Beatrice Groves: Ink Black Corvids: Magpies, Alchemy and Ink Black Heart

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Ink Black Corvids: Magpies, alchemy and Ink Black Heart. Join me after the jump for Prof. Groves’ delve into all things crow and Cormoran. This is the second of three posts by Beatrice in the run up to publication day.

 

Ink Black Corvids: Magpies, alchemy and Ink Black Heart

The cover of Ink Black Heart puts a magpie at the centre of top of the image, hovering above Robin. The obvious symbolism for UK readers is that of sorrow – this is the rhyme that magpies immediately evoke to Brits:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

 

There is indeed an enjoyable murder mystery based on this rhyme – Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (2016) (which I recommend for when you’re counting down the days to the release of Strike 7 on the other side of Ink Black Heart). But there are also other, less well-known versions, such as this one from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a book we know Rowling uses for research):

 

One’s sorrow,
Two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding,
Four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening,
Six a dearth,
Seven’s heaven,
Eight is hell,
And nine’s the devil his old self.

When I was child superstitious friends always saluted a lone magpie as a way to neutralize the bad luck of the ‘sorrow’ promised by a single magpie – and it seems probable that this is left-over from a more traditional salutation which changed the unlucky single magpie into two by reminding him of his partner: ‘Good morning Mr Magpie and how’s the lady wife?’ (https://www.birdspot.co.uk/culture/one-for-sorrow-magpie-nursery-rhyme .)

While we should be tentative about reading too much into the design of the cover, Rowling has told us she has at least some input into them:

And it is also true that magpies haven’t turned up before in Strike, and not much in the magical world either. In Quidditch through the Ages, however, Rowling did name the Montrose Magpies ‘the most successful team in the history of the British and Irish League, which they have won thirty-two times… The Magpies wear black and white robes with one magpie on the chest and another on the back.’ This seemingly unnecessary detail about their strip could be a subtle nod to the superstition; they have two magpies on their kit (not just one) and hence are lucky – so lucky that they become the most successful Quidditch team.

Although magpies have not turned up much in Rowling’s work before, she has long shown an interest in corvids, the family of birds to which they belong. This blog will look at all the places in which corvids have appeared in her work, and some of the alchemical possibilities they suggest for Ink Black Heart.

With their exceptional intelligence – paid tribute to in Aesop’s fable of the Crow and the Pitcher  – and inky black feathers, corvids have attracted perhaps more folklore than any other bird family. In Norse mythology there are the ravens Huginn (‘thought’) and Muninn (‘memory’) who fly over Midgard and return to perch on Odin’s shoulder and whisper their knowledge into his ear.  In Celtic mythology the warrior goddess – Morrighan – takes the form of a crow or raven. While in ancient Greece the crow was sacred to Apollo, symbolising him as the god of prophecy. The connection between birds and prophecy came via augury—divination using birds – and this is a name which Rowling gives to one of her birds: the Augurey. In Newt Scamander’s original bestiary – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – there is a description of the Augurey:

The Augurey is a native of Britain and Ireland, though sometimes found elsewhere in northern Europe. A thin and mournful-looking bird, somewhat like a small and underfed vulture in appearance, the Augurey is greenish black. It is intensely shy, nests in bramble and thorn, eats large insects and fairies, flies only in heavy rain and otherwise remains hidden in its tear-shaped nest.

The Augurey has a distinctive low and throbbing cry, which was once believed to foretell death. Wizards avoided Augurey nests for fear of hearing that heart-rending sound, and more than one wizard is believed to have suffered a heart attack on passing a thicket and hearing an unseen Augurey wail. Patient research eventually revealed, however, that the Augurey merely sings at the approach of rain. The Augurey has since enjoyed a vogue as a home weather forecaster, though many find its almost continual moaning during the winter months difficult to bear. Augurey feathers are useless as quills because they repel ink.

Crows, likewise, are believed in mythology from all over the world to foretell death and I was delighted to find – in one of the medieval bestiaries which I believe Rowling has studied (T.H. White’s The Book of Beasts: Being A Translation from A Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century) – that they were also thought in medieval times to foretell rain (just as her Augurey does). When the Augurey appears in Cursed Child (spoilers ahead!) it becomes more clearly a crow-like bird. The ominous black wings that advertise the show – a darkened refraction of a Snitch’s silver wings – are the wings of an Augurey:

Albus. On your back. I hadn’t noticed it before. The wings. Is that what the Muggles call a tattoo?
Delphi. Oh. Yes. Well, it’s an Augurey.
Scorpius. An Augurey?
Delphi. Haven’t you met them in Care of Magical Creatures? They’re sinister-looking black birds that cry when rain’s coming. Wizards used to believe that the Augurey’s cry foretold death… It reminds me that the future is mine to make…
Scorpius. They called you the Augurey. In – the other world – they called you the Augurey…
Delphi. I am the new past. I am the new future. I am the answer this world has been looking for. (Cursed Child, Part 2, Act 3.16)

Delphi becomes Augurey – a transformation hinted at because Delphi was the most famous place of prophecy, the prophetic home of Apollo and his sacred crow.

The only corvids which have turned up in Strike so far are a very minor character called Raven and Pat’s laugh: ‘Pat had given her raven’s caw of laughter.’ But Rowling has signalled her interest in corvids on Twitter, where they have featured three times as her Twitter header: 12th January 2016, 9th April 2017 to 26th September 2018. The first of these appeared in early 2016 – perhaps signifying the importance of crow-like Augureys to Cursed Child which was released later that year; while the second two could be leading up to the importance of ravens in Crimes of Grindelwald (released 16 November 2018). While it is not particularly likely that any of them link to the writing of Ink Black Heart, they certainly form part of the subset of explicitly ‘gothic’ headers which have found their most recent incarnation in the Highgate Cemetery headers and the stock images of spooky woods as her twitter header (19th April 2022) – all three of which certainly do refer to Ink Black Heart.

The header for 9th April 2017 is the most interesting – partly because she took it from a website about how to distinguish crow from ravens and changed it into black and white, which makes it look like a still from a Hitchcock movie and gives new meaning to the collective noun ‘a murder of crows.’

 

Ravens are central to Crimes of Grindelwald and they feature both as the Lestrange family crest & in the name of Corvus Lestrange (the genus Corvus is a subsection of corvids, including jackdaws, crows, rooks, and ravens). Early in Crimes of Grindelwald we see a black feather in Kama’s fedora and thirteen-year old Newt cradling a raven chick, awakening Leta’s interest in him – for, as she tells him ‘the raven’s my family’s emblem.’ The Lestrange family tree in the film shows the Lestrange motto, which underlines their heraldic use of the raven, being an old Latin saying corvus oculum corvi non eruit – meaning ‘a raven will not pull out the eye of another raven’ (I’ve discussed this motto here). By the end of the film, a white raven is used as Grindelwald’s sign (instead of the Deathly Hallows) in order to call all the characters to converge at the Lestrange tomb, with its ‘a stone raven on the lintel.’ The raven is also part of the prophecy – or at least, as Kama reads it:

“Son Cruelly Banished
Despair of the Daughter
Return, Great Avenger
With Wings from the Water”

There— (points at LETA) —stands the despairing daughter. You are the winged raven returned from the sea, but I – I am the avenger of my family’s ruin.

Corvus is not only named after the Lestrange raven (the common raven is corvus corax), but also – most suitably for a pureblood family – a constellation (for a discussion of the connection see my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). The Corvus constellation, first catalogued by Ptolemy, was named after Apollo’s sacred bird, presumably with reference to its dark colour, given that it contains few bright stars.

Magpies likewise appear in this film, in their marsupial reincarnation as Nifflers. Nifflers, in their indefatigable search for gold, are both magical mapies and comically alchemical creatures. Gold is another touchstone of the movie – culminating in the new name “Aurelius” (meaning golden) – the name for which Credence has been searching. It also introduces a new ‘spooring’ magic in which the Niffler can sniff out the past, rendered as golden traces via the ‘Appare vestigium’ spell (‘the tracking spell materialises as a swirl of gold’). When Teddy steals the blood-troth in Crimes of Grindelwald – and the golden-phoenix tie in Secrets of Dumbledore – his obsession with gold will save the day. This redemption of the Niffler’s (literal) gold-digging echoes the importance of the similarly magpie habits of Kreacher in Harry Potter: ‘in a far corner glinted small objects and coins that Harry guessed Kreacher had saved, magpie-like, from Sirius’s purge of the house’ (Phoenix, Chap 23). Harry is dismissive, little realising how important one of these glinting objects will be and failing to appreciate that Kreacher is not acquisitive: just as magpies are denigrated as greedy or thieving when what they are interested in is reflective surfaces. (Fascinatingly, magpies have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests and see also recent scientific research into whether magpies really are attracted by what glitters).

It is possible that the magpie on the cover of Ink Black Heart is a sign of a similarly alchemical trajectory in Strike. We’ve already seen some subtly alchemical aspects to the story – from the powerful solve et coagula which we witnessed in Troubled Blood (see John’s brilliant post on it as the alchemical nigredo of the series) to the continual references to Robin’s ‘bright gold’ head; a sure sign that she is the consummation of all that Strike should be seeking (as in our discussion here).

The words ‘bright gold’ are, in fact, used to describe Robin’s head all of the first four novels: Robin’s hair is ‘bright gold’ in Cuckoo’s Calling; she has a ‘bright gold head’ in Silkworm (and ‘red-gold hair loose, tousled and gilded in the early sunlight’); then there is mention of ‘Robin’s bright red-gold head’ in Career of Evil and the sight of her ‘bright gold head’ cheers Strike in Lethal White. It is noticeable that Rowling tends to use the phrase her ‘bright gold head’ rather than (the more usual) ‘hair’ to describe Robin’s strawberry blonde tresses. And ‘head’ is, in fact, a common phrase to mark the stages of alchemy – with the ‘raven’s head’ or ‘crow’s head’ being the most well-known. (And is noticeable that in Career of Evil there is a brunette called Raven, used by the agency to spy on a blonde also named after her hair: Platinum)

The crow’s head is described as a crucial step in the search for the Philosophers’ Stone in the original treatise written by (as was claimed) Nicholas Flamel, This text – Nicholas Flammel, His Exposition of the Hieroglyphicall figures which he caused to bee painted vpon an Arch in St. Innocents Church-yard, in Paris (1624) – pretended to be written by him, revealing his alchemical secrets, and it was probably the main reason for Flamel’s (spurious) fame as an alchemist. It tells how:

And in all truth, I tell thee againe, that though thou work vpon the true matter, if at the beginning, after thou hast put thy Confections in the Philosophers Egge, that is to say, sometime after the fire haue stirred them vp, if then, I say, thou seest not this head of the Crow, the blacke of the blackest blacke, thou must begin againe.

Later he writes how the ‘head of the Crow’ is an essential stage in solve et coagula:

In the same sence, the Sages haue also said in other places, Take the Viper which is called, De rexa, cut off his head, &c. that is to say, Take away from him his blacknesse. They haue also vsed this Periphrasis, when to signifie the multi∣plication of the Stone, they haue fained a Serpent Hydra, whereof, if one cut off one head, there will spring in the place thereof ten; for the stone augments tenfold, euery time that they cut off this head of the Crow, that they make it blacke, and af∣terwards white; that is to say, that they dissolue it anew, and afterward coagu∣late it againe.

The operation needs to be repeated seven times:

Our head of the Crow is leprous, and therefore he that would clense it, hee must make it goe downe seuen times into the Riuer of regeneration of Iordan, as the Prophet commanded the leprous Naaman the Syrian.

I think it is only in the seventh book that we’ll see the final repudiation of the dark-haired Charlotte and Strike’s full commitment to Robin. But we’ve already turned a corner in Troubled Blood, and it is this novel that that her golden head – repeatedly mentioned (though in more conventional terms of ‘strawberry blonde hair,’ ‘distinctive red-blonde hair’) – is mentioned in alchemical terms: ‘Strike looked up, and in that moment, her long shining hair and her aura of good health acted upon him like an antidote.’ In Troubled Blood gold becomes elixir (the other creation of the philosophers’ stone) as the sight of Robin’s golden head is healing to Strike.

Ink Black Heart marks another stage on Strike and Robin’s alchemical journey of transformation. I think, like the alchemists, they will have to wait until the seventh reiteration (in this case, the seventh novel) to achieve what they are looking for, but the end Troubled Blood marks the certainty that it will come right in the end. Troubled Blood ends suffused with a golden radiance – ‘the two of them headed away toward the Ritz in the golden glow of the early evening’ – for, as the Spenserian epigraph to this closing chapter states: ‘So loue of soule doth loue of bodie passe,/ No lesse then perfect gold surmounts the meanest brasse.’

There is also one more reason to hope that things will progress further in the sixth novel – six, as the Magpie rhyme tells us, is for gold.

Comments

  1. i haven’t read barnaby rudge in 30+ years so don’t know if relevant but jk is a big dickens fan and there was a raven in that called grip.

  2. Thanks Mick – it has been a while for me too! I have a friend whose mother rereads all Dickens every year (minus Barnaby Rudge). Harsh, but I know where she is coming from!
    I was amazed to discover that Dickens’ pet raven Grip (after which he was named) was probably the inspiration for Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’ – that is some serious literary pedigree for one pet! There is some lovely info about him here: ‘the great author would read to his children at night with the bird on his shoulder… By all accounts his children were terrified of the raven, which is reputed to have been raucous and aggressive. It is also documented that Grip had developed a habit of tearing sections off painted surfaces and even drinking paint from an open tin.’ https://charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk/collections-stories/stories/the-legendary-grip-the-raven/

  3. Wow. This is wonderful, Beatrice. You offer such a thorough and persuasive reading that I don’t doubt you’re entirely correct. This is indeed “heavenly alchemy” (Sonnet 33) all the way through to the end and I can’t wait to see our golden-headed Robin show like a snowy dove trooping with crow-Charlotte.

  4. Thank you Kurt! Am really delighted you enjoyed it and I’m looking forward likewise to that ‘heavenly alchemy’ – Shakespeare’s sonnets will be there in spirit!

  5. hello beatrice, thanks a lot, love your ideas.
    can you pass a message onto john please and ask him not to be such a grumpy headmaster.
    There’s nothing wrong with being a low brow reader that’s where everyone starts.. a small percentage will progress onto high brow reading and this is the place for that but don’t discourage the low brows commenting or there’ll be no high brows in the future. i wouldn’t call jk rowling a liar either, think it’s all misdirection and smoke and mirrors when she’s giving out info.. it’s the work that counts and everything else around it is unimportant really. Anyway nearly there hope it’s a goodun.

  6. Message received, Mick!

    Let it be noted, though, I intentionally avoided calling Rowling a liar in my most recent comment: “Rowling may not be a liar, but she is someone who deliberately has said things that are not true to the press in order to deceive the public and her readers.”

    Please be forewarned that tomorrow’s post will be super high-brow; I don’t think there are any put-downs in it, however, of those who aren’t into that. Implying that I am some kind of elitist is quite funny given my Muggle job in a grocery store and I cannot remember ever discouraging anyone from posting a comment (besides the “Baphomet means Rowling is a Satanist!” crowd).

    Thanks for the feedback! With you, I’m excited about the new book, even if I more than half-expect it’s going to be a painful read, depressing, etc.

  7. Hello john, sorry, i didn’t mean it to come across like that. For such high quality posts from your team sometimes it looks a little depressing when theres zilch replies in the comments.. that’s all.

  8. Hi Mick!
    Just to say thank you, delighted to hear you’ve been enjoyed my ideas & I look forward to discussing the hits and misses on the other side. And, agreed, it is always nice to see a nice long thread of comments after posts – do please join in as often as possible!

  9. Beatrice what a fun article! Loved the magpie connection with Nifflers and even Kreacher, especially the heroic parts they played in their stories.

    One thing I’m learning from you all is that with JKR hardly anything is random, however much it may appear so to a novice like me, not unlike Harry wondering if Dumbledore might still have had that mouth organ, only to hear Dumbledore reply mysteriously that it was only ever a mouth organ. So many details point to mythological or alchemical roots.
    So when I saw that Strike was headed to Nightjar to meet Madeline, I looked up nightjar only to discover that nightjars are nocturnal birds also called dew hawks and goatsuckers with a jarring cry/mating call (hence night+jar), who, like Madeline’s new line, are notorious, in folklore (and gossip columns) for all kinds of inexplicable behaviors like stealing milk from goats or souls of unbaptized children or portending death (another name for nightjar is corpse bird). They do none of those things but as insectivores, hang around livestock for obvious reasons and like bats have also developed notoriety by superstitious folk. Nightjars have in fact evaded direct observation as they can disappear into the landscape (some look like a tree stump!) by day to avoid predators.

    It was so funny to reread how Strike walked right by the wooden door to Nightjar and had to double back and ring a bell to be admitted into a dark basement bar. And then Madeline had to bring up Charlotte, a jarring name with its own ominous threat of disaster. Strike, like the nightjar, evaded Madeline’s overt attempt to add him to her Instagram page but Charlotte’s more covert strategy cast a shadow over him…

    I don’t think nightjars are corvids like magpies. They are in the order Caprimulgiformes. Very curious…

  10. Great Sandy – a really fun bit of bird symbolism in IBH I (most suitably) hadn’t noticed!
    And maybe it fits with how Strike’s whole relationship with Madeline is fairly inexplicable?

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