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.

The Twitter Controversy as a Rowling Story: Mirroring Subtext, Narrative Misdirection, and Literary Alchemy

In my first post about Rowling’s tweet in support of Maya Forstater, I focused on two questions concerning this explosive reappearance on this social media platform: ‘why now?’ and ‘why this subject?’ The first response in the comment thread to that post, I think now, has the closest thing we will have to correct answers to those questions for some time. Nick Jeffery wrote, tying the seemingly arbitrary post to Rowling’s new Solve et Coagula tattoo (one he was the first to notice), ” It is an act of destruction and it is quite deliberate.”

I believe Mr Jeffery is quite right. To understand Rowling’s tweet and the consequent fall-out in fandom, our best course is to read the specific text in question as we would any story Rowling has written with the tools we know work best. What those tools suggest is that Rowling intentionally created her break with the Social Justice movement and its champions in Harry Potter fandom and I have to suspect with Hollywood in the months to come — and, as importantly, she is re-creating her public image and self to reflect better the person she wants to be (or the public mask behind which she is more comfortable).

Rather than the tweet being a clueless act of bigotry, what this view points to is three contrary to prevalent narrative possibilities: (1) that Rowling has written a story with real-world characters who voice the lines she know they will speak for effects she wants to happen within her narrative, (2) she has embedded clues for the attentive reader to discover, clues which reveal her true meaning as well as a lesson in reading well, and (3) that the #IStandWithMaya post she made on 19 December is a long-planned and courageous act of re-invention that frees her and her serious readers potentially from being sock-puppets for the Zeitgeist. Call this the ‘Solve et Coagula Theory.’

To see these three possibilities involves a review of Rowling’s year and most importantly the week prior to the tweet in question, a review using the tools we have in hand for interpreting Rowling’s work in a careful reading of the specific text in question and of the context of her previous work and public comments. If you want to move beyond the Daily Prophet headlines that ‘Rowling is a Transphobe!’ and ‘Inclusive Message of Hogwarts Saga Betrayed!,’ please join me after the jump for an exercise in exegesis with the tools of texts within texts, narrative misdirection, and literary alchemy that reveal Rowling as the maestro of media manipulation and personal re-invention. [Read more…]

Solve et Coagula: What It Means

J. K. Rowling seems to have had the words ‘Solve + Coagula’ tattooed in a script much like her handwriting on the inside part of her right arm just above the wrist. When Nick Jeffery discovered this and told me about it, I posted a quick note here at HogwartsProfessor which TheRowlingLibrary tweeted out to its global audience and The-Leaky-Cauldron retweeted to its minions at the far reaches of the galactic fandom empire and beyond.

Which has meant I have been buried in e-owls asking the question, ‘”What does solve et coagula mean?” Beatrice Groves has written something on the subject which I assume will be definitive but MuggleNet.com has been down (way down, as in “transitioning to new ownership”) so I don’t know when her solve salvo will be available.

To fill the breach, here are some notes on the alchemical axiom solve et coagula from Charles Nicholl’s The Chemical Theatre and Lindsey Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, two of the definitive texts on literary alchemy. After the jump! [Read more…]

Rowling Sports Alchemical Tattoo?

Friend of this blog Nick Jeffery tweeted me and Prof Beatrice Groves on Friday with an astonishing picture. It is of Rowling’s arm with the words ‘Solve + Coagula’ in script on the underside of her right wrist. My assumption is that picture was taken at the premiere of the Finding the Way Home HBO documentary at which Rowling appeared in her role as Lumos founder and spokesperson; she is pictured holding the hand of a young woman there of the size and color of the other arm in the picture Mr Jeffery sent (see below).

I find myself wondering if it is a tattoo — the script akin to her handwriting suggests she wrote it there herself in pen rather than being properly inked? — but, permanent or water soluble, it is a remarkable confirmation of the centrality of alchemy in Rowling’s writing. She has written the essential action of all alchemical operation in ink of some kind on her right arm. Outside of the several PotterMore posts on the subject and her 1998 admission that she’d always wanted to be an alchemist and had learned a great deal about the subject which set the “magical parameters” of her imaginative sub-creation, this tattoo makes dismissal of Rowling as alchemist and transformative artist even more of a stretch than it was already. 

I am busy writing the alchemy chapter of my PhD thesis, believe it or not; this photo could not have come at a better time, except I don’t have the time because of my deadlines to do it justice here! I have asked Professor Groves to write something on ‘Solve et Coagula’ and we’ll let you know when and where she decides to post it — but I had to share the news and pictures with you here as a ‘heads up.’ Please let me know your first impressions in the comment boxes below.