Cormoran and Robin: Echoes of Homer’s Odysseus and Penelope? (Joanne Gray)

A Guest Post from Joanne Gray

When I first looked into a possible Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ link to J. K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series over a year ago, I didn’t see enough to fit what I thought really fit the criteria of providing echoes between the two works. But that changed while reading John Vlahos’ article, “Homer’s ‘Odyssey’: Penelope and the Case for Early Recognition,” when I began to notice that in presenting his case, he was using Homer’s own words to show the poem’s main couple, Odysseus and Penelope, as “two-of-a-kind and a well-matched pair…possessing a special understanding which Homer described as homophrosyne, meaning of “one accord, one mind.” (p. 12)

The more I read, the more I was reminded of J. K. Rowling’s two main characters, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. I felt I had finally found a way into the connection between the two works and I began to search the ‘Odyssey’ to hopefully find those elusive echoes between the two.

Just as Odysseus and Penelope are at the heart of Homer’s Odyssey, his epic story of a soldier’s journey home from war and his need to get home to his wife Penelope, I was reminded of the interview J. K. Rowling gave about her Cormoran Strike series and her remark about the greater plot running through it: “The larger plot is about these two characters [Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott] and what happens to them personally” and “the dynamic between them is, I think, the thing that keeps people reading. It’s certainly the thing that keeps me writing.”

Kostas Myrsiades, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Greek Literature, edited the special ‘College Literature’ issue that also contains his poem (printed in part below) which captures this deep understanding between Odysseus and Penelope that exits at a level without the need for words…

True revolutions

are ignited by consenting minds

erupting spontaneously

whenever eye meets eye

as when Penelope before the beggar

caught Odysseus’s eye …

Their gazes touched once again
and both Odysseus and Penelope
knew. (Kostas Myrsiades, 1993)

Both couples in the Odyssey and Strike series are equal in their intellects and joined to their partner in an uncanny ability to wordlessly convey meaning between each other. Just as in “Lethal White,” [Ch. 62, pg. 551] between Cormoran and Robin:

“He glanced at her. Robin had had occasion before now to deplore how easily he seemed to read her thoughts.”

Rowling shows the intuit connection earlier between Cormoran and Robin in ‘Lethal White’ (p. 25)

“Neither of them could tell who had made the first move, or whether they acted in unison. They were holding each other tightly before they knew what happened…The feel of her was both new and familiar, as though he had held her a long time ago, as though he had missed it without knowing it for years.”

There are so many more of these moments scattered throughout the four Strike books. Here is a list of the (so far) echoes between Homer’s Odyssey and J. K. Rowling’s Strike mysteries in character and story:


Penelope first appears in Book 1 of the ‘Odyssey’ at home in Ithaca—surrounded by many suitors waiting for her answer since Odysseus is believed dead. She still holds out hope that she won’t have to choose.

Robin Ellacott first appears in Book 1 ‘Cuckoo’s Calling’ in Part 1, Chapter 1, as her long time boyfriend proposes to her late at night, just hours before she is due to arrive as a temp secretary at Cormoran Strike’s detective agency. She thinks she only has one choice.

Odysseus first appears in Book V of the Odyssey—while he is being held captive by the beautiful goddess Calypso—on her private island—even as he dreams of being back home with his wife Penelope. “When we first meet Odysseus his wanderings are well advanced. He has been stripped by ill fortune and divine persecution of ships, comrades, treasure, all that was once his…in order to introduce us to the hero at the very nadir of his fortunes.” (Odysseus/Ulysses p.253-254)

[The last line should immediately remind us of how we first meet Cormoran—at the very nadir of his fortune, having lost his housing—when he left his long time girlfriend/fiancée Charlotte—as well as being on the point of losing his fledgling detective business.]

Cormoran Strike first appears in Book 1, ‘Cuckoo’s Calling,’ in Part 1, Chapter 2 as he blindly rushes out his office, in pursuit of his Calypso, Charlotte Campbell, and accidently crashes into Robin sending her on a possible fatal trip down the stairwell. He instinctively reaches out and pulls her back to safety, causing him to give up the chase to catch Charlotte/Calypso.

[Note: Odysseus needed Zeus to send Hermes to finally get Calypso to release him from her captivity. In Cormoran’s case, Robin’s appearance that morning was the real “godsend” that kept Cormoran from running after Charlotte and her appearance provided the break needed to free Cormoran from the hold that Charlotte had over him.]


Odysseus’ journey home continued for three more years after his escape from the stunningly beautiful goddess Calypso. In his further wanderings, he encountered the dread nymph Kirke—also called the sorceress goddess Circe, who kept him as her captive for an year but finally escaping again, to next find himself in the presence of a princess, Naucnaa, who helped him to travel that final distance home to Ithaca and Penelope.

Cormoran also had a long line of women after he left the military and escaped his own Calypso/Charlotte. There was Ciara, Elin, Nina, Coco and finally Lorelei. Hopefully in Book 5 he can finally begin to travel those last few miles home to Robin.


Both Odysseus and Cormoran served as soldiers in war zones and both men sustained leg injuries that impacted their lives. Both of those injures came about from a “concealed danger that suddenly struck.” Odysseus was injured by a wild boar that burst into the open from a hidden lair and gored him (Above the Knee)—leaving him with a permanent scar, a distinguishing mark that later almost exposed his true identity to the assassins among Penelope’s suitors. (One of several times Odysseus resorted to disguises in order to pull off necessary undercover work.)

Cormoran’s leg injury was the result of a hidden device (IED) while on military patrol. The suddenly explosion blew up the vehicle he was riding in, as well as the lower third of his leg (Below the Knee). This incident had a profound impact on all aspects of his life—bringing him back to London to family and old friends, but also forcing him to start over and to once again live precariously. The injury became a recognizable and distinguishing feature of how he was seen and identified by others and also causing him to factor this physical change into his own day-to-day routines.


Odysseus had two birth stories—Homer said his father was Laertes, but some later sources give Sisyphus as his father. The story being that while Sisyphus was fetching his cattle back, he seduced Anticlia (Odysseus’ mother). The proof given for Sisyphus’ paternity of Odysseus was that both Sisyphus and Odysseus displaced the same trait of exceptional cunning. Apparently there were no worries then about father and son not sharing physical characteristics. In Cormoran’s case, not sharing physical traits with his supposed father, Jonny Rokeby, was a problem. So a DNA test was needed to prove paternity.

In the case of Cormoran’s paternity, we are still waiting for clear, hard facts in order to sort out conflicting or even still missing dates. Even the supposed proof of the DNA test is actually in limbo, since we weren’t given a year for when the test was taken. It wasn’t until 1984 that there was a definitive DNA test (although Cormoran was already ten years old by then) and it seems he was called Jonny’s son before that date. So we are still left in doubt as to the test’s authenticity.

Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, makes the remark in the Odyssey, “Who can know who their father is?”

Like Cormoran, Telemachus has been told who his father is (though he has no memory of him).

Both Cormoran and Telemachus have only met their father’s twice. We are not given the two times Cormoran met his father but Telemachus “met” Odysseus once when he was born and the second time when Odysseus finally came home from Troy after a 20-year absence. Basically he hasn’t known his father his entire life.



The strongest link between the two sets of couples (Odysseus and Penelope; Cormoran and Robin) is in their relationships with their partners. As John Vlahos and others show in their articles detailing the deep connection Odysseus and Penelope have between them—hearts and minds, beating as one. (Od.6.181-85)

How does Homer’s character of Odysseus compare to Rowling’s Cormoran? “Homer describes Odysseus as polytropos, meaning a ‘man of many devices’.” (Vlahos, p.12) It’s easy to see this as a true statement about both characters. Homer also gives the goddess Athena’s assessment of Odysseus’s character, calling him a “bold man, crafty in counsel, insatiate in deceit.” (Od. 13.291-293) There is no doubt that Cormoran is also a bold man and that he is crafty in counsel (in fact, this is where he has crossed some of the story’s most recent red lines—such as asking Robin how she feels about breaking the law) but he is definitely not “insatiate” in deceit. (Vlahos, Early Recognition, p.12)

Clearly Cormoran would still have to cross more red lines to reach Odysseus’s level of guile but Cormoran does display traits that Odysseus would be proud of in chapters 59 and 60 in the third Strike book, “Career of Evil.” Cormoran’s plan to finally take down Laing involves him assuming the disguise of an employee from the HSE to use as a ruse to check a supposed gas leak in Laing’s flat. Cormoran has conveniently brought the source for the leak, a propane tank he switches on to provide the ruse with authenticity—after illegally breaking into Laing’s place using illegal burglary tools.

Odysseus would have done no less if he had found himself in a similar situation and he would have very much approved of Strike bringing along his “ethically challenged” sidekick Shanker to help. He would have given Strike extra points for leaving these facts out of his official report to the police. But Odysseus would have saved his biggest kudos for Strike’s bold lie to the authorities on how he just happened to arrive at Laing’s flat when the all out fight erupted. Odysseus would know and appreciate a fellow artist who could craft inventive tales for the occasion.

Homer describes Penelope as “cut from a similar mold (as Odysseus) and he repeatedly refers to her as periphron.” A term meaning “watchful and discreet, observing all around, cautious, well considered.” (Vlahos, Early Recognition, p. 12)

As any reader of the Strike series knows that the terms: Watchful and discreet, observing all around, cautious (generally) and well considered: all are phrases one will find in the very definition of Robin Ellacott.

Odysseus and Penelope are “two-of-a-kind, a well-matched pair” (Vlahos, Early Recognition, p.12) “cunning, wily and resourceful, and in the poem they are often shown to think alike, act in concert, and to have an uncanny understanding of one another. These qualities render them uniquely suited to deal with the respective challenges they must face during the course of the Odyssey.” (Vlahos, Early Recognition, p.12)

There are many scenes in the Strike series that show these very traits and the same relationship qualities between Cormoran and Robin, as can be seen in this scene at the end of the first book in the series, “Cuckoo’s Calling.” [Pt.5, ch.1, pgs 513-514]: [Compressed & Abbreviated]

[Cormoran asks Robin the time and she tells him that it’s ten to five. She asks if he needs something or would he like her to hang around longer.]

“No, I want you out of here.” [Cormoran said]

His tone was such that instead of going to fetch her coat and handbag, Robin remained exactly where she was.

“What are you expecting to happen?” [Robin asked]

… “Nothing. You’ve just worked a lot of overtime lately. I’ll bet Matthew will be glad to see you back early for once.”… “Please, Robin, go,” he said, looking up.

She still hesitated but finally went to get her coat and bag.

“Thanks,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”

She left. He waited for the sound of her footsteps on the stairs… but he heard nothing. The glass door opened, and she reappeared.

“You’re expecting someone to come,” she said…”Aren’t you?”

“Maybe,” said Strike, “but it doesn’t matter.”

He mustered a smile at her tight, anxious smile.

“Don’t worry about me.” When her expression didn’t change, he added: “I boxed a bit, in the army, you know.”

“… Go home, Robin. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

At this time, albeit reluctantly, she left.

As the above except shows by the end of book 1 there’s already a deep understanding between them—but more than that—there is a great deal of empathy between the two—a genuine caring of the other person.

Like the couple in the Odyssey, the couple in Strike also share what Homer calls cunning—and we might refer to it as “analytic abilities to achieve mutual goals.” In the Odyssey Penelope shows her connection with Odysseus is even more powerful than the strong connect that the goddess Athena has achieve with Odysseus—“In Book XIII, even though Athena…deceived Odysseus and he failed to recognize her, (she) could not make him give himself away…Penelope is the only person who could outwit Odysseus in such a test, and this shows, like so many other details and parallelisms between them, how well matched husband and wife truly are.” [Rutherford, Odysseus / Ulysses, p. 263]

I never guessed that spending some real time with Homer’s Odysseus and Penelope would allow me to uncover their bona fides as a precursor detective duo. Donning disguises, going undercover, and using ploys and ruses to ferret out secrets and uncover hidden villains fits well with the lives of the modern detective duo. Hopefully the modern duo will also discover their own shared relationship is destined for a truly satisfying and epic ending.


College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies

College Literature, v. 38, no. 2 Spring 2011 ‘Early Recognition in Homer’s Odyssey”.

John B. Vlahos, “Homer’s ‘Odyssey’: Penelope and the Case for Early Recognition.”

Infoplease—Odysseus mythology and Odyssey

Major Literary Characters: Odysseus / Ulysses, Edited Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991


  1. Joanne,

    I have to confess you’ve done some real standing ovation level work here. One of the going assumptions so far has been that one of the major literary allusions Rowling has been working with as a form of background inspiration is the myths of Castor and Pollux, and the connected Leda and the Swan.

    It is just possible you’ve discovered yet another mythical thematic layer in the Strike series. If you’re correct, then I wonder if this means we should consider the art of parody once again when it comes Rowling’s use of her sources. Parody, in this case, is the mixing of reusing of various tropes or fictional ideas in different context from their original use. It may be that what we’re dealing with in the Strike Mysteries is a sort of allusive mélange of mythical, literary themes and ideas that have been re-contextualized into this new narrative, while still maintaining a certain amount of traits from their original contexts.

    In this case, Castor and Ulysses seem to have been smashed together to have their narrative strands join into one. At this point you’ve got me wondering maybe Strike will face down his own version of Polyphemus in the near future? Maybe some villain will prove to be the real culprit because he couldn’t have witnessed a certain event on account of having a glass eye?

  2. Joanne Gray says

    Thank you Chris–I think you too may be on to something about the direction of future Strike novels incorporating various mythically thematic layers. I was also so glad to see a possible hint yesterday that JKR’s Twitter may be waking up. I noticed that she had updated her Twitter header for the first time since early January.

    The new header looks to be stars with an intense star cluster in the center. If her choice for her Twitter headers do still hint to what she is working on then the new one would seem to most logically point to FB3. Although, she also mentioned she would be working on a children’s book. I confess that I hope there is some way it might be pointing to Strike 5 but I agree that would seem the least likely; but who knows.

    It does give me some real hope that she may be coming back online and that we’ll finally be given some updates. Maybe even about Strike Book 5 or, dare we hope, a bit of real news to work with in crafting our speculations!?

    I really like your idea at the end about the possibility of seeing a modern version of a Cyclops/glass-eye villain. Like Odysseus/Cormoran could bring this villain to justice but find–like Odysseus, that Polyphemus/Cyclops’ father, the vengeful god Poseidon, has turned the victory into a much bigger problem of now making Poseidon into his implacable, relentless enemy.

  3. Joanne,

    You may be right that FB3 is the most likely candidate. The closest mythological factoid I’ve found about Capricorn is that it is associated with the Myth of Amalthea. In Greek mythology, Amalthea was a goat who helped protect Zeus as an infant from his father, Cronos. In the myth, Zeus accidentally broke off one of Amalthea’s horns. For once, it was all just an accident. However this was one of those rare accidents in Greek myth that turned out to be beneficial, as Zeus, in gratitude made Amalthea the first Unicorn.
    That’s all I know, and I haven’t got a clue where that could lead in terms of clues for future projects. I do know the name Amalthea figures in what I still consider the best work of literary fiction ever written, Peter Beagle’s “TLU”. Other than that? Less than nothing to go on, I’m afraid.

    As for the whole cyclops guess, that’s all it is really. Right now, I’ve run across an interesting discovery having to do with Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. I ran across a five to six minute documentary which still to say a lot in such a scarce amount of time. The big reveal for me was the following statement:

    “Despite its dark use, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is actually a love song, at its heart. Songwriter Buck Dharma explained what he was trying to get at with the song, saying: ‘The whole idea of the “Reaper” was that if there was another sphere of existence, maybe lovers could bridge that gap if their love was strong enough.”

    That was a discovery in the sense that it’s a very decent summation of the main theme Rowling highlighted as the whole point of the Potter series. It’s raised the question in my mind about whether this song, or at least its message, will play a key role in the resolution of the seventh Strike book. Maybe the song will provide some sort of vital clue, or else the entire book could be an attempt to find some way of dramatizing the lyrics into the main story. Though I have to admit, when I listen to the song, I still think of Michael Myers, from “Halloween”.

    The video where I found all this can be seen here:

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