“For the Straightforward Path Was Lost”: A Few Starting Notes on The Christmas Pig

To get discussion started on The Christmas Pig, I thought I would post some thoughts, aligned with a few of our keys to interpretation, that I was left with after my first read through. Or, rather, first listen through. The audiobook proved really quite wonderful, with excellent cast and sound design. On any of these points below, consequently, much more can be said. These points are also not in any particular order as they are something of a collection of first impressions. The discussion below will not be spoiler free.
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Robin Ellacott and Reverse Alchemy: Transformation Through the First Three Strike Texts

Nearly a decade ago, William Sprague published a guest post here on Hogwartsprofessor, arguing for a type of reverse alchemy in the first three Harry Potter books. Given the parallels between the Cormoran Strike and Harry Potter series, and the evidence that Strike’s nigredo is the principal theme of Troubled Blood, shouldn’t we also expect to see reverse alchemy in the first three books?  I’m going to argue that we do; furthermore, that the subject of the process is not the title character, but the series’ co-lead. Robin Ellacott.

In this model, the reverse-rubedo would would be the first volume, The Cuckoo’s Calling. As a reminder from our Headmaster, in the traditional rubedo

a wedding has to be revealed, contraries have to be resolved, and a death to self must lead to greater life. We should expect to see a philosopher’s stone and a philosophical orphan, as well.

Reverse Rubedo in The Cuckoo’s Calling. The wedding reveal happens literally in the first sentence of the series, so at the start of the rubedo phase, not the end.  Robin, whom we meet before Cormoran, enters the book deliriously happy and focused exclusively on her future nuptials, having been, the previous evening, the recipient of “the most perfect proposal, ever, in the history of matrimony.” As she relives the experience, she revisits the sapphire in her engagement ring, which keeps capturing her attention with its sparkles; Robin expects to “watch that stone glitter all the rest of her life.”  We can therefore think of the oft-mentioned sapphire as a kind of philosopher’s stone, albeit the wrong color,* that opens the book as harbinger of her new identity as the future Mrs. Cunliffe.

*Dammit, Matthew, why couldn’t you pick out a ruby?”

The stone may be blue, but  the rubedo colors of red and gold are present elsewhere in the first meeting of Robin and Strike. The Tube commuters are described as “gilded by the radiance of the ring.” There is also Robin’s red-gold hair, and her face is described as first being colored pink by the chilly weather, and then as blushing bright red both after her near-knock down the stairs, and in response to Strike’s unfortunate “Robin red-breast” allusion. As for the philosophical orphan, we see an inversion of that concept as Robin visualizes telling her and Matthew’s future children the story of the proposal at the faux-Eros statue. This is, best I can recall, the only time Robin is shown thinking about potential motherhood until Strike asks her if she is pregnant in Lethal White; it is not until Troubled Blood, after the marriage is over, that we learn she had envisioned having three children with Matthew. Looking back we can see her reflections as foreshadowing not about a child without parents , but the hypothetical children our quarreling couple will never have. 

Robin will spend the next three books moving toward the fairy-tale wedding that she is so eagerly anticipating in the opening scenes of The Cuckoo’s Calling. However, through her work with Strike–the job she initially believes “did not matter in the slightest”–she undergoes a transformation into the polar opposite of the giddy bride-to-be, as her dream wedding becomes a nightmare and leaves her unable to even muster a smile. Robin does not to “die to herself” to become the Flobberworm’s wife; she evolves into her authentic self, which means pursuing her dream of detective work, even at the cost of her marriage. This transformation takes her through a reverse alchemical process, with the (literally) white and snowy adventures of The Silkworm forming the albedo, and the (figuratively) dark and gory Career of Evil as the nigredo. Let’s continue the rubedo journey with her after the jump. 

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Elizabeth(s) the Phoenix

The centrality of Elizabethan imagery in Troubled Blood is hard to miss. The  Faerie Queene epigraphs and structuring, already well documented on this site, show the basis of the connection. That this work is meant to parallel Order of the Phoenix is also well documented. I want to suggest that Rowling has clarified much of the meaning of Order of the Phoenix using this imagery, which in turn continues and strengthens a long-running undercurrent in Rowling’s writing: a extensive set of references to 15th through 17th century English ecclesiastical, political, and philosophical history (earlier work directly touching this set of associations in Rowling’s work can be found in this 2009 post).

My core thought here is this: it is not just the one Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, who we are meant to consider. Instead, I think we are meant to focus on the societal and literary impact of four closely intertwined Elizabeths and their associations with the development of English Christianity and esotericism in its many forms. These four are Elizabeth of York, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Stuart, and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia.

I’ll grant that this is a fairly large claim, and I may be hunting Crumple Horned Snorkacks (if I am, please let me know), but I think there is this strong thread here worth tracing.
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Groves: The Rowling-Norton Interview

Oxford University’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, listened to the J. K. Rowling-Graham Norton interview today (you can listen to it here, courtesy of The Rowling Library). She sent this report for our ‘Day Of Event’ understanding of what The Presence revealed about The Ickabog and about herself. Enjoy!

J.K. Rowling was interviewed by Graham Norton again on BBC Radio 2 this morning (14 Nov 2020) to mark the release of The Ickabog.This is the first time she’s been on Norton’s show since her 2018 Lethal White interview (for my write-up see Beatrice Groves on Galbraith Meets Norton) as she marked the publication of Troubled Blood with a different Radio 2 event – Tracks of My Years  rather than an interview.

This interview was in two halves – with the first half being about The Ickabog and the second a session of ‘True or False’ about her life. We didn’t learn much new about The Ickabog although she did define what she means by a ‘fairy tale’ and what its difference from a fantasy tale might be:

I think a fairy tale takes place out of time… it’s a timeless story that probably takes place in an entirely imaginary kingdom, and I think we pleasurably leave reality. I think we all understand ‘Once upon a time’ – you’re going to a different space and the themes I think are often very timeless, and I certainly feel that about the Ickabog.

I was likewise pleased to hear that her collection of Jane Austen first editions is coming on apace, missing just Northanger Abbey and Emma. These first editions have been mentioned in passing by a previous interviewer, but this is the first time Rowling has spoken of them. Austen’s first editions reach eye-watering prices partly because of her passionate fanbase and Rowling’s collection is one mark of her deep love of Austen’s writing (something I wrote a chapter on in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter).

But the real discovery from this interview was about her ‘Solve et Coagula’ tattoo. This tattoo was spotted and deciphered by Nick Jeffery on 13 Dec 2019 (well done Nick!) and John Granger – the father of the study of Rowling’s alchemical artistry – immediately wrote up Nick Jeffery’s find:Solve et Coagula: What It Means.’ So we’ve known about this tattoo for a long time, but this is first time Rowling has spoken of it (other than to confirm that she did get a tattoo). Norton merely asked her if it is true or false that she has a tattoo on her right wrist, and what it might say, but Rowling chose to answer in some detail:

It says ‘Solve et Coagula’ and it’s in my own handwriting. I always wanted this and then I thought ‘no, you’re ridiculously too old to go and get a tattoo’ and then last year my sister said to me ‘what am I going to get you for Christmas? You’re so hard to buy for!’ (which I think is a fair point) and I said to her ‘get me a tattoo’ so we both went to a tattoo parlour and she paid for me to have my tattoo!… and it means ‘dissolve and coagulate’ and it’s really a link between my first and thirteenth books because it was the maxim of the alchemists, and the phrase actually appears in Troubled Blood and it has a couple of other more personal associations for me.

Earlier this year I wrote up this tattoo in three posts about Solve et Coagula (here, here, and here). These posts argue that Rowling’s choice to inscribe this alchemical motto on her writing wrist, in her own handwriting, shows how she links the idea of ‘Solve et Coagula’ with her own creativity. I was delighted, therefore, that she provided some further evidence of this idea today. Firstly, in the revelation that this tattoo was not a spur of the moment decision, nor the immediate result of research for Troubled Blood, but rather something she has ‘always wanted.’ Secondly in her statement that ‘it’s really a link between my first and thirteenth books.’ I love this loop – partly because it is a link between a Strike and a Harry Potter book, and partly for her sense of a circle in her writing that centres on alchemy.

It is noticeable that she calls Troubled Blood her thirteenth book. She used the same numbering when she spoke as a launch event for The Ickabog on 10th Nov (hat tip to The Rowling Library for putting this on youtube!) of that as her ‘fourteenth book’. It is clear, therefore, she uses ‘book’ in her own mind to mean ‘novel.’ Her fourteen books by this reckoning are the seven Harry Potter and five Strike novels, The Casual Vacancy and The Ickabog. In her own mind she is not including her three smaller Harry Potter spin-off works (Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and The Tales of Beedle the Bard) nor her two Fantastic Beast screenplays, nor the book-version of her speech (Very Good Lives) nor the co-authored script Cursed Child. One of the things that this means is that she thinks of Troubled Blood as her thirteenth book – which makes it a fitting choice for her most occult work.

In terms of the ‘personal associations’ Rowling mentions for ‘Solve et Coagula’ Norton, politely, does not delve. But it has an interesting link with what Rowling has said about suffering and healing in her own life and in the lives of her current heroes, Strike and Robin:

My honest answer is I think they’re both quite damaged people. Robin’s damage is very obvious. It’s been explicit since I think the third book. She’s been through something very traumatic. His trauma is also very obvious – he’s lost a leg – but he’s damaged emotionally, and you see in this book what his childhood was. It was a very odd and disrupted one. So my feeling is that they need to do a degree of healing before they – or he – is able to have a relationship of the kind I know a lot of readers would like them to have. [from the Billingham-Galbraith interview transcript and commentary at HogwartsProfessor]

Rowling is interested in ‘Solve et Coagula’ in personal terms, as well creative ones, and John has made a brilliant link between this alchemical idea and Strike’s life, and the healing that he undergoes in Troubled Blood.

‘Solve et Coagula’ appears for the first time in Rowling’s writing on one of the occult pages of Bill Talbot’s ‘True Book’ on which he has written ‘Solve et Coagula No resolution without BREAKING DOWN’ (Troubled Blood, 537). As with the alchemical original of the Snitch (which John mentions here and I wrote about here) the appearance of ‘Solve et Coagula’ in Troubled Blood is a nod to the alchemical context in which Rowling has always written [Listen to the Reading, Writing, Rowling’ podcast on Alchemical Weddings for a review of that]. I think that Rowling’s choice to make her alchemical interests explicit – in her tattoo, on Pottermore, in Troubled Blood and in this interview – is a sign of the way in which she wishes her readers to notice the alchemical grounding of her creativity.

Reading, Writing, Rowling 45: Alchemical Weddings in Harry Potter and Beyond

No, I have not returned to podcasting at MuggleNet! This podcast was recorded before The Ickabog show but that one was edited and posted first before the text of the “political fairy tale” was taken offline. Enjoy!

From Laurie Beckoff’s introduction at MuggleNet.com:

Why did Ron and Hermione, Remus and Tonks, and Bill and Fleur end up paired together? Literary alchemy holds the symbolic answers. Katy and John talk this month with Elizabeth Baird Hardy (Mayland Community College) and Beatrice Groves (Oxford University) about the alchemical pairings of elements that reveal themselves in the Harry Potter series and beyond.