Beatrice Groves – Valentine’s Alchemy

A very happy St Valentine’s Day from all at Hogwarts Professor to you dear close readers!

Robins are red,
Strike’s name is Blue,
Beatrice Groves –
Has written for you:

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: Valentine’s Alchemy. To find out more about love, both sacred and profane, in Ink Black Heart, join Prof Groves after the jump:

‘How shall I your true love know from another one?’ Valentine’s Day and Fool’s Gold in Ink Black Heart

How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.

(Ophelia’s song in Hamlet, 4.5.23)

Last week I was lucky enough to see the Covent Garden Tannhäuser – a Wagnerian opera that has a brief (but possibly highly important) cameo in Ink Black Heart. Watching it, I was reminded irresistibly of Ophelia’s song from Hamlet for, during Tannhäuser, the heroine Elisabeth searches in vain for her beloved among returning pilgrims. Ophelia sings of her lover as a pilgrim – wearing the distinctive pilgrim accoutrements of staff and sandals, with a cockle shell pinned to his hat, as in this fabulous – and very rare – example recently posted on Twitter by @CariGluchowski

Wagner, like all Romantics, is deeply influenced by Shakespeare and while Tannhäuser is clearly influenced by Hamlet, I’m beginning to suspect that Rowling is, likewise, influenced by Wagner. The discussion of Tannhäuser in Annabel’s in Ink Black Heart is Rowling’s first overt Wagnerian reference and the possibilities for in-depth parallels have been explored in fascinating posts by ‘Marty Ellacott’ at The Strike & Ellacott Files blog (Parts III and III). This explicit reference joins more implicit ones: I have wondered before, for example, whether Strike’s swan motif might link with Wagner’s Lohengrin and indeed whether Rowling’s near-obsession with the name Percival (it is by far her most common moniker – used in the names of Dumbledore’s father, Dumbledore’s middle name, Percival Graves (real and polyjuiced) and, arguably, Percy Weasley) might have been sparked by enthusiasm for Wagner’s masterpiece Parsifal.

Ophelia’s song also has an oblique connection with what (we assume) will be the setting of The Running Grave in Norfolk, as it reworks a popular, pre-existing ballad called the Walsingham Ballad (named after Walsingham in Norfolk, the most important pilgrimage site of pre-Reformation England). The ballad is no longer extant but it can be pieced together from later versions, such as that attributed to Walter Raleigh:

As ye came from the holy land
Of Walsingham
Met you not with my true love
By the way you came?

As you came from the Holy Land

Walsingham was (and is) an important pilgrim-site in Norfolk, and a cross marking the ancient pilgrim route to Walsingham is situated just outside Aylmerton church (of recent Rowling twitter-header fame.)

Ophelia’s songs might seem a natural topic for a Valentine’s Day blog as one of them famously opens ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day’ and proceeds to give an entirely physical reading of what being someone’s ‘Valentine’ might be. But it is the opening question of this Walsingham song – ‘How should I your true love know/ From another one?’ – which resonates both with the choice at the heart of Tannhäuser (the choice between Venus and Elisabeth) and the choice that Strike makes in Ink Black Heart. It is a choice that he makes at the prompting of a man called Valentine and, after overhearing a discussion of Tannhäuser, Strike, like Tannhäuser, initially chooses yet another meaningless physical coupling rather than working out how to have a full relationship with the woman he truly loves. But the novel also adds something distinctive to the traditional depiction of the choice between sacred and profane love (the choice at the heart of Tannhäuser which has been dramatized throughout Strike as the choice between ‘bad angel’ Charlotte and ‘good angel’ Robin). In Ink Black Heart Strike chooses a ‘Venus’ is the spitting image of his ‘Elizabeth’. Strike picks up Robin’s doppelganger while trying to pretend he is not in love with her.

Marty Ellacott convincingly aligns Annabel’s, the location of Strike’s hook-up with Madeline and the discussion of Wagner’s opera, with the Venusberg in Tannhäuser. And one link between the two Bacchanalian locations is that it is precisely this opening scene of Wagner’s opera that is being discussed in Annabel’s:

Beside Strike and Midge, a portly Russian was explaining the plot of Tannhäuser to his much younger female companion.
‘… but Mezdrich has updated it,’ he said, ‘and in this production Jesus now appears in a movie of an orgy in Venus’s cave –’
Jesus does?’
Da, and so the church is unhappy and Mezdrich will be fired,’ finished the Russian gloomily, raising his glass of champagne to his lips. ‘He’s standing his ground, but it will end badly for him, mark my words.’

(Ink Black Heart, Chapter 3)

This is a real production, premiered in Russia in December 2014 in which ‘Tannhäuser is represented in the opera as a film director, who makes a film featuring an unconventional history of Jesus Christ’s life set in this world. Tannhäuser presents this film at a cinema festival but the self-righteous jury members fail to appreciate Tannhäuser’s film. In the end, however Tannhäuser triumphs due to his true talent and authentic religiosity.’[1] As the Russian in Annabel’s predicts (on New Year’s Eve 2015) Mezdrich was indeed fired due to complaints about this aspect of the production a few months later, in March 2015.

This seems to be more evidence that Rowling does research on the year each Strike book is set quite early on in the writing process – as we know she did, for example, for Troubled Blood. In that novel she sought out early on music which came out in the year Margot disappeared and fashioned Joni Mitchell and her 1974 album Court and Spark into quite major players in the piecing out of Margot’s character for Robin, for the reader and for herself. And, as with the story that sparked the plot of Lethal White (which Rowling must, likewise, have located relatively early in plotting the novel), a report about this 2015 production of Tannhäuser was covered by the Guardian. This briefly overheard discussion in Annabel’s gives some ‘2015’ colouring to Ink Black Heart while the specific details resonate with some of the issues of authorship and the reception of an artwork which are central to Ink Black Heart. But more fundamentally it seems likely that Rowling was drawn to this 2015 story because Tannhäuser itself was such a good fit with a novel in which the central characters finally recognise who their true love is.

Strike starts the novel, as Tannhäuser starts the opera, hooking up with the wrong woman. The moment before Strike kisses Madeline he thinks of Robin as ‘the portly Russian who’d been talking about Tannhäuser’ dances past. But Robin’s sexual rejection of him is remembered and rankles afresh and Strike misses the symbolic warning. Madeline looks like Robin – ‘Robin, she looks just like you!… Same hair colour’ – but this (as with the similarity in looks between Tom Riddle and Harry Potter) is a sign of spiritual divergence not true parity. Madeline is merely fool’s gold.

Fool’s gold has, of a sort, made an appearance in Harry Potter – a suitably slippery character called Pyrites who was originally in the opening chapters of Philosopher’s Stone:

Other drafts included a character by the name of ‘Pyrites’, whose name means ‘fool’s gold’. He was a servant of Voldemort’s and was meeting Sirius in front of the Potters’ house. Pyrites, too, had to be discarded, though I quite liked him as a character; he was a dandy and wore white silk gloves, which I thought I might stain artistically with blood from time to time.

J.K.Rowling Official Site

The presence of an evil Pyrites in a novel called Philosopher’s Stone, of course, would have emphasized its alchemical imagery – the true Stone that will appear at the closing of the novel, and its truly golden hero. Madeline, the ‘Pyrites’ of Ink Black Heart, has a similar role. She is no evil henchman to Lord Voldemort but, in a real-world parallel, pretty much the first time we see her out on a date with Strike she is rude to a waitress. And she functions to spark Strike’s realisation of who it is who is the true Stone, the real gold, at the very end of the novel.

Strike first sees Madeline at Annabel’s ‘beneath hundreds of golden helium balloons,’ the tawdry flipside of the ‘the golden haze of the Ritz’ when Strike first realises some home truths about what Robin means to him: ‘flushed with drink and laughter, her red-blonde hair shining in the diffused glow from the golden cupola above them’ where Strike ‘could happily have spent another couple of hours here in his comfy chair, bathed in golden light, the smell of rose and musk drifting across the table.’ Madeline’s status as fool’s gold is further cemented by the scene in which Strike assumes he sees her working with rubies but discovers that they are nothing more than glass: ‘They’re glass – I don’t keep any real gems at home, it’s an insurance nightmare.’

The fool’s gold analogy also works for Madeline because, as Isla points out, the main way in which Madeline imitates Robin is her red-gold hair: ‘Robin, she looks just like you!… Same hair colour.’ The words ‘bright gold’ or ‘red-gold’ are used to describe Robin’s hair in every novel. Robin’s luscious locks – her ‘red-gold hair loose, tousled and gilded in the early sunlight’ or the shake of the head that ‘made her red-gold hair dance around her shoulders’ – are particularly tempting to read in an alchemical light as it is the ‘rubedo’ (red) stage in which gold is created in the Great Work of alchemy. And, indeed, the two colours have long been considered complimentary – as heard in the golden sounding heraldic name for red (‘gules’) and as seen in the colours of Gryffindor.

Prior to Ink Black Heart Robin’s ‘red-gold’ hair is mentioned nine times and her ‘bright gold head’ thrice, a sign that she is what Strike should be seeking – the ‘true golden gold’ (as Dickens calls the true beloved in Our Mutual Friend). (And Rowling has form with this idea – for the startlingly alchemical hair-colours of Harry Potter have a listen here!) The ‘red-gold’ of her hair symbolises Robin as Strike’s true goal (and her name, of course, is ruddy too): ‘the soft light beneath the canopy of trees was turning the bride, with her loose red-gold curls, into a pre-Raphaelite angel.’ It feels, therefore, particularly pointed when Strike meets (and falls for) a woman with this precise shade of hair: ‘the woman, who had long hair of the same red-gold as Robin’s.’ Madeline’s hair shade is frequently reiterated (‘His female companion with the red-gold hair;’ ‘the woman with red-gold hair’) and I like that she even, just like Robin, has a relative who shares it: ‘Henry opened the door. He was a good-looking boy with Madeline’s red-gold hair, which he wore as long and floppy as Westminster School would permit.’ This probably proves, of course, that just like Robin’s, this enviable shade does not come from a bottle (although she could be dying it to match her son!) but though her hair colour may be real, Madeline is fool’s gold nonetheless.

Madeline is surrounded by an artificial glitter – the gold and jewels that are her work – but I don’t think it is chance that she is fighting off a company called Eldorado from stealing her designs. The name, originally that of a mythical golden king, has become synonymous with falsely golden dreams:

El Rey Dorado (“The Golden King”), was the term used by the Spanish in the 16th century to describe a mythical tribal chief (zipa) or king of the Muisca people, an indigenous people of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense of Colombia, who as an initiation rite, covered himself with gold dust and submerged in Lake Guatavita. The legends surrounding El Dorado changed over time, as it went from being a man, to a city, to a kingdom, and then finally to an empire…

El Dorado is also sometimes used as a metaphor to represent an ultimate prize or “Holy Grail” that one might spend one’s life seeking. It could represent true love, heaven, happiness, or success. It is used sometimes as a figure of speech to represent something much sought after that may not even exist, or, at least, may not ever be found. Such use is evident in Edgar Allan Poe‘s poem “El Dorado.”

Valentine’s Day in Troubled Blood

Robin as the true ‘golden gold’ has been signalled in alchemical terms from the beginning of the series through her hair colour, but the ‘golden glow’ of the meeting at the Ritz (a crystallization of their emotions for both partners) is the most emphatically ‘golden’ moment of the series. Its gold motif was signalled in the concluding epigraph of Troubled Blood – a celebration of the ‘loue of soul’ celebrated in Tannhäuser:

For naturall affection soone doth cesse,
And quenched is with Cupids greater flame:
But faithfull friendship doth them both suppresse,
And them with maystring discipline doth tame,
Through thoughts aspyring to eternall fame.
For as the soule doth rule the earthly masse,
And all the seruice of the bodie frame,
So loue of soule doth loue of bodie passe,
No lesse then perfect gold surmounts the meanest brasse.

This epigraph is taken from Spenser’s Faerie Queene Book Four (4.9.2) which is the Book which celebrates the virtue of friendship (if you’re interested in reading more about these epigraphs, see my discussions here). It follows on from a stanza questioning which love – erotic, familial or love of friends – is the highest form, and argues that friendship wins the prize. The epigraph concludes that the kind of love Strike and Robin share – ‘loue of soule’ – surpasses that of Strike and Madeline (or indeed Charlotte) – mere ‘loue of bodie’ – as surely as ‘perfect gold surmounts the meanest brasse.’

Strike and Madeline first kiss, as mentioned above, through the auspices of a coked-up cupid called Valentine. It is not an auspicious start. Valentine’s Day has universally negative associations in Strike – from Nick and Isla’s terrible row to Robin’s plush elephant (later donated to a charity shop), a Valentine’s gift from Matthew which stares balefully at her as she weeps over her husband’s infidelity. Then there is Pat’s husband who sedulously ignores the celebration and Vanessa’s explosive Valentine’s dinner when which she passes her boyfriend a card with photos of him caught in flagrante. In Troubled Blood, of course, Valentine’s Day witnesses Strike shouting ‘go fuck yourself’ at his father and the dinner party from hell. Troubled Blood is the first novel in which the date has played any important role – and it even continues with a belated Parthian shaft as Charlotte sends Strike suicidal texts (the ones he suspected she might send on Valentine’s Day) a day late as she is so drugged-up she thinks February 15th is Valentine’s Day.

There is, however, something rather pleasing about Valentine’s Day playing such as starring role in Troubled Blood – because the words which are associated with this day more than any other were first printed in the poem that is its epigraph and title source text.

‘Roses are Red,/ Violets are Blue,/ Sugar is sweet/ And so are you’

(Or perhaps, more in keeping with Valentine’s Day in Troubled Blood, would be the more recent version: ‘Onions stink/ And so do you.’) The rhyme has spawned a thousand parodies – but the first line’s first appearance in print is in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene:

It was upon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath’d her brest, the boyling heat t’allay;
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew

(Book iii, Canto 6, Stanza 6)

This would, I think, have made a rather good epigraph for chapter 40 of Troubled Blood – the car-crash dinner party – but perhaps it would have been a little too pointed?!

Wishing you all a very happy Valentine’s Day with the certainty, at least, that it will be better than Strike’s, Robin’s or Vanessa’s ex-boyfriend’s….


[1] Irina Kotkina, ‘We Will roc You! ‘Tannhäuser’ Opera Scandal and the Freedom of Artistic Expression in Putin’s Russia,’ Transcultural studies 12 (2016) 66-91

With thanks to Nick Jeffery for finding this account!

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


  1. Prof. Groves,

    Your linkage of Rowling’s headers of Norfolk and mentions of Tannhauser with both “Hamlet” and the Walsingham poem are solid enough examples of probable allusions made in the course of the “Strike” series. There is, however, one other connection between the Shakespearean blank, and English Pilgrimage rhymed verse that calls to mind another allusion. When I read both of them, it’s impossible not to hear or think of a differing, yet perhaps related set of lyric that might be considered as having some sort of thematic connection between the Bard of Avon and the poem of Walsingham. The other verses I’m thinking of open as follows:

    “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
    “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
    “Remember me to one who lives there.
    “She once was a true love of mine.

    If anyone remembers those lyrics today, it’s thanks to the efforts of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. However, the love ballad which they’ve essentially immortalized forever has its roots in the Middle Ages, and qualifies as an authentic piece of old world folk song in its own right. I bring it up now because of the strange, yet undeniable similarities it shares with the lines you’ve quoted from Shakespeare and Walsingham. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost wonder if maybe each example isn’t an illustration of different authors borrowing a trope from one another. In terms of chicken and egg, it would be the Bard cribbing from the Walsingham verse. That much appears to be establishable. So it just leaves the question of whether the anonymous composer of “Scarborough Fair” might have taken the same Pilgrimage question and translated it into a subject matter fit for his own ballad song?

    Granted, this is all just guesswork, and it might not even mean anything within the context of Rowling’s own story. It’s just one of those striking bits of literary resemblances that you run across now and then. The kind of textual coincidence that makes you wonder if there’s anything like a “family resemblance” going on. For what it’s worth, it is possible to claim that there are elements of the “Scarborough” ballad that might share thematic relations with the current status of the “Strike” novels. The entire song is about the singer’s desire to learn if a former lover still carries a flame for him after a goodish passage of time. In order to find this out, the speaker sets his lover a number of tasks to accomplish, as a demonstration that she still has feelings for him. In terms of Strike, Robin, and Valentines, the trick is to remember that old folk tunes like this can allow a certain level of leeway in terms of speaker’s meaning.

    It’s quite possible to switch out the speaker so that it is the maiden, rather than the troubadour who is speaking the lines, and asking if “her” potential lover still harbors anything for her. This switch out would give the folk song a much greater relation to where things stand between Rowling’s versions of “Artegall” and “Britomart” and the current moment in the books. Looking at it all in these terms does, if nothing else, at the very least create one other possible link between the shared lonely/true hearts connections that are being established between the series two main leads. In addition, Simon and Garfunkel’s popularization of the ballad adds a further linkage by creating a version that would have connected up well with the 60s countercultural aspects of Strike’s past, adding one further thematic layer to the themes of the ballad, and the major concerns of Rowling’s own Psyche/Eros myth.

    A good exploration of “Scarborough Fair” can be found in the link below, and it’s worth paying attention to for what it can tell about the song’s origins in the kind of “Faerie Drama” familiar to people like Spenser or Shakespeare. It might also add to the question of how Strike will deal with Murphy, and his potential courtship of Robin in the next installment of the series. Just some random food for thought:

  2. Thanks Chris. I too have often thought of Scarborough Fair in relation to Ophelia’s ballad – though it belongs more to the ‘impossible tasks’ subsection of balladry, they certainly share the ‘travelling lover’ side of things – interesting to us given that Strike’s surname is inherited from a man whom Leda met and married when he came to town as part of a travelling fair…

    The original Walsingham Ballad has a male speaker – as with Scarborough Fair – it is Shakespeare who changes the sex of the speaker – so that works too!

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