Beatrice Groves: Dwelling on Dreams in Strike & Harry Potter (Part 1 )

Oxford University’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, offers her reflections on the many dreams in Harry Potter and the Cormoran Strike mysteries. Enjoy! Part 2, DV, will be up soon, even post-haste

In Troubled Blood one of the many signs that the investigating office Bill Talbot has become unwell is that he asks Janice to keep a dream diary. But it is also a moment which creates a link between the fifth book of the Strike and Harry Potter series. For in Order of the Phoenix oneiromancy (foretelling the future through dreams) is likewise touched upon when Harry and Ron – like Janice – are told to keep dream diaries. 

‘I never remember my dreams,’ said Ron ‘you say one.’ 

‘You must remember one of them,’ said Harry impatiently…. 

‘Well, I dreamed I was playing Quidditch the other night,’ said Ron ‘What d’you reckon that means?’ 

‘Probably that you’re going to be eaten by a giant marshmallow or something,’ said Harry, turning the pages of The Dream Oracle (Phoenix, Chap 12, pp.214-5) 

This joke, incidentally, is particularly pleasing in this context as I suspect it points to a subconscious source for J. K. Rowling herself. It a small, additional, piece of evidence that she had the Monty Python episode “You’re No Fun Anymore” (Season 1, Episode 7) at the back of her mind when writing Harry Potter. John Granger was the first to realise the relevance this episode’s final, long, sketch (and its character ‘Harold Potter’) in his How Harry Cast his Spell.  It seems likely that this ‘being eaten by a giant marshmallow’ joke is based on a subconscious memory of the same sketch – as it ends, bizarrely, with giant blancmanges eating people (and giant marshmallows are a natural modernisation of Python’s giant blancmanges – which bamboozled American viewers even at the time).

The joke works particularly well as Rowling has built on Python’s original inversion (food eating people rather than the other way around) with a further one of her own (a normal dream-event symbolising a surreal real-life event, rather than the other way around). It is a particularly satisfying moment to see a reveal of Rowling’s own mental furniture as Harry, of course, is trying to occlude the contents of his own mind in this class. Harry has no intention of revealing either his nightmares about graveyards, nor his recurring dream about long dark corridors and so his dream diary (like Janice’s?) is a complete fabrication  

Trelawney calls dreams ‘prophetic… night-time visions’ (Phoenix, Chap 15, p.280) and certainly many of the dreams in Harry Potter turn out to come true. The first dream Harry ever has in the novels (about a flying motorbike) the reader already knows to be true, immediately alerting us to take future dreams seriously. Harry’s first dream at Hogwarts is given in some detail and, as we discover when we finish the book, it contains numerous clues about the future:  

He was wearing Professor Quirrell’s turban, which kept talking to him, telling him he must transfer to Slytherin at once, because it was his destiny. Harry told the turban he didn’t want to be in Slytherin; it got heavier and heavier; he tried to pull it off but it tightened painfully – and there was Malfoy, laughing at him as he struggled with it – then Malfoy turned into the hook-nosed teacher, Snape, whose laugh became high and cold – there was a burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating and shaking.  (Philosopher’s Stone, Chap 7, p.97).  

The most important dream in Prisoner of Azkaban plays the same prophetic role as this important dream in the Philosopher’s Stone

He had a very strange dream. He was walking through a forest, his Firebolt over his shoulder, following something silvery-white. It was winding its way through the trees ahead, and he could only catch glimpses of it between the leaves. Anxious to catch up with it, he sped up, but as he moved faster, so did his quarry. Harry broke into a run, and ahead he heard hooves gathering speed. Now he was running flat out, and ahead he could hear galloping. Then he turned a corner into a clearing and –  (Azkaban, Chap 13, p.196)  

The main difference, however, is that the event the later dream foretells is not completed within the book. There is a pre-echo of it in the importance of the stag Patronus Harry conjures by the lake, but this dream will only be fully realised in the final novel as Harry follows the silver doe. 

Professor Trelawney tells the Divination class that ‘you will find on the tables before you copies of The Dream Oracle, by Inigo Imago. Dream interpretation is a most important means of divining the future’ (Phoenix, 214). The fact that – for all the comedy generated by the dream diaries – oneiromancy does work in the world of Harry Potter fits with the way in which prophecy as a whole is at once fraudulent and illuminating in the novels. It also works for the magical context of Harry Potter that something as mystical as dream-prophecy should turn out to be true.

Surprisingly, however, Rowling keeps clue-providing dreams in her Strike novels – a sign both of the connections between the two series and that Strike may be less realist than at first appears.  Inigo Imago’s Dream Oracle, for example, might have something to say about Chapter 51 of Lethal White which both opens and closes with Strike dreaming of being in Chiswell House with Charlotte. A dream about Charlotte makes sense for Strike’s psychological state in this chapter, for he spends it preoccupied by his feelings for her. But the chapter epigraph (from Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm) points up that Strike is attaching importance to the wrong part of this dream: ‘I can assure you, you have been on the wrong scent entirely, Miss West.’ (For the clues encoded in these epigraphs, see my blog post, ‘The Epigraphs of Lethal White’)

It is the house, not Charlotte, which will provide him with clues: ‘Strike turned off the light, closed his eyes and sank, once more, into uneasy dreams of the empty house where squares of unfaded wallpaper bore witness to the removal of everything of value’ (Lethal White, 459). Houses are important in dream interpretation  – susceptible to a startling gamut of interpretations –  and Rowling, remember, has some Freud on her bookshelves. But Strike’s dream turns out to be about a literal, not a symbolic house. And the squares of unfaded wallpaper, recalling something Strike has seen whose importance he has not understood, point us towards the murder motive. 

The epigraph to Chapter 51 of Lethal White – ‘I can assure you, you have been on the wrong scent entirely’ – hints at the clues encoded in this dream and that Strike, like Harry, could learn something from paying attention to oneiromancy. But Strike’s epigraphs are also connected with Imago’s Dream Oracle in another way. For the epigraphs of Troubled Blood, by proving how steeped Rowling is in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene,  suggest that a character in Spenser’s poem who can shape dreams may be the source for the name of the author of Harry Potter’s oneiromancy textbook.  

In Rowling’s recent interview about The Ickabog she has once again stressed the importance to her of her character’s cratylic names:  

The most important name in the whole book is the name of the Ickabog itself; because that came from the word ‘Ichabod’… which is sometimes also used as a proper name. And the meaning of that word is ‘without honour’ or sometimes it’s translated as ‘the glory has departed.’ And so it was a play on that word, because the monster is used in a way that means honour departs the Kingdom of Cornucopia (except for in a few heroic characters). So, yeah, that was probably the most important name for me – but actually that name came to me right at the start when I was writing the story so the name and the creature came together, which I – names are very important to me and they often do help me create the character. 

I love this – and not only because it confirms the importance of the ‘Ichabod’ source for the name (a source which has many other resonances for the story, as I wrote about back in July). But also, because it shows just how important names are in shaping Rowling’s creative imagination. The meaning of the word ‘Ichabod’ does not describe the creature itself, but rather the stories that are told about it – including the story which Rowling herself has told which bears its name. 

Even incidental names in Harry Potter can be telling. One category of names about which, fittingly, Rowling thinks particularly carefully, is the names of her authors. All the text books at Hogwarts are written by authors with strikingly cratylic names – to the extent that these names could, playfully, be considered a form of normative determinism – Libatius Borage must have felt a pull towards Potions, and Cassandra Vablatsky could hardly have avoided a career as a seer.

Inigo Imago, the author of Harry’s Dream Oracle textbook, has long held a particular appeal for me – for each part of the name points in an early modern direction. Both parts of the name reference men who are both masters, like Imago, of building insubstantial pageants on the baseless fabric of a dream. Inigo recalls Inigo Jones, a famous architect and scene-maker of the Jacobean period who worked with the playwright Ben Jonson to create the spectacular visual fantasies that were Jacobean masques. These masques are generally considered the most important example of the form, but author and architect tussled for precedence, with an annoyed Jonson going so far as to lampoon his collaborator as a puppet master called ‘Inigo Lantern’ in his play Bartholomew Fair. (His friends persuaded him that this name made the satire too pointed, so he agreed to drop the name ‘Inigo’ in the final play.) 

The surname ‘Imago,’ meanwhile, points to Archimago, the most famous wizard in a poem we now know to be one of Rowling’s favourites: Edmund Spenser’s Faerie QueeneArchimago is one of the most famous characters in Spenser’s poem and the cratylic nature of his name encompasses both its Latin and English meanings: at once an architect of images and an arch-magician (archi- ‘chief;’ magus ‘magician’). Archimago’s name is, in fact, the origin (via Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ursula K. Le Guin) of the now common fantasy term ‘archmage.’ 

Archimago is a suitable source for Imago’s name because his ‘charmes and hidden artes’ (Faerie Queene, 1.1.45) are practised through dreams. Archimago’s most important piece of magic is to create a false doppelgänger (Duessa) for the holy Una and to persuade the Redcrosse Knight to mistake the two. And Archimago achieves this slight of hand through the medium of dream, ‘a fit false dreame that can delude the sleepers’ (Faerie Queene, 1.1.43). 

The maleficent doubles of The Faerie Queene are a crucial part of Rowling’s engagement with the poem. They point to Harry Potter’s shared interest in using shadow-twins to express the difficulties that beset moral interpretation, and in Troubled Blood Spenser’s doppelgängers (Duessa and Una; False and True Florimell) are clues to the murderer (as I’ve written about here  and here).

Rowling’s long-term engagement with Spenser’s poem is signalled by her use of Archimago for a name-source back in 2003. But there is another link between Archimago, Harry Potter and Troubled Blood. In Spenser, as in Harry Potter, eyes are always a reliable guide. 

A great lady, who ‘seemd a woman of great bountihead,/ And of rare beautie’ gives herself away with her ‘wanton eyes’ (Faerie Queene, 3.1.41) while a trustworthy woman has eyes which are ‘stedfast still’ (Faerie Queene4.10.49). One character addresses an unknown fisherman as a ‘good man’ but the reader knows better for he has ‘deceiptfull eyes’ (Faerie Queene3.8.24). Red eyes, as in Harry Potter, are not a good sign – Fury has ‘burning eyen, whom bloody strakes did staine’ (Faerie Queene2.4.15). Eyes are windows into the soul in The Faerie Queene just as they are in Harry Potter, where the green eyes Harry has inherited from his mother, the piercing blue of the Dumbledore brothers’ eyes, the occluding black of Snape’s and the satanic red of Voldemort’s all provide insight for the reader. 

In The Faerie Queene Spenser alerts the reader to this technique by making Archimago – the poem’s first ‘false friend’ – keep his eyes fixed on the ground so that no-one can read his true motivation in them: ‘And to the ground his eyes were lowly bent’ (Faerie Queene, 1.1.29). Una and Redcrosse fail to realise whom Archimago truly is because they are taken in by appearances, but also because they cannot look into his eyes.

This Spenserian moralising of sight furnishes a major clue for Troubled Blood as the only people who have met the doppelgänger at the heart of the story in both her incarnations – the evil nurse Janice and the ‘kind’ social worker Clare Spencer (note the name!) – are the Athorns. The Athorns have Fragile X and, as the reader is shown repeatedly in the scene which Strike spends in their flat, one of the characteristics of Fragile X is a dislike of eye contact. The reader sees – and is later told – that people with Fragile X are uncomfortable with eye contact and ‘don’t recognise faces easy’ (Troubled Blood, 898). The Athorns do not know that Clare is Janice’s creation because they are unable to look into her eyes and see that each women is actually a doppelgänger of the other. Janice, the architect of the lies and misinformation in Troubled Blood, is the novel’s Archimago – as well as its Duessa. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Professor Groves’ Reflections on Dreams in Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike!

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