Beatrice Groves and Kurt Schreyer – The Mystery of the Ink Black Heart

When The Ink Black Heart was first identified as a possible title for the next Strike novel, it had one big disadvantage compared to ‘The Last Cries of Men’. Try as I might I could find no literary allusion worth it’s name. Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter and Texts & Traditions: Religion in Shakespeare, and Kurt Schreyer, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Missouri, and author of Shakespeare’s Medieval Craft: Remnants of the Mysteries on the London Stage have written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post that not only offers a solution to this mystery, but potentially offers peak at a the story scaffold via Shakespearian epigraphs. After the break, read their elegant solution to the mystery of The Ink Black Heart.

The Mystery of the Ink Black Heart

On 3 Dec JK Rowling released the title of Strike 6 – first of all trailing a black heart emoji as a tease and then confirming that the title was indeed The Ink Black Heart. Careful readers of Hogwarts Professor guessed the title immediately, as back in April Nick revealed ‘The Ink Black Heart’ as a possible future Strike title. But once the title was revealed a further mystery remained: where does this title come from? For almost all the Strike titles are textual allusions (Lethal White being the single exception). The oddness of the title of Cuckoo’s Calling draws attention to its poetic source: ‘A Dirge’ by Christina Rossetti, a poem which is quoted in full as the novel’s epigraph.  The title of Strike 2, The Silkworm, is much less obviously a quotation, but it remains a title which is drawn from, or at least appears in, the novel’s epigraphs – in this case from John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy, The White Devil: “Didst thou not mark the jest of the silkworm? (Chapter 45); “Ha, ha, ha, thou entanglest thyself in thine own work like a silkworm” (Chapter 47).  The title of Career of Evil is likewise a clear allusion – in this case to song lyrics – and the Blue Öyster Cult song from which the title is taken is once again quoted as the novel’s epigraph. And finally Troubled Blood comes from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (the sixteenth century epic poem that supplies all the chapter epigraphs for the novel) – and the stanza containing the phrase ‘troubled blood’ is quoted as the epigraph for Chapter 64.

So, all in all, we’re on firm ground in expecting the title of The Ink Black Heart to be a literary allusion, and one taken from the text(s) which will form the epigraphs for the novel. It is clear that Rowling has deeply enjoyed the intertextual engagement of Strike’s epigraphs and we suspect that given the panache with which she has managed to take all her epigraphs from a single text (in both Lethal White and Troubled Blood) that she will attempt this (unique) feat once more in Strike 6. There is just one problem. There is no obvious literary text which uses the phrase ‘ink black heart.’ We have searched in literary databases, and Nick – who searched for the phrase back in April before Rowling’s release of the title; and who found the source for Troubled Blood’s title immediately – has likewise drawn a blank.

But, as Kurt has suggested, something close to this phrase does turn up in a highly literary text. And it is a text which would make an excellent source for epigraphs: Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Shakespeare’s reinvention of the sonnet form emphasized the final couplet, and – along with the opening lines – the closing couplets of Shakespeare’s sonnets are often particularly famous. They are memorable – due both to their rhyme and the way in which they often act as a distillation, or overturn, of the preceding twelve lines of the sonnet. Sonnet 65 concludes:

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

This is not a perfect fit for Ink Black Heart but given the lack of any other obvious literary source, Rowling’s love of Shakespeare and the brilliant potential of the Sonnets as the basis for epigraphs, it seems a possibility worth pondering. The more so given – as Hogwarts Professor readers know – the expectation that Strike 6 should parallel Silkworm (which is its pair in the chiastic ordering of the Strike series). Silkworm had early modern epigraphs whose literariness echoed the importance of a text embedded within the plot of the novel itself. We are, therefore, once again expecting early modern epigraphs and a bookish theme in Ink Black Heart – both of which would be amply fulfilled if the Sonnets were to form the epigraphs.

In the concluding line of Sonnet 65 – ‘in black ink my love may still shine bright’ – Shakespeare uses ‘love’ rather than the ‘heart’ we’re expecting, but ‘heart’ is still an important word in the poems: indeed they use ‘heart’ as a metonymy for love no fewer than sixty-three times. Sonnet 24, for example, is conspicuous for its claim that only a writer or poet possesses the true gift of seeing with the heart – ‘They draw but what they see, know not the heart’ – and Sonnet 46 returns to this theme, concluding that:

As thus; mine eye’s due is thy outward part,
And my heart’s right thy inward love of heart.

And, temptingly for the possible echoes of Ink Black Heart, Sonnet 132 sees the speaker suggest that taking together the beauty of the ‘Dark Lady’s black eyes and the unfeeling nature of her heart, she should dress her heart in mourning-black likewise: 

O, let it then as well beseem thy heart
To mourn for me, since mourning doth thee grace,
And suit thy pity like in every part.
  Then will I swear beauty herself is black,
  And all they foul that thy complexion lack.

While the inky-black heart of Rowling’s title points primarily to the cruelty of the novel’s murderer, it is possible that it could (like Cuckoo’s Calling) find references in the Robin/Strike storyline likewise.

The love triangle of the Sonnets expresses the speaker’s unconsummated love for his (avowedly) perfect beloved, and his fear of that beloved’s entanglement with the famous Dark Lady (with whom he, too, becomes involved). The speaker’s painting of these characters in black and white terms – he calls them his good and bad angels (Sonnet 144) – fits well with the fairly unsubtle dichotomy between the two women Strike loves: the angelic Robin and the fiendish Charlotte. The ‘Dark Lady’ famously haunts the final twenty eight poems of the sequence (Sonnets 127-154). She is irresistibly beautiful yet ‘cruel’ (149), ‘forsworn’ (152), ‘tyrannous’ (131), ‘cunning’ (139), and unfaithful (144). And, like Strike’s ex-fiancée – whom neither Strike nor Robin can stop themselves dwelling on at times – Shakespeare’s Dark Lady infects the imagination of others:

My love is as a fever burning still
For that which nurseth the disease (Sonnet 147)

Charlotte is likewise regularly characterized as a disease – she is ‘a germ that had lingered in his blood’ an ‘infection [that] would erupt again’ (Cuckoo’s Calling, 323) and ‘a virus in his blood that he doubted he would ever eradicate’ (Silkworm, 183). In Silkworm this infection of love is given a specifically poetic turn in the Catullus which embodies Strike’s relationship with Charlotte: ‘grim poison in my blood/ The plague, alas, of the friendship we once had’ (Silkworm, 401). Might Rowling have Shakespeare picking up this mantle in Ink Black Heart

We have reason to hope, however, that Strike’s changing of his mobile number in Troubled Blood has finally drawn a line under Charlotte’s influence over him; just as Robin has finally shaken herself free of her ex-husband. But this does not mean, of course, that it will be all plain sailing for them in Ink Black Heart. The final pages of Troubled Blood tell us that a new detective, Michelle Greenstreet, an eight-year police veteran from Manchester, will be joining the agency ‘next week’ (i.e. mid-October 2014). Fans have already begun to speculate whether Michelle will become Robin’s new best friend, her professional rival, or indeed whether she might disrupt the burgeoning romance between the main characters. Professional rivalry turns up in the Sonnets too (see the ‘rival poet’ Sonnet 79) but if Michelle is going to become a more intimate rival, there is an embarrassment of epigraphic riches in the Sonnets: from the concluding couplet of Sonnet 77 (‘For thee watch I, whilst thou dost wake elsewhere,/ From me far off, with others all too near’) to the clock-watching of Sonnet 57:

Whilst I…watch the clock for you,
…I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of naught
Save, where you are how happy you make those.

(Our guess, however – for what it is worth – is that Michelle will act – like the possible, but not actual, love rivals in Rowling’s beloved Emma – as a catalyst for the principals’ realization of their feelings for each other, rather than as a true rival.)

Other than the title, the main thing that we know about Ink Black Heart is the information Rowling gave in her interview with crime novelist Mark Billingham on 8 October, 2020. In this interview she stated that the next book will be ‘very, very different from Troubled Blood’ and that it would feature characters from ‘a far younger demographic’ who would lead Strike and Robin into ‘a very different kind of investigation.’ Throughout each Strike novel Rowling has teased out connections between the principals and the crime they are investigating. We have no hint as yet as how this emphasis on youth might play out in the Robin/Strike narrative arc, but it is a topic in which the Sonnets are interested – both in the punning characterisation of the beloved as the ‘fair youth’ throughout (‘you most rich in youth’ [Sonnet 15]) and in the famous ‘procreation sonnets’ (Sonnets 1-17) which open the Sonnets with the argument that the Fair Youth should immortalise himself through having children.

The Sonnets however, do not end by concluding that children are the best route to immortality, but argue rather that the Fair Youth should remain evergreen in Shakespeare’s poetry instead:

And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth. (Sonnet 54)

This is likewise the argument of Sonnet 65, the poem from which Rowling may have taken her title:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt’ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright. (Sonnet 65)

The final phrase of this sonnet fits a theme familiar from Harry Potter – the magic (or, as Shakespeare would have it, ‘miracle’) of words which can transform or sustain us. Words are, as Dumbledore says, ‘capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.’ The ‘black ink’ of Sonnet 65 is the solution to a problem raised in the previous sonnet: ‘That Time will come and take my love away’ (Sonnet 64). 

Many of the Sonnets celebrate the power of words to defeat the effects of Time, ruin, and mortality, of which Sonnet 55 is one of the most famous: ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’ Shakespeare is playing an allusive game of his own in this sonnet, for not only is he proclaiming the power of the written word to counteract Time’s oblivion – but he is enacting it likewise. For Shakespeare’s opening line is borrowed wholesale from an ode by Horace (a Roman poet alluded to by Rowling in her naming of Slughorn, and whose Odes likewise supply an epigraph in Cuckoo’s Calling. ) Horace’s famous declaration of poetic immortality runs:

Not lasting bronze nor pyramid upreared
By princes shall outlive my powerful rhyme.
The monument I build, to men endeared,
Not biting rain, nor raging wind, nor time,

Endlessly flowing through the countless years,
Shall e’er destroy. I shall not wholly die;
The grave shall have of me but what appears;
For me fresh praise shall ever multiply.

As long as priest and silent Vestal wind
The Capitolian steep, tongues shall tell o’er
How humble Horace rose above his kind
Where Aufidus’s rushing waters roar.
(Horace’s Odes, book 3, Ode 30; trans. Grant Showerman)

‘Humble Horace’ he claims to be, but of course this poem speaks to a deep pride that his poetry might outlast the Vestal Virgins – and when Shakespeare quotes it, he proves Horace’s prediction true.

If we are right in thinking the Sonnets – and Sonnet 65 in particular (a poem which likewise echoes Horace’s ode) – form the epigraphs to Ink Black Heart it seems likely that this idea of textual immortality will prove important. Might the text-within-the-text in Strike 6 be something that counteracts the effects of time and death (a clue from beyond the grave?). The texts that formed one of the chiastic pairings between Books 2 and 6 in Harry Potter – Riddle’s diary and the Half-Blood Prince’s Potions textbook – were both texts that preserved the writer’s childhood self, and in the case of the former conferred a literal immortality (Horace eat your heart out). The ‘ink’ of Ink Black Heart, of course, gives us reason to hope that we’re right in thinking this will be another text-within-the-text novel – perhaps a childhood diary, poems or love letters?

Horace’s Ode 30 proclaims only in his own immortality but the ‘black ink’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets ostensibly promises to immortalize not himself, but the beloved. The closing couplet of Sonnet 65 is the solution to the fear of losing love expressed in Sonnet 64 – a fear that resonates with Strike and Robin’s inability (so far!) to create a lasting romantic union out of their love for each other. In Harry Potter 6, of course, Harry both first kissed, and parted from, Ginny – and possibly Strike 6 will see the same furthering of the central relationship, but likewise without the novel ending with them together (which we think that will happen in Strike 7).

But one reason we particularly like the idea that Ink Black Heart may derive from Sonnet 65’s hope that ‘in black ink my love may still shine bright’ is that this line contains an equivocation or, in detective-novel parlance, a clue. The speaker is ostensibly claiming that it is only his beloved who will be immortalized in his verse. The Fair Youth is described unambiguously as ‘my love,’ for example, in the opening of Sonnet 63 – but the phrase is, of course, susceptible to a different meaning. When the speaker declares ‘It is my love that keeps mine eyes awake’, ‘Mine own true love that doth my rest defeat’ in Sonnet 61 he is ostensibly freeing the young man from blame for his suffering (it is my love, not him, that is causing me this pain). But the speaker is also, of course, simultaneously implicating the beloved, because ‘my love’ has become the moniker of the unnamed Fair Youth. The double meaning of the phrase works in the opposite way in the final line of Sonnet 65 where the clear meaning of ‘that in black ink my love may still shine bright’ – the delighted boast in the writer’s ability to immortalise the Fair Youth – cannot free itself entirely from the idea that is the speaker’s own faithful loving, not the faithless love object, which will shine brightly in his verse for all eternity.

This double-meaning – in which an apparently passionate declaration of love can be read as something closer to a Horatian boast of poetic immortality – is an example of the brilliant potential the Sonnets offer as the epigraphs for a detective novel. Poetry can be defined as a compression of meaning and Shakespeare’s Sonnets is the quintessential example of how to contain infinite riches in a little room. The complex syntax of these famously equivocal love poems mean that even short epigraphs would be replete with possible meanings and, indeed, red herrings. Rowling has proven herself master of such double-meanings in previous Strike epigraphs – in the Rosmersholm epigraphs of Lethal White, for example, which reflected the Robin/Strike narrative and the murder mystery story simultaneously. (Take, for example, the redemptive promise of new beginning for both Billy and Robin in the novel’s final epigraph: Your past is dead, Rebecca. It has no longer any hold on you.”)

Shakespeare’s Sonnets would be a fascinating choice for the epigraphs of Ink Black Heart – poems from one of Rowling’s favourite authors, complete with an intriguing love-triangle of their own and providing rich potential for equivocating epigraphs.

Here’s hoping! 🖤

Links to all of Beatrice Groves’ posts and podcasts about Potter, Fantastic Beasts, Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike mysteries can be found at her Pillar Post page at HogwartsProfessor.

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