sure reference to book canon for the Hogwarts Saga. It pains me to say, consequently, that their Cuthbert Binns page‘s only explanation for his last name is that ‘bins’ is a “slang term for spectacles.” Not trash bin or has been, the more likely (and much more funny) connections with a history professor who is dead… Of course there is no mention of the Christie character that might have suggested this joke-in-a-name to Rowling. But now we know, right? She stumbled over it in The Pale Horse.

The big catch, though, the real keeper of the Pale Horse character names is Sybil Stamfordis, one of the story’s three “weird sisters” and wannabe witches. She is a preposterous poseur of a prognosticator (we meet her telling fortunes at a countryside estate’s annual fete) who delights in outlandish dresses and her two housemates testify repeatedly to her blood-status qualifications as a serious seer; she has a gift, a real gift, we are told again and again — and it confirms the folk wisdom about the daughter born after twins, etc. At the trio’s great performance of a seance for the simultaneously skeptical and subject to suggestion Easterbrook, Sybil falls into a trance and becomes the vehicle for an otherworldly power with a husky male voice totally unlike her own.

Sound familiar? Picking up a copy of Christie’s The Pale Horse and the few hours of reading pleasure spent between its covers are more than compensated for by finding and the time spent in the company of Sybill Trelawney‘s original.

Note, too, the spelling of Christie’s character’s name: Sybil Stamfordis. About Stamfordis, I can say little beyond that Stamford is a town north of London in Lincolnshire (Stamfordis meaning ‘of or from Stamford’) that Christie also used for characters in A Murder is Announced. Rowling in her notes about Sybill Trelawney on makes a special point about how she chose to spell the character’s first name:

Sybill’s first name is a homonym of ‘Sibyl’, which was a female clairvoyant in ancient times. My American editor wanted me to use ‘Sibyl’, but I preferred my version, because while it keeps the reference to the august clairvoyants of old, it is really no more than a variant the unfashionable female name ‘Sybil’. Professor Trelawney, I felt, did not really qualify as a ‘Sibyl’.

The Christie ‘Sybil’ character has the same spelling minus the signature reduplicated consonants in Rowling names and it is the same joke, i.e., not quite a Sibyl but a comic occultist pretender. Did Rowling get Christie’s joke and decide to use it herself? I think that is very likely.

This hat-tip or pleasant bit of plagiarism is no small thing. As I have written at length about elsewhere (Is Sybill Trelawney Really J. K. Rowling? The Case for an Embedded Author), the Divinations teacher at Hogwarts is not just another throw-away comic figure in the series or a necessary school boy novel prop, the fruity and loopy French teacher. Trelawney is, more than any other character, the most likely to be Rowling’s insertion of self into the story-line. Who else drives the story more than the character-author from whom we get the foundational text, The Prophecy? There isn’t anyone else that lives as far above the story line as silly Sybill.

Rowling is a serious reader and she urges wannabe writers to read closely and imitate their favorites:

You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

If you wonder why Rowling would have chosen to embed herself in the Hogwarts series in the fun fashion she does as Sybill Trelawney, you don’t need to look elsewhere than this advice — and Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse. Christie manages to insert herself both as the wildly successful and slightly batty senior woman writer of boiler plate detective stories, Ariadne Oliver, and as Mrs Dane Culthrop, the wife of the local vicar in the story that convinces the not-so-bright Easterbrook that “something must be done” about the murder for hire syndicate and he is the man who must do it. I don’t doubt that Rowling enjoyed this twofold embedding, noticed how it worked, and figured out how to imitate it creatively.

[Aside: Is Ariana Dumbledore a hat-tip to Ariadne Oliver? That’s a bit of a stretch (there was a spider shop in Knockturn Alley, though, called Ariadne Spinners, which closed I’m guessing because Muggles avoided it like Ron might have).]

Will every Christie novel have a few gems like this for Potter and Strike lovers to discover?

There are sixty-six Christie mysteries and I have to think that each one is a potential gold mine for Rowling name derivations. Time to dig in!

[Necessary Note to Self: So how much would it cost to collect the Complete Christie on your book shelves? Nothing, of course, if you’re willing to check them out from your local library, but that, I hope, means you are also willing to return them someday. On the other end of the social spectrum, say, if you’re a retired Google or Microsoft executive, you can buy the beautiful Bantam hardcover set for just over $1000 or a very big part of it for only $350 (read about that set and collector’s inside scoop about the variant editions within it here).]

My budget, time constraints, and limited shelf space mean that, instead of buying or even checking out and re-reading the lot, I will have to buy and borrow several encyclopedic guides to Christie’s work (this, this, this, and that) for a relatively quick search of character names. I will, of course, update you here at with any exciting finds — and hope that you, too, will share any Christie-Rowling links that you know of now or stumble upon in your researches!

Your comments and corrections on all of the above are, as always, coveted.


  1. Steve Morrison says

    For whatever it’s worth, Stamford was also the name of the mutual friend who first introduced Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

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