Beatrice Groves: Strike’s Church Going

 Beatrice Groves, Research Fellow and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Strike’s Church Going.  Discussing one of the most beautiful and pivotal moments in The Running Grave, in a post first shared on Hogwarts Professor Substack on the 49th birthday of Cormoran Strike. Find out more, join Prof Groves after the jump:

In my day job I teach and study the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries – authors who can safely be relied upon not to write something new nor dismiss critical ideas about their work. It is invigorating to work on an author who is not only still writing but has even been publishing a book a year for the last few years, as well as dropping hints about her influences and leaving bread-crumb twitter-header trails for us to follow. It is a new experience for me to be predicting future texts rather than simply responding to those in the past – and, while it comes with pitfalls, it comes with added pleasures too. I fist-pumped in Lethal White as they drove towards the Uffington White Horse, I was delighted in Ink Black Heart when Stike turned his back on his cigarette habit and, in Running Grave, one of my predictions far outran my expectations.

Back in September I wrote that ‘it is only in the seventh Harry Potter novel – Deathly Hallows – that we first see a church bringing a sense of the numinous into the story. Perhaps St John the Baptist Church, [Aylmerton]… will counterbalance the false church [of the UHC] with a genuine spiritual pull.’ When Strike finally decided to find out what that Lovegood’s-house-like-rook might be – the round tower which we knew would belong to Aylmerton church of header-fame – I felt a frisson at the prospect that this ‘genuine spiritual pull’ was about to come true.

In January 2023 Rowling gave us the teaser-header of Aylmerton church, which I followed up at Hogwarts Professor noting that ‘we seem to be homing in on a small patch of Norfolk: the location of the commune of Strike’s childhood or of the murder case of The Running Grave? Or both?’ In April 2023 @CormStrikeFan visited Aylmerton church and tweeted Rowling from it asking ‘What we here for @jk_rowling?’ and receiving the enigmatic reply: ‘I can’t tell you, but Strike sits on the right side, third pew from the back.’ On reading this many assumed Strike would attend a wedding, baptism or funeral in this church, but in fact he is there alone – this pew is the only one taken. I love that Rowling only provides the detail that Strike sits ‘on the right, third pew from the back’ in the tweet (not in the book) suggesting how fully realised this scene is in Rowling’s mind:

A sign at the entrance to the small graveyard told him this was St John the Baptist Church. Driven by impulses he didn’t fully understand he passed through the gate, and found himself trying the door of the church. He’d expected it to be locked, but it opened.

The interior was small, white-walled, and empty. Strike’s footsteps echoed as he walked up the aisle, eyes fixed on a plain gold cross on the altar. Then he sat down on one of the hard wooden pews.                    (Running Grave, 490)

This arrival of a real church in the narrative – visible from the farm but unexplored all this time – forms a clear challenge to the cult that has been calling itself a ‘church’ all this time. Augustine’s City of God famously figures history as a perpetual struggle between the earthly and heavenly City, which in Reformation theology in general – and in Spenser’s Faerie Queene in particular – became the struggle between the false and true Churches, figured by Spenser as ‘Una’ (the One True Church) and ‘Duessa’ (the false). Rowling has been here before, of course and Troubled Blood reflects the importance of duality in its Spenserian epigraph-text (in particular by having a ‘doppelganger’ murderer). The murderer is figured as Duessa but, strikingly, Una is actually named in the text. Oonagh is called ‘Bunny Una’ by the punters who cannot pronounce her name. Oonagh/Una is not only a faithful and protective friend to the protagonist (like Spenser’s Una) but she is the churchiest Strike character so far – a Catholic who becomes an Anglican priest and she experiences an epiphanic moment inside a church: ‘I was being called,’ said Oonagh simply’ (Troubled Blood, 279). Oonagh experiences this revelation of her vocation in the Anglican church of St James, Clerkenwell (and I am delighted to discover that one of Silkworm’s most important epigraphists – Thomas Dekker – is buried there!). Strike finds Oonagh’s explanation of why she entered the church embarrassing when she recounts it – but two novels later he follows his own call to enter a church ‘driven by impulses he didn’t fully understand.’

Strike’s love for Charlotte died irrevocably in Ink Black Heart when she spoke about leaving her children with their abusive father in order to rekindle her affair with Strike. It was the moment he finally realised that it was a creature of his own imagination and not Charlotte Campbell with whom he had been infatuated all these years. The moment in Aylmerton Church in Running Grave is not about burying his feelings for Charlotte, it is about acknowledging their source in Leda’s mothering so that he can build the foundations for something solid and lasting in their place. Just as Forgeman’s Farm had laid the groundwork for Chapman’s Farm, so the Leda-commune became the Charlotte-cult in Strike’s own life. The link between the false beliefs fostered by the UHC and the false beliefs by which Strike has lived his life is made explicit at the end of the novel when Robin notes that Strike fell for Charlotte at precisely the same age that Will fell for the UHC: ‘Ha! You think I was in a cult, do you?’ (943). (Even Charlotte herself is a victim to the ‘Charlotte-cult,’ institutionalised within it into accepting her own misery: ‘‘It’s dangerous to make a cult of your own unhappiness. Hard to get out, once you’ve in there too long’ [936]). All through Running Grave Charlotte’s hold over Strike is linked to that of a false faith with its ‘own agreed mythology’ (160). Strike ‘desecrat[es]… a sacred taboo’ (160) in their relationship, just as – by destroying the myth of the Drowned Prophet – he will likewise debunk the UHC’s own sacred taboo, likewise freeing its adherents.

The scene within Aylmerton Church is a profoundly religious scene and we’ve not had anything close to this in Strike so far. Just as in Book 7 of Harry Potter the spiritual aspects of the narrative have undergone a sharp gear change. It was also by far the most moving scene, for this reader anyhow, of the series so far. In our predictive Three Broomsticks podcast we talked about Dobby’s burial with Irvin informing me – to my entertainment and surprise –  that Dobby was far from a fan favourite up to that point, but that everyone wept for his death ‘because that is how good Jo is.’ Dobby’s burial so moving because the reader joins Harry in his grief – and that is also what happens here. This is Strike’s personal funeral service for Charlotte and while it will be a rare reader who truly mourns for Charlotte, we are affected by Strike’s grief. Like Harry choosing to dig without magic, Strike chooses to face the toughness of Charlotte’s imagined onslaught, and – psychologically held within the church walls, supported by its ‘forms and structures’ (490) – works through the harsh truths of his grief.

The (probable) Rector’s gentle looks – ‘a long, pale face and mild eyes, like a sheep’ (491) – are a comic refraction of one the most important biblical metaphors for God’s love: from the shepherd-Lord of Psalm 23 and Christ the Good Shepherd to the eucharistic offering of the Lamb of God. Strike echoes the words of this unknown man in a form of deferred liturgy:

And he echoed the kindly man in the bicycle clips.

Still.   

At this important moment the reader is reminded about the bicycle clips which first introduced the churchman: ‘his trousers were fastened with bicycle clips, which Strike hadn’t seen for years.’ I love this detail because this is not the first time bicycle clips in rural churches have been linked with inchoate faith. One of Philip Larkin’s most famous and highly regarded poems, ‘Church Going,’ opens with the speaker – like Strike, driven by impulses he does not fully understand – visiting a church: ‘hatless, I take off/ My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.’ This detail from Larkin’s poem is so memorable and unusual that I can’t help thinking that ‘Church Going’ (consciously or un) was in Rowling’s mind as she wrote this scene.

Strike (like Larkin’s speaker) enters the church self-consciously, aware of the noise he makes in what Larkin terms the ‘musty, unignorable silence’ of an empty church. Strike’s footsteps echo as he walks up the aisle, while Larkin’s speaker lets the door ‘thud shut’ and the ‘echoes snigger briefly’ when he speaks. Both have their eyes drawn to the altar – Larkin’s speaker notes ‘some brass and stuff/ Up at the holy end’ while Strike, more reverent, keeps his ‘eyes fixed on a plain gold cross on the altar.’ Larkin’s speaker does not understand the pull the church has over him, but he knows that pull is there. He grows to recognise churches as places ‘proper to grow wise in,’ chiming perfectly with Strike’s innate if uncomprehending choice to face his grief in this place:

tending to this cross of ground

Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt

So long and equably what since is found

Only in separation – marriage, and birth,

And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built

This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea

What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,

It pleases me to stand in silence here.

Larkin’s poem argues that churches will be always be needed to bring this kind of comfort ‘since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious.’ There has certainly been a lack of seriousness in Strike in Running Grave up to this point – the ridiculous relationship with Bijou, the petty one-upmanship of his attitude to Murphy, his apparent lack of a conscience about ordering a prison beating and his plot-necessary but alarmingly laissez faire attitude to Robin entering a cult under the control of someone who has been accused of rape (and, indeed, by a woman who subsequently disappeared off the face of the earth). But Strike’s grief blindsides him and surprises within him just the hunger for seriousness that Larkin’s poem describes. And feeling this hunger, Strike unconsciously gravitates towards this holy place.

And Strike finds something as transformative here as the faith in Dumbledore that Harry finds digging Dobby’s grave. He finds true understanding of himself, the knowledge of why he was so drawn to Charlotte, and the knowledge that the person who had longed for her is no more. In Dobby’s grave Harry overcomes his doubt and makes the definitive choice to trust Dumbledore, to pursue Horcruxes not Hallows. Strike likewise learns true self-knowledge and trust: to commit to his love for Robin and to take the risk of openly loving her, accepting the dangers that may bring. Harry takes a terrifying risk as result of his new-found faith in Dumbledore, the risk not to pursue the Elder Wand, the risk that Voldemort may become too powerful to overcome. Strike takes a terrifying risk with more every-day stakes, but stakes with which we can all identify – the potential to lose both his job and his best friend. In both cases the choice to trust is dangerous but is, of course, correct. It is the moment in Harry Potter that promises that Harry will defeat Voldemort. In Strike is it the moment that promises not only the declaration of the final pages of Running Grave, but – likewise – the eventual triumph of the good: Strike and Robin’s final union.

The grief of losing Dobby is the alembic which purifies Harry’s understanding, teaching him the true way forward. Strike’s grief in this scene works in precisely the same way and it is highly fitting that the scene takes place in a church dedicated to John the Baptist. For John the Baptist is the prophet who calls out: ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (John 1.23, KJV). John the Baptist is the prophet who tells people to prepare and purify themselves in readiness for what is to come; and this is what happens, emotionally and psychologically, to Strike in this church. In finally acknowledging Charlotte as the legacy of Leda, Strike makes straight the way to a new form of loving. He frees himself to seek stability rather than instability in a relationship (and, it seems likely, frees himself to consider the marriage and children he has been shunning likewise).

Aylmerton Church’s dedication to John the Baptist also forms a nice ring connection with the Anglican church that had appeared, off-stage, at the opening of Running Grave. Although the moment of baptism itself only enters the narrative in the form of jokes (the recollection of Bijou’s  attention-seeking misbehaviour as the holy water is poured, Strike’s renunciation of Satan – ‘we had a good run’) it is a striking symbolism that the baptism of Strike and Robin’s godchild opens the action of the novel (as well as, incidentally, informing us that Strike, like Harry, is baptised, as you cannot otherwise be a godparent). But in John the Baptist, Aylmerton, Strike experiences another baptism, a baptism of his spiritual imagination:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies.   (Larkin, ‘Church Going’)

This scene in Aylmerton church brings together two crucial scenes in Deathly Hallows, uniting the conversation with Dumbledore at King’s Cross with the digging of Dobby’s grave. But it also recalls the moment in The Christmas Pig when Jack finally realises which of his pigs has died to save him and reaches his own Strike-like decision to choose between his old love and the true love. (For Christian imagery in The Christmas Pig see my piece in The Rowling Library and John’s series of posts). Rowling reveals the theological undertow of all of her previous ‘hero’s choice’ moments – Hallows or Horcruxes in Dobby’s grave, the choice to return to the fight after the conversation with Dumbledore at King’s Cross and Jack’s final choice on the Island of the Beloved – by placing this, the hero’s choice that happens in a real rather than a magical world, inside a church.

I wrote before reading Running Grave of how I hoped that the spiritual pull St John the Baptist Church, Aylmerton might bring some awareness of the numinous into both the story and Strike’s resolutely ‘team rational’ psyche. And in this scene my hope of things unseen became true beyond my own imaginings:

The kindly sheep-faced man had reappeared. As he made his way back down the aisle, he paused uncertainly beside Strike.

‘I hope you’ve found what you needed.’

‘I have,’ said Strike. ‘Thank you.

***

All of Dr Groves’ on line Rowling scholarship can be found in the Beatrice Groves Pillar Post.

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