Beatrice Groves: John Donne, The Beast Within, and Who Killed Leda Strike

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a HogwartsProfessor Guest Post to mark the publication of Rowling-Galbraith’s Troubled Blood as a paperback. In it she discusses what Nick Jeffery’s discovery of a possible future Strike novel title and ‘The Beast Within’ theme of Rowling’s recent work tells us about who is the most likely suspect in the “Who Killed Leda Strike?” sweepstakes. Enjoy!

When thou hast done, thou hast not done:’ Rowling and John Donne?

I first entered the Harry Potter on-line fan world in 2017 (invited here by the generous welcome of the Hogwarts Professor, John Granger, upon the publication of my Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). That meant that I was a decade late to the party of predicting how Harry Potter might end. So, for me, Strike and Fantastic Beasts have been the first time I’ve experienced the pleasure of sleuthing together. And it has been an absolute ball. By following Rowling’s tempting line of breadcrumbs, and building on the insights of many Potter fans and pundits, we’ve hit the odd bullseye – my favourites being guessing the murder location in Lethal White and the Spenserian epigraphs in Troubled Blood.

While following the clues Rowling leaves about future Strike novels may be a rather minority sport compared to following her Harry Potter breadcrumbs, in some ways these clues are likely to tell us more. For Rowling has taken a new turn in the Strike novels. In these novels the titles, and the epigraphs, have a much more complex relation to the plots of the novels than they did in Harry Potter (which did not, of course, have epigraphs at all until the final novel). This means that with Strike such guesswork might not just tell us what the title is but also something about the novel. When Rowling laid on a game of Twitter hangman to guess the title Lethal White, for example, the equine hint of the title (first pointed out by Louise Freeman) – just like the other clues that pointed towards the White Horse at Uffington – turned out to play a central role in the plot.

This blogpost is written to mark the paperback publication of Troubled Blood (coming out 22nd /24th June) – a novel which demonstrated Hogwarts Professor’s most successful title-sleuthing to date. When the title Troubled Blood was released on 20 February 2020, Nick Jeffery accurately guessed that Rowling had drawn the phrase from Edmund Spenser’s epic sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene.

 Now, to be honest, when Nick first suggested this, I was sceptical. Not because Rowling choosing an early modern text was inherently unlikely – it was of a piece with the epigraphs to Silkworm – but because The Faerie Queene is one of my favourite poems. So, it simply seemed too good to be true. But this does mean that now that Nick has once again suggested another early modern writer as the source for the title of Strike 6, and I am once again thinking this seems too good to be true, the déjà vu makes me feel hopeful….

The combined sleuthing of Patricio Tarantino of The Rowling Library and Nick Jeffery have turned up what sounds like a highly plausible title for Strike 6: The Last Cries of Men. John Granger has written up Nick’s suggestion that this title points us towards Donne’s Devotion Upon Emergent Occasions – the source of Donne’s most famous quotation, as well as the phrase ‘the last cries of men.’ 

There are lots of caveats here – The Last Cries of Men may be something else entirely, after all – but if it is a Rowling novel, it certainly sounds like a Strike novel. The phrase (found in Meditation VI from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions [1624]) is Donne’s evocation of the most heart-rending noise of the battlefield: ‘the sound of drums and trumpets and shot and those which they seek to drown, the last cries of men.’ Donne makes a bitter observation about the pragmatic reason that armies make such a clamour with the noisy pomp of drums and trumpets. It is in order obscure their real business: the business of killing.

There are a number of reasons that this sounds like a Strike title.

Firstly, as John has said, ‘Rowling taking us to hear the cries of the unheard and forgotten would be quite like her.’

Secondly, it is a reference to death (pretty much de rigueur among detective-novelists picking a title) – as were Lethal White, Troubled Blood and even Silkworm (given that the method of their despatch was central).

Thirdly, it is about death on the battlefield. Strike’s army career has been a perpetual backdrop, but as it has not come centre-stage yet, and surely will at some point, this title points in a highly plausible direction for Strike 6 or 7.

Fourthly, early modern titles/epigraphs have been predominant in the series so far (used for both Silkworm and Troubled Blood) and Donne would slot in neatly beside all those early modern dramatists and Spenser.

All these reasons mark out this title as a plausible fit. But there is a fifth, more personal reason that makes it chime, which was that I was already wondering about Donne as a source for Rowling before Nick made this link.

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,/ But yet the body is his book.’

(Donne, ‘The Ecstasy’)

Prior to the publication of Silkworm there was no particular reason to think that Rowling shares my love for early modern English literature. Beyond Shakespeare, Rowling’s only interview reference to Elizabethan texts was a negative one:

On the subject of literary genres, I’ve always felt that my response to poetry is inadequate. I’d love to be the kind of person that drifts off into the garden with a slim volume of Elizabethan verse or a sheaf of haikus, but my passion is story. Every now and then I read a poem that does touch something in me, but I never turn to poetry for solace or pleasure in the way that I throw myself into prose. 

This is a self-deprecating portrait, and I noted that she painted herself as someone who’d like to be the sort of person who thumbs volumes of early modern sonnets, but still… it was slim pickings! Rowling gave this interview in 2012, however, just as she was writing her first Strike novel – and this series has seen her get involved with poetry (see my posts on her use of lines from Rossetti, Tennyson, and Catullus for examples of this), and indeed early modern poetry, in quite a new way.

While ‘the last cries of men’ comes from a relatively obscure Donne text, it is one thatas John has explored  – sits cheek-by-jowl with by far and away the most famous thing Donne ever wrote. I was reading a much more obscure piece by Donne when I was struck by a possible influence on Rowling – so obscure, in fact, that I discounted it. But Rowling has referenced startlingly obscure early modern works before, in the epigraphs to Silkworm (I doubt many people outside an English department have read Dekker’s Noble Spanish Soldier, for example!). So, given the putative Donne reference in Last Cries of Men, I offer my Donne link here as a distant possibility and, at the very least, a pleasing parallel.

The message of Donne’s most famous passage – ‘No man is an Ilandintire of it selfe’ – is likewise the message of one of Rowling’s stories: ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.’ In interview Rowling has described this story from Beedle the Bard as ‘really, quite gothic, it’s quite dark that one, and Voldemort would’ve done well to know that story before he set out on his campaign of terror.’ 

The eponymous Warlock, just like Voldemort, considers love to be a weakness and attempts to keep himself ‘untouched’ by any connection with others – either by falling in love or feeling even familial affection. He does not mourn his parents when they die ‘on the contrary, he considered himself blessed by their demise. Now he reigned alone in their castle’ in ‘splendid and untroubled solitude.’ This estrangement from others is given an objective correlative in the heart that he cuts out and locks away – only to discover that it ‘had grown strange during its long exile.’ The heart grows hairy, revealing the inhumanity inherent to attempting to exile oneself from loving relationships.

Dumbledore’s commentary on this tale runs thus:

I would argue that ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart’ has survived intact through the centuries because it speaks to the dark depths in all of us. It addresses one of the greatest, and least acknowledged, temptations of magic: the quest for invulnerability.

Of course, such a quest is nothing more or less than a foolish fantasy. No man or woman alive, magical or not, has ever escaped some form of injury, whether physical, mental or emotional… The heart he has locked away slowly shrivels and grows hair, symbolising his own descent to beasthood. He is finally reduced to a violent animal who takes what he wants by force.

But Rowling has not invented the idea of the hairy heart. Donne, in one of his sermons, mentions the belief that hearts really could grow hair – referencing both Pliny the Elder and Plutarch as his source for this information. In these two classical sources, however, the hairy heart symbolises something quite different from the descent into beasthood that it signals in ‘The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.’ In both Pliny and Plutarch, a hairy heart is a sign of someone of extraordinary courage – a sign of animal strength. Plutarch tells of how after the famously brave and strong Spartan, Leonidas, died, his heart was found to be ‘all hairy’ (Moralia, 5.454). In Pliny, likewise, a hairy heart is a sign of courage:

It is stated that some people are born with a hairy heart, and that they are exceptionally brave and resolute—an example being a Messenian named Aristomenes who killed three hundred Spartans. He himself when severely wounded and taken prisoner for the first time escaped through a cave from confinement in the quarries by following the routes by which foxes got in. He was again taken prisoner, but when his guards were fast asleep he rolled to the fire and burnt off his thongs, burning his body in the process. He was taken a third time, and the Spartans cut him open alive and his heart was found to be shaggy. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XI, section LXX)

Aristomenes’ ‘hairy heart’ is a sign of his animal strength and will to survive, an idea underlined by his using fox routes for his escape.

Donne, however, although he cites these classical sources, reads the idea of a hairy heart quite differently:

We finde mention amongst the observers of rarities in Nature, of hairy hearts, hearts of men, that have beene overgrowne with haire; but of petrified hearts, hearts of men growne into stone, we read not; for this petrefaction of the heart, this stupefaction of a man, is the last blow of Gods hand upon the heart of man in this world.1

Donne only mentions hairy hearts in passing, but – unlike Pliny or Plutarch – it seems that he has precisely the same reading of them as Rowling. For both Donne and Rowling hairiness is akin to the ‘hardening of heart’ which is mentioned so often in the bible (most famously in the case of Pharaoh [Exodus 9.12]). Hairiness is the result the heart’s owner’s choice to insulate their heart from a loving connection with others. It is the creation of a bestial heart – one step away from the pure inhumanity of a heart of stone.

Dumbledore writes that the hairy heart symbolises the Warlock’s ‘own descent to beasthood’ – an observation which is the first glimpse of an idea at the centre of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Rowling has spoken at length about how ‘idea of beasts works on several different levels within the movies’ of which a number have to do with the idea of the beast within ‘the metaphorical sense of the beast inside a man, the crude emotions that a manipulative genius like Grindelwald knows how to stoke and use. We’re also dealing with the idea of beastly people:  that some humans are something less than human… the original hunt for escaped creatures will become a hunt for something much more elusive and difficult: a return to humanity.’ 

Within the Strike series this idea of the ‘beast inside’ is crucial to the plot of Career of Evil, elegantly echoing and doubling the disguised-murderer plot. And the phrase ‘the beast inside,’ which Rowling used in the 2018 Fantastic Beasts Q&A, she had used three years earlier in Career of Evil.

Career of Evil emphasises the idea of ‘the beast inside’ (309), noting early on that ‘to the surface had risen the creature that lived within, the creature that wanted nothing except to establish its dominance’ (40). The murderer is hiding in plain sight within the form – as well as the plot – of Career of Evil as many of the chapters are written from within his head, in third person limited interior monologue – and yet, although we have been inside his head, we still do not know who he is.

The ‘beast inside’ motif is, however, a clue to his identity. All the suspects exercise no control over their baser passions, but in only one of them does Strike feel the presence of this ‘creature that lived within.’ It is subtle hint when Strike recalls ‘the animal he had sensed seething beneath Laing’s hairless, milk-white skin’ (103) – and in this image, as with the warlock’s hairy heart, Rowling is taking the trope of beasthood literally. Strike registers the irony that Laing’s animalistic desires should be lurking beneath hairless skin, a real-world version of the fairy tale symbolism in Beedle, in which a resistance to human connections make the Warlock’s heart grow a furry pelt.

One mark of the inhumanity of three of Rowling’s characters who shelter a beast within – the Warlock, Voldemort, and Laing – is how they treat those closest to them. The Warlock considers himself blessed by his parents’ demise and kills the woman he was to marry, while Voldemort murders his father and grandparents, and Laing abuses his wife and murders his (almost) sister-in-law.

All three not only fundamentally fail to understand that ‘no man is an Ilandintire of it selfe’ but indeed, try to make themselves into such an island by killing all who are connected to them.

So, I’m ending this blogpost where I began it – with one final prediction. As I noted back in 2018 the faked suicides of the first and fourth Strike novels appear to be relevant for the over-arching plot of ‘Who killed Leda Strike?’ In both Cuckoo’s Calling and Lethal White Strike is hired by a grieving relative who believes that the police have mistaken a murder for suicide. And in both cases, they are right.

My guess is that Strike, the grieving relative who believes that the police have mistaken his mother’s murder for suicide, will likewise be proven right (probably – given the chiastic nature of the series  – in Strike 7). But it is also noticeable that the ‘beast inside’ motif so far has involved people who kill their relatives. The solutions to the faked-suicide-murders in both Strike 1 and Strike 4 revealed that the murderers were close relatives: a brother, son, and wife.

So my guess is that when Leda’s murderer is revealed the guilty party will likewise prove to be a close relative.

In the meantime, here’s hoping for Donne epigraphs in Strike 6. 

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.

1 Donne’s Prebend Sermons, ed. Janel M. Mueller (Cambridge, MA, 1971,) p.95.

Comments

  1. So… Uncle Ted did it? Joan?

    Egad, you think Strike’s sister Lucy killed their mum?

    Which means we get the Giant-Killer payoff — Jack will murder Cormoran for sending his mum to jail?

    The hairy heart exegesis is brilliant, edifying, and a great display of your mastery of Rowling works and interview canon. Loved it.

    The logic of your argument is compelling, too, especially given your track record!

    I have to confess I’m relieved that we have discussed all three of your ‘intimate family’ suspects already…

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks, John – really glad you enjoyed it!

    I’m sure its not Joan, and don’t think it is Lucy – but I do fear we might be homing in on Ted here! Suddenly that ‘Ted’s a Capricorn’ comment has me worried….

    Nick Fantoni seems to me the only person who fits the bill who I wouldn’t mind being guilty! (Assuming, which I think we can, that it wasn’t Whittaker all along…)

  3. John Donne has created, no doubt a masterpiece in English literature by writing Riding Westward . Great analysis.

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